The best place to start a conversation with Jeff Saunders is, “what impact has the Y had on your life?” For Jeff, the answer is a career of telling the Y’s story and engaging people in the beauty and growth that comes from serving community. As the Vice President of Storytelling and the Y Experience at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, Jeff has his finger on the pulse of The Movement and dedicates himself to engaging as many people as possible through video and written storytelling. Some key takeaways from this episode include:

  1. More than the song! The depth of the Y movement runs much deeper than the instantly recognizable song. The YMCA of Cincinnati measures their impact in how their members grow through achievement, build more meaningful relationships, and a develop a sense of belonging. “We want members to get to the point where the Y is their family.”

  1. Reconnecting to the Roots. Jeff can’t stand it when people call the Y “just a gym.” COVID presented an opportunity for Y’s to reconnect to their roots and tell their story as a community organization. Jeff is passionate about igniting his community through service and connection, through thick and thin.  

  1. Try a Reset. “It’s time for us to get off the couch.” The Reset Challenge, in addition to other 6-week virtual community programs, helps jumpstart motivation for members around the county. Gain some honest insight from Jeff about finding a healthy mindset rooted in those three pillars; achievement, relationship, and belonging.  

This interview was recorded on January 29, 2021  

Podcast Transcription

Saranda West: For those of you that are part of the Y movement, you know that your Y story is a thing. I don't know how else to put it. Every introduction, every team building exercise, every podcast interview starts with how has the YMCA impacted your life? And we've heard some fantastic Y stories so far on the Accelerant.

Although the story you're about to hear may be my all-time favorite. Jeff Saunders is the Vice President of Storytelling and Y Experience at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati. Prior to working with Cincy, he spent years at the national office and his love for storytelling through video, writing, and just straight up caring for people is infectious.

The best part, though, is he took how the YMCA has changed his life and turned that into his life's mission. Quick heads up: You may be wanting to reset your life after this interview. Hope you enjoy.

Jeff Saunders: Well, we wanted to give ourselves a lot of grace because it has been a really, really rough year for America in a lot of ways.

So, give yourself that grace, but it's time for us to get off the couch. It's time for us to not be stuck. Really, we're at the point where there's no more excuses.  

Don't get me wrong, I'm not shouting at you. I'm looking in the mirror right now. It's time for us to get going, and what better organization than the Y, Daxko, you've got partners with JCC, you know, all these people that are here to help people and for us to take this and get off the couch and lead America to a better place.  

SW: Accelerant a substance use to aid the spread of fire. Accelerating or causing acceleration. This is the Accelerant podcast.

This is the Accelerant.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me on the show today. I'm your host, Saranda West and you are in for a treat. Actually, we probably needed a timer, because I am about to introduce you to Jeff Saunders. He is the Vice President of Storytelling and Y Experience at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati.

Pretty much every time we get on the phone, it seems like the minutes just tick by really quickly. I can't wait for you to join this conversation. Jeff, welcome.

JS: Hey, thanks, Saranda, for having me and so excited to talk to you. I always love getting to talk to you and just connect and cool that we can do it this way.

SW: Yeah. So, Jeff, first question. I have to start out this way. Vice-president of Storytelling. How in the world do you get a title like that? I get one of those. That's amazing.  

Jeff’s Y Story

JS: Yeah. I still don't know really. I think because I've always had a deep passion for... even as a kid, I was the ultimate movie buff.

I can remember being at five and I was caring about Oscar winners. Maybe not that young, but I loved, loved, loved the power of story. That spark was found at a young age and it just kind of went with me my entire life and into my career. To talk a little bit deeper, is it okay if I share my Y story? My Y story, the one I love to tell the most.

I was trying to impress a girl, which is really what any good movie starts off with, right? The girl that's the one, but you're in the friend zone. You're stuck in the friend zone, and I wanted her to be the wife, and we were very close friends, and I just knew in my life I needed to be doing more. Physically, spiritually, mentally.

I was growing a little bit, but I knew that if I was going to find an amazing girl like her to marry, I had to be the best me. So, I did something bold. I signed up for an Iron Man. The only part I didn't really know too well was swimming. I knew how to bike pretty well, run pretty well throughout my life.

So, I think, “Where am I going to learn how to do long distance swimming?” And thought, “Oh yeah, the YMCA has a pool.”

I joined the Y, and at this point, Saranda, what I know about the Y is the Village People saying about them. I know that they're family oriented there. They're kind of a mission or Christian, they used to be a Christian organization, or something.

I didn't really know a lot about it. Sadly, to this day, I think a lot of people kind of think the way that I think. Gym and swim, they’re kind of there for families, but they don't really understand the mission of the Y. I didn't at that time either, but thank goodness that the Y that I joined was super mission driven and really helped me focus on all three areas of my life.

