Saranda West: Welcome to the Accelerant podcast, where we are impacting thought leadership in the nonprofit community.
Hi there. Thank you for joining me today on the show. I'm your host, Saranda West. Today, you are in for a treat. I am joined by Carolyn Grady, Senior VP and Chief Development Officer of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.
Of course, there's no time better than right now, as all non-profits are adjusting to a post COVID world, asking, “What is our new normal going to be?” and literally leading their organizations through this difficult time, as donations are keeping these organizations afloat. Carolyn, thank you so much for joining me today.
Carolyn Grady: Thank you so much for having me.
SW: Let's start off, if you will just tell us a little bit more about yourself.
CG: I like to tell people, this is my third career. Everything that I did leading up to this prepared me for what I'm doing, but it was not an intentional path. I've lived in the Pittsburgh area now a little over 30 years. I came here when my husband was hired here, but my first career was really in banking.
I worked for several banks, and my last job was a trust officer position. When I came to Pittsburgh, the opportunities for me in banking were limited, and I chose to get a graduate degree in Public and International Affairs. After completing that, I went and worked for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for 10 years.
So, from banking into healthcare, and as I was approaching the end of those 10 years, we already had one child. We wanted another child. I was on a pager 24/7, working as a clinical administrator for liver and kidney transplants, and an opportunity presented itself to work for a nonprofit that was closely affiliated with that work.
It was a non-profit that I had personally supported and felt very passionately about. I took a leap and that was 22 years ago. I haven't looked back since. It was a circuitous path, but I feel like, as I said, everything prepared me for what I'm currently doing.
SW: Tell us a little about day to day of your current role.
Chief Development Officer, that is a big role, especially in Pittsburgh and during this time. What does the day-to-day look like with your team?
Carolyn’s Y Story
CG: Constantly changing. I've been with Pittsburgh Y for now nine years, and truly, truly loved the job, loved the work that we do here in Pittsburgh, and actually sort of came to the Y a little bit late in life.
I have a very funny story to tell you. I did not know this until somebody said, “Surely you have a Y story.” I had to think about it. I mentioned that I met my husband actually in the basement of a YMCA. A long time ago, and we weren't doing anything nefarious. We were actually both attending Northeastern University at the time.
Northeastern has a very, very close relationship with the Huntington Avenue YMCA, which is immediately next door and they were out of classroom space. That particular class was in the basement of the Huntington Avenue YMCA. That's my funny little Y story. Anyway, back to what we're doing here, it has been constantly changing.
YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh’s Response to COVID
CG: I don't mean it to sound callous, but I feel that in Pittsburgh, our team was somewhat prepared for the craziness of this particular time right now, after having gone through our bankruptcy about two years ago. It is two years this month. It was interesting because that was, you know, a very intense period of time.
We felt we were finally climbing out of that and then to only just be hit by this and sadly to be hit by the pandemic at the end of our most successful financial year in anybody's recent memory, but there it is. That's our challenge. Everybody has a challenge right now, literally everybody.
We're not alone in that the team has been actually wonderful, very flexible and very creative. I've said to people that I will never forget those last 15 days in March. All our schools were closed effective March 16th, so from that point on, everything was closed.
Schools were closed. The fitness centers were closed. After school disappeared literally overnight. Lots of revenue disappeared overnight, and we moved into crisis response mode. I think what I will look back on later is the incredible energy, creativity, the good humor, just some wonderful moments of really getting to know your team and your colleagues and being able to enjoy the gifts that they each bring.
I have been absolutely stunned and amazed by the creativity of some of our younger staff. It's been absolutely incredible to watch, and it's that knowledge and creativity that they've brought to the game. I see my job as really helping to remove obstacles and help them unleash that creativity so that we can take advantage of what they know how to do and the gifts that they bring to the organization.
It has really been very beneficial for us.
