The following is a conversation between Kevin Washington, President and CEO of the YMCA USA, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The YMCA is a leading non-profit committed to strengthening community by connecting all people to their potential purpose and each other, and they’ve been busy this past year reinventing what they do to help address the changing needs of the communities they serve. And here to talk about all that, it’s a pleasure to have with us, the president and CEO of Y USA, Kevin Washington.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Kevin!
Kevin: Thank you, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be here and a pleasure to be with you today.
I think it was an idea that came about at the right time, as countries and the cities were going through this transformation. Y was their fulcrum to really instill Christian values in men at that point in time.
Denver: The Y has been so entrenched in each of our communities, and for so many years now, that we don’t even know how it ever got started. Share with us a little bit of the history of the organization.
Kevin: Absolutely. Well, the YMCA was started in London, England in 1844 by George Williams. He was 22 years old when he founded the YMCA. He started it because, as you would remember, during that time, we were going from a mostly agrarian society to an industrialized society. So it was one part of an industrialization process. And he saw so many young men coming from the farms to London having difficulties, getting, as he would say, “encaptured by the actual cruelty of the city lights.” And he started the Y to help support young men, and it was really based in a Christian faith organization at that time. And so, he wants to save the souls of those young men.
It spread rapidly because Thomas Sullivan, who was a seaman, was in London, and he came to Boston, and he founded the YMCA of USA of America in Boston in 1851, and it spread rapidly across the country. 1853, we were in San Francisco. 1853 was the first YMCA founded by an African American for African Americans.
So, the idea of the Y spread rapidly across the country. And I think it was an idea that came about at the right time, as countries and the cities were going through this transformation. Y was their fulcrum to really instill Christian values in men — in men at that point in time. So that was the genesis of the organization. And it’s grown from that point ever since.
Denver: That’s a great point, too. A lot of great ideas never really take off because they don’t come at the right moment, and you really have to have the consolation of those things coming together. And it was just the right time, and people are seeking something. It’s not like you’re trying to sell it to them. They’re kind of looking. And then this organization pops up, and it says, “Yes. That’s what we needed.”
Well, for not all of those years, but a lot of those years, you have been involved with the YMCA ever since you were 10 years old. Tell us a little bit about that and your journey that brought you to becoming the CEO at the national organization.
Kevin: Yes. Well, for me, as you talked about, it was the right time the Y came about in my life. I was 10 years old, and I was part of a program called the Grade Y] which is an acronym for grade school at the Y. We had people that would come to Y. Perhaps it would be considered one of the first afterschool model programs.
But he would come to the Ys. His name was Bill Morton. He was the youth director at our local Y, at Christian Street YMCA. And he would come to the school, engage boys… we were usually 15 to 20 in a group, and we would meet, and we’d talk about different things. And then we’d go to the Y other days of the week to participate in sports and activities of that nature.
And at that point in time, as a 10-year-old getting ready to cross that bridge, that approach to the adolescents’ bridge, I got hooked on the Y. I got hooked. Archery, swimming, basketball — all of those activities were important, and I had a great opportunity to engage in them at the Christian Street Y.
But more importantly, Denver, there were men — and it was mostly men at the time, some women but mostly men — who really cared about people like Kevin Washington growing up in South Philadelphia, which was not the most glamorous place to grow up in at that particular point in time. They cared about people like Kevin Washington, and that caring and nurturing engaged me.
So I was 12, and I couldn’t play — they had a church league on Friday nights that I wasn’t able to play in. I wasn’t good enough at that time. My brother played there. So I kept score. I was the scorekeeper. I cleaned the gym up. So, all of those things about those experiences helped me understand how this organization treated and helped young men like me, young boys, make that transformation process from adolescence to adulthood. And I got hooked. It helped me play– that’s how I got to Temple University.
Denver: There you go. It also taught you how to needle your brother when the guy who he was guarding scored 50 points or something, I bet. Imagine the scorekeeper really had a lot of red pen around that.
Kevin: I had a lot of fun with that, and I’d tease him up until recently about that. So whenever he would say something, I’d say, “You remember that night he scored 50 on you?” We had a lot of fun talking about that, Denver.
And then I got accepted to Temple University because I got there because of my basketball skills. And I have academic skills as well, but I think of basketball first. It was a little higher. I was working in a settlement house, and you know settlement houses. And I was going home, and Bill Morton, who was then the executive director of that Christian Street Y stopped me and said, “Kevin, come by and see me on Monday.” And I did, and he offered me the job as a youth director at the YMCA that I grew up in. And that’s the beginning of my YMCA journey as an employee. But my journey has always, as a member, has been quite extensive.
