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Steering a Large Local Nonprofit with Bertram L. Lawson II

Steering a Large Local Nonprofit with Bertram L. Lawson II

Podcast published: November 17, 2023

We meet with Bertram L. Lawson II, the new President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Brandywine. With a long and distinguished career with the YMCA (garnered in leadership positions at several YMCA locations), Bertram shares his insight and experience of steering a large local nonprofit at a difficult and challenging time.

Links

YMCA of Greater Brandywine

Chester County Foodbank

Additional Links

Intro:  Welcome to Start Local, where we talk with business owners, leaders of nonprofits, and other members of our community focused on doing business in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. Each episode will provide insight into the local business scene and tell you about opportunities to connect with and support businesses and nonprofits in your local area.

Eric Gudmundson: Welcome to Start Local, where we connect with local leaders to support local businesses and nonprofits in and around Chester County, Pennsylvania. I’m Eric Goodmanson, and I’m in the podcast recording studio today with my co-host, Liam Dempsey. Liam, how are you doing today? 

Liam Dempsey: Fantastic, Eric. Thanks for asking.

Eric Gudmundson: Excellent. I’m glad to hear that.

Today, I’m excited because we’re joined by Bertram L. Lawson II. Bertram is the new president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Brandywine. The YMCA of Greater Brandywine is an association of nine YMCA’s and program centers with more than 50,000 members. 

Bertram, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Bertram Lawson II: Very happy to be here. Nice to see you both.  

Eric Gudmundson: I am curious to learn a little bit more about your background and what led you to the YMCA of Greater Brandywine.

Bertram Lawson II: Yes. I’ve been with the YMCA now in 24 years in various associations and cities. Started my career off in greater Philadelphia, where I’m from, and worked for that YMCA for about 19 years. Went off to the YMCA in central Maryland, which is the Baltimore area for a couple years. And then I went to become president and CEO of the YMCA Central New York, headquartered in Syracuse right before coming back to the greater Philadelphia area and here to YGBW.

it was very exciting to see the opportunity when my predecessor decided to retire, which was a surprise. She is relatively young, so I didn’t, never thought that the opportunity would present itself. So once it was posted, did some due diligence with the family, made the determination, put my name in a hat, went through all those processes, and now I show up here today as the new president and CEO five months in. 

Eric Gudmundson: Yeah, that’s exciting. Five months isn’t a long time. And we’ll get into more about your ideas and plans but, I wanna pause for just a moment and note that you are the first person of color to serve as the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Brandywine. That’s significant. Talk about that and, what it means to you both personally and professionally, if you would. 

Bertram Lawson II: Yeah, it is a major accomplishment. And to be honest with you, it’s the second time I’ve done that with a YMCA organization within the last three years. I was the first African American CEO for the YMCA of Central New York as well, and to do it twice in less than three years or within three years. 

It is very significant from a personal standpoint that I have this opportunity that has the ground has been laid for me to get here by others based upon their sacrifices. Whether those would’ve been family members who sacrificed for me to go through my educational journey or get opportunities to gain and grow, or other African Americans who’ve paved the way to be first of something. And being a first in this particular county, it’s anonymous, or very significant to me because I went to college here at the first degree granting, HBCU, historically black college and University in the country. So it is kind of surreal to be the first and come from the first university as well. 

Eric Gudmundson: So, I mean, it’s interesting to me because you mentioned you graduated from Lincoln, but it is truly the first HBCU to offer college degrees as you pointed out. And here that’s in Oxford,  when you earned your BA there, can you say how that shaped your career and how that influenced and led you to continue groundbreaking here. 

Bertram Lawson II: Yeah. To go back to a little bit about my background, the first introduction to the YMCA would’ve been at Lincoln University in the career services office. I was…my senior year of college, my mother told me that I looked too young to be an educator in high school, which was interesting in itself because I’d already been ready to graduate. So, I went to the career services office at Lincoln and it was a posting for a YMCA position in Philadelphia as an executive director. 

So my Y career kicked off based upon being on Lincoln’s campus and my mother redirected me. So, it is very important that from that university standpoint without being at Lincoln, I probably, I don’t know if I would’ve ever been  a YMCA professional. I never attended a Y’s a kid. I never paid attention to the Y to be honest with you. But it also helps me to understand the importance of being the first in this particular role, and how I can open up that door to others who look like me who have aspirations of growing and thriving and doing impactful work. But also, it’s very important for me to recognize that everyone doesn’t know what the Y is and that the Y actually exists. 

Liam Dempsey: That’s a perfect segue. You are very good at this. Thank you. 

Bertram Lawson II: No problem.