SW: Let's go back to what you mentioned at the beginning, because I know that you and everyone are trying to navigate this chaos, and it is definitely changing every day. Going back to what you said about the bankruptcy period and your two-year anniversary, what do you think those specifics are in terms of the lessons that you learned from that?
Crisis. I mean, maybe crisis is the right word.
Pittsburgh Y’s Pre-COVID Learnings
CG: Yes, it is a crisis. It is a crisis. It was a crisis. The learnings were communicate, communicate, communicate, communicate, and then communicate even some more. And we, we were very intentional, um, leading up to the bankruptcy. We didn't know that we were necessarily going to go into bankruptcy.
We hoped we weren't, but we knew that there was going to be a significant event for our Y that would definitely get publicity, so we were very, very intentional about communicating with major constituencies, especially the foundation community, which is very large in Pittsburgh. We are truly blessed in that regard.
We were extremely intentional prior, and then as things happened and then immediately after, and then subsequent to that at regular intervals. I think, frankly, it's because we got into that habit, and we're still doing it. Shortly after, I think it was the weekend immediately after the Friday the 13th, when we first heard that schools were going to be shut down, but I went into my office and that evening just sat down and wrote some emails to our contacts at each of the major foundations and just laid it all out for them, told them exactly what I knew, what our plans were, and asked if they would be open to a conversation.
We literally heard from everyone within four days after those emails. I think that that's the power of the communication and having been very intentional, but about just staying in touch with them ever since the bankruptcy – the good news, the bad news. Here's another update that I just want to share. Here's something else that I need to let you know about. Frequently, it's just simply an email and people would respond to say, “Thanks for letting me know, hope everybody's well,” and they don't need more than that.
You don't need more than that, but at least the lines of communication are open and there is the basis of our relationship from which a more meaningful conversation can develop
SW: In any crisis, there are so many unknowns, right? I've heard so many times, “If I could just get my crystal ball,” and I'm sure even in the bankruptcy situation, there are maybe a little bit more knowns, but still a lot of unknowns in terms of how everyone responds.
How do the unknowns fall into that communication and the over-communicating?
CG: Just very honestly. I have tried to be completely upfront with people with regards to the good news, the bad news, here's what I don't know, but here's what we think might happen, or here's what we're planning for. These are our donors.
Our supporters are very intelligent people. They are very talented in many respects, very talented business leaders in their own right. They understand the fact that the situation is constantly changing. Many of them were dealing with the same struggles themselves. It was interesting to have conversations with a couple of the foundations who were saying, “Yes, we're responding as quickly as we can. We're changing how we do things.”
And Oh, by the way, we're also dealing with the fact that our portfolio lost significant value overnight, too. That was a gut check.
Yes, you do have problems too. I think really, all it can be as complete and total honesty delivered with respect. I've always found that occasionally the relationships sour a little bit, maybe sour is not the right word, but you go through a rough patch.
Somebody taught me once to seize those moments as opportunities. Not to sort of crawl away and go, “Oh God, that relationship has gone sour,” but to quickly follow up very honestly, humbly say, “I'm sorry about this. We screwed up. I screwed up. How can I make this right?” Enter into that conversation with people.
I've never seen that fail. If you can be truthfully honest and convince people of your sincere intentions, I haven't seen that go bad for anyone.
SW: Funny side note, this always brings me back. One of my favorite authors is Brene Brown. She did a lot of work on vulnerability and yeah. Wow. That's actually where courage comes from.
As we're all moving and making decisions so quickly, of course mistakes are going to be made. Of course, there are unknowns, but you're absolutely right. It's the follow-up and the rebuilding of when mistakes do happen, that we all have best intentions, and we're just trying to, I'll make it work as quickly as we possibly can.
CG: It's the ability to extend and receive grace. Yes. Here's a really quick story. The first foundation to respond to that appeal and ended up contributing $750,000 to our COVID relief work, actually four or five years ago, the relationship was not in the good place at all. We'd gone in our best suits, all expecting to get a really good news on a lengthy conversation that we'd been having with the foundation, and there were just some mixed messages and leadership changes on both sides.
