As one of the largest serving agencies in Metro Vancouver, YWCA Metro Vancouver provides a wide range of services to help address the economic, social and physical challenges facing women. Erin Seeley, CEO joins host Douglas Nelson to share how the YWCA Metro Vancouver continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the region. With over 200 employees and 75 programs, Erin leads a large, diverse organization committed to achieving gender equality. Listen as she shares about her career journey, the lessons she has learnt along the way and her transition into role of CEO.
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YWCA Metro Vancouver With CEO Erin Seeley
In this episode, we have Erin Seely. Erin is the CEO of YWCA Metro Vancouver, one of BC’s largest multi-service charities, including two social enterprises, a budget of $50 million, and almost 500 employees. It’s impressive. As you read about the broad scope and the depth of their services, I want you to also read how incredibly human she is as a leader, and how connected she is to the experience of the clients they serve. Also, how passionate she is about advocating for changes at municipal, provincial, and Federal levels for those most vulnerable in our community.
Erin is a new CEO. She shares the experience of what it’s like to come through the door on the first day. She is candid, open, and brilliant. We can expect great things from the YWCA over the years to come with Erin as the CEO. If you’re a new leader or if you’re an existing leader looking for inspiration to find that spark, to find that passion, you’re going to want to read this episode with Erin Seely.
Erin, welcome to the show.
Douglas, welcome. Thank you.
It is excellent to have you here. I want to jump right in with the hard-hitting news question. Erin, as the CEO of YWCA Metro Vancouver, can you tell us a little bit about the broad mandate of your organization and the impact you seek to have in the community?
I’m always happy to get to talk about YWCA. We are one of the largest social serving agencies in Metro Vancouver, having been now in operation for over 125 years with about $50 million in budget and 500 staff, to give you a sense of scope and scale. It’s distributed across a diverse set of programs. We have two social enterprises, the YWCA Hotel on Beatty Street, as well as the health and fitness center on Hornby. Those serve to help us generate revenue, but they also have an important impact in serving the downtown community and providing transitional housing as well for women and families.
We offer services across a variety of areas. It expands to meet the needs of our clients, so employment services, early learning, and childcare youth programs, including high school mentorship. We have housing programs and violence prevention programs, as well as a community on the downtown East side called Crabtree Corner. That’s a one-stop shop for women who are seeking, whether healthcare or childcare community support, and transitional housing. It’s a huge array and it’s grown incrementally but also exponentially over the years. We’ve almost doubled our size and our scope to meet the changing needs in the region.
Erin, anyone who’s been around the social profit sector in British Columbia knows the important role that the YWCA plays. On maybe something of a lighter note, how many times have you been asked to explain the difference between what the YW does and what the YM does?
I’ll start with the story. When I got this job, my dad played the YMCA theme song and was excited because he thought that’s where I was going to work. That was my first time with brand confusion. There is a lot, and we do overlap. That’s partly why I think it’s relevant that we are both very much embedded in the communities we serve.
YWCA is evolved to advocate on top of the service delivery. That’s, I think, the differentiator in terms of our focus on gender equity. It’s evolved from women’s equality historically and following the plight of women who were working on their own in big cities, leaving small towns across the province, many being displaced and arriving in an urban center.
YWCA started providing services for women specifically and then has tailored that approach to not only serve women based on their intersectional needs, but to advocate for things like pay equity, universal childcare, and affordable housing that’s safe for women. That is where we spend a lot of our time and energy in terms of our external engagement and our community dialogue.
As an organization, you’ve done quite a bit of initiative like City Shift and advocating for how municipalities approach the issues you serve. It’s always fascinating to me, as in our work here at the Discovery Group, we get to see the role of advocacy in different types of organizations right across the country. A lot of organizations get tripped up by advocacy. They’re good at service delivery. They could be good at raising money to support those or to fund research.
The advocacy sometimes gets in the way, or it’s a different muscle that they organizationally don’t have. The YW has historically found a way to have found that muscle and is a powerful advocate. How closely connected do you see the direct services that you provide with the advocacy that you conduct as an organization?
