Podcast Transcription

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, and today I am joined by Lauren. Lauren is the CEO of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. Lauren, thank you so much for joining me today.  

Lauren Koontz: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.  

SW: Yeah. So, tell us, as the CEO of Metro Atlanta, I know that’s just a little bit about who you are. Tell us a little bit more about you.

About Lauren Koontz

LK: I’ve been with the Y for about eight years, and really, it’s actually pretty interesting. I started my career in sports marketing and writing around the Olympics in Atlanta. That was a really exciting time to be in sports marketing, and I really loved it, but I really felt called to the non-profit sector.  

I moved to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and worked with them both at the Georgia level and the national office level for a number of years, but I really decided to focus back around 2005, 2006 on the Atlanta community and worked with a consulting firm here in Atlanta called [inaudible 00:01:28] to work with a number of different nonprofit consultants, whether it was arts or hospitals, any clients that were doing great work

That really gave me a great exposure, and the Y had worked with [inaudible 00:01:41] for a number of years. Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to come to the Y. I came in as the Chief Development Officer, and then after about four years, took on an expanded role as an Executive Vice President, where I had half of the oversight of the operations and programs plus development and marketing.

Then about nine months ago, I stepped into the CEO role. It’s been an interesting first year.  

SW: That must have been a crazy first year for you. Obviously for the past several weeks we have been in COVID-19 crisis. How do you think that your background in financial development and marketing has helped in the past month?

LK: Well, I think really every business is done at the local level, and it’s all about relationships. I think the work that having really worked deeply for the past 15 years in the Atlanta community and having relationships across really all of the sectors, whether that’s business or the government or the philanthropic.

“Every business is done at the local level, and it’s all about relationships.”  

Right now, all of those are coming together in really unique way to help make sure that organizations like the Y are viable and that there is a Y on the other side of this. I think my network that I had to through the years has been a real plus and able to communicate.

I’ve been doing regular weekly videos to our members, but also share those, not only with our board, but with our partner organizations and our donors, because they deserve to know what’s happening in real time, just as our members do.  

SW: Yeah, absolutely. If I were to look outside, it looks like a very normal, rainy, Southern spring day.

It’s actually April 24th, which I think you will remember for a while since this is the day that the state of Georgia has actually decided to reopen in some capacity. What have the past few days leading up to today looked like for you?

The Past Few Days

LK: Well, if I just take it back a little bit further at the same time. Six plus weeks ago, we were making decisions given the fact that it became clear that COVID was not going to bypass any community. We very quickly, as a team, had to mobilize to make decisions around closing our facilities. And it’s really important to note that the Y is obviously wellness. It’s one part of what we do.

But we have early learning centers here in Atlanta. We have after school sites. We have senior programs. I mean, the list goes on and on. So, we really had to be very thoughtful about and measured about how we wind down those programs very quickly. But I think what made me so proud was also how quickly we stood up critical programs.

For the past six weeks, we’ve been running childcare for emergency workers or health care professionals, as well as for those that are emergency first responders, grocery store workers, folks who are stocking warehouses, basically anybody on hotlines. It’s allowing all of us to shelter in place.

Over the past five or six weeks, we have served 1200 children at a number of different Y branches. We’re able to quickly convert Y branches and working with the state to be licensed, to do this emergency childcare work. And we were always in the food business, because anytime you’re a community anchor institution, like the Y and you deal with children and families in need, they’re going to need to make sure that they have access to basic necessities.

We have four commercial kitchens. We had a robust backpack program. There were after school programs where we were sending kids home with food that they need, but this has completely blown up and expanded because people really, really are desperately needing access to food. Over the past five to six weeks, we have served 51,000 meals to families across Metro Atlanta.

If you think about that in context, Truest Park, which is the Braves home here, seats 41,000 people. The fact that we served 51,000 meals, it really gives you a strong kind of visual of what we’ve been able to do.  

I think at the same time that we’re making decisions about closing, we’re also ramping up and standing up critical programs for the community. I think that’s what really sets the Y apart from other obviously wellness facilities. This is one piece of what we do. The mission of the Y here in Atlanta, it’s not fundamentally changed for 161 years. We’re here to build healthy mind, body, and spirit. When we are called to evolve and adapt, we will evolve and adapt to meet critical community needs.

At the same time that we are now still running those programs and we are committed. We will run that childcare program as long as it’s needed for emergency workers. We will continue to provide food with our partners, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and others, as long as the need is there. I don’t see that going away anytime soon.

While we’re doing these programs, we’re now beginning to, again, think about, “Okay, how would we safely reopen?” Because we are the Y and because social responsibility is a big part of what we do. We we’re not ready to open our doors today. We really feel like we have to be very thoughtful and measured the same way we were in winding down initially.  

