Patricia Dixon is the executive director of the California Aquatic Therapy & Wellness Center in Long Beach, Calif. She has more than 15 years' experience in the private foundation and nonprofit industry.
Patricia Dixon is the executive director of the California Aquatic Therapy & Wellness Center in Long Beach, Calif. She has more than 15 years' experience in the private foundation and nonprofit industry.

Fourteen years ago I moved from my position with a major foundation to take the helm of a small, grass-roots nonprofit organization specializing in aquatic therapy and exercise. It was my first executive director position and I was excited to make the transition.

The clients were so welcoming and clearly glad to be there. The seniors would greet one another with cheerful good mornings and warm hugs — and their enthusiasm extended to me as well. Every day seemed like a gift they’d been given and were sharing with me. As they entered the 94 degree water, you could hear the sighs of relief from their pain and discomfort. We primarily serve seniors, and many of our clients have arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions.

After being on the job for only a month everything changed. The building had major equipment problems that began to surface. The pool pump stopped working. A week later the pool heater went out and the roof began to leak. I knew the building was old but I wasn't expecting one after another piece of equipment to fail. The pool was closed for three weeks.

Needless to say, our clients were not happy — and they looked to me for answers. I realized then that for many of them coming to the pool was intensely important. In some cases, the pool was their only opportunity for socialization and rehabilitation and without it these seniors were completely isolated.

When the equipment failed, I learned three things: Don't mess with the water temperature. The community depended on this pool for their health. I had to learn about pool equipment and repairs right away.

My phone was ringing off the hook, so I invited the clients to a meeting at the pool. This would give them a chance to be heard. It also would allow them to see the problems and the progress we were making in repairs, and hear how much the repairs would cost. This was an important learning experience. Our clients, accustomed to benefiting from free services, were reminded that the pool was a business with expenses and limited financial resources.

The meeting turned out better than we had expected. Our clients became more supportive because they were invited to be a part of the process in solving the problems. One volunteered to create a Pool Closure Call List so they would be notified in the event of future closures. Another provided me with a referral to a pool maintenance company, which we have been using for the last 14 years.

The clients were so happy when we re-opened, they had a reception to welcome people back to the pool.

As with life, I have learned to expect the unexpected in running an aquatic facility. In preparing for those unexpected moments, it is helpful to communicate with your clientele about the problems you are having. You might find the help you need in the very people you serve.

The Lessons

1. Do an initial equipment inspection, especially if you are new to the organization and continue it at regular intervals thereafter. Work closely with your facility maintenance personnel to anticipate future needs as much as possible. Is your pool heater nearing the end of its usable life? Better to know that now so you can include that in your upcoming budget and fundraising plans. Maintain an equipment service log and keep it updated after every service call.

2. Communicate. Have a plan for communicating with all your regular clients about potential closures, and create a system — through town hall type meetings, an online messaging system or a simple comments box in the office — that gives your clients a voice. If your clients don’t know, for example, that you’re putting off renovating the locker room because of a lack of funds, they can’t contribute money, materials, time or other resources toward making it happen.

3. Create a service contractors reference list of pool maintenance, plumbing, electrician, general contractors, roofing and any other service you might need. The last thing you want when you have an equipment failure is to not know who to contact to bid a job. The best time to gather this information is when you don't need it.