Denver: And I think that’s a great point you make, Kevin, too, about boys needing men to mentor them. Sometimes we have our mothers, and we have our babysitters, and we have our teachers in school, but sometimes having a man mentor a young man can really make a big, big difference in terms of role modeling behavior that we need to follow.
Kevin: Absolutely, Denver, and Mr. Morton was that person for me. And I called him Mr. Morton until the day he died — God rest his soul — because he was that person who made that difference in my life.
Denver: I had people like that, too. You can never change calling them “Mister.” You started that way, and you just… you’re 60 years old and they’re still Mister. It’s never going to change.
Kevin: Never going to change. And by the way, Denver, he was like 6-foot-5 and a big football player. So Mr. Morton was the name he got.
The pandemic really, really was devastating to YMCAs. But as you said, we pivoted. And when we think about our organization in that regard and what we went through in 2020, the pivot was around being a vital community asset.
Denver: I would imagine a lot of people called him “Mister.”
Well, some 97% of the Ys closed after the pandemic and the lockdown, but your organization really orchestrated an extraordinary pivot to be of service. Tell us some of the things that you did when the pandemic hit last March.
Kevin: Yes. Quite frankly, as you would have guessed, the pandemic really, really was devastating to YMCAs. But as you said, we pivoted. And when we think about our organization in that regard and what we went through in 2020, the pivot was around being a vital community asset.
We showed up as 1,300 sites. We’re doing emergency childcare services for communities to ensure that those first responders, police officers, mailmen could go to work and know that their kids were in a safe environment. Over 1,100 Ys were delivering food because when schools closed, several of our communities and families were not able to get their food because they ate at the schools. So the Y helped support food delivering in communities.
In addition to that, we partnered with cities like Chicago, Philadelphia New York, LA, to support their work in the COVID crisis. Places for COVID patients to sleep. Places where people can get showers. Partnering to ensure that we were going to do senior check-ins. All of those things were part of what we did in those communities, which helped people see how vital the Y is as an institution.
It was a pivot for us, and one we needed to do to ensure that people understood how important the institution as an organization was in those communities– to help all people get through what we all know was a very difficult timeframe with the pandemic.
Denver: Listening to you, Kevin, I find it interesting that we’re now living in this virtual world, and we don’t need to go to work anymore, and we can do everything remotely. But there’s a lot to be said for a place-based organization that’s situated in these communities.
And it just seems with the footprint you had, it’s almost irreplaceable in terms of being able to pivot, be agile. I didn’t even know Ys were that agile, to be honest with you, to be able to switch. What’s it in your DNA that makes you that agile? And boy, I do see the importance of being at these locations.
Kevin: Well, I will tell you that the Y has always been an organization that has responded to the needs in communities. Just to give you some sense of… so you know our history over time. We’ve been around since the Civil War. So we’ve been around a long time. And we were here for the first pandemic as well as this.
Denver: 1918. Sure.
Kevin: 1918, yes. But in addition to that, during the Civil Rights movement, Ys were places where folks met to ensure that they were able to have those conversations in communities where they felt safe. Ys have always been able to adapt to the leadership. In the ’60s, they were out in the streets doing gang war prevention.
So, there’s been a lot of what we’ve done from a social perspective, which is why when we talk about the Y internally, we talk about it as a movement. We say “the movement,” and we see it as that. Even though the facilities are important, and they’re part of how we maintain a very structured position in the community, the work that we do is broad-spread, and it’s not only facility-based, it’s community-based.
Denver: I spent my entire life in the sector, and I’d have to say that the sector as a whole is not all that great at collaboration. But that was not the case last year when nonprofits came together, with the Y right in the center of it… and went down to Washington and the federal government in terms of getting some urgently needed relief and resources. Tell us a little bit about that and the role you guys played.
Kevin: Thank you. You hit it on the head, Denver. We’re nonprofit communities. We’re probably not as adept at collaboration. There’s always competition, but not collaboration.
I will tell you when the pandemic hit, one of the first calls that I made was to Neal Denton, who’s our senior vice president for government affairs. And it was clear to me because as an organization, we generate significant revenue, and it was clear to me that with 97% of our Ys closed, that that was going to substantially affect our revenue and put us in jeopardy as an institution.
