During outgoing CEO Bill Geiger’s nine-year tenure at the , membership grew and grew, crossing the 10,000 member mark in 2007 and reaching 13,000 at last count, in April 2012.
The numbers don’t tell the story, however.
In nearly a decade of leadership of the McGaw YMCA before , colleagues say Geiger emphasized connections, community and cause.
“He’s frequently made it clear that for the YMCA in Evanston to be a true cause-driven organization, we have to not only focus on our internal strengths, but we really need to reach,” says board chair Kirk Hoopingarner.
Explaining his decision to step down, Geiger would say only that he couldn’t commit to remaining with the organization long-term to carry out its new strategic plan, which was completed last year. He will remain onboard, however, while a transition committee searches for another CEO.
“I’m surprised that he’s stepping down because of his tremendous love for the Y and the Evanston community,” says longtime board member and former board chair Bob Reece. “I hate to see him go.”
A native Evanstonian, Geiger says his goal has always been not just to grow the organization but to make it as inclusive as possible. In a city that once had a “black Y” and a “white Y,” that meant partnering with nonprofits from the entire community to make membership reflect the city itself.
Reece, who grew up in Evanston along with Geiger, said Geiger’s commitment to inclusion was particularly evident at the McGaw YMCA’s 125th anniversary celebration. For the gala event, the McGaw YMCA commissioned a video called Unforgettable, which documents the history of the Emerson Street YMCA, otherwise known as “the black Y.”
“It’s a great film that told the story of the Emerson Street Y and the tremendous impact that it had on the black community,” says Reece, who co-chaired the celebration along with his wife and another couple. “Bill was very, very supportive of helping to get that story told.”
When the Emerson Street Y closed in 1969, many African-Americans didn’t have any other place to go, Reece says—including himself. Today, however, that’s not the case.
“If you go down to the Y sometime in the evening and see the people going down through there, it’s absolutely unbelievable the diversity and the cross-section of people going through there,” said he says. “You say, ‘Gosh, this is the way the world should be.”
Part of Geiger’s commitment to being inclusive also meant making sure people could access the Y, no matter what their economic situation was. According to Reece, Geiger made it a priority to make sure that no one was turned away because of an inability to pay. During the recession, for example, the Y worked with families to discount their membership if someone lost a job.
“As families and children in particular became impacted by the recession, that’s the time when our board and our staff said, ‘Hey, we need to step up,’” Geiger says. “You’re not going to leave programs, your kids aren’t going to stop swimming because times are tight.”
Another example of that commitment is the Y’s summer reading program, one of five such programs being piloted around the country this summer. It’s focused on low-income, below-grade level readers from kindergarten through first grade.
“Middle and upper income kids over the summer…because they have camps, trips to the museum, enrichment activities, their reading skills can actually progress during the summer,” Geiger says. Not so for lower income kids, he says; studies show that their reading skills often regress during the summer.
“This program attempts to address that,” he explains. “It is an example of our commitment to social responsibility.
The Y is partnering with District 65 on the program—just one of many connections Geiger has made around the community. Those include partnerships with the city, the , , the (Y.O.U.), the and the , among others.
The Y is collaborating with Y.O.U. on a mentoring and summer program, with NorthShore University HealthSystem on a task force to combat childhood obesity and with the Youth Job Center on tutoring programs, according to Hoopingarner.
“Bill’s certainly got a lot of ideas and motivations, but a lot of it is him taking it one step further and reaching out to various organizations in the community,” he says.
The new CEO will have to have a commitment to the community and the vision to carry out what Geiger began, says Hoopingarner, who chairs the committee tasked with hiring a replacement.
“The McGaw YMCA has a very strong reputation in the Y community, in the country, as a leader in innovative programs, so I would imagine we will get a number of very strong candidates,” he said.
Hoopingarner’s committee is composed of four board members and four people people who aren’t members of the board, including Reece. They will meet as a group next Monday to begin laying down guidelines for the search process. This early in the game, Hoopingarner said he couldn’t say exactly what the timeline would be.
In the short-term, Geiger says his focus remains on leading the McGaw Y. Long-term, however, he says he hopes to contribute to the YMCA’s national headquarters.
“If the opportunity doesn’t sync up with the continued work at the YMCA, then I’m turning my sights to other nonprofit opportunities,” he says.