May 29, 2018
Begin interview. Today is Tuesday, May 29, 2018. The time is 9:20 AM eastern. This is Ed Toole on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing Neil Nicoll. Neil, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.
Happy to do it. Glad we could get together.
Great. So my first question for you is, what was your very first YMCA experience?
So, when I was in college the Quincy Massachusetts YMCA ran, and I think many YMCAs probably did this, ran a church Sunday school basketball program, and they needed to hire somebody to be the gym monitor from noon to 8 o'clock at night and collect quarters from all the kids who were playing. And so that was my first experience, and at 8 o'clock I'd take my bag full of quarters back, I was in Braintree, I'd take them to Quincy and turn them in to the Y director, and he'd count them out to make sure it all matched up and that was my first experience with the YMCA. I did that for about 10 weeks each winter for two or three years while I was in college.
So how old were you when you first started?
Probably 19, 20 years old.
So tell me about how many years did you work for the Y and tell me about both your first job, tell me a little bit about that, and how you ended your career?
So I worked for the Y, I believe it was 48 years, full time. My first position was as a program director in Howard County, Ellicott City, Maryland as part of the Baltimore Association. That was a quirk, I had gone off to graduate school at George Washington University, spent a couple of weeks and realized I didn't like the program, dropped out, and my parents as most World War II generation said, you know, that sounds like a good decision, you better find a job because you can't come home.
And so I actually walked into the old YMCA in downtown DC, and I think it was 16th and G or 17th and G, and asked if I could speak to somebody about possible work, as luck would have it, I met with the vice president of human resources a couple of days later, but literally while we were in that conversation the phone rang, it was his counterpart in Baltimore who said have you had anybody come in lately, we're looking for a program director in one of our branches.
Two days later I drove to Baltimore, within a week I was hired and I started work in a little branch that had about 15, 20 acres of land, an outdoor pool and a four room house, little white house and everything else we did was in the community, over time a building was built, and John Turner, who eventually was the CEO in Milwaukee, was my first boss. He was the executive director. Then I finished my career as CEO of the YMCA of the USA, for about nine and a half years finishing that up just three years ago.
And so that was also a great experience and one where I was actually on the search committee for the new CEO for YMCA of the USA. And unbeknownst to me, a few of my colleagues were talking to the volunteers on the search committee and I got a call the day before about the third search committee meeting and was asked not to come to Chicago from Seattle for that meeting. And it's a longer story, but one thing led to another, and lo and behold, I ended up CEO of YMCA of the USA in 2006.
That's a great answer. You officially retired in?
So in all your time in those 48 years, tell me about a mentor or mentors you had in the Y and how that person or persons influenced you in your career?
You know, like all of us if you're lucky, you have a few people who pick you up at the right time and in the right place and kind of help you through. John Danielson was probably the person who touched a number of points in my career. I was a branch executive in my second position with the YMCA in the Boston Association in Dorchester, and John was the CEO of the Greater Boston YMCA.
And for those three years he took me under his wing, and I learned a lot watching him during those days. Those were the days before school busing in Boston and a lot of urban work, and how he managed a challenging time both financially for the Boston Y and with a lot of tough social issues going on.
And it was John then when I left the Greater Boston YMCAs and went to the DC association who helped me in that position just a little bit. And then John recruited me back because he served as the head of the search committee for the Greater Worcester Association and John encouraged me to apply to be the CEO of the Greater Worcester Y. And I came back to Worcester and you know a lot of conversation with John and that was a great experience. And, you know, John was someone I turned to just to kind of bounce things off of, the other one I would say would be Julius Jones, and Julius was the CEO when I was in Washington DC for several years as a branch executive and Julius was the chief operating officer and the number two person.
And Julius was a tremendous influence. Just the kinds of things you learn by watching, by listening, by him pointing things out. And, you know, I will never forget that booming voice, every now and again I'd hear it say Mr. Nicoll and I would sit up very straight and listen very carefully, because he was a man of a lot of wisdom and had been in the formative years of his career through some of the tough issues in the south around race and all the divisiveness that had gone on with discrimination and segregation. Julius brought a lot of teaching as we worked in the DC area.
So those two, I would say were probably the two people that had the greatest influence on me. There were others along the way, particularly a couple of volunteers who were significant. I'd say a fellow by the name of Doug Meystre in Worcester, who was one of our board chairs, a fellow by the name of Matt Griffin in Seattle who was a board chair, and both remain friends now. But yeah, if you pay attention and listen, there are some amazing people who cross your path in a YMCA career and teach you an awful lot.