They’re very connected. There’s a connection both to the direct input we get from clients day-to-day on the front lines, trying to help them navigate whether they can pay rent or buy food for their families, and where they can find affordable childcare. How can they get healthcare? How can they get employment opportunities that are sustainable and meet their economic needs?
That’s also linked to what I think we’re good at, which is tapping into the external environment. That’s where the donor relationships and the connection to the business community and the broader nonprofit sector are. It has allowed YWCA to take all of those inputs from the service delivery from the connections and be able to speak with data and evidence to government, power, and be able to share not only the quantitative but the qualitative. That’s the story.
That, to me, is where we have built a lot of trusts. From where my predecessors took that, I was in so much admiration because it’s also a fine line. You’re pushing an issue. Sometimes you’re pushing the same issue for years and years, but you need to be respectful. You need to be collaborative and you need to be aware of your environment. We are not across the spectrum of advocacy. We very much run in terms of a collaborative approach. That’s where we work in partnership too. When you have more agencies speaking about the same issue, together, you can be a lot more powerful in seeking systems change.When you have more agencies speaking about the same issue together, you can be a lot more powerful in seeking systems change. Click To Tweet
I’m curious. As the CEO, you’re in the meetings about how things are going in service delivery, how the social enterprises are operating, how the fundraising’s performing, and then turning. Now you’re going to be the spokesperson for the advocacy efforts. How do you keep all of those straight as the CEO?
It’s tough. The most important thing to share with advocacy is to lead with the stories to make it about the clients, the challenges that we see in communities, the pressures, and overwhelming barriers. The poverty that we see in some of our programs pulls on your heartstrings, but it also is what fires me up in those conversations.
To have the privilege and the responsibility to share stories of people who’ve entrusted us to serve them and to support them, that’s always the best place to lead. I do worry about the operations and I’ll share that too. That’s another lens that, as a nonprofit service provider, we need to tell that story too. We have a responsibility to be honest about what it takes these days to deliver this work and where we’d like to see more support to sustain us in the future.
Having that direct connection to what services are being delivered makes you a much more compelling advocate in those situations. Congratulations on being on the cover of BCBusiness. It’s wonderful to see leaders in our sector getting that profile and doing such a great job of describing the work of your organization there.
Our readers are often people who are in leadership positions or people in our sector who want to hold those leadership positions. I’m hoping you can share a little bit about how you describe your leadership style, having transitioned to the social profit sector. What have you brought from your previous work in the public sector and regulatory environment and how did that leadership style may have evolved over the last couple of years?
Thank you. It’s great to get a profile for the organization and I’m always happy to share my journey because I’m not someone who ever expected to be in a role like this, but I’m also someone who never took no for an answer. I’m very persistent. That’s been a quality that served me well in government. I’m willing to be open and transparent. That’s essential in the public service in terms of your accountability to the use of public funds. It’s also essential in how you engage in the dynamics and speak truth to power. that willingness to speak up, but to do it diplomatically and to do it respectfully, is something I bring. I am also decisive and I think that I’ve been reflecting a lot.
I grew up with mostly a single dad and my brother. I was surrounded by what are considered masculine traits in terms of command and control style parenting. I certainly don’t follow that path. I am much more collaborative. I see communication as both listening and speaking as a leader. I try to hold back on being the quick voice so that I can get input before the decisions are made. I am decisive. That’s also something in the public sector. When you’re moving quickly, you need to address that key challenge. You don’t always have the luxury of perfect information. You’re never going to get all of what you need. You have to do a bit of both trusting your gut and being analytical and evidence-based in that.
The best alignment for me with this role with YWCA is I finally feel like I can be kind and caring and also be a good, strong leader. I’ve struggled with that. That is something people have complimented me on in past roles, but it’s not something I felt like I could lead in the forefront with always, because that’s what motivates me. Caring for people, caring for my colleagues, caring for our employees, and trying to show compassion are some of the things that I’ve always been raised to focus on. It wasn’t always easy to do that. This is certainly an environment in the sector and in this organization where you can lead with kindness and still be viewed as decisive. That’s exciting.