Before I knew it, I was volunteering at the Y. Mind you, I came in the guy that just had his earbuds and didn't want anybody to talk to me while I worked out. I was your typical start-off member at the Y, and because the Y's mission and formula worked, it was caring for me spiritually and mentally and physically.

I had background in an ad agency doing a lot of things nationally around storytelling, video production, and that kind of thing. I'm like, “Man, the Y has the greatest story ever that I don't think a lot of people know about.” I knew my friends and family didn't know the Y that I was learning about.

I just kind of felt called to call out to that association. The CEO at that time was Jorge Perez, and he just led a very mission-driven way, the way the Y should be. Before long, I ended up getting work with him to do stories for them as a vendor. Then it wasn't long after that I was asked to be their Head of Marketing and Communications with a video focus.  

That went from storytelling there, then I ended up taking that ability to the national office for five years. It was an incredible job. I got to be with all these Ys across the country to help them film their stories, and now to Cincinnati where I'm doing both the storytelling and member experience combined.

I think that's how you get to that place. That's how you get to that title. I still don't know how I got such a cool, amazing job, but I love every minute of it. I love it.

SW: Hold on, go back to the first part of your story. Did you get the girl?

JS: Oh, God, yes. Married, two boys. I forgot to tell that amazing ending.

In fact, the race was in Branson, Missouri, and our oldest son, his name's Branson. The Y was instrumental in transforming my life inside and out, but just being one of the greatest blessings I've ever had. So, big believer in the Y and telling its story.  

SW: That is fantastic. On the Village People piece, if I could share a quick story. My family and I were at over the holidays took a quick trip.

We had a New Year's Eve party and they played, of course, the YMCA song. And I looked at all three of my kids, of course, from having worked with Ys for so long, and I was like, “Do you know this song? Do you know what it is?" And they're like, “Yes, I know the song.”  

I was like, “Do you know what it actually means?” and “Do you know what the word I'm saying actually represents?” They looked at me, of course rolled their eyes, but I was like, “It's an opportunity.”  

Good job, Village People.  

JS: That's right. Amazing catchy song. Unfortunately, I don't think people get really what the heart of the Y and what we're trying to do.

You know, whatever, it's a great song, but the Y is so much more than that song.  

SW: Absolutely.

Thank you for sharing your story. I love that you get to now turn it into what, what you love to do is tell the story of the Y. What about the other part of your role, which is the Y experience? Help me understand that a little bit more.  

The Y Experience

JS: Yeah. So, at my time at YUSA and some of the colleagues that I worked with at that point, they were dealing at a high level with research and data and around member experience.

Some of the things that we were learning were well, one, we were trying to figure out when we say transformed life, we want to help you get strong and spirit, mind, and body. That's actually extremely tough to measure, right? Holistic change. Through a lot of research and findings, we found that there's nine wellbeing attributes that we all need.

This comes to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and what we need is people to survive. Leadership at the YUSA at that time said, “Well, what if we were to pinpoint three, then if we could do three really well, cause really the nine, all six up to what the Y's trying to do every day. But if we had three, what would those be?”

So, they were around three things. Achievement, but not just hitting your hundred pounds of benching or losing 10 pounds. While that could be your achievement, we're talking about all of life's achievements. Learning your first one lesson, reading your first book, a senior that's coming to a class for the first time after 10 years of not being able to move.

Me and you, right? Our marriages, our first kid graduating college. When you achieve, you grow inside and out. There's a lot that happens to us as people when we're achieving. And that's why, when we don't have goals in our life, we're just kind of stuck. We're stuck and we can feel it.

That's probably what COVID has done the most to us, because we just feel stuck. We don't feel like we're growing right now. That's the first one: Achievement. I see at the Y, the hook of bringing people in is that achieving piece. We'll help you with your goals. People want that.

The second thing that the Y does that’s really important in growth in spirit, mind, body is relationships. We want people to connect. We actually are measuring here in Cincinnati how people are connecting with others. If they're not connecting with friends, we feel like the goals part is not enough. They have to be in connection, whether it's even at home with their family, what are ways that we can give people to connect?  

The third one, the most important one, and I think most Ys would be interested in learning more how we measure this, but belonging. We want not only for them to move into the connection-relation stage, but also for them to ultimately get to that point where they say the Y is our family. I want to give to the Y. I want to volunteer for the Y. I want to be a maven and shout to the rooftops, like my crazy, crazy self does with, I can't stop talking about it.  