We have to be just as thoughtful and measured about how we open up. Right now, we have a team of folks working really around the clock to think through that. Late last night, we received additional guidelines from the state of Georgia around what it looks like. That’s very, very helpful because when the announcement came out on Monday, there wasn’t as much clarity.

Certainly, we knew we would be taking temperatures as people came in. We’re putting in plexiglass in front of our membership stations. There will be touchless entry, which of course we’re going to be spreading out machines and limiting the number of people that come in during various hours, but the reality is really everything’s on the table.

What I would say to people is “We’re not trying to return to normal.” This is truly how do we get ready for a new normal? We have to think about every scenario around that. The guidelines that came out are a lot stricter than you would think, as it relates to not using swimming pools, not using gyms, really strongly recommending not using locker rooms.

“I don’t think this is a time for for-profit providers versus non-profit providers to be kind of guarding their playbooks. This is the time that we all have to be talking and thinking about how we do this for the greater good of our communities.”  

It gives a lot more clarity and that’s really helpful. Our team is really committed over the next two weeks to putting together the most thoughtful plan that we can so that we can ensure the safety of members, but also of our staff. Once we feel that that is ready to go, we will open our doors and we’ll probably slow roll it a little bit.

One of the things that I shared with our members is to be patient with us. We might have to go slow. I keep encouraging folks. We have to figure it out, every option, and we can’t assume that this will be business as normal because it won’t. I don’t think any of us really have any idea of what consumer preferences are going to be.

The next few weeks are going to be really interesting. There will be a number of wellness centers to open up. Maybe not today, but when the official shelter in place lifts, if it’s not extended here in Georgia on April 30th, I think a number of other wellness centers are planning to open on the first.

It will be very, very interesting to see what the demand is. If you see people coming in, that will tell us a lot. We all have a lot to learn. I don’t think this is a time for for-profit providers versus non-profit providers to be kind of guarding their playbooks. This is the time that we all have to be talking and thinking about how we do this for the greater good of our communities.

SW: Absolutely. Keeping the society healthy. For members, but for staff as well, one of the things that you mentioned, I wanted to go back to when I saw another program that you’ve been running over the past several weeks. Your Operation Reach.

Will you tell us a little bit more about that? Because I love the idea of all of the services you’ve been offering. It came together really quickly to meet a need in the community. Those aren’t going away just because we may be start to reopening, right? You’ve got to figure out how to continue all of it at the same time.

Operation Reach

LK: Yeah. Yeah, it definitely is a new business model. Um, right. The Operation Reach. I love this program. We really started thinking about our seniors. If you go into really, probably any Y in America, you’re going to find in the lobbies, a lot of seniors in the mornings who may take a brisk walk or two around the track, but really, they’re there and they want to connect with people.

We have one of our Y’s, the McCleskey Y in Cobb County, where if you go into that Y, my goodness, at 10 o’clock in the morning, it’s like a birthday party. Every single day. If someone doesn’t show up, they call them, they check on them, make sure they’re okay. Same thing at our East Lake Y. It’s everywhere.

The Y is so much more than the swim and gym. It’s a connecting point for all cross sectors in our community. It truly is kind of that third place for many people. We began to think about who are those that are going to be really impacted by social isolation, and it’s our seniors.

So many of them are alone, and we began to have our membership staff reach out to them really the second week that we were into this. Over the course of about seven days, we reached out to 6,000 seniors and called them and left messages. If we didn’t get them an email to him and just say, “Hey, how are you doing? Can we do anything for you?”

It was great. Our membership folks, they kind of needed that shot in the arm, because at the same time we’re having these really amazing conversations, we’re also having really tough conversations. People are losing their jobs. They’ve been laid off and they’re going to have to stop their memberships.

We’re asking them to put those on hold and kind of work through this together because the Y is an interesting model in that a portion of our revenue is earned revenue and then a portion is philanthropic support. We received some government support as it relates to serving the most vulnerable, children, whether it’s foster kids or, or children early learning.  

We are like anybody, very dependent on a portion of our earned revenue, our annual budget and revenues. Our membership folks have had a really hard time because those are tough calls when you’re having to really feel people’s pain and you understand what they’re going through.

So, to balance that with these outreach calls to our seniors, who are so grateful to hear from the Y and they would say, “I can’t believe you called me. I can’t believe you just called to check on me and see that I’m okay.” We have situations where, one woman said, “Can you please call my neighbor? They’re not a Y member, but I haven’t been able to get in touch with them and make sure they’re okay.”

We called them and we got them connected. We delivered toilet paper to someone’s door, because it didn’t happen. I think during times like this, a crisis like this pulls you out of your comfort zone and puts you into creativity zone.