And while we did get substantial philanthropy– we got some great philanthropy gifts throughout the course of last year and continue to get them– I knew that the problems that we faced on the financial perspective was way too significant for philanthropy to deal with. And my call to Neal was, “Neal, we have to get some government support.”
And I think that sort of– you mentioned earlier about timing and opportunity? Timing and opportunity came together. And all of our nonprofits recognized that we could not go at this individually. It had to be a collective effort. And we put all of our communications and marketing people together as a nonprofit to really shape our messages, and our CEO group got together to help lead that charge.
So, I was on all kinds of programs, Fox News, NBC, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, along with others to ensure that they would tell them our story about how many jobs were at risk. We were the third-largest employer in the country, and what we did for our community… And that it was if this pandemic and economic thing was going to survive, the nonprofit community was going to be a large part of that now and afterwards.
So we made our case and fortunately, we had some very strong leadership that supported our work on both sides of the aisle that allowed us, for the first time, to become part of the legislation and be able to get some of the payroll protection loans, the earned income tax credit, which really, really saved several of our non-profit organizations. It really gave them time to prepare for what’s going to come next after COVID. So we’re very proud of that work… the Y being…
Denver: Do you see it happening again? Do you see the collaboration like that coming together again, absent a crisis?
Kevin: Great question. We tend to do our best work in a crisis situation.
Denver: Don’t we all?
Kevin: We’re up against the wall. I would hope that the fact that we were able to do this together, I think it showed the power of the nonprofit community. And if we do work collaboratively, not allowing a lot of issues… I think one of the things that we struggle with is everybody has a different issue that they want to get in front of folks. But when we started talking about jobs and community, that was pretty strong and everybody just supported it. I would hope that we could do this again because we’ve laid the footprint for what’s possible.
And one of the good things about that from my perspective is that there wasn’t any legislature, whatever side of the aisle he or she was on, that we couldn’t get in touch and in front of. And that made a big difference.
Denver: That’s access, I’ll tell you that.
Let me ask you about vaccines. What’s the Y doing on that front? We have the access issue. We have the hesitancy issue. And we have, I think, young-people-are-immortal issue as well. You know what I mean? How are you trying to address that?
Kevin: We’ve been working collaboratively with the CDC, and there’s been six of us, African American-led organizations, that have gotten together to really address the vaccine hesitancy issue, but more importantly to share with them, making sure you get good information to make the right decisions.
I’m working with the National League of Cities, the American Psychological Association, the American Diabetes Association, AARP and the Y — each of those organizations are led by people of color, and we’re working collaboratively in those communities where we know that there is misinformation.
Now, we’re not medical institutions, but we want to make sure that people get the right information so they can make the right decision for themselves and for their families. As you know, COVID-19 has really affected people of color in a significant way. So we want to make sure they get the right information.
And finally, at our YMCAs, we have, at the last count… and I could be off, so that happens every now and then as a leader of the organization. You might not know all the numbers. But at the last count, we had over 250 YMCAs that were actually sites for vaccinations in those communities across the country, and that continues to grow. We just believe wholeheartedly in getting the right information for people to make the right decisions. Hopefully, everybody gets vaccinated because I’ve been vaccinated. But I’m hopeful that everybody, after they get the information, will make the right decision for themselves, for their families, and for the communities.
Denver: I think that’s a very enlightened way to put it. Because you’re not asking them to get vaccinated, you’re asking them to get accurate information and then decide, again, because there’s a lot of bad stuff going around, and for people who…
Kevin: You know it is, Denver. A lot of bad information. Quite a bit.
Denver: A lot of bad information. And for a lot of people, they want to believe bad information because they don’t want to do it. And we have our confirmation bias. “Oh, that’s good. I don’t know. Now, I don’t need to do it.” It fits just to a T.
Hey, what’s going on with summer camp this year?
Kevin: I’m knocking on wood… we see summer camp coming back. I think part of it was the pent-up demand. If you had a teenager or a young child last summer, you were with that person quite a bit because everything was closed. And I do think parents are looking for the opportunity to put their kids in programs like summer camps to give them an opportunity to be kids again.
We are engaging in that work. We’re doing it safely and responsibly, following CDC guidelines around testing before coming to camp and after it, and while you’re at camp. We’re also making sure that we’ll use pods so that certain people will stay together.
Camping is looking good. It is probably the first sign, if you will, that there is some normalcy returning to the organization because the membership stuff has not, at this point, reached a significant level, but we’re still slowly, slowly coming back because people’s behaviors aren’t there yet. But camp is looking good. We’re pleased thus far at what camp looks like.