How do we get them into that belonging space? When I talk about the Y experience, everything I do in trainings and tools and videos comes through that filter. How are we helping our staff be equipped to not only have it in their own lives, achievement, relationship and belonging, but also to deliver that to their YMCAs, to their members. We're just thrilled with the results. We've seen Ys that were relatively flat for years that are growing now, and it's really because of this strategy, which is exciting.  

SW: With those three different pieces, you've got achievement, relationship, belonging.

Are those sequential, typically, for a member? Just like your story, right? You came in, you had a goal, then you... Does it tend to progress that way? Do you see it as a progression?  

The Progression of Achievement, Relationship, and Belonging

JS: Yeah, that's a great point. I think that the ABR can be changed to BAR or going to be changed to ARB or RAB.

We've kidded about that locally at our association, but if you were to ask the normal, typical timeline, it really is like people come in, they're focused on their... We want to get them focused on their goals. That's kind of where we want to first land that gets them excited transactionally.

We can't miss out the transactional sell part of the Y. All the great equipment we have to help you with your goals, etc. People come to us with a transactional mindset. Well, when you start getting into transformational is when you get to the next two places. When they get into connection with others at the Y, and we're getting them to connect with friends and feel that connection point, then you can move to the last part, right? Where they're feeling so connected to their goals and to their friends.

They now feel like they can't go to another gym, even though I can't stand that word when you associate it with the Y. I get it, they're going into that special place, right? That member that knows everybody's name when he walks in and we know them, but the member that is the first to jump in line to say, “I’ll provide shoes to that shoe drive.”

We have a small portion, like a 5%, that we can really count on it. It might be more, or different mindsets. It's about the average or guesstimate, I'd say, but how do we move that to 50%? How do we get the Y... what it originally was, was a lot more volunteer driven, where we have volunteers helping us, especially in these times of COVID and how thin our staff are.

It is sequential, to your point, and it can be a little bit altered, but most of the time, it's that timeline.  

SW: Perfect. Then, you actually mentioned COVID. Looking back, especially on the belonging and the relationship piece, I think that's what a lot of us have been missing over this past year is we've been in quarantines and different things.

How have you seen the Y come together to support the community over the past nine months or so?  

Coming Together during COVID

JS: Yeah, it's obviously been very tricky on how we do this. I'd say my role really shifted, when COVID happened, into full storytelling mode. I needed to get the message of the Y and all we were doing – pandemic childcare, senior assistance.

We basically said, “Stay with us” was our tagline. Hashtag “Stay with us.” Really, it was just kind of letting our members know, “You are heroes in this work with your membership. You are.” It was never about the Y. Even though I did a lot of work, our message was “You're the hero.” I thought that was a good front to take. It really showed.

MacKenzie Scott and some other Ys saw it come through. That was a huge gift and a blessing. We were able to take part in that, but also, we saw how much money we raised last year was just unbelievable. That was super helpful for us financially, too. Storytelling came into play, but then eventually it was kind of like, “Okay, we've been able to tell some good stories. How do we keep these members from not canceling?”

Because I can only tell a good story so long. You gotta have a product or something tangible for them to have. So, we started developing these virtual challenges, which it's amazing to see the relationships that are starting and happening in this space and how the Y can do a fitness challenge that really does get them to connect in relationships and belonging because we're not seeing each other.

We can do some things virtually and right now virtually is good. Rather than texting your family, how do I call or video chat them?  

So, two fronts. One is amped up storytelling significantly with COVID that really helped, but now we're looking at innovative ways to connect members to end up coming back to the buildings.

SW: Can you give us a little bit of a timeline specifically for Cincy in that community? What does it look like today in terms of facilities being open and just what you're able to offer right now?  

The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati Today

JS: Yeah. Right now, we are still limited capacity. We have a mask requirement that everyone has to wear a mask while they're working out.

That's definitely been, I think, good to a lot of people, but it can be tricky at times too, politically.  

Not a lot of our programs, which that really hurts. A lot of our youth programming has decreased and we're starting to get back light, especially as we look at the spring and being outdoors.

Limited classes for swim. Our programming has been hit quite a bit, and people are just, I hate to say it, people just don't want to come right now. My parents are great examples. They love their Y. I convinced them to be Y members. They were Planet Fitness for forever, and I finally get them to go and now they love it, but you couldn't give them $500 at the door. They just don't want to come.

It's nothing against the Y. It's just, I can't. So, we have to be innovative about how we connect with them virtually.

SW: I officially have signed up for the Reset Challenge and can't wait. Talk us through just a little bit. You gave me a little bit of a preview, but it's going to be a six-week challenge?