It’s great that you’ve found a place where you feel that you can be both of those things. It’s still surprising to me that, especially in our sector, that’s not every place and not at every level of the organization. This work is so human at its core. If we can’t be ourselves and show our humanness in our work, I don’t think we’re going to be very effective. It’s so limiting to the work that we can do as leaders and as organizations in the sector.
Show our humanity and our sense of humor. You cannot take yourself too seriously. You have to keep the levity in the work because it’s heavy. It’s precisely that. The emotional weight of the work demands that you step back, laugh about it, have some good fun with your team, and keep it light sometimes too. It’s important.
Given the very significant issues and difficult circumstances, the number of the people that you serve, and the women you serve are in, how do you remind your team in moments where it’s appropriate that levity should be allowed to creep in?
It’s a work in progress. I’ve inherited the best team, by the way. As a senior leadership team, the board told me when I was getting into the recruitment process and I thought, “Are they that great?” They’re great. They’re pretty good at having fun. That’s a nice element of the comradery and the trust that they’ve built. I think, though, we do need to constantly remind ourselves to take a moment and celebrate our successes.
We’re so lean on the operation side and we’re always trying to create programs that will meet the changing needs and moving quickly that we forget to take a moment. That’s where I’m trying to inject my suggestions and encouragement, “Let’s celebrate this success. Let’s take a minute and talk about how great this is that we’ve been able to do this work and that will help fuel us to keep going.” You have to pause and reflect. It is also very frustrating and can be very emotionally draining.
Leading an organization that has been so successful and certainly viewed as essential in the ecosystem of social profit organizations in our community. As a new leader, you can bring that external view. This is how we’re viewed. We’re viewed as a strong leadership team. We’re viewed as an essential organization. We can be lighter sometimes when it’s appropriate. It’s a unique role for you. You’ve been in the role and I’d like you to share a little bit about that first day when you put your hand on the door to pull it open. Erin Seeley’s first day as CEO, what was going through your mind when you walked through the door the first time?
On my first official day, June 1st, 2022, I was in Toronto. I started early so I could meet at the annual members’ meeting of all of the 30 YWCAs across Canada. That was deliberate to be able to understand how a federated model works as well. This is an interesting dynamic of YWCAs, not only in Canada but internationally. We collaborate on many issues. We are there to support each other. In Canada, we contribute to YWCA Canada as an entity to also provide an umbrella of services. It was daunting because there were all of these amazing women in the room.
I’m very new to the sector and to the YWCA. There are years of history. I was intimidated for sure. What I love is there was one breakout session during the day that was the CEOs and they welcomed me. I even got my little survival kit that they give you as a new CEO of the movement. I still have it. I thought, “These are my people.”
We can connect. They were very frank and honest about the challenges that they faced day to day. Some are small YWCAs and some are significant like Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. I felt an immediate kinship there. I started off terrified, but as the day went on, so much gratitude a. I have relied on that group of women leaders repeatedly and I’ll continue to rely on them, I’m sure.
That arc of being an outside leader in a very significant organization that first year, when did you first feel like, “I got this?”
Ask me in a few years. That’s what I love too. I knew going into this, it’s varied and I love learning. I’m so curious about how we can do this differently or how we can make a difference here. The challenge is I don’t think I’ll ever fully grasp every nuance and it’s a great leadership piece because I can’t be the doer and the leader. I rely on the team for the expertise. I can speak to ministers, mayors, or other executives, but I want to speak as a team and I’ll bring the team in to be giving the details on the operations.
I don’t feel like I fully have a handle on it, but I do feel like I understand the essence of it. That’s been part of it. In the first six months, digging into operations, understanding what makes us tick, seeing the passion, the dedication, and the level of comradery and trust that the team has to support each other to do difficult work. That essence came through for me quite quickly in the first few months.
One of our values at the Discovery Group is, “Always be learning.” It’s great to hear leaders say learning mindset’s important. In that context, what surprised you about the role of CEO as you settled in?
Two things surprised me. Coming from the public sector, decisions can take a long time. You do a lot of preparation. There are a lot of processes. Where’s the form for that? We move quickly. That was the first thing, how agile the organization is for its size. When we see a program opportunity and if we have some funding or we can get funding, we’ll go and try it out, we’ll have the courage to move quickly in a lot of areas. That was a great surprise.