We kind of got ushered out and we all turned and looked at each other in the elevator afterwards and rolled our eyes and crawl back to the office. I let it sit for two days, and then I picked up the phone and reached out to my counterpart at the foundation and said, “Would you be willing to just have lunch? I feel like you and I really need to have a person-to-person conversation and figure out what went wrong.”
I basically told her, “I think perhaps the fault is on me,” and she was very generous and said, “No, no, no,” and helped me understand what was going on with them, but ever since then, just as I said, when it goes sour, you have that opportunity to rebuild that relationship if you can approach it with honesty. We’re grateful that we did and we rebuilt it and we stayed in good touch and all those things.
SW: Securing a large donation like that, I know, is huge during this time. How are you communicating specifically with the people in terms of your COVID relief?
What is that story? You're going in to share some of the great work y'all are doing as well?
CG: Yes, and that, I think, is significant. It's been significant learnings in the organization itself. We were able to have those conversations because we've been doing work that the foundation community and other major donors have valued for a long, long time.
Those gifts come through because they want to ensure that that work continues and is able to expand to meet the growing needs. What message should we take to them? Well, it depends. It depends on the level of the donor. It depends on the strength of the relationship I found with the foundation community, where literally I'm asking for significant sums of money.
I'm asking them to be a co-investor in my CEO and I, as we were going through the bankruptcy, one thing that we used to say to each other, and also to our donors [is that] there are no more secrets. We have no more secrets at all. We have hung our dirty washing out across the Allegheny River for everyone to see.
Even with regards to the foundation community right now, I mean, we were giving them cashflow models just so they could see, as I said, these are business people as well. I need you to understand exactly how this Y is going to be struggling through the summer, and I found that that was very compelling for them, as well as accompanied with an accounting of they know what we've done in the past.
They want to see what we're planning and how we're responding now. I think a lot of people were really impressed with the speed with which we responded to the increased need and the creativity, as I said before, displayed by some of our younger staff in how it responded.
CG: I was amazed one of our staff people, one member of my team actually, created virtual volunteer opportunities. Volunteering didn't mean that you had to put on a mask and gloves because not everybody can. She created virtual volunteer opportunities, and that was outreach calls to our seniors.
She also created a pen pal program between kids in our youth development program and our seniors as well. Again, we've made it possible for everybody to get involved where they feel most comfortable.
SW: That's fabulous. I haven't heard of the virtual volunteering. I've definitely heard of staff and the outreach to seniors, but I haven't seen the connection yet.
From a volunteer standpoint, which I know during this time is one of the big things, depending on where you are in life, mental health and just being isolated and just being able to talk to people I know is huge.
CG: Yes, exactly. Helping a volunteer feel that they can contribute in a way that doesn't put them at risk. Seniors love the phone calls.
In fact, the biggest problem is probably keeping the quality tight and moving on to the next one, but they love it. They love it. Yes, it's been a nice way to sort of build a stronger community planning.
SW: You know, how the Ys went to support and planning for the future. How do you see that specifically looking differently for your team with finance development?
A lot of times, especially for the Y, we have this campaign season and we have our annual campaigns and our capital. What is that? How do you see that shifting in the coming months?
CG: Well, I definitely do see it shifting. Our CEO, Kevin Bolding has been very clear that we... I think there's this general sentiment across the country, that the pandemic has certainly highlighted, where we truly have some deep problems that need to be attended to in society.
We have the option of either just picking up and resuming and our new normal or we can take this opportunity to really decide who it is that we want to be. Right now, there are very few sacred cows, so this is really a wonderful opportunity to press the reset button, to sort of reassess relationships, deepen some relationships, change relationships, throw more resources behind certain areas, just level set and adjust all around.
