Managing disruption by accelerating innovation and equity

To ensure viability and relevance for the future, the YMCA of Greater Houston took stock of permanent and temporary changes.

“We do not have facilities anymore. We have a website.”

When the pandemic caused location shutdowns in March 2020, that was the stake in the ground that Steve Ives, President & CEO of the YMCA of Greater Houston, presented to his team.

With revenue from membership and child care quickly disappearing, the team had to adapt. “We accepted the mindset of ‘we are now a web-based engagement organization.’” 

A case study on accelerating innovation

There were several initiatives already underway that would enable a virtual YMCA experience. The pandemic accelerated those initiatives. 

“We quickly ramped up a virtual platform. Within 30 days, we had classes online, and we had an experience,” Ives said. “We had tens of thousands participate in those classes on a weekly basis.”

Virtual classes were especially popular among older adults. Classes ranged from exercise classes to virtual field trips to learning opportunities like cooking and painting. And the team added classes targeted to families and children, too: virtual storytime, arts and crafts, water safety and more. 

To maintain relevance beyond the virtual experience, the YMCA of Greater Houston is exploring more open spaces and outdoor venues, like pavilions with turf and fans. In 2021, it plans to open the first outdoor-only facility with fitness equipment under cover. 

A call to respond and reinvent

Part of the YMCA of Greater Houston’s response to the pandemic included offering child care for essential workers. It turned 10 centers into full-day care centers. “It cost more than we generated in revenue, but it was important to do the right thing,” Ives said.

The team had several fundraising campaigns in the works, which it relaunched under a single call to action: respond and reinvent.

“The fundraising is following the work, which is atypical. But we’re leading with the work. We’re thinking proactively,” said Ives.

Community partnerships were also critical as Ives and his team looked to keep people working. As demand surged for the Greater Houston Food Bank’s services, they were concerned with staffing. The YMCA immediately redeployed employees to support food distribution. And it has served more than 9 million pounds of food to 250,000 families in the area. 

Aligning on priorities and expectations

With so much disruption, it was important to pause and assess where the business was, and where it was headed. “In July, we did a team exercise where we identified and brainstormed all the things that changed for us and for our business,” Ives said. “And then we went through and methodically talked about each one and determined whether it was a temporary or permanent change.”

This provided clarity about where they had to weather the storm and where they had to adjust. 

Advocating for equity and impact

Amid all the change, the team launched a new membership model—one that’s not tied to the facility. So why would someone become a member, then? “For the impact,” Ives said. “Our Impact Members will join for the cause.”

And as events in 2020 shone a huge spotlight on racial inequality, that commitment to creating positive impact led the YMCA of Greater Houston to launch the Equity Innovation Center. The center will serve as a space to help solve challenges regarding inequity, tolerance and exclusion. 

“We’d already been doing work in this area to elevate the conversation around implicit and explicit bias and working to undo racism and the systems that support racism,” Ives said. “Now we’ve engaged 15 to 20 partners in the community who are working with us to bring that conversation into the community.”

Living the mission by expanding equitably

With plans to put more facilities in areas with great need, the team wants to ensure that it’s able to serve the community equitably. 

In some neighborhoods, the traditional membership model isn’t possible—it’s too costly. 

The spaces will operate more like a community center. They’ll offer resources for teens and youth and work with partners to provide needed services.

These facilities will be funded by Impact Members, who will be able to participate in a “buy one, give one” membership program.

“Our next generation of members will be aligned to the mission and see the value in what we’re offering: youth development, education, equitable opportunities and health,” Ives said.

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