There are so many learnings that every organization is going to need to take and think about how it reshapes you for good and how you can be better. We’ve been doing our healthy newsletter. There’s every morning with links to various fitness and wellness classes with our instructors, but also educational resources for families and information for seniors

This changes the way that we do business. We’re going to have to continue to double down on how we connect and engage with people virtually. That’s not going to go away when we reopen our doors. This will be a part of our model in a much more robust way moving forward.

There’s so much work from this, and as painful and horrible as it is, in terms of the economic impact and toll it’s making on people, there are a lot of lessons that businesses and nonprofits need to learn to be effective and relevant for the future.  

SW: Yeah. In terms of the seniors, I love that program in thinking through what our new normal looks like.

They’re going to be the group of people that are not going to be at your doors as soon as you reopened. Because they would be the ones most at risk. So, one of the difficult parts for a Y, especially as you serve so many different people across the community, and it’s not just as simple as like, “Hey, let’s just go open the treadmills back up.”

So many people to consider in terms of your impact.


LK: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Roughly half of our memberships based in Atlanta receive some sort of financial assistance to be a part of our organization and our programs. That’s significant. It really does underscore, and it also gets back to the fact that we’re continuing to raise philanthropic funds right now, because when we are able to start our programs back up, the need is going to be greater than effort for support to be part of any of our programs, whether that’s after school or wellness or teen leadership.

That doesn’t stop. In fact, it’s only going to increase. Not only is it critical that we keep our members engaged and sticking with us because being a part of this organization means that they’re fundamentally supporting great work that we’re doing right now.

It was a relief, but it also means that we’re going to be able to serve those who really need us on the other side of this, beyond the programs that we’re running right now.

SW:  Yeah. In terms of staff, I think that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to think through. I know that a lot of Ys across the country had to furlough or pay cuts and different things, and then also taking into account that there’s going to be new process.

Even if you think about sanitation or fever checks, the things you mentioned before, what does that look like in terms of your staff and the need for volunteers for different areas where you maybe haven’t needed them before?

Staffing and Volunteer Changes

LK: Yeah. I think what’s really interesting about working at the Y is that you’re really, even well before this, you’re required to wear a lot of hats.

If you’re at a Y branch, you may be in membership, but you’re also called into work in a place where you might be asked to work in the afterschool enrichment program. The great news is that, obviously, our folks are all screened and trained, so they have a lot of certifications and backgrounds to be nimble and to be put into different places.

While that certainly has been the case during this crisis, because we were putting people who, maybe it was a youth sports director they’re actually now working in Operation Reach, or doing food, packing and sorting for our food insecurity and hunger relief.

I think we’re going to follow that same premise. We want to keep our staff engaged, but the reality is the job that you had before may not be the job you have after this. We may be asking you to pivot. It may look a little different. I have great faith in our Chief Experience Officer who leads all of our operations and wellness and membership work.

Her team have a really fantastic group, the Vice President of Operations and Executive Directors. They are truly hard at work right now, working with both the national guidelines for reopening the state guidelines. We’re working with Ys across the country. I spend a large portion of my day, each day, talking with my colleagues across the country. Y USA, there’s a lot of support and a really strong network for how we do this.

I’ll give you another example. Not specific to the wellness space, but right now across the country people are working with the CDC and the American Camping Association direction to create the guidelines for how we will reopen day and resident camp and how we’ll safely do that. The Y at the table really gives us an opportunity to help shape them from a safety perspective.

I’m on a call next week, along with many CEOs around the country, with the CDC talking exactly about what you and I are talking about. How are we going to ensure the safety of our members and staff? I think that our staff will need to pivot. Like I said, we are not returning to the same model of even two months ago.

We’re going to have to be somewhat fluid but vigilant in what will guide us as the safety of our members and our staff. We’ll all have to potentially make sacrifices or potentially shift in what we do and how we think, just to step into those spaces.  

SW: I know this has been all of the pivoting and all of the new offerings you have.

You’ve made a lot of decisions, and I’m sure it’s been a very stressful time for you personally, as it has been for a lot of us, just trying to figure out this crisis. We have a new normal, and we still have a lot to figure out in the coming weeks. How have you personally stayed healthy during this time?

Staying Healthy

LK: Well, I have found that getting out to take a daily walk and getting some fresh air. Walking my dog is really good for my mental state. I’ve tried to carve out a little time every day, even around lunchtime, just to take 30 minutes to get out and walk for some pressure. We are in Atlanta, and it has been really nice weather.