The problem will be, Denver, staffing.
Denver: Well, everybody’s having that problem. You can’t get restaurants. You can’t get anybody to go do… it’s amazing!
Kevin: Yes. That may be the biggest issue for us. And we’ve got to be competitive, and we have to be vigilant about recruiting the best staff because that’s going to be the biggest issue for many of us as we unwind our program opportunities again.
Denver: Yes. Sort of gets it back to the point we had about having urgency before. You have urgency for camp because it’s summer camp, and summer is coming. We’re joining the Y again. My wife’s a member of the Y. She hasn’t gone back yet, but if it were like summer Y, she would. But now you put it off and…
I was very happy to see that Broadway is going to go 100% percent capacity starting on September 14. So, those are real… that’s the kind of thing that gives people a sense that, “OK. Maybe things are coming around.”
I have always said that you don’t know anything about leadership until you’ve led volunteers, but I also could have said “or unless you’ve led a federated organization.” Tell me the keys to doing that because that’s a tough road. It really is. It’s a diplomatic job as much as it is a leadership job.
Kevin: Absolutely. It is. I guess the good part about it is that I grew up in it, so I have some sense of the difficulty. Although, quite frankly, Denver, when I went from Boston to Chicago to take the national job, I knew it was going to be different. I didn’t realize how different.
Denver: I hear you.
Kevin: But I would say as an organization, as a national resource organization, our number one job is: protect and promote the brand. That’s what we have to do at the forefront. And we have a series of rules that you have to comply with in order to fly the flag. And when I say “leading from a federation” is, the more I have to use these rules to enforce what we’re doing, the less successful you’re going to be.
Denver: No question about it.
Kevin: Because it is about influence, relationships, and sometimes you’re leading from the front, sometimes you’re leading from the middle, and sometimes you’re leading from behind. It’s a nuance. It’s a nuance. And so, one of the things I would say, I had some capital moving into this position, having been in the organization a long time. So that was helpful to me, especially when there were difficult issues that came about.
Just one example. We made some significant branding changes for the organization prior to my arrival, and my arrival meant that that was the first year that they had to be enforced. People are having a five-year plan, but when I started, it was enforcement time. And one of my good friends who runs a YMCA in the South and I were talking about some of the branding issues that he was dealing with because we had a compliance team looking at him. And he called me up, and we knew each other well. He said, “Kevin, you and I aren’t going to have a disagreement about this branding. We’re going to work that out.”
And I think it was the relationship we had that made that possible. And I think relationships are as important as leadership and as strategy in the federated organization. I’ve had several conversations with organizations who are centralized, and I say to them, “I don’t think the Y will ever be a centralized organization because its strength is at the local community.” And so, our ability to augment all that power and move it in a collective direction is a powerful tool. Getting there is not as easy as it looks, but–
Denver: But when your buddy says “We’re going to get there, and we may hit some blows along the way,” but when you have somebody who starts with that constructive outcome in mind, that just changes the dynamic. “We’ll figure it out.” You know what I mean? “There’ll be some ups and downs, but we’re going to get there.”
And I would imagine you also probably have to look at some of your influentials because you can’t herd all the cats. You gather like 15 of them and then have them help you. Would that be fair to say?
Kevin: That is exactly what I do because there are– as you look across the spectrum of our organization, you know who the influential people are in the organization. And sometimes they’re not in places where people would think. You would look over maybe at all the largest Ys. Such is not the case.
Denver: No, it’s personality-driven. And then all the small Ys follow one or two people. So, if you can get those guys or gals, you got like 160 Ys.
Kevin: Well, I will tell you. If there was anything that has been, I would say, a learned lesson is: one, bigger is not always better because we have some small YMCAs that have budgets that are under $1 million that are fantastically run. Excellent. And we have some larger Ys that could use some help as well on the other side. But we have quite a few small Ys. And we call small Ys anything under like $10 million, and we got quite a few of them.
Denver: Well, looking at those small Ys and maybe some of the others, what’s your thinking about redundant costs? You got a lot of Ys out there with, let’s say, a lot of IT departments. What are some of the things do you think about in terms of trying to get more of that money going to program and cutting out some of that duplication?
Kevin: That’s the process that we’re in right now, Denver. You hit it on the head. And I think the pandemic has opened that up to a bigger way. Just like the pandemic laid bare some of the inequities that we see in our society, it has laid bare in our organization some of the repetitive cost structure. Now, the question becomes: How do you get there?