The other one that isn’t so great and is a constant challenge is how lean we are in our operations and how much operational risk we manage in terms of the contracts, the services, the commitments, and the expectations of our clients. That’s daunting. It’s also inspiring for advocacy because, as part of the sector, that’s part of the story to tell. The myth of having somehow a low administrative budget makes you a more effective nonprofit is just a myth. We need to invest as much in our systems, our people, and our financial controls as any for-profit enterprise. That’s been a surprise.Nonprofits need to invest as much in their systems, people, and financial controls as any for-profit enterprise. Click To Tweet
Every board member that’s reading, read Erin’s comments there again. Low cost does not equal effectiveness or efficiency. I want to make sure we all pause and think about that for a second and then we can move on. One of the things that have been interesting for me watching you as the leader of watching with the organization, by reputation, you are someone who is very a big picture. You’ve been in roles with big goals and changing things a lot. Now, now you’re responsible for a lot of day-to-day delivery of services and those big-picture things. How do you, as an individual and as a leader, balance the pull to both the fine detail and the big vision?
That’s the ever-present challenge. You’ve got to know enough to understand, to feel confident that you can understand the challenges, but you don’t have to know enough to do the work yourself. I try to keep my engagement one-to-one. I try to build strong relationships one-on-one with each of the team at the senior level to get an understanding of what top three things are keeping them awake at night. What are the top three opportunities they’re seeing? That’s the level I try to stay at operationally. I feel like that is what’s going to help us advance our strategy and our vision if I know what their key big rocks are.
I also have had an interesting opportunity to get to know other staff in the organization better one-on-one. I do spend a lot of time doing that. The relationships matter internally as well as externally. That gives me the confidence to then go to back to strategy because ultimately, the staff are going to be delivering. If I know who they are and we’ve had a rapport and I hear about the things that they might want to change or the things that they’re thinking about, I feel like, collectively, that can allow me to go back to the board discussion, think about that mission and vision and our goals.
You constantly recalibrate because we are a pretty big ship. Part of a big ship is the right pacing to how to steer it to that vision. That’s the part that will take me years to be learning. As a CEO, you’re always pushing and looking ahead, but you have to listen and recalibrate all the time with what your actual capacity is internally and what the risks are that you’re managing.As a CEO, you're always pushing and looking ahead, but you have to listen and recalibrate all the time with what your actual capacity is internally and what risks you're managing. Click To Tweet
I had a conversation with a CEO in another province. Her comment was, “A leader who doesn’t have people following them isn’t just alone. They’re lost.” Knowing that different parts of the organization move at different speeds is great wisdom that you’re sharing there.
I was doing some thinking about this because I am trying to be leading from within a circle. This is, in part, what we’re also trying to commit to on a journey to inclusion, diversity, equity, truth, and reconciliation. The followership has to come from a collaborative approach to setting our priorities and then getting that buy-in and that engagement from the staff to deliver on it collectively.
It’s less the model that I aspire to be part of. It is less about that top down. Yet, it’s tough too, because as a flat structure then where you’ve got lots of leadership and input, how you make decisions gets tricky. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that in terms of our decision-making governance. Giving space to other voices is a big priority. You don’t want to slow down either. There are all those factors to consider, which adds to the complexity of how to drive toward a new strategy.
Sometimes it can be so challenging. When you as the leader, as a CEO, you’ve got the clearest view down all of the different avenues that the organization’s moving. You can see things. You’re assimilating the information in a real-time basis in a way that no one else in the organization can. One of the things I see a lot with CEOs is ready to make the decision because they see it.
The best CEOs know to wait at least 1 beat or 2 and bring other people along or share what they see before making the decision. It’s challenging, especially when you’re feeling the urgency of funding commitments or program delivery or you have the opportunity to move forward with an advocacy piece. It’s hard to move in lockstep.
It’s hard. The team we have on, especially in the advocacy and the marketing communications, are very good about timing. A lot of what we do with advocacy now involves social media and key issues. This is where the youth and younger generations are driving a lot of how we’ll be able to create systems changes. You need that coalescence around an issue. That’s a lot about timing.