You mentioned volunteers. Obviously you had a lot of opportunity throughout your long career because of your CEO positions at multiple organizations to work directly with volunteers who can have a significant impact on the organization. Talk with me a little bit about that, what you learned through that experience from your first time really working with them and your first CEO job to years and years later at Y-USA.
Yeah, volunteers they can be mentors, they can be resources and assets to the CEO. And what I came to learn very quickly was a board of directors is not a single thing, it's made up of a number of individuals. Each of them have their own interests, their own reasons for being in the organization. They each have lives outside of the YMCA, they have families, they have careers. And I was helped along the way to come to appreciate that I need to work with them as individuals, not as a group of 20 or 25 people. They deserve for me to spend as much time talking about their family, what's going on in their business, what their points of view are on the challenges in the communities we're serving, as I would hope they would give me on the same topics and my point of view.
And so I found that to be an educational experience. There was a board chair in Worcester when I first went there who chaired our big capital campaign by the name of Peter Morgan. And he would take me aside now and again and we'd talk about how the board would work and who these people were and how to get the best out of each of them. And that was an eye-opening experience from when I had been a program director you sit quietly in the room and everything else goes on and you have no idea why certain things happen or don't. It was a learning experience.
So I thoroughly enjoyed working with boards of directors throughout my career. I will admit I never went into a board meeting without a knot in the pit of my stomach, there were always ones that are going to be a fairly straightforward agenda, but you're always a little bit tense, is something going to go sideways. And the commitment that people made of their time and taking on big challenges that they didn't need to really have to deal with, they could have made their lives a lot simpler. It was impressive, it was a learning experience and the connection I made to people was probably the most meaningful part of my career.
That’s great. So what do you think or do you believe was the most significant thing that happened in the YMCA Movement during your career or significant things in that 48 years?
I'd say first and foremost is the change in the diversity of the staff, in terms of both change and meaningful substantive change that transformed this Movement. When I started in the YMCA as a program director in Howard County, there essentially were no women working for the YMCA in professional positions. There was a woman on the national staff by the name of Winifred Colton, Winnie Colton, who I had an opportunity to meet a few times in those first three or four years through some kind of circumstance, can't remember what. And she was exceptionally talented and I think had a pretty significant impact during her years in the YMCA.
But once you got by Winnie Colton there was nobody there, and there was very little racial diversity, particularly if you were outside of the African American YMCAs in the south. And I remember again during those first few years in Howard County there was only one African American program director on the staff. And it's funny how the names start to come back, by the name of Mack Thomas, if I'm remembering correctly. And the Baltimore YMCA had made a decision they needed to lay off two or three staff people.
I don't remember if it was in a particular branch or in the association, but Mack was one laid off and there were a few of us probably who were young and naive and overly socially aware who reacted very strongly to the fact that the one African American program director we had had been let go. And so let's just say the letters we sent to the entire National Board, to the entire Baltimore Board, the protests that we launched caused a lot of tension and a testy period for a few weeks until, I think it was Clark Thompson and John Turner who were the two branch executives who stepped in and brought peace and order back to the organization.
But you know, as people like Julius Jones, Tom Hargrave, others slowly began to move into major leadership positions in this organization. It began an awakening in the YMCA of where we had fallen down and in some cases pretty badly during the previous 50 to 100 years, and beginning to open those doors so that people based on their talent could move into leadership positions and positions of influence, whether it was women, people of color had a tremendous influence on me.
You know, I went through my first day on the job in Boston, in Dorchester as a executive, was the first day of for school busing in Boston. We were right across the street from the Dorchester High School, actually had the kids rioting in the building as we were trying to keep them apart. Chasing each other through the halls, swinging baseball bats at each other, and those were eye opening experiences around diversity.
And so, you know, I mean these are the kinds of things that a 70 year old man can start telling stories we could be here all day, but let me just say that, that was I think one of the points of transformation for the YMCA Movement, and we're not where we ought to be yet, don't misunderstand me. But it was a really earth moving period of time and a series of events.
Other things in the movement, I think hopefully some of the work we did at Y-USA while I was there around bringing people back to a sense of who we are as a Movement and why do we do what we do, what are we trying to do in people's lives? We had very much become an organization that was a transactional organization. We had good programs, but we ran those programs for the sake of running good programs.