We are talking about that. We're planning to sort of re-pick up for campaign right now. As much as anyone can plan anything, we hope that that will happen in the fall. Through the end of the year where typically we're normally spring, I mean, we were literally just kicking off campaign.
We didn't stop fundraising. We just sort of shifted, but we'd like to come back and do the launch in the fall. It's quite possible that, if we do that, this could be a wonderful opportunity for us because for a long, long time, we've talked openly among ourselves about maybe campaigns should be in the latter part of the year where the vast majority of donors are programmed to think at the end of the year of an end of year gift.
I don't know. We're going to give it a whirl and see what happens. You know, our campaigns have been disrupted the last couple of years, so it's almost normal now not to have a regular campaign season though. I would like to us to get back to normal. We're also looking at it as a way, how we reconsider our case for support.
We've found that as we've been doing work around housing, affordable housing, and also food security and our outreach to seniors that has clearly resonated with the community. Perhaps what we're going to do is encourage our branches to really focus in those areas. I think that the long-term fallout from the pandemic is...well, the fallout from the pandemic is going to be fairly lengthy.
We're going to get past the medical crisis, but then we're going to be into an economic crisis and that will last, and that's when our Ys are going to be needed. So yes, we're going to take that opportunity to just refocus. Absolutely.
SW: We're both working from home, remote and dealing with all the technical issues specifically too, because I know another big part of like a normal campaign are events. Have you shifted anything from that, like you mentioned, like the virtual volunteer opportunities? How are you looking at virtual events moving forward?
CG: Well, it's interesting. We are doing something right now that is probably going to end up in a virtual event at the end of the month. It has a small fundraising component to it. I'm not a big fan of events, and I've tried to get our branches to make it one event, make it a really good one, make it worth your time and effort and energy.
Again, when you have a situation like this, you do have to show everybody that you can be flexible and you have to meet your donors where they are and engage them in the manner in which they want to be engaged so that we will have something at the end of this month. We'll see how that goes.
I don't have huge expectations for it. The big question ahead of us right now and we've just been talking about, is what to do about our Turkey Trot, which is a fairly big event. This year is our 30th anniversary as well, so we were really looking forward to making it pretty big this year. While our presenting sponsor is in no matter what, which is a relief.
They're in no matter what because we've actually tied our event to food security issues as well. We use it as a food drive, as well as a run. We don't know quite what to plan for right now. There obviously will be a virtual component. It may will be entirely virtual. I don't know whether there will be any actual running or perhaps we'll move to lots of small races in different places.
I don't know, but the only thing that you can do at times like these is just be open to listening to as many people as possible. Welcoming the ideas, leaning on your colleagues, turning to them for advice, ideas, support, assistance, direction. Anything, literally I'll try just about anything once and then move on if it doesn't work.
Actually, I do have a phone call scheduled next week with a couple of other Ys that have significant Turkey Trots, and we're just going to share ideas. Let's see where that takes us.
SW: Selfishly as a runner, I so hope you have a Turkey Trot. I think that that's one of those things that is that... it's at least a tradition for my family and I want to get back to my races too.
I know obviously the health and keeping everyone safe and all of those things, which we're all doing right now. I understand all of the concerns too, but let's move.
I know you have a big lead in the YMCA of Pittsburgh, but you're also a council member of NAYDO, the NAYDO organization. Can you tell me a little bit more about just what NAYDO is and what your role is with them?
CG: Yes. Yes. Yes. Gosh. And I love NAYDO, and let me just say here, I really appreciate Daxko support to NAYDO, particularly the webinars series, which I'm directly involved in with NAYDO.
When I found NAYDO, I felt like I'd finally found my peeps, my soulmates at the Y. It was like, “Oh, here you all are. This is great.”
NAYDO is wonderful. It's the North American YMCA Development Organization, and I always tell people think of it sort of like the ASP, but for the Y, because it does really focus very much on...everything is through a wide lens, which is extremely helpful.