Liam Dempsey: In preparing for this conversation, I had a number of chats with your colleagues and, you know, jokes about 1970s theme songs aside. I was really just gobsmacked to learn just how much the YMCA generally does the organization as a whole, but then also what your organization out in or your branch, your Y out and Greater Brandywine does. at the risk of asking you to keep it to under an hour for all the things you do, you know, can you explain in a few minutes what the folk, what you folks do beyond swimming lessons?

Bertram Lawson II: Yeah, absolutely. We are an organization that’s very focused on impact and really being a gap filler for the community. 

We are the largest childcare provider in Chester county. We serve almost 500 0-5 year olds in that particular program and growing. We have the ability to serve in partnership and with several different school districts, outta school time or after school time from utilizing before and after school programming, youth programming, program that focuses in our camp during the summertime, but also we bring forward adaptive programming for the abilities or special abilities community. We’re one of those nonprofits that really focuses on access. And access to us means everything based upon our mission. 

We are for all. And all means everyone. So giving people the opportunity to come to the YMCA to have programming that’s focused on them as well as we prepare young folks for work, you know, work readiness, college preparation. We support our community in regards to health innovation, health strategies through our program that may be preventative around Cancer and may be looking at social isolation. 

We may be looking at our program that’s focused on Forever Well. And our senior population, or we call it Active Older Adults, to make sure that they stay active, vibrant, and cared for. There’s a numerous programs that we provide to this county, and that we are continuously enhancing and looking forward to bringing new ones.

Liam Dempsey: That’s an impressive mission that you have at the YMCA of Greater Brandywine. And you’ve been in office now for five months as president and CEO. So, can you talk about how you plan to expand the vision or change the vision or even just maintain the vision of the organization because it does so much for so many. 

Bertram Lawson II: Tthink it’s important that I build on the foundation that was laid by my predecessor and the president, CEO that came before her. They established a very strong and vibrant organization. And my focus and objective and concert with our board of directors and our leadership staff, it’s really how do we become an employer of choice in this crazy work market. We are all fighting to retain recruit staff, and we are focused on how we do that. Well, We’re looking at our benefits, our compensation, but also our culture. 

What our culture looks like in YMCA and an old legend YMCA trainer said to me that, and said to a number of us that if you don’t feed your staff, they’ll eat the members. And I believe that. That our staff have to be fed in a way that they feel valued.

The other opportunities or avenues that we’re gonna go down is how do we continue to provide access to underserved communities? Knowing that transportation is an issue in Chester county beyond certain segments of the county, that people have to get to us via car. Mostly we are looking to partner to bring YMCA program into communities and zip codes where people where reside. They don’t have to have public transportation. They don’t have to have a car to get to us, but we’re looking at who can we partner with? What programs are needed to bring right to someone’s doorsteps or to their community that they can access us because we believe that everyone should have an opportunity at YMCA programming that they want. 

How are we serving the age bracket of 12 to 21? Coming out of the pandemic, that age bracket needs a lot of support. Even before the pandemic, that age bracket tends to get lost in translation. So how are we gonna provide services for them to ensure that they are prepared to be the next leaders in this county and beyond that they’re prepared for the workforce, that they’re prepared for college, whatever choices they make to be a viable citizen of the county in this state of Pennsylvania.

And the other avenue is really talking about the importance of our volunteers. Most people don’t know that the YMCA was started as a volunteer ran organization. Obviously, we have paid staff now, but we still do engage volunteers from a board governance and an advisory board standpoint. And we are looking to ensure that those volunteers are educated as well as cared for, and that we are valuing them as we continue to work with them.

Eric Gudmundson: Taking care of staff in this employment culture is hugely important. So, I’m really delighted to hear you emphasize that and, trying to be an employer of choice. That’s an admirable goal. It’s gonna be a difficult goal. And that’s not a dig at you or at the Y. Just the very nature of it, it’s tough. Let me ask you this as we’re talking about employment and the like. Are you hiring? And if so, what are you hiring for? 

Bertram Lawson II: We are always looking for great talent. So, right now we are currently are really focusing on beefing up and adding more staff in our childcare programming that’s 0-5 as well as 6-12 year old programming.

We are continuously looking for staff that can help maintain our facilities from a cleanliness standpoint. So maintenance and housekeeping staff. 

And we’re continuously looking for professional staff that may bring to the table to support us in raising dollars. We’re looking for a Vice President of fundraising or philanthropy. We’re contingency looking for a staff that will focus on our association team development programming. And also how who can help us support our program is centered around aquatics or swim lessons. 

Eric Gudmundson: Well, over the years, we’ve seen some impressive individuals join the YMCA staff, leave their YMCA job to serve other important roles in the community and sometimes return to the YMCA. We’ve also seen leaders in local Y’s leave for another region and return all within the same WYMC or all within the same YMCA organization. How does the Y attract and develop such beloved talent that serves the community so well? What’s your secret?

