Leisha Barcus sees herself as a builder. She likes to meld the many pieces of a big project into a fine product or program. Her career has included getting the $13 million, 34,000-square-foot Comfort Health Center for Women at Mercy Medical Center up and running. She was vice president of community engagement at the Science Center of Iowa. She ran her own business that did feasibility studies and other work for nonprofits, and was director of strategic initiatives at the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation. She ran the Hoyt Sherman Place Foundation. She worked at the Greater Des Moines Partnership and the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

So it might not be a surprise that the several dozen members of the board of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines liked what they saw when she applied to run the network of eight branches. She’s a fundraiser, a networker and a team builder. She’s all about openness and accountability.

We asked Barcus about her latest position — president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, where she began work Sept. 24. 

Why were you interested in this position?

I have a history of working on some major, significant not-for-profit projects in the community and have had success with that. And when this position became available, I decided that this was an amazing organization with a 150-year history in our community and so incredibly important to Central Iowa, that I felt this would be a great opportunity for the next step in my career.

How did you come to apply?

It was sent to me by a woman who was an architect on Comfort Health Care Center for Women. And she now serves on the advisory board for our YMCA sustainable housing unit downtown. She encouraged me to look at it. I had just completed the project at the women’s center and had just hired a rock star to be the practice manager there. It had been open for a year. It was in good hands, so I decided it was time to take a look.

Are you a builder?

Yes. I love building. I love fixing. I love the idea of multiple stakeholders coming together for the success of a product. So that means members, volunteers, staff, community partnerships, collaborations — I really thrive on bringing all those things together to make projects work, to make things happen. That’s been really consistent throughout all of the different positions that I’ve had.

Do you enjoy the challenges in doing that?

I love the challenge of big, bold, monumental, game-changing opportunities. 

So you’re working on the water trails project?


Not right now. But I also love just bringing all these constituents together for one common goal. And that’s what I love about not-for-profit work, and that’s what I love about the Y. It’s been such a community staple. And it’s just made such great impact in the community for all these years. And I want to make sure that under my watch that it continues to do so.

How is the Y different now from when it started?

Certainly the membership has changed — we have women now. (YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association.) Let me start with what’s the same. That’s the diversity of the membership, particularly at the Wellmark YMCA. You will have senior corporate leaders in the community use that facility every day, and that might be at the noon hour, and then in the evening a whole different kind of membership comes in. It’s kids after school playing basketball, it’s families coming in. I think that what’s important about the Y, and has been for its entire history, is that it’s an organization for all. I think that’s the beauty of the YMCA is the diverse membership that we have. And also our reach is so wide in Central Iowa. We have a much wider reach than we did when we only had one branch, and we take that programming out to the schools. We just had a really successful Girls on the Run event where more than 1,000 people came out. It’s a program that helps girls in third through eighth grades build confidence and set goals. 

You’ve only been in the job briefly, but any thoughts on what goals to set?

I’ve been spending the last 45 days or so just trying to learn about the organization. I have just been touching the surface as to the impact the organization is making. I am trying to take that all in right now. I am looking at where we have the most impact, and one of my goals is to build on that and to really make sure the YMCA has a place at the community table. So that when there are needs in our community community that are identified in those three areas of youth development, social responsibility, and health and wellness, that we are the experts in those areas, and that we’re called to the table to be part of that community conversation.

You subsidize rents at the downtown housing center, and YMCA memberships, based on income, right?

We provide at least $2 million a year in support or financial assistance.

What have been the early highlights of your work?

We just celebrated 150 years (the overall Y organization is 175 years old). We had a major open house. Well over 150 people came through the doors at the Wellmark Y. Staff members from all eight branches served as greeters and helped with contests and tournaments. We had open group exercise classes every half hour, so you could try things out. 

What is your management style?

I have a very participatory management style, but also high standards for accountability.

So I love to empower the staff with not only what they need to be successful in terms of resources, but also to empower them to feel open and that they want to provide their  expertise and information. It takes all heads in this to make it work every day. And so I really encourage that, and I want to empower the staff with a real keen eye to accountability. I consider myself a reality based manager. And I don’t like drama in the workplace. I learned something at Mercy about holding people accountable: You see it, you own it, you solve it, and you do it. 

Would you consider fundraising one of your strengths?

Yes. If you have a passion for the organization and for the impact the organization is making, then it becomes easy to tell that story. And that is a wonderful opportunity to invite people in to share that joy with you. So to me fundraising isn’t a difficult thing, it’s just inviting people in to share in the story. People sometimes think that fundraising is aggressively taking money from people, and it isn’t that at all. 

How big is your staff? 

We have about 100 full time employees and seasonal could be up to 1,100.

What is your operating budget? 

Just over $19 million. 

What do you anticipate happening with the Pillars of Promise proposal to replace the Grubb YMCA?

I have had conversations with the city manager and with Councilman Bill Gray. The city of Des Moines owns the building, they are the landlord and we’ve been leasing it for $1 a year. I’m confident after talking with the city manager that the lease will be extended at least for a year. 
The facility is in need of repairs. And also just the demand for programming there has increased substantially. So we need a building that we can better deliver mission from. What the Pillars of Promise people have a vision for for that area is terrific. A completely new building would be about $17 million. I don’t see that happening at this point, but I would never close the door to a donor. There is so much history in the building. It was Dowling Catholic High School at one point. 

Now that the pool has been operating for a while, what’s the next big event?

We have one of the six USA Swimming competitions nationally scheduled for the? Wellmark YMCA for March 6-9, sponsored by TYR (swimwear company). We’ll have 400 to 600 people, professional swimmers. Ten are Olympic medalists and others have been on the team or are hoping to be. We’re incredibly excited. We bid on it through Catch Des Moines. 

What else is new?

We also are preparing to open a Pilates studio at the Wellmark Y early next year.

What do you do when you are not working? 

I like to do Pilates. I cook. I entertain.