Because in some instances, if I’m running a $5 million Y, I’m pretty powerful because I make all the decisions, and giving up some of that has been the problem. But what I say is… you just said it for me. And this is what I said. I said, “Listen. I didn’t come into this organization to be a finance guru. I came in to deliver exceptional programs to communities. And if we can remove some of the significant overhead around technology, HR, and finance, we can give more resources to the communities that we serve and be much more effective at that.”
People understand that. Getting there is where we are right now. We’re engaging with a consultant across the country to help us put together what we’re calling management service organizations to help do that. And we have some volunteers that are in the work doing these.
Denver: And people get very possessive of their data. Part of their power comes from the fact that they control their data, and they control their system, and their jobs that are involved with that as well. So I’ve been through this drill before, and I know all the things that need to be done. But I also know at the end of the day, it’s better for the organization. And it’s usually better for the people who work in the organization, almost always as a matter of fact.
Kevin: Yes. But the pain to get there, as you know, it was just the issue that we were dealing with currently. But in this world, real-time data and being able to have that across the spectrum so you can make informed decisions, it’s just all the positives are there.
And I think that it will happen, and I think the pace will be slow at first, but then I think it’s going to pick up. Because as you know, in a federation, in any nonprofit, if somebody is doing something good, you say, “Wait a minute. What are they doing?” And imitation is what everybody does. “Oh, that looks good. Let me do that. Let me do that.” So we’re hopeful that will be the process that takes place around this work that we do.
Denver: There’s not enough of that being done. I think this is a society where we have too much innovation and not enough replication–
Denver: –and take the best practices.
I had Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green on the show a couple of years ago, and they help startup social entrepreneurs. And I asked her about that and I said, “What advice would you have?” And she said, “Don’t start something up. Look for people who are doing some wonderful, wonderful work already that had a proven concept and evidence-based, and go to work for them.”
But there’s this sense of… I don’t know whether it’s our personal branding or our ego. “Oh, I’m starting up another enterprise.” And it’s like, sometimes we don’t need other enterprises. We need to make the ones that are working, better.”
Kevin: That’s exactly right. Because I think about that is how I would look at it. because I see a lot of folks, a lot of my colleagues, “Oh, I’d love to have this. We want to replicate that.” No, you don’t.
What you want to do is: How can you use our scope and scale to use your great idea and infiltrate in our organization or in one or other organizations? Because it’s all about serving the communities and the people who we want to get better. So if you have a great idea, let’s talk about how we can work in our organization rather than creating another organization.
Denver: You were talking about the financial difficulties of last year. I think it was some $800 million in the loss of revenue, and the closing of Ys and fundraising, and all the rest of it. But there was one extraordinary, extraordinary gift that came your way. Tell us a little bit about it. And did you see it coming? Well, how did it all go down?
Kevin: So I know that you taught philanthropy at NYU, things of that nature, and you were a great fundraiser in terms of work that you did. I planned the whole thing.
Denver: Absolutely. That was a course on public relations, I remember, in terms of “take credit for everything.”
Kevin: You know, Denver, I got a call from a mediator who was engaged in this work as the consultant, and–
Denver: We should probably talk about that.
Kevin: The person said to me, “I got some information for you, but you have to sign the NDA before I can talk about it.” “OK.” So I did. And they mentioned who the person was — MacKenzie Scott. And he said, “Kevin, I don’t know if you’re going to get anything, or you could get a boatload. I have no idea. But I’m just working to support the work of her giving.” And I didn’t hear anything for a while. And he said, “You might not hear nothing.” I didn’t.
And then I got a call from one of my colleagues who said, “I got this call the other day and somebody wanted to…” And I just knew it, but I said, “Man, you better call her.” My words were a little bit more harsh than that, quite frankly. “You better call her. You better call her back.” And I started getting a couple of those.
And then finally, just before they made the announcement, I got a call from some of her representatives, and they said, “You guys have been blah-blah-blah and we’re going to give the national office…” because I didn’t even think we would get anything, and “We’re going to give the national office $20 million.” I said, “What?” “We’ll give the national office $20 million.”
And at the end of the day, as I had an opportunity to hear from others, it was close to half a billion dollars that she gave to YMCA — 44 gifts, 43 to local Ys and $20 million to the national office. And as I went around talking to folks because everybody was hush-hush, but as she gave me the list. She didn’t tell me how much. She just gave me a list of people. And I called them because, you know, I knew them all. And after that, it was close to half a billion.
