In this special edition of the Accelerant podcast, our host Saranda West sits down with Jorge Perez to discuss how the YMCA is handling this time of transition and how they plan to move forward into the future.

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Podcast Transcription

Jorge Perez: I don’t know how many times we can hear “unprecedented” or “never seen before as we describe the times we’re in right now, but I want you to consider what you should be doing during this time. What roles should you play now? Obviously, we’d prefer that you be here with us and working out like you have been throughout your membership.

But during this time, we are asking that you stay with us. Not as a fitness facility member, but as a cause driven member.


That was the voice of Jorge Perez, the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, addressing his community during the COVID-19 pandemic in this special edition of the Accelerant podcast. Our host, Saranda West, sits down with Jorge to discuss how the YMCA is handling this time of transition and how they plan to move forward into the future.

This is the Accelerant podcast.


Saranda West: Welcome to the Accelerant podcast, where we are impacting thought leadership in the nonprofit community.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me on the show today. I’m your host, Saranda West. Today, I’m honored to introduce you to Jorge Perez, CEO of YMCA of Greater Cincinnati. For those of you that haven’t had the chance to meet Jorge, he is one of the most inspirational people you will meet. I had the pleasure of actually just sitting next to him on a bus ride back at a conference one time, and I left ready to go tackle the world.

So, Jorge, I really appreciate you joining me today. I know this has been a week of just uncertainty and you have a lot of plates spinning.  

JP:  Yeah, it is… We keep using the word unprecedented, but that’s because that’s all we know at this point. We’re in unchartered waters. Most of us have never seen, well, none of us have ever seen anything like this, and trying to do, simultaneously, the work before us and trying to understand how to prepare for an unknown future while taking care of people that are under our care. And that gets very complicated for so many people.  

SW: Absolutely. I know, just to give some context for those that are listening, it’s Thursday morning, March 19th, to give everybody an idea of the day we’re talking. Help me understand, or give me a glimpse of what it looks like in Cincinnati right now.  

The Shutdown

JP: Well, both Ohio and Kentucky governors have been very, very aggressive in stemming what now everybody has come to call the surge, trying to reduce the curve.

Because of that, they have been first in line to close schools, recently closing bars and restaurants, and fitness centers, asking people to scale back their activity. We’re anticipating how the governor of Kentucky has already done this, soon to be followed by the governor of Ohio all childcare centers.

I didn’t mention earlier, senior centers were one of the first to close. We have been slowly shutting down, as have a couple of states, and here in Cincinnati, the local leaders have been following suit. Libraries closed pretty quickly. This is what we’re doing right now, trying to shelter in place.

SW: Yeah. How has the Y, how have you adjusted your operations as a result of that?

Adjusting Operations

JP: Well, real quickly we knew we needed to shut our centers down. At the same time, we’re beginning to hear that there was a growing concern about childcare needs for first responders and hospital employees.

So, we began to have conversations with hospital officials, with local government and the state government, beginning to say, “What do we need to do to prepare?” Even before we were mandated to close, we made the decision to pivot our YMCAs into that space and get prepared for what we believe to be a significant number of individuals that will need this support.  

Not only that, we started to ask, “What do we need to do to support our seniors and put in place a plan to do that?” We also have had very robust conversations talking about our kids and families are going to need food here very quickly.  

SW: That’s great. I think we’re going to have a video that you sent out to your community that actually made me tear up when I saw it. It’s fabulous to see you and your team respond to the situation.

One of the questions I had is actually around, in all of my interactions with your team, I’ve seen you have developed this philosophy, I don’t know, philosophy or leadership style. You actually use the words, achievement, relationship, and belonging. Will you unpack that and just tell me what that means?

Achievement, Relationship, and Belonging at the YMCA

JP:  Yeah. Sometime ago, when I was working for the YMCA of the USA, we began to realize that we needed to hone in on human development. The YMCA has always been a human development organization, and part of the challenge is that human development can get very complicated people actually get doctorates on trying to understand that.

We needed to figure out a way to really distill it down to some basic ideas that all human beings require and desire. One of them is achievement. Human beings want to grow and develop. Whether you’re six months old and trying to learn to walk or 60 years old or 65 years old, and you’ve had a hip surgery and trying to learn to walk again, human beings want to achieve.  

The YMCA has always been a human development organization…We needed to figure out a way to really distill it down to some basic ideas that all human beings require and desire.

They want to learn algebra. They want to learn a second language. They want to achieve at work. The YMCA needs to be about helping individuals achieve no matter what stage of life they’re in.  

The second word, relationship, is that we want to do it in connection with other people. The most significant part of this in sheltering in place is how difficult it will be for some individuals who are desperate for connection and relationships. Our biggest concern right now is how we help individuals connect during these next few weeks, and it explains why, even though we announced that we were closed down and told our seniors that we were closing down, some of them showed up at the YMCA still trying to come in.

They are desperate for human connection. We are all desperate and it’s necessary.

The final word is belonging. After we’ve achieved and we’ve done it in relationship with other people, we want to know that we have a place in this world. We want to know that we have a belonging, a connection, something to contribute. Maslow called it self-actualization. Jesus called it being a neighbor.

