Boys & Girls Clubs of America History
Atlanta, Georgia 30309
Telephone: (404) 487-5700
Fax: (404) 487-5705
Founded: 1906 as Federated Boys' Clubs
Sales: $105.9 million (2003)
NAIC: 624110 Child and Youth Services
Our mission is the Boys and Girls Club Movements reason for being: to inspire and enable all young people, especially those from disadvantaged circumstances, to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.
- The Dashaway Club is formed in Hartford, Connecticut.
- New York City founds the first youth group to use the Boys Club name.
- A national organization is established as Federated Boys' Clubs.
- The organization is renamed Boys' Clubs of America.
- Former president Herbert Hoover is named national chairman.
- Boys' Clubs receives a Congressional charter.
- The name is changed to Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
- Roxanne Spillett becomes the first woman to head the organization.
- BGCA launches its One Campaign plan to raise funds for local clubs as well as to raise public awareness.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) is a nonprofit organization that runs after-school clubs, serving more than four million children at 3,400 facilities located in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In addition, BGCA has about 150 clubs located on Native American tribal lands and nearly 400 clubs on military bases spread around the world. The organization and its predecessors have been combating juvenile delinquency for more than a century. Famous alumni include entertainers Bill Cosby, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Neil Diamond, and Denzel Washington; athletes Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez; as well as former President Bill Clinton. The clubs are open every day after school and on weekends, operated by full-time youth development professionals and supplemented by community volunteers. Dues are kept to a minimum, averaging less than $10 per year. Although much of BGCA's activities center around sports and recreational activities, the organization also emphasizes school work and offers programs on character and leadership development, the arts, health and life skills, and computer skills. BGCA maintains its national headquarters in Atlanta, six regional service centers, and a government relations office in Washington, D.C.
Roots of BGCA Dating to the 19th Century
BGCA traces its lineage to 1860 and Hartford, Connecticut, a mill town where often both father and mother were employed, leaving young boys to fend for themselves and often to get into trouble. Some civic-minded women started a recreational program for the boys, calling it the Dashaway Club, the first recorded attempt in the United States to provide out-of-school activities for children. With the advent of the Civil War, the club operated only sporadically and soon disbanded. It was reorganized in 1880 as the Good Will Boys' Club. In the meantime, the Union for Christian Work in Providence, Rhode Island, founded its own volunteer organization in 1868, offering boys an activity room, reading room, classroom, and meeting room. Salem, Massachusetts followed suit a year later. It was not until 1876 that the first group used "Boys Club" in its name. The Boys' Club of New York was founded by railroad magnate E.H Harriman in Manhattan's rough lower East Side. According to lore, Harriman was paying a visit to the superintendent of the Wilson Mission School for Girls located on Avenue A when a rock sailed through a window and landed on his lap. He was told such events were a regular occurrence because of the large number of street boys who had nothing better to do than tease the schoolgirls. Harriman supposedly said, "Well, I can't blame the boy any more than I can blame this rock. But for the want of a little excitement and something to do, the boy wouldn't have thrown it." Harriman enlisted the help of influential friends to start a boys' club, which proved so popular that in 1887 the group moved into a five-story building.
Most of the early Boys' Clubs were located in the more densely populated East Coast cities. In 1906 representatives from 53 of these clubs met in Boston to bring some organization to the movement. They formed the Federated Boys' Clubs, and launched a drive to spread the concept across the country. It was fitting that the first president of the organization was Jacob Riis, the world famous muckraking journalist and social activist. Born in Denmark, he came to the United States in 1870 at the age of 21. He had learned something about journalism from his father, a schoolteacher who wrote for a weekly newspaper, and he was able to find work in New York City as a police reporter. In his job he became all too familiar with the squalid conditions of the city's tenements and the spiritual and moral degradation that resulted. Determined to do what he could to improve the plight of the poor, he used his pen, and more important, he used the camera and the new flash technology to take candid pictures of ghetto life in every dark corner. In 1890 he published a book of his photographs and stark text describing the plight of the city's poor. He called it How the Other Half Lives. It presented so powerful a message, the photographs were so heart-wrenching, that the better half of New York society was thoroughly ashamed of its previous indifference. The publication of the book was a seminal moment in the progressive movement of the era. Riis continued to write and to fight against child-labor laws, and to support health code regulations, the building of playgrounds, and making city classrooms available for boys' clubs. In 1904 he began to suffer from heart disease, which because of his heavy workload and travel schedule began to take its toll. He retired as president of the Federated Boys' Clubs in 1909 and died five years later.
In 1915 Federated Boys' Clubs changed its name to Boys' Clubs Federation. A year later William Edwin Hall was named national president. A practicing attorney with degrees from both Yale University and Harvard University, Hall still found time to be an energetic president, a title he would hold for the next 38 years. Without doubt, his would be the greatest contribution to the establishment and growth of the Boys' Clubs movement. He took over an organization that encompassed just 43 clubs and operated with a budget of only $3,500.
Shortly after Hall assumed the presidency of the Boys' Clubs Federation, the United States entered World War I, and he was stretched even further by taking on governmental work. He agreed to head a commission to provide food to starving Belgium, and his later work with the Commission for Relief in Belgium resulted in a medal of merit awarded to him by King Albert of Belgium. It was also during the course of this work that Hall became friends with Herbert Hoover, future president of the United States. Hall found a way to combine his war work with his commitment to helping boys by becoming national director of the United States Boys' Working Reserve, a program that sent 200,000 boys, 16 years and older, to work on farms, thus allowing older men to join the armed forces. Younger members of Boys' Clubs helped out by tending "war gardens."
