YWCA Columbus’ renovation stretches its staff into new roles


In 2014, the YWCA Columbus began to raise $25 million to renovate the historic Griswold building, increase its endowment and sustain its family center.

Now, the end is in sight, as residents move in and the grand reopening is slated for early 2017. President and CEO Elfi Di Bella and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Patti O’Toole took time to reflect on what they learned.

At times, it was like drinking water from a fire hose, Di Bella says. The senior leadership spent two or three years doing double or triple duty. Luckily, everyone has passion for the work and a great culture supported the extra effort.

“When we decided that we were moving forward with this project, not only did we have the support of the community and funders, and certainly our board of trustees, but the team was 100 percent behind it,” she says.

You do worry about burnout, though, Di Bella says. That’s why it’s important to make it fun and keep the higher purpose in mind.

For example, YWCA Columbus does small events to celebrate, like a cooking night with team members and their spouses — because the workload impacts families, too.

Di Bella herself visits their women and families at least once a week, to remember why it’s worth it. If she can interact with the people YWCA Columbus serves, she gets up every morning with a smile on her face.

O’Toole had a different metaphor for the project’s hard work and worthwhile reward.

“It’s just like having a baby. You’re all in. You have no choice,” she says. “This thing is going to be done, and certainly along the pregnancy there are times when you don’t feel well and your feet swell and you just want to sleep … and there’s no turning back, regardless of how much you want to.

“So, I think there is a certain momentum to the project, and it’s actually fun to learn all of the little things along the way.”

Historic challenges

The renovation created 91 small apartments for women with mental illness and chronic homelessness, so they can gain skills to live independently. Previously, the dorm-like rooms had shared bathrooms and community kitchens.

YWCA Columbus also hopes to increase its revenue-generating streams.

Di Bella says they wanted to use every nook and cranny of the building in a thoughtful way. The ballroom was moved to the basement and a professional kitchen was added. The rental spaces were updated and a co-working space was created.

A 90-plus-year-old building, however, presents unforeseen conditions that require workarounds, Di Bella says. It’s important to be flexible and nimble.

“With something like this, you take down a wall, and you find something behind it that nobody expected,” she says.

Even with the challenges, Di Bella says they didn’t build new and move to the suburbs because location is critical. Their constituents rely on access to health care providers, jobs and continuing education.

In addition, using historic tax credits adds requirements that can potentially extend the project’s length, if they aren’t solved ahead of time, O’Toole says.

“Our pool is one of the historic elements that we are required to preserve,” she says. “In the renovation, the pool becomes the ballroom floor and to preserve it, we built over it without filling it in. This way, it can be restored if someone down the line sees the need.”

With funds from multiple sources, O’Toole says, the YWCA Columbus staff also put in significant work creating a system to track the money and manage compliance.

Do your homework

Di Bella had never done a comprehensive renovation project, so she did her homework — talking with those who do it for a living or nonprofit leaders who’ve gone through renovations.

“We really garnered a lot of expertise, but as you can imagine, with any kind of complicated historic renovation, you learn a lot as you go along,” she says. “And that has been an interesting journey in itself.”

Something that helped keep the project on track was open lines of communication through regular meetings and a collaborative internal team, Di Bella says.

Many people told Di Bella it would cost more and take longer than anticipated, which was true.

O’Toole remembers Tom Katzenmeyer of the Greater Columbus Arts Council talking about how the project will feel like it will never be done, and then one day, boom, you’re in the fast track to the end. Again, true.

As much as you try to prepare, however, the experience itself teaches you the most, Di Bella says. You have to go through it.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of extra hours, but it’s well worth it — if you’re doing it for the right reasons,” she says. “We’re not doing it for us to have better offices, certainly not. We’re doing it to make sure these women have the appropriate facilities for them to learn the life skills that they need, and so they can eventually leave us and be productive citizens.”