I think that this is what every human being aspires to be, this idea of being in a space where we’re achieving, relating, and belonging. Right now, all of those things are under assault by this virus.  

SW: Absolutely. How do you see the YMCA playing a role in achievement, relation, and belonging over the coming weeks?

JP: Well, more than anything, during what some researchers call a VUCA environment, which is a military term to describe a highly volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ever-changing environment. We’re going to have to really focus in on who we are and what we do. We’re not a fitness center at the YMCA.

I know most people consume us that way, but we have been on a journey for the last two years, really focusing in and reminding people that we’re about achievement, relationship and belonging. That’s with our staff and our members. We did so again through that video, and our hope and our expectation is that, as we reemerge, we reemerge clearly defined as an organization that wants to help people and invite others to help us do the same.  

SW: Yeah, that’s great. Jorge, one of the things, too, is that as communities, as members of the Y, there’s probably, and we’re all dealing with this in different ways, but also from a staff perspective, it’s gotta be scary. These are uncertain times for your staff.

So, as a lot of YMCAs listen to this later, what advice or what would you tell them during this time?

Advice for YMCAs

JP: Well, it’s very, very difficult. Most of us are beginning the painful process of relieving staff or letting them go, often because we want to make sure that they get access to the public service, the public support systems that they’ll need, frankly because we just don’t know what the future’s going to look like.

Normally, our facilities are full and people are cleaning and scanning and teaching and helping and doing afterschool and preparing for summer camp. None of that stuff is happening right now. I will tell you, I would tell them to make sure that they’re keeping the achievement, relationship, and belonging message in front of them as well, and understand that they’re going to go through some very difficult times.

Staying Healthy

SW: Yeah. This is maybe more of a personal question, but how are you staying healthy during this stressful time?  

JP: Yeah. I get asked that by a lot people. Someone asked me yesterday if I was sleeping and, you know, admittingly, these are difficult times to find rest.

I keep looking for my own achievement, relationship, and belonging, leaning into people around the country that are my friends and say, “Hey, can I just talk to you?” Sometimes we talk about our challenges, but just knowing somebody else is in a bunker somewhere else, dealing with some of the same challenges helps me.

That’s the relationship and belonging piece that I mentioned earlier. I’m doing a lot of that physically. I’m doing more walking. I love a particular class that I can no longer take. I’m having to go back to my college years, and one of my favorite pastimes, which is just going on hikes.

SW: Yeah, that’s great. I am definitely missing my weekly spin class as well. One of the things in your posts I mentioned, you have this fantastic video that you put out for your community, and we’ll try to at least link to it in the show notes, but you referenced a cost-driven member. Can you just explain to me what that means to you?

Transactional vs. Transformational

JP: Yeah, I think it was important for our members to understand that, although they are going to have to shelter in place, that they have an opportunity to be cause driven. They’ve always had that opportunity. Even when we were not in this crisis, our members supported some remarkable work.

The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati distributed almost a half a million meals last year. We gave away $3 million in scholarships and we help first-generation college students go to college. We support families in some of our more impoverished communities and those membership dollars made that possible.

This is an opportunity to take all the transactional part of that interaction aside and say, you know, I wish I could offer you the transactional piece of our engagement, which is the fitness classes and access to our swimming pools. The best we can do is give you some virtual options, that this is an opportunity for you to really see the cause that you advance as a member.

As we continue to respond to some really significant needs, we were delivering food yesterday to some seniors and these seniors look like they just want to talk. They just want somebody to visit with them. That would not be possible if our cost-driven members were not staying with us.

SW: Yeah. I love that. I think that’s one of those messages that, in great times, it’s hard to get that message across, right? We all just live out our first world lifestyles, and this type of situation definitely puts life into perspective.

JP: Saranda, one of the ways I distinguish those two worlds is the transactional world, which is all the consumerism. Even in our own engagement with each other, there’s the “What’s in it for me” type mentality. We live in a very fast-paced world where that becomes the focus.

How do I transact? How do I win in the transactions? How do I transact at the stores? How do I transact at the YMCA? How do I transact in life? What we forget is that there’s this other part of us that’s equally important, maybe even more important, which is our transformational part of it. How do I transform? Not just myself, but also others. How do I live in a world where my intent is not to be transactional, but be transformational?

How do I live in a world where my intent is not to be transactional, but be transformational?

I think this is why Jesus, when he was asked what the greatest commandment was, he moved quickly from loving God to saying, “Look, there’s this guy that was on a journey. He was on a business trip, and he came upon somebody that we needed help.” The story of the good Samaritan was born out of that story.

What Jesus was trying to say to us is,” Look, there’s this world of transformation that matters more, and you should love your neighbor.” This is an opportunity for us to really hone in on that, and understand how important this is, because it’s during these times that we truly begin to understand how important those transformational relationships are. And frankly, the transformational activity that I participate in really matters.

So, those people that have been supporting food banks, they matter today. Those individuals that we’ve been supporting, animal shelters, they matter today. Those people that have been supporting YMCAs, they matter today more than ever.  

SW: That’s beautiful. Thank you. In terms of the word transformational and just transforming, we all wish we had a crystal ball and could see weeks and months into the future.

