Passing of the Baton: YMCA Foundation President Jennifer Grondahl




Karin Gustafson helped a lot of people in her 23 years as president/CEO of the YMCA Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm for the Sarasota Family YMCA.

Take Bonnie, for instance. She was the first person to be in the YMCA Runaway Shelter, the 20-bed residential facility, two-week trauma center, which caters to Sarasota’s 1,000 homeless children. The shelter opened in 1991, a year after Gustafson came to the YMCA.

She was a 13-year-old girl with an extremely violent father, whom she thought might kill her. She stayed at the shelter; ended up working part-time at one of the branches; and became a trustee when she graduated from high school. Bonnie attended Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida) with monetary assistance from the YMCA, earned a degree in child therapy and became a teacher in North Port.

“One day, I forgot where I was, but I felt this,” Gustafson makes a tapping motion on her shoulder, “I turn around and here’s Bonnie with these beautiful little children all dressed up — she and her husband had adopted them out of foster care.”

The attractive 60-something tells this story proudly from behind her desk at the YMCA, where she served as president since 1990 until her term ended March 8. Adjacent to Gustafson’s office, is the office of new Y Foundation President/CEO Jennifer Grondahl, to whom she’s passed the baton.

Gustafson mentions this metaphor of “the baton” frequently: “You can’t do anything by yourself. You’re the person holding the baton and they’re the orchestra.”

She’s been conducting this orchestra since she and her husband, Nels, moved in 1984 from Illinois to Sarasota.

She talks about her brief stint as a retiree following the move: “I thought maybe I didn’t want to work anymore, and after I redecorated the house and sat around the pool for a few weeks, I got bored out of my skull,” she laughs.

In 1985, Gustafson saw an ad in the paper for executive director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC). She did a self-analysis of her skills and resume: a business degree from Brown’s Business College in Springfield, Ill.; she worked as an aide to then-Gov. Otto Kerner; worked as a staff-person for a U.S. senator, then as a staff person for a congressman; she served as the first woman deputy director of the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles; worked as the general manager of an engineering firm; and her most recent position was treasurer of the city of Springfield. She was perfect for the position at the nonprofit, which had few resources and needed one person to do everything. WRC hired her on the spot.

When Gustafson came on board to WRC in 1985, employees would leave the front and back doors of the Goldtree Plaza office building open because there wasn’t money for air conditioning. In the five years under Gustafson’s leadership, the organization had moved into its Carl Abbott-designed building; had formed a strong board; had increased fundraising; and had achieved an identity and sense of direction.

She describes the Y in 1990 as a lovely swim-and-gym with a great reputation for its daycare and after-school care program — but CEO Carl Weinrich had a vision for an engine that needed to be fueled with dollars. Cue Gustafson.

The YMCA had a few projects taking place the year she came on board — building the $2.7 million Evalyn Sadlier Jones Branch in Palmer Ranch; installing the education-based Black Achievers program geared to helping at-risk children graduate from high school; and the Runaway Youth Shelter was on the horizon. By 1994, the restricted and unrestricted endowment funds grew from less than $2 million to $4.2 million.

But Gustafson is humble.

“If you give me all the credit for this, I’m going to come and get you,” she smiles while giving her stern and threatening delivery a playful underbelly. ”Because it’s not to any of my credit — it’s all team work.”

She worked for the board of directors and provided them support in whatever ways it needed. She was in charge of fund development and raising friends for the Sarasota YMCA.

Those donations to the Y Foundation helped initiate the Prevention/Outreach program to educate the public about youth services; the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters program; a Transitional Living program, a group home for boys and a group home for girls; the Triad Alternative School Program serving 130 students; among others.

But her favorite part of the job is when she can do what she refers to lovingly as “the money dance.”

“I could be real ethereal and say that my favorite aspect of being president was the joy of walking through the doors, but you know what? Hell no!” she laughs, “We’re here to raise money.”

When donations came in, she’d clap her hands, spin, and dance in a circle yelling, “Yes, yes, yes.” And staff would ask, “How much?” Gustafson didn’t see the donations as a stack of dollar bills; she thought of them as a stack of projects the Y would be able to initiate.

Before the recession, the Y Foundation had $15 million in assets, and the mortgage for the new building at Kane Plaza was paid. It’s her vision to get back to that security, and, hopefully, be able to restart the transitional living programs that closed due to lack of funding.

Thirty-seven-year-old Grondahl has a similar vision — to support new YMCA President and CEO Kurt Stringfellow by bringing in new volunteers, maintain the history and build the endowments.

Gustafson is finally ready to retire, and plans to redecorate the house and sit by the pool for real this time. But she also plans to get more involved in the Animal Rescue Coalition, and she’ll still be around to advise Grondahl. After all, Grondahl has been working eight years for Gustafson in a contractual marketing and events position.

Grondahl moved in 2000 to Sarasota, after working for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. In Sarasota, she first worked for the American Cancer Society as executive director of Manatee, Hardy and Highlands counties before starting her own successful marketing-and-events company, Maestro Marketing/Events. She was responsible for the Y’s events and annual campaign and also sat in on monthly board meetings. When the position opened up, the board of directors approached her about applying.

“The Y means so much to me,” Grondahl says. “I just felt like I needed to be the one to do this.”

So she referred her clients elsewhere and picked up the baton from Gustafson.

She left her first board meeting in tears after a young man in the Black Achievers program spoke to the board. He told them his supportive father, who had attended all his football games, made a mistake and was jailed. At the same time, this young man’s mother had kidney cancer — she’s now OK. He told his mom when she was still in the hospital, that he wants her to see him successful before anything happens to her, and the head of the Black Achievers’ program has held him accountable.

But this upcoming Father’s Day will be the young man’s first without his dad. Grondahl went to the office following the meeting and wrote the student’s name and “Father’s Day” on a Post-it. She plans to make sure that the Y does something special with him on Father’s Day.

“That’s something I need to be thinking about,” she says. “That’s just what the Y does. It goes to the deepest level and pulls it out for you.”


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