Seizing the Moment: The YMCA Spotlights Its Equity Mission. Will More Money Follow?

These are promising times for the YMCA. Amid a new national conversation about ensuring opportunity for all, the Y's mission of youth and community development suddenly seems more relevant than ever. The Y has lately been seizing the moment with its first-ever TV advertising campaign, trying to clearly brand itself as an organization focused on helping people. “When communities are forgotten, the Y remembers," says the tag line for one of its ads. 

“Lots of people know and like the Y,” Kevin Washington, the president of the YMCA USA, told the New York Times last month. “But they see it as a gym and swim place. We’re also a charity, and that is the missing ingredient. We want people to realize that we’re deserving of their charitable donations.”

As for those donations, we were curious at Inside Philanthropy to learn how a massive 161-year-old nonprofit with 22 million active members in 10,000 communities pulls in the moneyand how it's capitalizing on the opportunities of the moment. Donna Bembenek, vice president of marketing communications at the YMCA USA, gave us the rundown. 

The Y’s total revenue in 2014 totaled $6.6 billion. Of this, 37.1 percent came from membership dues. The Y also generates revenue with its programs but these, along with memberships, are subsidized for the needy. “So if a young person and the family cannot otherwise be able to support overnight camp there are program scholarships that allow a child to go to camp,” Bembenek said.

The Y does its best to eliminate the stigma associated with kids using a different ticket to accept subsidized school lunches or using EBT cards to pay for groceries. “Nobody knows. Everybody gets the same membership card. Every kid who goes to camp stays in the same cabins. The kids can just be regular kids at the Y. it’s a place for the community to come together,” Bembenek said. “So their personalities are able to grow and be fostered through these programs. We make sure no child gets turned away.”

The Y doesn’t limit its attention to children and youth. For example, it is also pioneering anti-diabetes programs for adults, and also opens its doors to programs for senior citizens. 

Grants are essential to the Y’s functioning. The top three foundation backers are the Walmart Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the JPB Foundation. Some of this money is part of specific initiatives. For example, we wrote recently about how RWJF gave a $12 million grant to the Y as part of a 10-year partnership to foster a "Culture of Health."

Related: Which Big National Players Are Joining Forces to Make a Local Health Impact?

We should also mention that many local YMCAs have active fundraising programs, and some have pulled in serious grant money on their own. For example, in 2014, the YMCA of Southlake, in Crown Point Indiana, received a $14 million gift from the Dean & Barbara White Family Foundation.

Meanwhile, the Y also gets money from government grants, Bembenek said, which is the case for many giant nonprofits engaged in human services. As the nation's sixth-largest charity, the Y is often a logical choice for public-private partnerships. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama chose the Y as to launch her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity, a confirmation of the regard in which the Y is held in the highest tiers of government.

Bembenek oversees membership strategy development, marketing communications, financial development and sponsorships for the national Y. She's been spearheading that national ad campaign, which is called for “For a better us." The campaign emphasizes the many different ways that the Y addresses social problems by enriching individuals, children, and families through safe spaces, mentorship, education, meal programs, and the swimming program.

The Y USA’s online campaign has partnered with The New York Times, Peel, YouTube, Twitter and others to place online banners next to relevant news stories that promote the Y programs that meet the challenges highlighted by the accompanying news items. The ads are slated to run through 2018.

Will this blitz bring in new donors? It's still too early to say. 

Meanwhile, the Y has identified sponsorship as a growing strategic priority, Bembenek said. And it is taking a more expansive view of how such partnerships might work, with Bembenek explaining they "might include more consumer activation or more marketing elements than you might find in traditional philanthropy." Bembenek stresses funds and in-kind support that the Y raises nationally are used to increase "the capacity of local Ys to do the work of programs in communities that help the most vulnerable.”

All in all, it's an interesting moment for the Y, as it works to more closely associate itself with today's growing fight for equity and opportunity. This is just one of many times that the organization has reinvented or respositioned itself during its remarkably long history. 

For other nonprofits, Bembenek offers this advice, “Have a very clear understanding of your mission. Have a very clear understanding of the outcomes you’re driving so that you can measure those outcomes based on the needs of a community. Then make sure you honor the donor you’re working with and that you’re investing those dollars efficiently and effectively.”