Denver: Unbelievable. It was.
What’s the impact do you think that’s going to have on philanthropy? Not that we expect other people to make gifts of this magnitude, but the way it was done, the lack of paperwork and all the hoops you go through– Do you think it’s just a one-off, or do you think that this may be: philanthropists are going to realize if you trust an organization, give them the resources, and let them do what they need to do?
Kevin: I would hope it sets the trend because while I love what foundations do in terms of the support they give an individual philanthropy, I think that is important to trust the leadership of the organizations to do the right thing when you get resources.
So, as you know, more times than not, when you’re working with an organization to give resources, they’re directing you to spend it in this manner. And more times than not, they don’t consider the significant administrative costs associated with doing that work. When you put it in the program, we got to have finance people. We have to have oversight– it’s a lot of cost that goes into that.
I would hope that as Ms. Scott has shown, that if you trust institutions, they will not– I’m sure there’s going to be a couple, but 99.9% of the time, they’re going to do the right thing. And so, I’m hopeful that she sets a trend for what foundations, individual wealth, wealthy folks can do to support all nonprofits in the future. Give them the resources. Many of them have been in this field as you and I know for years, and they’re going to do the right thing. They’re not in it to line their pockets. They’re in it to do the right thing for the organizations and the mission for which they hold up.
Denver: The way you describe it, too, Kevin, it sounds like a lot of people… the way they would invest in a stock. You’re not looking at every little thing that the company is doing. You’re looking at their balance sheet, and you’re looking at their leadership. And if you see that I trust this organization, I look at their track record. I see who’s running the thing. I buy the stock. I don’t get into if it’s an apparel company, what kind of color dresses are coming out in the Spring line?
So it’s funny how it’s done that way, but with our sector, it’s just everything per se, plus the fact, a lot of what we do doesn’t work. You find out a year or two from now it doesn’t work, and you want to change, but you’ve got a contract. So then we got to keep on doing this. Like we don’t have crystal balls, you know?
Kevin: Exactly. And they want us to be innovative, yet they put hamstrings on how we can innovate, right?
We’re starting this journey with ourselves because you cannot be an effective community advocate for change if you aren’t clear about who you are and where your blind spots are, and that’s where we’re starting it. We’re starting with ourselves.
Denver: Right. Exactly. And the way things change so fast. I mean, we’re just like, “Do you want us to stop learning the second you give us your gifts?” It doesn’t make any sense.
The Y has been on a journey to become an anti-racist and multicultural organization, and I know these journeys are not that easy. What advice would you have about conducting constructive conversations that help move this forward?
Kevin: We’ve done some of that, and first, let me say that having those constructive conversations aren’t easy. In America, we’ve not done that. We’ve skirted the issue, but we’ve been able to, with some support from the People’s Institute out of New Orleans.
Denver: New Orleans. Yes. I know them.
Kevin: They’ve been helpful with us. And before we go, we call it “Undoing Institutional Racism,” which is the piece that they are engaged with us in. But before that, we have folks go through an IDI assessment about where they are personally. And then we go through undoing bias training, and we do cultural lenses so that when they come to it, they have some sense of where they are.
And here’s what I say: We’re starting this journey with ourselves because you cannot be an effective community advocate for change if you aren’t clear about who you are and where your blind spots are, and that’s where we’re starting it. We’re starting with ourselves. And first of all, “You got to do sales. You got to do this; you have to do that.” No. We have to make sure that we’re prepared.
And let me be clear. This is not something that’s fully accepted by everybody in our organization. We represent America. The Y is representative of America. And the levels and the same partisanship that exists in our society, it exists in the Y. We just have a commonality about how we want to serve communities, and that has been a helpful bind to us.
And the other thing that I say as we do on this journey, we meet people where they are. We meet people where they are. Some people in New York are going to be very different than some people in Biloxi, Mississippi. So we meet them where they are and help them on this journey collectively.
And that to me is when you can begin to have serious conversation — when people feel safe. I’m not threatening. I’m not saying, “You’re right, I’m wrong.” We have a different perspective, but I feel safe.
Denver: Well, that’s great because I think often, starting those journeys without being judgmental is the best way to get people to get on the train. You just accept them where they are, and you sometimes even appreciate where they are. You understand it, and then you can move forward. And if they don’t, everybody gets just locked into the place they’re standing.
