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Ronald K. Nelson


Healthy U at the YMCA of Grand Rapids

475 Lake Michigan Dr. NW
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504
Ronald K. Nelson heads the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids with confidence in the positive social changes the organization promotes. He is committed to offer low-income children healthy nutritional information, physical fitness opportunities, and more -- taking programming on the road and into neighborhoods as needed.     
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids CEO Ronald K. Nelson: Being a leader means creating the vision to rally volunteers and staff so that they understand the strategic direction of the organization and their own part in achieving critical goals. 
Board volunteers are important ambassadors -- as well as policy makers -- so making sure that their time is well spent is an important aspect of good leadership. Being a leader also means employing situational leadership skills that provide more coaching to less experienced staff. It means allowing seasoned staff to excel -- with the trust that they understand that their own creativity and personal leadership is needed to advance YMCA’s mission. 
Successful leadership results in a strong board and staff, which translates into high member and program participant satisfaction. It also positions the YMCA as an organization that the community can look to for strength and life changing outcomes.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream is for all kids to be able to grow up in an inclusive, healthy environment that includes strong family support and nurturing. It would be great if all kids could have the same opportunities to learn regardless of economic status, and the financial assistance at the YMCA means that no child is turned away because of an inability to pay. 
I also like to see kids demonstrating care for each other, taking responsibility for their actions, being honest with others and themselves, and showing respect for others as well as the environment.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Shared services (between organizations) in administrative, program, and managerial areas seems to be an underused opportunity for social service organizations to more efficient -- as well as more effective -- and that opportunity translates into the allocation of more resources to direct programming. Shared services could start with simple areas, such as purchasing. This might evolve to accounting, payroll, human resources and marketing. There may be opportunities for shared staff in program roles, as well as in certain managerial positions. 
If funders and local boards placed a priority for this in strategic plans, positive change would result. Joint ventures would be more common, and, after very careful consideration, perhaps mergers would even result.
How do you know you’re making progress?
Hearing individuals tell stories to others about their positive experiences is at the top of the list, but we also know we’re making progress when our constituents recommend us to others. We know we’re making progress when community leaders want to serve on our board of directors. From a statistical perspective, we see factors of our effectiveness through participant surveys, member surveys, staff satisfaction surveys and board surveys -- all of which are conducted by third parties. 
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that our YMCA is a key organization that strengthens the foundation of our community. We are changing the perception of the YMCA from simply being a gym and swim organization to one with three core pillars: youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.  
Parents in our childcare program entrust us with their most prized possessions -- their children. As an example of our youth development core, kids learn, grow and thrive in our accredited child development centers. 
We have programs that focus on combating the obesity epidemic through evidence-based programs featuring nutrition, education, and fitness assessments. All of them are examples of our healthy living core pillar. The YMCA’s Veggie Van serves residents in four inner city Healthy Living Hubs. It takes fresh fruits and vegetables for purchase to those who don’t have neighborhood access to these core components of good health. 
These hubs also collaborate with organizations that the YMCA provides other programming for; this is a part of our community outreach, and it is one example of the social responsibility core pillar.
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give?
I suggest that those interested in careers in the social sector do a little research on the organizations in which they feel they might have an interest. Agency web sites are likely the best starting points -- looking for volunteer opportunities or mentoring programs would be a great introduction to an organization. Internships have long proven to be an excellent way to get a taste of working in the social sector and are often are a direct path to employment opportunities. 
An area in which I often see lacking with entry-level professionals in the social sector is knowledge of the business skills that will enhance their performance. Meeting with an experienced social sector professional, prepared with questions, is likely one of the best ways to identify career options.  
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Program Profile


  • YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids
    To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.


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