The other day, my 13-year-old son and I did yoga for the first time together, which was really fun. It was not super intense. It was very restorative, I will say. It was great. I even went out and played basketball with my kids yesterday.

Everyone has commented on this. This is not anything new, but one of the silver linings around this is we are reconnecting with our families and our friends and our colleagues in new ways, whether that’s in your home or whether that’s through socializing over various platforms online.  

I was on a call with some CEOs here in Atlanta last night, and all we talked about was, for so long, we kind of felt that our calendars drove us and we didn’t always have control of those. I kind of feel like that’s going to change. I feel like people are going to, through this experience, really decide what’s important and really begin to prioritize their time differently and not just around family and work because, boy, that’s all blurred together now that we’re working from home for the most part.

Really in thinking about the work perspective, what meetings are you having and what breakfast are you having and is it really driving the important work of the organization or is it just filling your calendar? I think that’s going to be something that we all need to challenge ourselves.

How are we going to use our time? Knowing that there’s a lot of pressure for all of us to do this in a thoughtful way, but how do you create the new normal that is going to be productive and efficient, but driving our mission and the organization? One of the good things will be that people maybe take a little control back and focus on what’s important.

SW: One of the things we were just talking about as a team yesterday, because from a Daxko perspective, we’ve been trying to move quickly to respond to the needs for our customers. The Ys have been creating new programs and we’ve been trying to just build new tools really quickly along the way.

We were talking through, like, we’ve had this focus and been able to deliver new things so quickly where maybe we didn’t have that before. It goes back to what you’re saying, right? It’s easier in a crisis to know what’s most important because it’s so clear, right? S, how can we keep that focus and know what is most important personally? Maybe balance of work and life. Or for organizations, what are those important things that are critical to our mission? Just like you said.  

LK: Yeah. It comes back to the… One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is that a crisis takes you out of the comfort zone and puts you to creativity and what I’m really most proud about, of all of our team members and our board and our volunteers is really just allowed all of ingenuity.

I have just seen our team members push past constraints again and again and again to say, “No, we are going to stand up this program. We are going to get this done.” People are putting in a week’s worth of work into every single day.

I recently looked at the meeting minutes from our board meeting, which was on February 13th. I literally laughed out loud because it was a different world. None of it felt like it was remotely like where we are right now, but this is the time. So often when you’re a big organization, no matter what type of organization, when you’re big, it can be really hard to turn. It’s like turning an ocean liner, right?

“A crisis takes you out of the comfort zone and puts you to creativity.”

Well in a timeline like this, you do have to be nimble and agile and responsive, and it makes turning that a lot easier. The long-held beliefs and the sacred cows and all the things that have been a part of the organization, that kind of stuff goes out of a window, and there is a scrappiness that a big organization, like our Y, I feel like we’re a startup in Silicon Valley right now.

Everything’s on the table. How will we emerge from this stronger, more resilient, more relevant to meet the needs around the spirit, mind, and body?

What does that mean going forward? What does building a healthy spirit, mind, and body mean in this current environment, beyond knowing that people are going to live their lives a little bit differently for maybe a year, maybe longer?  

I think that’s when you lean into that space, when you get comfortable with that, and that you’re comfortable with living in the gray and knowing that every single day is bringing you a new challenge and you can’t absolutely land for everything, you can control what you can control, but you’re going to have to be able to pivot pretty quickly.

That’s when the good stuff happens.  

SW: Yeah. Thank you so much. I just want to say take a minute to say thank you for you and your team and all the things that you’re doing for your community. I’m actually just a few hours from you in Alabama, so I’m familiar with the Atlanta area and I know that it is much needed and appreciated by the community.

For those that may not be as familiar with the Y, where’s the best place for them to go and learn more information?

Connect with the YMCA of Metro Atlanta

LK: If you just go to our website, ymcaatlanta.org, we actually put together a micro-site that you can find on the home page and it’s our COVID-19 Release and Response page. It talks about all of the programs that we’re doing and gives you a little more information. There are opportunities about volunteering with our food programs and others. We’d love for people to check that out.  

And of course, when we say we reopened our doors, we cannot wait to see people coming back in. That will be a great day.

SW: Yes, for sure. Any final words for our listeners? I know we’ve talked about several different things and we have lots of uncertainty before us, but just any final words for staff or for members or even your peers that are navigating this time?

Final Words

LK: I would just say leaning into the discomfort, and stay strong. Know if you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Good things are going to happen on the other side of this. I appreciate all that you all are doing and how quickly you are responding on behalf of Ys and JCCs and other organizations, mission-driven ones like us. We just appreciate the partners in the field who are willing to stand in.  

SW: Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. This has been uplifting for me, just to hear all of the great things that you’re doing, and I know it will be for others as well.  

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

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