The Reset Challenge

JS: Yeah, six weeks. We'll keep it similar to what the success of the Strong Challenge. That's what we do in the fall. We announced at the very beginning a group goal that we're all going to do together. I'm not sharing that with you over this call. You are going to be surprised just like everybody else on Monday, but it's a goal that's going to be helping us move together.

Really. It's going to help us get off the couch and move together. We keep that goal simple because we don't want to over-complicate it. We want to make sure everybody feels involved and that they can do it.  

The weeks after that are one, the next week is a lot of focus on nutrition. What kind of fuel should we be putting in our body? We'll do that as a community. We're going to grow in that space together.  

Week three is all about relationships. Week four is about play and having fun, and that we need to be doing that in our lives. Week five is around reinvesting, as I mentioned, and then week six is called restored.  

Week six is always in our challenge, how we bring it all together and how we learn that this isn't a challenge. This is an everyday life thing, and we're going to keep going, moving forward after the challenge. Hopefully that gives you a preview, but I'm not giving you that first week.

SW: Okay, fine. It can stay a secret, but I am so excited because Jeff, I am with you. I am one of those people when you know, the New Year came around and it's typically this exciting time, and me personally, I've always set goals.

I'm a runner, so I'm going to run this race. Of course, there are no races happening. It just fell flat. I've been so discouraged, like really having a hard time just getting motivated again for this year. So, I'm looking forward to the reset challenge. I think it'll definitely help.  

JS: Yeah, Saranda, and we're obviously seeing that with our numbers, unfortunately. Our numbers are really good, but we set a goal for 50,000, but I'm kind of going, like, “Why don't we have 5 million?” That's where my mind is. I just think this year is different.

I think that the frustration... I think we're kind of almost in a light depression or mid-depression right now because of where we're at and that things haven't changed and it's been tough. I hope more and more people sign up because the people that do it and really stick with it, it's going to be exactly what you said, because I've been the same way, right? In this slump.

Usually I'm like, “All right, it's New Year. Let's go.” This year, I'm just kind of like, “Man, I'm going to just keep watching Netflix. I'm going to eat this crappy food or food that's bad for me because it comforts me in that 30 minutes of comfort.”  

I think we need it, and I'm hopeful. I'm excited that you're going to do it with us. It's so cool. And I invite all you, anybody listening. Here's my plug. It's (844) 889-6222. To write that number down one more time, (844) 889-6222. It's for anybody to join, just text “reset” to that number, text the word “reset,” R-E-S-E-T.

It's almost like the Rita Franklin song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T... Nope! It's R-E-S-E-T and you text “reset” and I will respect you a lot if you get that. Yeah. I hope everybody can join. It's going to be awesome.  

SW: Absolutely. No matter when you're listening to this, even if we're on week three, you can still join. Don't let that hinder you, even if you didn't get in that first week.  

Jeff, so this is the Reset Challenge, going to take place for the next six weeks or so, but I know how you plan. You're already planning for what's coming after that. How do you see these virtual challenges, this new way of reaching the community? Where do you see it going next?

What’s Next

JS: Yeah. Thank you for asking that. The next challenge is going to be over the summer. It's going to be a very family focused challenge because Ys really need to engage their families. Right now, we're having some struggles there and re-engaging them back into our mission.

The idea, I haven't named it fully yet, was around “Best Summer Ever,” which is a famous tagline for Ys, but really leaning into this idea of spark. Spark, that's a youth development term of helping kids find their passion, helping kids find like what makes them tick.  

As a parent, we spend lots of money through programs we probably didn't need to sign up for, to get kids to just really try and help find their passion. So, the idea of that challenge is to introduce some ideas around karate or different programs and basically letting them have a taste of it, letting them just try the waters.

Hopefully, families can see something within their group, their family group, that “Man, our little son or daughter is leaning into this and how do I use the Y to help them explore that more?” I'm really excited about that.

The fall will be Strong 2.0. I know, I'm excited to be working with Daxko on what that potentially looks like. We want to keep growing those numbers, but the main thing is that they're staying engaged throughout the challenge. We get the big numbers, but how do we keep people hooked in for six weeks? It's actually a lot tougher than you think, especially when you're trying to get people to do fitness goals.

I mean, wow. It was never in that space before where it's trying to keep people committed. I now know what personal trainers and those folks deal with on a regular basis. It's tough. Excited to learn about how we can improve this in the fall to make it truly keep people in the whole six weeks.

SW: Yeah. That's a great plan. Especially with the kids piece. I know as a parent like that, they are struggling just like all like the rest of us adults. There was actually reflecting. My youngest is six and now at this point, 1/6th of his life has been this pandemic. That's most of what he remembers right now, especially with where he is.