We were about health and fitness, we were about sports, we were about childcare, but we weren't doing a lot of deep thinking about what those programs can do in people's lives, and the work we did around that and brand and trying to recreate a movement I think hopefully set us on a different path and got us back to remembering why this is such a great organization.
So also during your time, we know this is a lot of groups that get together where that ADP/AYP now YPN or that's I guess it was the metro 30 back when you part of the urban group. So I'm in those groups tell me a little bit about maybe some significant involvement you had with those groups or something that came out of that that just sticks in your memory as either an accomplishment or a relationship or something that was important to you being involved in those groups in the Y Movement?
I guess I'd split it into two parts. One were the personal relationships that were made, there were peers that were in other associations all over the country, whether they were AYP or local and regional meetings that you had and you began to meet people outside of your own association, and it raised your sights about what the possibilities were, both from a career standpoint and the YMCA as a Movement. There were chances to travel a little bit to see other YMCAs, to get to know people through those experiences.
And so you know I'm a big proponent of younger staff getting themselves involved as far and wide as they can, and I think it benefits them and the Movement. The larger experience, from the urban group is the group that you know now is both Mexico, Canada and the US. There was a point in time about 15 years ago where YMCA of the USA and the US associations became so singularly focused on themselves that the Canadians and the Mexicans actually left.
They pulled out of the urban group. And I think there was a time then for a couple of years where several of us working together tried to help people appreciate the magic that happens when we're working internationally with each other, when we're learning from each other, when we see the challenges that our communities are facing from multiple perspectives, and from an international and more diverse point of view. And thankfully that was all knit back together, we began taking on big challenges that; the reality is the large YMCAs can have a significant influence on the Movement, and particularly if they work together.
And so it was through the urban group, AYP, Metro cities, all of those different groups where that influence was brought to bear, and even in the smaller associations as Y-USA brought them together to work more as a cohesive whole I think you'd hear the same thing. So, the memories of those meetings and some of the people, and quite honestly the things that happen behind the scenes and behind closed doors have had a tremendous influence on the YMCA Movement and the people who lead that really made contributions that hopefully will continue to have impact on the Movement.
So you talked a little bit about different points in your career and all that. So what are you most proud about in your wide career, at any point in there, either collectively or some individual accomplishments or things that come to mind about, just again what are you proud about when you reflect about your Y career?
You know, there are things in each association that you're proud of, I go back to the first position in Howard County, I mean, you were 23 years old and you were just scrambling. So I would say I'm not going to claim I made any significant contributions other than the day camp buses ran on time I think we did some interesting things, again around diversity. And work we did in Ellicott city around the African American community and white community, but nothing earth shaking. In Worcester, started to have a little bit more beneficial impact I think both in Worcester and the kinds of things we did there in the community. And that's where I started to get involved in some of the metro 30 types of organizations there.
But in Worcester we added a branch, we completely re-did the downtown Y, those were significant for the Worcester community, but it was in Seattle, and as you go through your career, you start to realize what things you think have the greatest impact and what really matters, how you can really help people fulfill their full potential. And in Seattle, and this will be one of a couple of things that I'm most proud of in my entire career.
We made a decision, and again, this was, I was there from 1992 to 2006, that the Seattle YMCAs and most YMCAs across the country had completely dropped the ball on teenage youth. You know, we were doing a lot of adult programming, we were doing a lot of childcare, but if you were between 12 and 18 as we kiddingly said the YMCA Movement had basically decided, you know, there was a lot going on with teenagers during that period of time that well, you know, you don't seem to want to be here and that's fine with us because you're a pain in the neck to deal with, all of the stuff that was going on. And drugs and alcohol and pushing limits and those kinds of things.
And we decided that that was wrong on multiple levels. We couldn't simply drop kids at 10, 12 years old, not have programming for them through their teen years and try to help frame and shape who they could be, where they could have a significant impact in this country and in their community. And, from a practical standpoint, why would those kids and their families engage with the YMCA as they got married and got older if we had pushed them out the door for 10, 12 years. So we made a decision in Seattle with the board's support, that we would four full time, what we call youth development directors in four branches. And the association board would raise half the money in our annual fund campaign, and the local branch board would raise half of the cost of one position.