I am sure that I’ll make mistakes in that area because I’m too cautious sometimes. That’s where it’s nice to have a team behind you saying or around you to say, “We’ve got to go. This is the time,” because the issue will pass. The media cycle’s so short that you do have to leap in sometimes when you feel like you can have an impact.
A few minutes ago, you mentioned conversations with the board. As a first-time CEO, what was the best advice you got about working with the board?
I was a CEO with a crown agency. That was to be candid and honest about what you see the challenges are early on and to give that unvarnished truth. That was helpful because you’re worried about the perception of your own performance. You’re worried about protecting your team and wanting to make sure that you’re conveying the complexity, depth, and scale of the operations, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to dance around your big challenges.
Sometimes getting into those conversations early helps to show that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and talk about the hard stuff together. Even if you’re not going to find the answers quickly, you’ve got to get to those conversations sooner. That’s what will keep the board at the strategic level too because if you bring that challenge, that’s where they can engage and where you can take that feedback and their perspective in how you might need to lead.
It’s great advice to follow. I’m sure you’ve seen other CEOs thinking, “I need to have the right answer. I don’t want to show that we’ve made a mistake or we haven’t got it quite right.” It almost inevitably invites the board closer to the operations and to where you don’t want them. They’re looking for a crack in the armor or something to get in there and find out what’s going on. As you say, being open and candid is the way to have a long and healthy relationship with your board.
I want to come back to the work of the YWCA because it’s important to give our readers a sense of the scope and the scale of the work that you and your colleagues do. One of the big lessons that we’ve learned through the pandemic and it seems obvious in hindsight and it was obvious to many before, was that people most impacted were the people who were most vulnerable before the pandemic started.
YW Metro Vancouver works with women who are in that most vulnerable category, whether it’s race, immigration, violence, all of those things taken together, and probably many more. What’s the wise comprehensive approach? How do you look at addressing those areas of such intense complexity?
We try to have in our model that wraparound approach because we know that one service isn’t going to meet the complex needs of an individual who may have a whole host of challenges they face, whether it’s socioeconomic, race, gender, ability, or cognitive diversity. We see that more and more in mental health. We try to take a wraparound and that’s an advantage of being a larger organization, that we are very interconnected.
We spend a lot of time. For example, our Single Mothers Support Group is a great example where we may get introduced to a woman who may be having challenges with housing. We can make referrals to our housing waitlist. We can help her to fill out forms for BC Housing. We can refer to transitional housing. We can look at employment support if it’s someone who’s needing some employment services, mental health, and counseling.
Having those diverse resources internally help and having the strength of the partnership, because we don’t operate alone. We operate in this amazing ecosystem of other supportive agencies and we do different things for different people. There’s no finder’s fee for people. There’s no reason to hold on to someone. You want them to have their own journey and get what they need in their lives. That changes. We see clients come back to us all the time. It’s always that collaboration in the sector, too that can help. It’s very place-based still.
Crabtree Corner is a good example of a facility. There’s a physical space. It’s a building, but it’s a connection to the community. When you talk to the staff and you meet the clients, it’s a place of families, growing, and nurturing. We need to find those ways to collaborate with the other partners in that community when there’s also so much harm, violence, and a general lack of safety there now. Day-to-day is very real and in your face. We bring a lot of that and yet we always have to ask for help too. We don’t have all the answers, so we’re learning a lot as we go in new models to serve.
This is where technology’s coming into play the opportunity through the pandemic to reach people in their homes. For some, that’s effective if you’ve got young kids and taking transits is overwhelming. We can serve people through the internet and virtually now in a way that we couldn’t. That’s another way that we’ve tried to adapt to meet those complex needs of clients.
One of the issues you touched on briefly in that answer was housing. That’s an area that the Y has both on advocacy and in serviceability has been has prioritized. What is the role that the YW is playing in housing and encouraging other levels of government to play a more active role as well?
YWCA is an interesting journey that it’s been on in increasing housing operations. We operate now 277 units. We have over 800 women and families living in those units. They’re very specifically targeted to women and families. Most are 2 and 3 bedrooms. Many are at deeply affordable rent, so mostly income assistance shelter rates. We have other rents that are based on income but are always within an income level set by BC Housing. Always deemed affordable, but we’re landlords second to the service provision. That’s the model.