Bertram Lawson II: I think the secret is that we really invest in training and development of our staff. So, from the time that you start and throughout your career, there’s a focus on training and development. There’s always opportunities to grow. We really try to value what one brings to the table and start to harness and enhance the talent. 

And one of the things that I’m most favorable of, and I think it’s very important that we don’t try to  hold staff hostage. And what I mean by that is if a staff person has a different passion or desire, we don’t worry about the fact that we trained them and we spent money on that. We worry about the fact that, “Hey, we’ve trained some great people that’s gonna go out and continue to move the wise mission across the country. And they may go into a different industry.” They may come back as a member, a donor, a board member. We don’t really care about the fact that they left us at Y-G-P-E-W, but if they stay within a Y, Amazing. If they go work for another entity, that’s great too because the YMCA gets to be spread throughout the world and they will talk about their YMCA employment experience, which will hopefully galvanize people to come work for us, join as a member, or be a supporter. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah. I love that. I love that commitment to enabling your team to flourish, and when it’s right for that person to flourish in a different environment, you’re trying to support them. That’s really great. I…we see that more and more with firms and businesses and organizations emphasizing alumni, so they have alumni gatherings and the like. So, I love hearing that. And I think you’re absolutely right that if it was a positive experience for that team member, they’re gonna have very fond things to say about the Y and support it. This again. So that’s really neat.

Through the Y, you and your colleagues are…do a lot to help and support our local community. You shared many of the ways before in this conversation. How can our local community support you in your new role as well as the Y more generally? 

Bertram Lawson II: Well, two key areas would be if you have the…of providing the YMCA from a volunteer standpoint, your time, your talent, your treasure. And the treasure I’m talking about really goes back to support the community. It doesn’t support YMCA’s salaries or anything like that. It’s supporting community and community members to be able to access the Y. If you are looking to be employed, come serve with us as a YMCA professional. We are always, again, are looking for great talent.

But we do have some drives coming up over this holiday season that people can participate in. We have Thanksgiving basket drive, Holiday Angels, Giving Tree upcoming, up in the first quarter of next year. 

We’ll have Martin Luther King Day, day of service opportunities that will exist. And we often partner with the Chester County Food Bank to do food drives to support what they’re doing, but also obviously the local county.  

Eric Gudmundson: So we’ve talked so much about all the community oriented programming offered by the YMCA, and every time we ask you a question, I feel like you use it as an opportunity to weave in more, even more community programming that we didn’t know existed previously. So you’re doing a wonderful job on that. 

Bertram Lawson II: Thank you.

Eric Gudmundson: But I’m wondering, does the YMCA compete against gyms and fitness clubs? Going back to that traditional YMCA is a place to go for swimming lessons or to go work out. So, help us understand the relationship between the Y and those for-profit businesses that some people assume do the same thing you do. 

Bertram Lawson II: Yeah. It’s a very interesting subject. The YMCA is a… what I would classify as a social enterprise. We are very much focused on society and the the ability to impact society from a growth and thriving standpoint. We invest in our community, we invest in our people, invest in our members. We are not a gym and swim only. We do a variety of different program. And I don’t look at those for-profit fitness centers as competitors. They do a portion of what we do, and it would be a very small portion of what we do. We serve at zero to a hundred, you know. 

We focus on aspects of accessibility from a disability standpoint. We look at programming that’s very centric and niche sometimes to a certain demographic. So, I don’t look at them as competitors, and often people do a mistake that like the YMCA is just that we have to continue to do a better job. And hopefully today that will help as this message spreads that the YMCA is beyond What you may have thought. We are not your grandfather’s YMCA to use that slogan. We are a social enterprise and very much focused on elevating our mission. And our mission does include health and wellness. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah, I’m just loving your answers here because you’re sharing so much about the Y. And as I said earlier in our conversation, you know, I didn’t really know the Y and I don’t live far for one. So, it’s really, really helpful to have your time here to share with us and give us that insight about all the great things that are happening and all the opportunities that are available.

You described the Y as a social enterprise, and I’m thinking that the Y started back in 1844. And I expect social enterprise as a phrase did not exist with the same meaning it has today If it even had any meaning back then. How do you see the Y’s mission evolving over the next 179 years? 

Bertram Lawson II: Wow! I really believe that we will continue to diversify our program offerings. We will look at how we are connecting more to the community. There was an age of the YMCA that we really got stuck in, and that was the health and wellness membership age. And that’s the mantra that we’re trying to peel a little bit off of us.

And I think over the next a hundred plus years, we will go back to being more of a community centric organization based upon the origin back in 1844 London, which was really focused on the YMCA being avenue for wayward young men at the time. Programs and services for wayward young men. There’s still unfortunately wayward young people in the world. And sometimes there’s some wayward adults in the world. And we are the avenue and the place that can provide services and program, and a network of folk that will believe, support, and encourage people in their journey, their life’s journey. 