So I think we were looking for $30- $35,000. Now again you're talking early nineties money. And we successfully raised that money in an annual fund campaign. The long and short of it is over the next 10 years, our annual fund campaign went from $600,000 to $4.2 million. And we had employed 32 full time youth development directors in our branches, in schools, doing nothing but working with middle and high school kids. And the programming we were doing in some tough neighborhoods in the branches. We designed all of our new facilities. We built five or six of them with team centers in them, and made it very clear that this was a population that was welcomed in the YMCA in Seattle.
And so I remember one of my colleagues saying, well there's no way to finance it, that's why we're not doing that kind of programming. And our response was, we think you can finance it if you're doing a good job because we think people will support it. And it always was funny, and again, you can start rambling on with stories, but we would bring to our association board meeting at the point we were raising $3- $4 million, just represented a half a dozen of these youth development directors to one board meeting in December.
And they would sit at tables with five or six board members and talk about what was happening with kids, the work they were doing, how important it was. And then we'd have them leave at about the three quarter mark of the board meeting. And we would then bring to the board the recommendation for this year's campaign goal, which was essentially our way of saying, so if you don't approve this goal, which one of these six people do you want us to let go, okay. And the board met every goal through every one of those years, the work continued, and I think a lot of the work continues today, even though I've been gone from Seattle 12, 14 years, that I was proud of.
We built something, we touched a lot of lives, we were serving 20,000 teenage youth at the height of what we were doing. So proud of that. And proud of some of the work we again did around diversity in Seattle, in the communities, and then onto Y-USA. A couple of things, I think we did some things that helped the YMCA Movement, you know, the whole effort around there are work and diversity inclusion, the creation of various professional groups for GLBT staff, for African American, Hispanic staff, women.
And what that has done to strengthen their ability to have influence and careers in the YMCA Movement, worked with Lynda Gonzales-Chavez is now leading and, you know, proud of some of the recognition she's getting on a national basis, even outside of the YMCA, for the work the YMCA is doing. Pleased that we were able to come together around national positioning and who we are and you know, that whole transformation around a common cause and brand platform that we strengthen communities.
And you know, I don't know if everybody still understands the depth of what that means, but it's getting there and that communities aren't just the town or city you live in, it's the group of 8 or 10 seniors that come in every Tuesday morning and wallow in the pool for a little bit and then sit and drink free coffee for two hours.
And the YMCAs creating a community, and its relationships and it's friends, it's kids in a camp cabin, you know helping us to start to remember and training staff and programming for impact in people's lives. It's great that they have good experiences, that they enjoy their programs and their classes, but we should be helping people frame who they're going to become and where they want to go. That to me is very important.
So you might've answered it or started to answer my next question, which is, so what does the YMCA mean to you?
Yeah, obviously it has a deep meaning and a deep impact for me, and I will be very candid, this is a, where I see the YMCA as a career long set of learnings for me, I started out like probably everyone else at the YMCA, leading more programs and organizing more things than I could pray over, and I was doing it before computers. That's how far back I go with three by five cards and things strewn all over the office, and trying to keep track and writing out bus schedules and who's on what bus by hand, but came to understand the relationships.
I remember, and I'll say it more eloquently hopefully, but I remember recruiting someone for the National Board who had been a member of the Dallas YMCA board, led a campaign for the Dallas Y with Gordie Echtenkamp. And I said, what has the YMCA done that's been transformative in your life? He said, well first you're asking the wrong question. He said, I got involved with the YMCA as a kid, I was in Gray Y, I was in youth in government.
And he said, quite honestly for 20 years then as I started my career I drifted off and my family wasn't involved with the Y, but then the kids started to get a little bit older and I said to myself, you know I ought to get them involved in the Y because it meant a lot to me as a kid and has influenced who I am. And at that point he said, I am now in my mid-sixties. And he said, here's the mistake you're making, the YMCA is not finished with me yet. And he said somewhere over the next 10 or 15 years, there's no doubt in my mind with what the YMCA is doing for me now, even though I'm giving a lot back that it will continue to shape my life.
And so, you know, that to me is illustrative of what the YMCA is and should be about. It's working with people to not understand who they are and where they are in life, but who they want to become and where they want to go, and it's our job wherever they engage with us and start to help them figure out and help them build the tools to understand who they want to become and where they want to call.
And so we do it in a lot of different ways, of course one of my, and this was part of the whole brand revitalization and all that we went through, one of my frustrations is we as YMCA staff, and I think the volunteers and our members are a lot better at this, basically have the attention span of gnats. And we start doing something, it starts to have an impact, and after about two years to say we'll say, well now what are we going to do next and how are we going to change.