Kevin: I have this ongoing conversation with one of my colleagues who I would say has a very different perspective about the world than I do. And we’ve had different conversations, in writing most of the time. But what he said to me the other day, and he said, “Kevin, I know we think differently, but I feel safe with you.” And that to me is when you can begin to have serious conversation — when people feel safe. I’m not threatening. I’m not saying, “You’re right, I’m wrong.” We have a different perspective, but I feel safe.
Denver: That’s right. And you’re listening.
Kevin: And that makes the difference in having those kinds of conversations.
Denver: Well, what do you see the role of the board in this?
Kevin: The role of the board is important. In fact, particularly, we want to model the behavior at the national organization we want our local YMCAs to go through. And so, that means they will have an IDI assessment. That means they’ll go through some of the work that we’re doing with the People’s Institute because they need to understand how they can fit into this process.
Because for me and for all of us who are professionals in the organization, it really is the boards. They are the fiduciaries. They own the organization. And if we want this to be lasting and not leadership-specific, the board has to engage in this work and make sure that it continues. Because I’m going, like you said, I’m leaving at the end of the year, and that happens across this country at YMCAs and other not-for-profits, but it’s the board stewardship that continues the strategy that they want to see the organization move forward towards. So their engagement is absolutely key in this work.
Denver: Yes. I’ve always believed that every major change in an organization begins and ends at the door of the board. And too many of them I think are getting off on this issue a little too scot-free. They’re issuing statements, and those are great. But I think too many of them are ending with that statement. And they need to have it as a priority the way they have finances and number of people. It’s got to be on the same level of the agenda as the more traditional things we have in terms of programs and services, and hopefully, we’ll get there.
Kevin: I’m glad you said that because I think that this summer after the George Floyd incident and some of the other earth-shaking racial issues that happened in this country, a lot of our great corporations sent statements out. “My next step, my next thought and my next…” I just want to see what happens next.
Denver: I know exactly what you’re talking about. Well, I feel the same way about the Business Round Table on stakeholder capitalism. Everybody likes stakeholder capitalism until you get punched in the nose. As Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” So, is stakeholder capitalism there, or was it shareholder capitalism when hard times come? You never really know until the adversity hits to see how people are going to play.
Denver: You know, some of this got a bad connotation — mission drift. But that’s never good to get your mission and go drifting around it. Sometimes it’s associated with chasing money. But I was wondering, Kevin, what you thought about the mission of an organization like the Y and whether after what’s happened to this past year, whether it needs to evolve in order to retain its relevance or not.
Kevin: I would say that the pandemic showed us as an organization that there are some tweaks, if you will, we need to make in how we do future work as an organization. And I will tell you, we have an association assembly coming up in September that I probably won’t be at. No, I will not be at it. But it’s being set up to really address some of those issues about: How do we see ourselves moving forward?
In fact, our governance committee of the board is really, I wouldn’t say changing, but expanding in our constitution– what a Y is and what it should be about, and they’re addressing some of these issues around anti-racism and multiculturalism. And they’re adding some of that into the constitution… not changing our mission, but really making it relevant for the times that we’re currently in. Let’s say, adjusting to who we are now.
I suspect there’s going to be quite a bit of controversy about that and that’s what’s–
You have to have these hard conversations in order to move forward. And if organizations are not willing to have those kinds of conversations, then it’s going to be difficult for progress to happen.
Denver: I think you’re right.
Kevin: But that’s important to have those… what we said is you have to have these hard conversations in order to move forward. And if organizations are not willing to have those kinds of conversations, then it’s going to be difficult for progress to happen. So we’re in that journey, and that’s part of my journey.
Denver: The controversy is good in that case because you know what happens if there isn’t controversy, that means people are just sort of not paying attention to it, and they’re going to ignore it and go “Do whatever you want!” and stick it in some document. I’m not changing the way I operate. When there’s controversy, that means, at the end of it, there’s buy-in.
Kevin: Right. And I think with controversy, it also dictates people care. They care.
This past year has tested leaders like nothing before. This has not been an easy time to be in charge. Have you reflected on your own leadership, Kevin, maybe more aware of how you lead and the impact that you have on other people?
Kevin: I think it has, because of the very difficult year that we confronted last year. I realized that there’s a couple of things that have come into my mindset is: one, how empathy from a leader is so important. Demonstrating empathy and caring for your staff and all others. Listening, because– I will tell you, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard this from many other leaders– our young people in our organizations, they are pushing us to be very different, and they’re not patient. Their level of patience doesn’t necessarily exist.