The Y is a little bit of a different beast, different animal. It's a really professional development organization. It’s there for those, the professional fundraisers, as well as those who really just want you to build up their fundraising skills and portfolio, which frankly, in today's Y I think anybody, if you have aspirations for any sort of managerial position, you better pay attention to.
I don't care where you are in the organization, be it facilities, be it operations, anything. You should. If you are in a nonprofit, absolutely.
You cannot absolve yourself of the responsibility to fundraise. Not anymore. Particularly in times like these, everybody needs to be a fundraiser. Everybody needs to represent the organization and not be shy about asking for support. NAYDO is there to help provide that development and support most of the professionals and or those who are not directly fundraisers and really just helping to nurture the growth in our culture, philanthropy across the entire movement.
"You cannot absolve yourself of the responsibility to fundraise. Not anymore. Particularly in times like these, everybody needs to be a fundraiser."
So, yes, NAYDO is a wonderful thing to be involved in. I really regret that the pandemic forced us to cancel this year's conference, because that is also a place in time where it's kind of like going to the well and replenishing, sharing of ideas, finding out how other people do things, resources.
It's a wonderful opportunity to gather information and bring it back for the benefit of your Y.
SW: I agree. Having worked at Daxko for NAYDO is actually that for me as well.It ends up being the conference, at least ends up being just one of the biggest events, and I get my energy from just talking to people like you, right?
Learning and hearing what the newer things are. I definitely missed the conference as well, but hopefully the end of the webcast series is good, still bringing the community back, and we love being a part of that. Then we'll see where next year's conference turns out to be, depending on what happens with COVID indeed.
CG: Yep. We're already starting our conversations around then. Well, we start them years in advance, but planning has begun for how we put on a conference. One thing that I did just want to mention – you've met the webinar series as part of Daxko. Actually, we've opened up the webinar series to everyone.
You do not have to be a NAYDO member right now in order to access the webinars, so if anybody is listening to this and they're thinking, “Gosh, I'd like to be able to refresh my skills or pick up a few ideas,” I would urge them to go to the NAYDO website and look at the webinar series.
SW: That is great. The Y definitely is a different animal in terms of lots of different things, but the one thing that is consistent through several things we've talked about, whether you're in the financial development or at the branches, it's this community that just every piece of it, it doesn't matter what area you're in, there's always a community.
I love that you guys are giving back to that community as well, because I think it's a good time everyone's trying to pick up and just adjust as best we can right now.
CG: Absolutely. Yeah.
SW: With all of the changing dynamics and bankruptcy two years ago and pandemic COVID crisis now, how do you kind of center yourself and stay healthy and happy through these different challenges?
CG: It's a challenge for sure. I do better some days than others. Absolutely. Kevin, my association’s CEO, has always been very honest with us and reminds us, we have what we call the President's Cabinet.
So, COO the CFO and myself and Kevin, and he's like, “I'm going to meet you guys, and this is a marathon. It's not a sprint, so you have to take care of yourselves.” He does a good job of helping to set an example. We laugh between us. I tell him sometimes I'm a little bit like a dog.
I have to be taken out every day and walked to sleep well. So, occasionally I will tell him I've got to go walk the dog. I don't have a dog. I have cat, but he knows what I'm talking about so I can walk my dog, and while we're working from home, in the first couple of weeks, I will admit, I found it very, very hard to turn off.
I think a lot of people in those first couple of weeks probably did. I mean, you had the sense of impending crisis and real urgency, and you weren't sure what was going to happen from day to day. As soon as the decision has been made, the new information would come out and it would change again.
I was working all hours, like late into the night, then going to bed and just lying there running everything through my head. Those first couple of weeks were very, very hard. After that, we started to sort of settle into a bit of a rhythm. I started to feel that I could step away working from home.