There's a core to the YMCA that you know, sustains what we do, sustains us as an organization, sustains us as staff that we always have to remember and hold tight. And you can frame it in different ways, generations change, the way we communicate changes, we have to change with those times, but you don't let go of the string that holds it all together. And so I get a little philosophical, as one board member said to me, I had a long tradition that I believed in that I did a short devotional message before each board meeting, and he'd kiddingly say to me he said, we have to listen to a homily again today.
And so I'd laugh and say, yeah, you do. But those homilies and I think for all of us in the YMCA we've got to find the stories that help people see what really is happening in their lives and the lives of their kids and others. So hopefully that answers your question.
Absolutely. So if you could share, and obviously you've had this opportunity on a national level with the position you held, but today if you got invited back into a room and they said, hey, you can share any advice with leadership throughout the entire YMCA Movement, staff, volunteers, today what would that be? What advice would you give them?
Yeah, and probably anybody whoever listens to this will say he never lacked for what he called advice. What I would share is that I think the most important thing for the health of the YMCA Movement and for it to achieve its full potential, because I do not believe the YMCA Movement has in any way, shape or form fulfilled its full potential yet, is to work more as a unified whole.
Each of our associations has to have as its highest priority service to its community; I think that's the magic of a federated organization, that it's a local board with local control, local staff, real understanding of its community and being responsive to its community. But if it ends there we simply have missed the big opportunities.
And I know we tried during my years at YMCA with some success, I know Kevin continues to try, probably others before us tried. But when you think of the potential of a Movement that serves 22, 23 million people, with a quarter of a million staff, over 600,000 volunteers. The visibility it has, if that potential can be galvanized or as I used to say, to get all this bulk moving in the same direction, what impact we could have on this country if we were to, first stay true to ourselves and who we are and what we're trying to do in people's lives, but second take on some tough big issues. And each work together toward them, and sustain that over time.
And I realized there are lots of challenges, staff come and go, board members come and go, you know resources, you go through recessions, you go through times of great affluence. But through all that, my advice would be, I hope would be the leaders of the YMCA Movement would say we're going to take these things on and I may have to give up a little bit of my local control and my local autonomy so that we can all share in the resource and the direction, we could be so much more impactful.
And it's not to say I don't think the YMCA doesn't have a great impact now. But we can be in our local associations a bit myopic, and I found religion a little bit late in life, you know, I have to admit when I was in Dorchester and then Seattle and in Worcester, particularly Worcester and Seattle as CEO, you know, there was a tendency to become more parochial in what was healthy.
And it's the urban groups in the metro 30s and those kinds of organizations that along with YMCA of the USA and some key leaders in key associations who are willing to put the time in who help us not go too far down that parochial road and remember who we are as a Movement.
And I, I honestly feel that that word Movement is one we should never lose. So many institutions in this country we're founded as Movements, and they eventually morphed into becoming institutions and looked internally, and eventually get to the place and this is where the YMCA was in the mid-nineties, looking internally thinking only internally. And not really looking at the opportunities, and we've lost most Movements in this country.
And my hope is that the YMCA will continue to rekindle that sense of a Movement, that gut busting desire to go out and change the world and save the world and make it a better place and work on income disparity and racial and diversity issues and how every child and adult gets an opportunity regardless of their disability or their ability. We can do special things.
Neil, is there anything I didn't ask you today that you would like to share or you thought I might ask you about that you want to talk about?
I can talk about the YMCA for a long time, that's the reality of it. You know, the only thing I'd mentioned, and I won't mention names, but there are so many men and women who have done amazing things in their community, and while doing that and with tremendous responsibilities. I know during my almost 10 years at Y-USA who were so generous with their time and their wisdom and helping us put together some of the change that we were able to help the YMCA Movement through. And those are the heroes of this organization who are willing to do that.
And I think of some of our local board leaders and national board leaders who fought through constitutional changes and recommendations to us that you know ultimately became the brand revitalization because staff was thinking of it in too limiting a way. For those who make a career of the YMCA, I would just, my hope for them would be that they open themselves up to how their lives are going to grow because of the people they are going to come in contact with and the influence they can have on them and what they can teach them.
Neil, I really appreciate your time today. It's been my pleasure.
Happy to do it. Happy to do it.