But to me, this feels like, obviously it will be something, we will remember for years to come. It’s transforming society. How do you think this is also going to be a major transformational time for the Y?

Transforming the Y

JP: Well, absolutely anytime either an organization or a human being goes through a crisis and goes through this kind of soul searching where they’re really kind of honing in on what really matters, we’re changed.  

We’re made better. We’re sharpened, and these kinds of moments can really help us hone in on our foundational principles, or frankly, test those. Hopefully we reemerge out of this and say, “I don’t have enough friends. I don’t make enough difference. I need to change some things about my life because this world that I thought, this transactional world that I thought was going to protect me won’t all the time.”  

What will always protect you are your transformational relationships, your relationships with your neighbors, the good that you do. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that with many individuals who are putting the last writing, the last chapters of their lives, they’re not thinking about the big bonus checks they got or the big houses that they built or the huge titles that they won.  

They’re assessing the transformation that they made, the impact that they left on this world and the impact that the world had on them and their hearts. This is a time to think about those things. Lean into those relationships. At the very end, it’s the transformational part of our work in our lives that really matters most.

I know that right now, everybody’s going to be talking about this, but I see it every day at the YMCA. One of my favorite stories of this was this guy who we got word that he needed a membership. His son called me from the West Coast, and he said, “Hey, listen, my mom just passed away and my dad won’t leave the house, and I don’t know what to do. Would you help me? I’m a member of the YMCA and I know you guys help seniors.”

And I said, “Absolutely.”  

We got a group of some of our seniors, some of our staff together, and they went out with some seniors to go and visit Bill, and the son said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell him I sent you, cause he won’t come out.”

The seniors decided to make a big sign that said you won a free membership to the YMCA. Um, bill came out of the, out of the door. He looked like he hadn’t showered for many, many days. The very next day, he showed up at the YMCA and he began a relationship with people. He found his achievement and relationship.

His belonging came several months later when I was at that YMCA. It was Valentine’s day and I saw all the women and all the little girls lining up, and they were going into the door, coming right back out and getting in the line. And I said, “What’s going on?” Well, Bill decided for Valentine’s day to go and buy a whole lot of flowers and give them to all the women and girls that went into that YMCA.

That was his belonging. That was his connection to the YMCA. That is what the YMCA is. The YMCA is not a fitness center. It’s a place where those kinds of things take place all the time.  

SW: Yes. I can speak firsthand. I know you mentioned that a lot of people are going to be self-reflecting and talking about like things that you just said, but I visited your Y and met with a lot of your staff, sat in the lobby, saw your members just nine months ago, and I saw it. You walk in and you just see the connections that the Y is bringing together.

JP: At the end of the day, if all we do, and I’ve said to the staff before, if all the YMCA does is transact with somebody, in other words, they come in, they buy a membership and then they leave then we’ve not done our job.

If all the YMCA does is transact with somebody, in other words, they come in, they buy a membership and then they leave then we’ve not done our job.

Our work is not to sell them something. We begin our work there. Our work is to make sure that we enter into that achievement, relationship, and belonging relationship with them and begin to build into them in ways that maybe they didn’t even know. We’ve got millennials that come in and put on their air pieces and begin to say, “I just want to work out,” and I get that.

But at some point, we have to knock on their door, on their heart’s door and say, “Hey, have you ever thought about doing something meaningful? Have you ever thought about doing it with others? Have you ever thought about putting your skills and talents to make a difference in the lives of people and remarkably?”

Allow them to say, “No, I never have, but maybe it’s time for me to do that.” And they do.  

SW: Yeah. That’s great. You obviously have a lot of things going on. You’re super busy. So, any final words for those that would be listening to this podcast?  

Final Words

JP: I know that it’s really hard during this time to find a moment to focus, to understand, to take a moment to really center yourself, but now more than ever, that needs to happen.

People need to find their place if it is safe. This is not the time to skimp on your faith. Lean in to your foundation there, because you’re going to need it. If it’s relationship, this is not the time to say to your family, “Uh, listen, I’m really busy right now. Don’t bother me.” Lean in, because you’ll need them. Schedule time, because the day will go by.  

If it’s fitness, this is not the time to say, “I’ll start working out again in two weeks.” Find something else to do. Use some of the videos that the YMCAs are providing. Go on a hike. Go on a virtual hike with other people. I’ve seen that a couple of times, people doing FaceTime while they’re hiking in two different parts of the world. This is not the time. The spirit, mind, and body development must continue and it needs to be in the space of transformation.

Thank you so much for hosting this podcast and for helping us continue pushing this important message of transformation.  

SW: Yeah, thank you so much, Jorge. I really appreciate the time. You and I connected several weeks ago to schedule time for podcasts. Honestly, I was a little sad going into this, knowing this is not the topic I had picked out for us to talk about.

But thank you for all your words. I’m leaving energized, and maybe we can do another one soon, once we get past all this.  

JP: I would love that very much. Thank you so much.  

SW: Thank you. 

Thank you for joining us on this episode of the Accelerant podcast. To check out previous episodes, see the full list on or on your favorite podcast app.

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