The YMCA is a place where you can live out your dreams whether you just want to hang out and drink a cup of coffee with somebody, or you want to do some cardio, or you really want to do a sculpture art,  have a mental break to relax your mind. The YMCA is a place that you can do all those different things and over the next…a hundred plus years. I believe we’ll get more into that and we’ll start to promote that and people will recognize. That’s what we truly are versus what might’ve been over the last 25-30 years. 

Eric Gudmundson: That’s a fascinating answer. So thank you for providing us with your insights there. But I want to take us back to Chester county since that’s where we’re focused. And you know, you certainly have had some Chester time in Chester County,  with Lincoln University.  but your professional career has taken you all over. New Jersey, New York, Maryland and beyond.

So, I’m curious now that you’re back in Chester county as a seasoned professional. I wanna ask you some rapid fire questions. What’s the best place you’ve discovered here? What’s your favorite thing to do in your five months here of, or professionally living in Chester County? 

Bertram Lawson II: Well, unfortunately,I’m a foodie. So, I like food places.

Eric Gudmundson: That sounds like fortunately to me. I love food as well

Liam Dempsey:  Yeah. I’ve heard that unfortunately as well.

Eric Gudmundson: Yeah. 

Bertram Lawson II: So, a place that I’ve have frequent a lot has been Sedona which is located  not right in the West chester Borough. So I go there a lot and I’m a creature of habit. So, they have great service, a great grilled rockfish sandwich which is my favorite and just great non-alcoholic drinks ’cause I don’t drink. So, it is really a good atmosphere.

Eric Gudmundson: Now I have another place I need to try. So, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. 

Before it goes on to the next rapid fire, when you say you go to Sedona regularly and you’re a creature of habit, can you have the usual yet? 

Bertram Lawson II:  Almost. It depends on the…

Eric Gudmundson: That’s impressive, sir. 

Bertram Lawson II: Yeah. It depends on the weight. 

Eric Gudmundson: That’s impressive. Yes. Well, what surprised you the most after you arrived back in Chester county because I feel like Chester county has changed a lot over the years because of rapid population growth. So, what surprised you the most? 

Bertram Lawson II: What surprised me the most is the development that I saw in the Downingtown Exton area. That was an area that I didn’t spend a lot of time in through my travels in Chester county. So, as I matriculate over there for the various meetings or go into any of my branches, I am astonished about how things have transformed from a development standpoint. Every, almost couple blocks I’m driving, I’m seeing something new. And I didn’t think about that before because that, again, that wasn’t a corridor that I frequent. But it is amazing to see what’s happening there and what continues to happen. Even now as I’ve gone back into Coatesville, some of the things that I’m hearing about and seeing, being transforming that particular segment of the county. 

Liam Dempsey: Yeah, that’s a good answer. There’s a lot. A lot of change. A lot of change. Let me talk a little bit back to work stuff. And you’ve mentioned that through the Y, you work with a lot of different organizations. You partner with different folks in the community. What’s one organization that you do think deserves more of a spotlight than it’s currently receiving? 

Bertram Lawson II: I am not sure how much spotlight they’re getting, but one that I would elevate it, and I mentioned it a little bit earlier, would be the Chester county Food Bank. And the reason I say that is there is huge food insecurity in the county. And unfortunately we would, we sometimes that could be hidden, but it exists. And there’s pockets and population that need the food. And that organization under Andi Youndt leadership, it’s doing an amazing job to get that information out, get into places and spaces, and partner with other entities to bring forward and combat food insecurity. So that’s one organization that I would elevate.

Liam Dempsey: Yeah, it is a great organization and we had Andi Youndt back on the show. We’ll link to her episode. She talked a lot about fighting insecurity, food insecurity, locally. So we’ll definitely highlight that and link to that. And we’ll include links to all the different things that we’ve talked about today in the show over on our website at [startlocal.co,]. You can sign up to get email notifications when a new episode comes out. Another great update. So please take a moment and share your email address with us and we’ll keep you informed with everything that we have going on.

Before we say goodbye to you Bertram, please share where folks can find you online. 

Bertram Lawson II: Well, primarily you can find me on LinkedIn if you just type in my full name, Bertram Lincoln II. I’m usually on there researching, looking at stuff, and sometimes commenting on the great work that we’re doing, but also the great work that’s happening across the county, but also across the state. 

Liam Dempsey: Well, thank you so much for joining us on behalf of my colleague, Eric. We’re just thrilled to get to meet you and spend time with you this afternoon. Thanks for joining us today.

Bertram Lawson II:  No, I really appreciate the opportunity and thank you for the chance to speak with you both.

Eric Gudmundson: Thanks everybody for listening to the Start Local podcast. We publish every fortnight. That’s every two weeks. And  you can find us anywhere. Fine quality podcasts are available.

Thanks for listening.  That’s it for us for now. 

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