Denver: No. It’s one-day delivery from Amazon. You know what I mean? That’s the world that they live in. They want it now.
Kevin: I know. And I’m not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing. I know it’s something that we’re all dealing with and trying to figure it out.
Last year tested me quite a bit, and it also made me reflect, which is quite frankly, one of the reasons why I decided within the year that it was time to move on. It was time to move on. And not because I don’t love the Y. I absolutely love the Y. But I also recognize that there is a time for different kinds of leaders in any organization.
And I’ve always felt that — this is just my personal bias — that leadership of major organizations and institutions, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5- to 7- to 10 years is about the run. And particularly, it might even be less now in the world in which we live and how rapidly it changes. So I did my seven, and I just felt it was time for someone else. And quite frankly, the next three- to four years is going to require this kind of leadership, and I’m not sure that that was me in the present.
Denver: I’m there with you, too. And it’s sometimes hard to teach an old dog new tricks and no matter how much we try. It’s almost like trying to be adept at technology. We both work really hard at it. We’re pretty good at it. But we’re not digital natives, and we’ll never be a digital native the way some of these young people will be.
So you kind of just realize that there’s an energy, there’s a language, there’s a way of looking at the world… no matter how much time you spend around young people, it ain’t you. You know what I mean? And that’s humility. That’s really what the leaders need to have.
So stepping down at the end of the year… what’s next? What are you going to do?
Kevin: I’m going to take a few months off. I have some thoughts that I’d like to do. I love to teach a little bit at a community college around strategy, nonprofit work. Love to serve on a couple of boards, if I can. Looking to do that. And then play as much golf as I possibly can and spend some time with my–
Denver: How’s the golf game?
Kevin: It’s okay. It’s up and down. But it’s so much fun being out there because you don’t have a care in the world except making that putt.
Denver: Absolutely. I’ve spoken to my wife about this, and I play with my friends. Like you and I would go out and play golf, and she would say to me, “What did you and Kevin talk about?” And we’d say, “Nothing.” You are so occupied… other than to give you grief. Maybe to say, “Kevin, be sure to be careful with that lake to the left. You don’t want to hit it in that lake,” knowing I’m going to hear a dunk any second.
Kevin: Yes. Your mind is completely blank. You’re just out there having fun and relaxing.
Denver: You’re out there having fun. And you really, as you say, just want to make that putt, and you’re really focused on your game. Not even in a competitive way, other than with yourself. You are competitive with yourself. You want to do better. You know what I mean? You want to play as best you can.
Let me close with this, Kevin. You know, although you are the CEO of Y USA, I really think very much you are a youth director at heart. During these difficult times, what advice would you give to young people?
I would say to them: one, find people you can trust and have conversations with about the things that you’re concerned about. And as you mentioned earlier, while we love our parents, most young people will not talk to their parents about real issues that are bothering them. So having someone in their life that they can have an honest conversation with, who’s representative of the values of your family… because that’s key. They have to be representative of that.
Two, stay positive. And I know that’s hard to do in this environment because of so much negativity coming at them. And three, find an activity that they enjoy from their own personal way. Whether it’s art, whether it’s music, whether it’s dancing. Find something that they enjoy, that they could just release themselves. Because the mental strain that they’re under is so much different than what I faced as a teenager.
Denver: Well, as you just said, it’s sort of like golf for you. Something you can get lost in where your time just disappears, and you’re just so engaged. And that is all great advice.
Hey, for listeners who want to learn more about what they can do to help support their local Y or the national organization, tell us a little bit about your website and what people will find there.
Kevin: They can go to our website, which is ymca.net, soon to change to ymca.org. Not yet. But ymca.net. They can find information about YMCAs in their community. They can put their zip code in and find where the local Ys are. They can find out about programs and services that’s provided there. They could find job opportunities. So, they can find all the information on our website.
And please visit it. Visit your local Y. Support your local Y, whether you’re engaged in a program or donation– do that because the Y’s play a vital role in your community. And we want to make sure that we’re there for you and because we serve for all, and we want all people to reach their full potential in spirit, mind, and body.
Denver: Fantastic. And if you’re a young person and looking at those job opportunities, sign up for summer camp. We need counselors.
Kevin: We need them.
Denver: Well, thanks so much, Kevin. It was a real delight to have you on the program.
Kevin: Denver, it’s a pleasure having the opportunity to speak to you as well.
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