Relā has transformed under new leadership into a more inclusive organization.

Several years ago, Shannon Lee realized she needed to practice what she preached. As the executive director of the leadership development organization Relā, Lee found herself at the helm of a group undergoing a seismic shift.

In 2014, the Columbus chapter of The Gathering USA, a national Christian organization catering exclusively to men, was reincorporated as the more inclusive Relā (which is pronounced like the word relay and refers to the way leaders can offer, or “relay,” coaching to others). The local chapter, unlike its national counterpart, welcomed women and men to its events, which focused on Christian leadership. 

Today, Rela presents programs, workshops and other events aimed at enhancing leadership in a wide range of companies, from large corporations to tiny nonprofits.

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During the transition, however, Lee saw longtime supporters jumping ship. “We went through a couple really difficult years, specifically in 2017 and 2018,” says Lee, who joined the organization in 2014. “Donors…didn’t like this broader approach,” which included serving people beyond the Christian community. Efforts to appeal to women and younger people weren’t embraced by some alumni of The Gathering, Lee says. “When we switched lanes, that caused the most fallout because the people in the faith community saw that as a departure from the faith,” Lee says, adding that she feels Rela remains faith-based—using faith not to evangelize but as motivation to help clients grow.

As a donor base cultivated over a quarter-century fell off, Lee cut expenses where she could. “It was so bad we couldn’t even get a line of credit at our bank,” says Lee, who also relied on an emergency fundraising campaign, matching from the Columbus Foundation and—perhaps most important—the sort of advice she gives others.

“Pain caused me to say, ‘OK, Q1 of 2018 was about a $40,000 hit in donations. I could sit here and cry in my Wheaties, or I could innovate,’ ” Lee recalls. To wean Relā off of donations, which made up about half of its revenue, Lee developed half- or daylong workshops. The strategy paid dividends. “A long-term program is much more expensive, and so you limit the people who can participate,” Lee says. “In our efforts to be as diverse and inclusive as we could, we had to create a more diverse price point.”

The resourcefulness, inventiveness and plain old penny-pinching paid off: Relā finished its 2019 fiscal year with $391,000 in revenue, nearly $50,000 ahead of its goal.

Today, Relā sees itself as most helpful to entities that do not have the resources or infrastructure to focus on leadership development internally. “The average nonprofit spends about $30 a year per person on professional development,” says Lee, who in mid-2017 formed the Relā Neighborhood Leadership Initiative through which nonprofits receive services on a sliding scale or at no charge.

“Our goal this year is to give away at least $65,000 worth of workshops and coaching services to the nonprofit community,” Lee says.

Leadership experts in Central Ohio approve of Relā’s welcoming approach. “It’s so important to be training leaders in your group that represent the community that they will be leading,” says Laurie Stein Marsh, the executive director of Leadership Columbus.

The St. Vincent Family Center was the recipient of a 30 percent discount on coaching from Relā following a period of change within the organization: Within two years of the arrival of president and CEO Susan Lewis Kaylor, 22 out of 220 employees have received promotions, presenting both opportunities and challenges.

“We’re promoting people who are terrific, and have transferable skills, but we haven’t given them the leadership skills to manage and lead people,” says Lewis Kaylor, who participated along with a fellow executive leader in one-on-one coaching with Lee.

In coaching clients, Relā focuses on mindset. The question, Lee says, is not simply “What am I doing?” But, “Who am I while I’m doing it?” For her part, the executive director seems to know who she is.

“I see myself as a steward of the vision and the mission of Relā,” Lee says. “Our big dream is to help awaken the best in people so that they can positively influence their workplaces or communities and even their families.”

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.

Editor's note: The Gathering USA continues to operate. The online version of this article has been updated with additional information about the local chapter. A correction will appear in the May 2020 issue.