For Alan Lesher, the last year has been a collection of ups, downs, and short waits for more turbulence.
But Lesher, the newly minted CEO of YMCA of the Inland Northwest in Washington State, ended the year-that-must-not-be-named on a high note. In November, MacKenzie Scott, one of the planet’s richest women, gave Lesher’s Spokane-based YMCA $10 million. The only restriction: Keep doing what you’ve been doing.
Lesher, who also is chairman of 501(c) Agencies Trust, talked with us about how he’s weathered the storms of the past year – good news can create a storm, too—and about the “God thing” that led him to the YMCA.
What was the career pathway that led you to the helm of the Y, which you joined in 2009?
I was in the wholesale floral business, where we imported flowers from all over the world. I had been there for 18 years and was ready for a change. So, in 2008 with my wife’s support, I quit my job. The plan was to take a year off, wear a swimsuit and flip-flops at my lake cabin, and figure out the next move.
About five months into that, the Great Recession hit. My wife, who was in real estate, said, ‘Maybe you should come home and look for a job.’
How did you arrive at YMCA of the Inland Northwest?
I wanted to find a nonprofit and do something that had meaning. I started with a big list of all the nonprofits in the area. I figured I’d needed a suit for interviewing, so I pulled into a suit store and saw a friend of mine, a banker, who had been laid off.
We started talking, and he said, ‘I’ll watch for you, and you keep an eye out for me.’
He calls me a week later and says the YMCA has a job that you would be perfect for. I had been in acquisition and branch development, and the Y was getting ready to do a new building. I ended up getting a job.
It was a God thing that I showed up at that store on that day, at that time, and had that conversation with my friend.
What happened to the friend?
I continued to look for other jobs because I didn’t have the job at the Y yet. I came across a job at a bank and contacted my friend and said you should call. He did and got the job.
That’s great. So, you helped each other.
He eventually became the community development officer for that bank and a great supporter of the Y.
Looks like you’re ending 2020 with a bang.
2020 has been a very interesting year for us. It started out great. In 2019, we had a record year. Membership was doing well. We were seeing great participation in our programs. We thought nothing could go wrong. Guess we said that out loud too many times.
You angered the gods.
In mid-March, Seattle was one of the first COVID hotspots in the country. It caught the governor’s attention. And even though we are 300 miles away, the governor shut everything down. We shut down all of our childcare programs and our five facilities – four in Spokane and one in Sandpoint, Idaho.
What happened to your employees?
We made the tough decision to keep a lot of the employees on payroll to see how all this played out. But in April, we found out the closure was going to last longer, and we ended up laying off 700 of our 850 staff.
How did the folks at 501(c) Agencies Trust help you during the pandemic?
They’ve been a huge resource. They sent out a lot of information that helped us navigate this unprecedented unemployment situation. And they started working with lobbyists and governmental groups to create legislation to help the sector as a whole.
What happened to the Y membership during COVID?
Membership has declined by two thirds.
We’ve instituted a lot of virtual programs, and we try to stay engaged with our membership. But a lot of our membership has lost their jobs. They tried to stay with us as long as they could. They’d call upset because they couldn’t pay. We said, ‘We’ll be here when you’re ready to come back.’
In August, things started getting better, and by Labor Day we were opening things back up. But Labor Day weekend is a big, festive time here. Lake life is huge. So, we saw a COVID spike several weeks later. That was the end of the new, good days. In mid-November, the governor ordered another two-week freeze.
It looks like you’ll end the year on a high note. Tell me when you first heard that MacKenzie Scott was giving your organization $10 million.
I was in a team meeting when I got an email from Steve Tammaro, our president and CEO. He said, “I’ve got to talk to you. It’s important.”
So, I went to his office, and he said, “I’ve been notified by a philanthropist that we will likely be getting a gift in the neighborhood of $10 million.”
I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ This was not a gift we solicited. We thought it was a prank, that it couldn’t be real.
How did you get on Scott’s radar?
I don’t know. MacKenzie has a team of advisors that looked at nonprofits and vetted them based on criteria I don’t know. From a pool of 6,500 organizations, they narrowed it down to 384. We were very fortunate to be included in the list.
How will you use the money?
That’s a question that’s consumed some of our time. The money comes without any restrictions. They just ask that we continue to do the good work we’re doing.
I’m formulating a team of all the Y stakeholders. We want to be thoughtful and fully vet what will make the most sense moving forward.
If nothing else, 2020 has showed us how quickly the fortunes of man can change.
We went from trying to figure out how we were going to pay the bills next year to how we were going to use this gift most appropriately. The responsibility is huge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a veteran content producer, e-book creator, and social media writer with two Pulitzer Prize nominations and three National Headliners Awards. Her writing has appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Redbook, Yahoo!, AOL Real Estate, AOL Daily Finance, USA Today, and US Weekly, as well as major metro dailies.