Going back to the wraparound, we have community development workers in each of the buildings. We have fourteen sites, including the hotel and those community development workers are the glue to building communities. We’ll host events in the buildings based on what the women want to celebrate. Alaska has one of the communities that wanted to celebrate their kids going back to school, so that was the thing they threw a party for. It’s community-based and place-based. It’s the service delivery there.
We have a program called Employment Navigator, where employment counselors come to the housing community. They’ll come on-site, meet the women, and help them map out their goals and dream again. That’s what our VP of Housing, Lisa Rupert, always talks about that. Foundationally, if you can have a secure place, you can take a breath and be able to think about what next steps you’re seeking in your life. We have that ability with bursaries and with financial support as well to help women achieve that.
Sometimes, they’re going to be lifelong challenges for some of our tenants. Some of it is that continuation of support, too, without expectation or judgment. We’d love to do more of that. We’re very good at it. It’s hard to scale and manage the operating costs. It’s hard to manage the reserves required for aging infrastructure.
It sounds very technical, but it’s something that keeps us awake at night because we feel like we have a long-term responsibility for these clients and tenants. We want to be able to keep funding to have the home stay beautiful, safe, and affordable. It’s a big challenge. The advocacy comes in around the realistic cost to operate and the challenges day-to-day to keep the lights on in those communities.
In listening to you talk about the great work of your organization and even though I would’ve said at the beginning, I know what the YW does. I have a pretty good idea. You’ve certainly expanded my thinking and understanding of all that you do. One of the things that can be challenging in broad social service provision organizations is making it clear that you need money or that you’re seeking donations and philanthropy. What’s the role of philanthropic dollars in the YW and the work that you do?
It’s been a big part of the organization. It continues to be. About 20% of our budget annually comes from the generosity of private donors, including individuals, family foundations, private foundations, and corporate donors. that speaks to the commitment we make to donors to deliver on their contributions. We do a lot of relationship-building and long-term nurturing of those donor relationships.
We’ve had many wonderful donors who’ve been with us for 20, 25, or even 30 years. I’ll give a plug because our VP of Fund Development always talks about bequest and putting the YWCA in your will and that’s a big part of it too, that legacy piece. Those gifts can be long-term. It allows us to diversify and be flexible. On the housing side, it means we’ve been able to fund capital projects with minimal financing.
That frees up operating funds to then give those supports that we talked about. Donors are critical. I also think increasingly the donor relationship is one of education. We see a lot of our donors interested in taking the journey with us to be more culturally relevant to the diverse populations we serve to learn about gender diversity, truth, reconciliation with us, and what it means to be anti-racist. That’s something I’m excited about.
Many of our donors are older. They’ve had money that they’ve earned throughout their lives or that they’ve inherited. They might not be exposed to the same learning opportunities that young people are. We also see that now as a new dynamic where there’s an education component, whether it’s through events or even webinars. We try to share that.
It’s a relationship-based approach. I’m continually mindful of a world of increasing inequality too. We are seeing more and more of our clients struggling in impoverished circumstances through no fault of their own. We’re also seeing growing wealth. If you look at the demographics of the City of Vancouver, the influx of new residents are wealthy. That’s not a surprise if you live here, but it does create tension in the work that we do as well.
Erin, as we come to the end of our conversation, I want to ask you one final question. It’s my favorite question to ask leaders who come on the show or in general, but I’m looking forward to your answer to this. Erin, what are you looking forward to?
I’m so excited about our next strategy. We are in a year of having the opportunity to think about where we can go as an organization in the future. The intersection of systems changes and service delivery is exciting. We have a responsibility to be using the advocacy that we’ve had to give voice to the other voices that are fighting for anti-racism, reconciliation, and decolonization. We are excited about being focused on gender diversity as well. That is a modern approach for a 125-year-old organization. The tension there is not lost on me. It can seem like a paradox, but I love big problems and challenges, so I’m very excited about that.
You are the perfect CEO to lead those kinds of conversations and to manage that tension at the YWCA. We’re thrilled that you took the time to join us on the show.
Thank you so much. It’s been great to speak with you.