It's just a hard time for them too, so helping them find even an opportunity for them to find their passion amidst this time, that's perfect.  

JS: Yeah, exactly what you said. I actually can't take credit for this. This was my wife's idea. I was leaning more towards just fun over the summer with kids and family and activities, but she's really concerned right now about their development.

And I am too. They're not doing the soccer programs they once were. They're going to be behind. How can the Y get them caught up? An achievement gap type idea, or concept for achievement, not just school, but also the programs in their life we want them to find their passion for, and then to feel like a kid and not just a screen watching, “Oh, we're talking about the virus again. I have to wear a mask at school. This is my new life.” We have to do more and the Y needs to do more, so I'm excited for what the summer program will look like.

SW: Sure. Jeff, with all of these challenges and you helping to coordinate and motivate all these people, how do you stay healthy yourself during this time?  

Staying Healthy

JS: That's a good question. So once Reset starts, I really will do the challenge and I work really hard on the front end to allow myself this time. I might document a little video or photo here and share it on the community group, but I'm going to be intentional about blocking my time and avoiding the meetings.

Thank goodness I have a CEO that supports that and he'll support that for all his staff, because he knows how deeply we all need this. If I'm not taking care of myself, I can't do what I needed to do. I'm always a little... I've gotten pretty comfortable being lazy on the couch at night and eating, watching Netflix and The Office for like the 20th season in a row watching my office show.

But like I said, I have to do deeper care for myself and this will be it.  

SW: Perfect. So, for all of the people listening, we've referenced several different things in terms of the challenges and even your role. For those that want to learn more, where can they go find more information? Whether it's the Cincy Y or you personally.

Connect with Jeff at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati

JS: Yeah. Great question. Thanks, Saranda.

If you go to stronglife.org, that's our new website that basically is the umbrella for all of our challenges, podcasts. This is where the Y's that have joined us, we've got one website we're working off together. You can visit and see what the challenge looks like there.

If you're interested in getting more involved, your YMCA wants to do more of this, or you want to be a sponsor, or you're interested at all in supporting this work, just reach out to strongsupport@myy.org. We connected a lot of Ys into this. We'd love to help you out and really doing this work together. It’s exciting.

SW: Fantastic. Jeff, knowing where we all may be personally or in our careers, do you have any final words or advice for those listening in?  

Final Words

JS: Yeah, I feel like I'm always been that guy that understands the vibe of people, right? That's one of my secret weapons of being good at storytelling is I have producer instincts of knowing what people are feeling right now and what's the story I need to tell, what we need to know.

Well, we wanted to give ourselves a lot of grace because it has been a really, really rough year for America in a lot of ways.

So, give yourself that grace, but it's time for us to get off the couch. It's time for us to not be stuck. Really, we're at the point where there's no more excuses.  

Don't get me wrong, I'm not shouting at you. I'm looking in the mirror right now. It's time for us to get going, and what better organization than the Y, Daxko, you've got partners with JCC, you know, all these people that are here to help people and for us to take this and get off the couch and lead America to a better place.

And it starts with us. I would say that's the number one thing the Ys are saying is it helped me be on from the defensive back to the offense in my life and in my work, and that's why they keep doing it.  

If you want to get off the defensive and stop being so stuck, join Reset or join Strong Life, the overall mission initiative. I know it will help you  

SW: I really appreciate it, and thank you so much for your time. This has been fantastic.  

JS: Saranda, you’re so nice, you're so kind, and I just love talking to you every time we get to talk and can't wait to do Reset together with you. We're going to get back into those runs. We're going to get back into being the best for our families.

You're a blessing to the Y, and thanks for all you do work-wise. We appreciate you. Thank you.  

SW: Let's do it.

Thanks so much for listening to the latest episode of The Accelerant. As always, this is about inspiring you … And me. Okay, all of us. Let us know what you've learned, what you want to hear, any other thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Daxko, that's at d-a-x-k-o, or post with #accelerantpodcast.

Or you can send us an email at podcast@daxko.com. We would love to hear from you. You can find Accelerant wherever you listen to podcasts. Remember to hit subscribe. That simple click helps us continue to bring new episodes packed with uplifting and insightful stories. Bonus points if you leave a review. Let other listeners know about us and what Accelerant means to you.

Accelerant podcast is a product of Daxko, serving the health and wellness community for over 20 years with comprehensive technology solutions to over 17 million members worldwide. Learn more at daxko.com. That's d-a-x-k-o dot com. Accelerant is produced by Christy Brown, Sean Ellis Hussey, and me, Saranda West. Sound and editing by Sean Ellis Hussey. Visual design by Jenny Miller.

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