I have to say this. I love the commute. I love the dress code and I am now learning to take advantage of the opportunities that it presents me. If a neighbor calls or shoots me a text and says, “Hey, I'm going to take a walk. Are you available at 2?” I'm like, “Yeah, maybe I am.”
I think the most important thing for me is getting out, walking the dog, getting some sunshine and returning refreshed to the work. The work will always, always, always be there. It really will.
SW: Yeah. I've worked remotely for quite some time, but even the shift to remote, I didn't have for me, but still the shift to crisis remote was much different. I have found myself forgetting like, yes, you have to go outside for just a few minutes, if nothing else to clear your head a little bit.
Even simple things. Yesterday, I took my meeting with my team, I went and sat on the back porch. I was like, “Sorry guys, you're going to hear the birds in the background. That’s just... I need it.” We all have to do our little things.
CG: Yeah, you're absolutely right.
That's the other challenge while you’re learning to adjust from home. I really like to see people. Conference calls where we're just talking to each other is very difficult. I need to take visual cues from the people that I'm talking to as well as oral cues, so with my team, we reduced the Zoom meetings, and they're a little challenging. Somebody is on mute, somebody’s got background noise, somebody who's got an echo.
But we're learning how to get past all of that. We're getting pretty good on a whole variety of platforms. Google Hangouts, whatever, I feel sort of multilingual. It's an adjustment and I feel, and today in particular, I've been thinking about it. The need to very intentionally give each member of my team a sense of time and attention and opportunity to exchange ideas just one-on-one.
I miss the fact that we can't just sit down in each other's offices, cubicles, whatever, and quickly have an on-the-spot meeting, or just even pass each other in the mail room on the way to the ladies' room, whatever, or grab lunch together. The downside of all of this, while there is an upside, you can go out and walk with a neighbor at two o'clock in the afternoon, the downside is that you have to really shift a lot more attention to maintaining your work relationships.
SW: Yeah. All relationships. Even to what you said earlier, work relationships, personal relationships, donor relationships. Yeah. Definitely more effort. Yeah.
So, Carolyn, any final words? As you're planning and trying to plan and get it out, your Crystal Ball and walking the dog, any final words for those that may be listening?
CG: This has been very beneficial for me to sit and talk with you, and that's what I would say to people. Try to carve out some time for some thinking for some reading and for some thoughts and connecting with colleagues. Connecting with colleagues that share what's going to the well, and what’s replenishing the soul and reenergizing you for the work.
"Try to carve out some time for some thinking for some reading and for some thoughts and connecting with colleagues."
But at times like these, I feel like you really need ideas. Ideas are at such a premium and the ability to see an idea to seize it and to run with it and to work with people, to develop it. So for me, it's reading, it is absolutely reading. We as development people, you know, we are almost expected to. You have to be able to represent the entire organization and everything that the organization is being, uh, is able to do.
You've got to address the finances, address the operations. Talk about community needs, relate it to what's going on in the economy. Talk about the pandemic. You have to be well-read – regional newspaper, whatever it is that you choose to read, read it, share ideas with your leadership team.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy. I love to go there. The NonProfit Times. I love to go there too. And the NAYDO webinars series. I am telling people come there and connect with your colleagues and get new ideas. So, that's the only thing that I can say. Take a moment to step away and think.
SW: Yeah, I love that, and that is easier said than done.
It definitely takes effort and intentionality to do that. Carolyn, thank you so much for the time today. I have so enjoyed this, and thank you just for all the work, the great work that you're doing in the Pittsburgh community and for the larger Y community, as well.
CG: Well, and thank you, Saranda. I really enjoyed it, and special thank you also to Daxko. Daxko as an organization is really digging deep right now and looking to help Ys and JCCs. We're all in this together. That is the one comforting thing about what's happening. We are all impacted together, and by working together and helping each other out, we're going to get through this.
I know we will, but nevertheless, it's wonderful to have the support of friends, so thank you.
SW: 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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