The YMCA of Greater Indianapolis has a problem. With each passing year memberships— family, two-person household, and single—are declining. For an organization that relies on these fees to operate, reversing this nearly decade-long slide is critical.
So, when Gregg Hiland, Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of the YMCA, set out to address the issue, he was excited to have 27 helpers. Enter, the newest batch of Butler University MBA students.
This is MBA 505, the Gateway Experience—the first on-campus course in the program after they finish their online prerequisites—and it is a trial by fire. Meet new people, learn to work together, examine a problem, come up with recommendations, and deliver those recommendations directly to the leaders of the organization.
All in one day.
Over 800 students have gone through the class since 2006, helping more than 20 different businesses tackle a specific problem. The future MBAs are put through the wringer for a specific reason.
“Having only 24 hours helps students realize that time can’t be the excuse for coming up with great solutions,” says Marie Mackintosh ’06, who is both the Chief Operating Officer of EmployIndy, which delivers workforce services and training to Marion County residents, and the professor who has taught the course for the past four years. “It simulates the pressures of the real world where you have to juggle many different priorities, and the trial by fire forces teams to gel quickly and leverage each other’s strengths. Or learn from their failures.”
They get a little preparation beforehand, in the form of a two-page background briefing on their issue and a session with Butler Business Librarian Teresa Williams to learn about conducting background research. Each team is assigned a facilitator who provides advice and feedback on what they did well and what they need to work on.
Then the rush begins.
The Butler University MBA promises that students get ample opportunities to apply classroom concepts to real-world situations—and that explains why 27 new participants in the program are spending their first day of class fanned out across Indianapolis.
For the next 24, breathless hours, they’ve been grouped in teams of five or six students—strangers to each other previously—and asked to help the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis reverse a nearly decade-long slide in family memberships.
The class starts at 5:30 PM on Thursday with a big dinner and introduction to the organization. Hiland, Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, lays out the problem: Since 2014, the number of two-adult member households has dropped from 12,746 to 10,281. The number of one-adult households is down from 3,784 to 3,353.
This is a trend nationwide, not just in Indianapolis, he says.
“We want recommendations from you that will be actionable, something that will help us,” Hiland tells the group.
For the next 45 minutes or so, the MBA students pepper him with questions: Are outside vendors allowed in? How are you marketing? Do you survey the people who quit? And so on.
“I’m enjoying the idea of getting to make a presentation to people who can really make a difference,” says Taylor Cagle, a Financial Analyst with Roche Diagnostics. “It feels like you’re putting in work and getting value out of that work. This isn’t an academic exercise.”
The teams are given more time that night and some the next morning to confer before they get into vans and head to one of five YMCAs in the city (there are 12 YMCAs in greater Indianapolis.)
They arrive at their locations around 10:00 AM, and then it’s up to them how to use the next two hours. For Team Holcomb (each group is named for a Butler building), the six students spend that time touring the Arthur Jordan YMCA on the north side of Indianapolis. They interview staff and talk to members about their experience at the Y.
Team member Alyssa Rudner, a Client Success Manager for a software company, talks to a member-services representative and finds that one of their biggest challenges is that there isn’t a method in place to schedule exercise classes in advance.
“If I’m paying $80 a month, I want to know that if I show up to the Y, I’m going to be able to take the class that I want to take,” says Rudner.
There’s one recommendation for her team to share: explore a scheduling system that goes beyond physical passes.
Cagle, another member of Team Holcomb, finds it surprising that the Jordan Y sometimes turns away parents looking for preschool programs due to lack of space. He looks around the facility and sees plenty of places to add new preschool programs.
That becomes another recommendation for the team: expand preschool offerings.
“If you can do that here,” he said. “You’re really separating yourself from the Lifetime Fitnesses, the LA Fitnesses. I think it would be really beneficial.”
Andy Starling agrees. He’s the Senior Membership Director at the Y, and he thinks the perspective of these business-minded outsiders is going to help.
“I’ve worked at the Y for more than six years, and you get tunnel vision a little bit,” he says. “We always try to be innovative, but they brought up some things I hadn’t thought about.
The teams return to Butler around 1:00 PM. They adjourn to their respective “war rooms” and, over boxed lunches, get to work. They have about three hours to hash out their ideas and prepare both a sheet of brainstormed recommendations and a PowerPoint they’ll use as part of a rigidly-timed 10-minute presentation.
They also need to prepare what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it, and the deadline comes quickly.
“We were five individuals who didn’t know each other 24 hours before presenting,” Chancellor Collins, a Product Manager in Marketing at Roche Diagnostics and member of Team Lilly, says. “It’s funny, because you quickly figure out roles and responsibilities, and strengths, and different ways to play off each other, and I think we did a great job of that in that 24-hour period.”
At 4:30 PM, the teams assemble in Gallahue Hall 108, a lecture hall, where seven representatives of the Y—including retiring CEO Eric Ellsworth—are ready to listen. There’s a notable buzz among the students.
“I love the energy in this room,” says Mackintosh.
For the next 90 minutes, the teams take their turn presenting their findings and watching their counterparts.
If the students are nervous, they don’t show it. The presentations go off remarkably well across the board. The Y comes away with a long list of useful ideas.
“I want to hire all of these people,” says Ellsworth.
Hiland praises the group for their fantastic work and innovative ideas. He was impressed with how deeply the students dove into the issue in only 24 hours. In the future, he wants to put the students’ concepts into practice at local Ys.
“We’re committed to implementing and trying some of these ideas—either in pilots at certain centers or potentially across the organization,” he says.
In the end, Team Lilly—Chancellor Collins, Danny Lawton, Davina Isaacs, James Pokryfky, and Swetha Vaddi—won Butler goodie bags and, more importantly, bragging rights. They made suggestions that included installing a kiosk, at a cost of $1,000, to allow members to give instant feedback, offering incentives for positive reviews on Google, and instituting a holistic approach to wellness.
“The judges appreciated Team Lilly’s focus on retention and their financial implications,” Mackintosh says. “They thought they did the best job of telling the story of their problem-solving process and had good ideas of how to increase retention of family memberships in particular.”
Collins says the team owed credit to its facilitator, Marcelle Gress, an Executive Coach at Butler. She advised them to make time to practice their presentation a couple of times. They listened, and rehearsed twice.
“If she had not held our feet to the fire to carve out 30 minutes before we had to turn in our presentation, I don’t think it would have gone so smoothly,” says Collins.
In the end, Team Lilly celebrated with high-fives, fist bumps, and some wine.
“This really was a good experience and exposure to what we’ll be going through in the Butler MBA program in terms of looking at complex cases and having to think through ways to solve problems,” Collins said. “I think that’s what the Butler MBA is going to prepare us for the most—how to think differently about ways to solve real-world problems.”