Barely Surviving the Post-World War I Era
When World War I came to a close, Boys' Clubs Federation was far from an established organization. For several years it was only able to stay afloat because of Hall's willingness to pay operating expenses and salaries out of his own pocket. Moreover, when the organization was between administrative leaders he shouldered that burden as well. In 1919 he met with the Chicago Union League Club, but when one executive tried to offer a check as a contribution, Hall passed it back, explaining, "We are not out to raise money. We want to see the Union League Club of Chicago sponsor a Boys' Club of its own." The Union League complied and opened a club. A year later it added a swimming pool, and then opened a second club. Hall next convinced the Union League Club in Detroit to follow the example of its Chicago brethren. In the late 1920s Hall went on a barnstorming tour in an effort to establish Boys' Clubs across the country, especially in the South. Along the way he visited reformatories and boys' schools, many of which were poorly maintained and run, and he took time out to find local leaders to upgrade these facilities. Early in the 1930s he turned his attention to the New England states to urge the Boys' Clubs in this area to support the national organization. It was a key moment in the history of the organization, as the scope of the Boys' Clubs movement came into focus and everyone involved came to understand the need for a strong central organization. In 1931 the Boys' Club Federation of America was reorganized and in 1932 took the name of the Boys' Clubs of America. The Boys' Clubs movement would soon spread to Canada and Great Britain, where similar national organizations were established. In the United States in 1932 there were some 275 Boys' Clubs serving a quarter-million boys. New York had the most with 57 clubs, followed by Massachusetts with 40, and Pennsylvania with 32. The new organization added field staff, which spread out in an effort to establish more clubs around the country.
But it was a difficult time to think about expansion. Because of the Great Depression of the 1930s the Boys' Clubs were called on to do more than just provide after-school activities. They now fed the children, offering sandwiches, milk, and fruit, and even provided clothing. Staff took wage cuts and community benefactors remained committed to supporting the work despite the financial hardship. As a result, not one of the clubs was forced to close during this difficult period. In 1936 Hall was able to convince his old friend, Herbert Hoover, to become chairman of the organization's national board of directors. The former president was more than a figurehead, however. He oversaw a reorganization of the business side of the Boys' Clubs in order to fund the current work and an expansion of the program. Hoover's fund-raising efforts culminated in the establishment of the "National Associates of the Boys' Clubs of America" program, which recruited influential businessmen and government officials around the country. They in turn wrote personal letters on company stationery to members of their communities requesting financial contributions. The National Associates also solicited funds from corporations and foundations. As a result of these efforts, the Boys' Clubs organization was eventually put on a solid financial footing.
More than 150,000 members of Boys' Clubs served in the Armed Forces during World War II. Those too young to serve took part in the "Victory Volunteers" program, collecting such materials as aluminum, paper, rubber, scrap iron, and tin; collecting phonograph albums, books, and crossword puzzles for servicemen; and drumming up sales of War Bonds. After the war, the Boys' Clubs continued to spread across the country, so that by the time Hall retired in 1954 the number of clubs had grown to 375 and the budget increased to $8 million. As a result of his four decades of leadership, the Boys' Clubs had become part of the fabric of the country, prompting the U.S. Congress in 1956, on the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Federated Boys' Clubs, to award it a Congressional Charter. Herbert Hoover stayed on as chairman, eventually serving more than a quarter-century in the post. In 1960 the organization celebrated the 100th anniversary since the founding of the first Dashaway Club, and opened a new national headquarters building in New York, located across from the United Nations Building. It was named the Herbert Hoover Building.
Girls Becoming Involved in the 1950s
During the second half of the 20th century, the Boys' Clubs movement continued to spread while adjusting to the changing times. Girls first started participating in programs in the 1950s and their numbers steadily increased. The organization established a target of 1,000 clubs serving one million children, a goal that was met in 1972. In 1975 the national organization underwent a reorganization in order to improve services to local clubs. Spearheading this effort was Thomas G. Garth, who had dropped out of the University of Illinois to go to work for a local club and ten years later joined the national office. He would spend his entire working life with Boys' Clubs and become one of the greatest influences in the organization's growth during the final decades of the century.
In 1980 Boys' Clubs of America dropped the apostrophe, becoming Boys Clubs of America, but that name would soon be superseded as well. The number of girls involved in the clubs had become substantial, so that by 1985 the organization served one million boys and 321,000 girls. Garth, who was named national director in 1988, not only supported the increased participation of girls but also made an effort to bring clubs to where children most needed them. During the eight years that he headed the organization, the number of clubs operating in housing projects grew from 40 to 280. He also opened clubs on Native American lands, and in locations not generally associated with Boys Clubs, such as military bases, a homeless shelter, a shopping mall, and even inside a correctional facility for youthful offenders. To help determine the best place to open new clubs, the organization also began to take advantage of technology, using computer mapping and demographic analysis to reveal the number of potential members in a neighborhood.
In 1988 Boys Clubs of America decided to change its name to Boys & Girls Clubs of America to more accurately reflect the contemporary nature of the organization, which now served some 400,000 girls. Girls Clubs of America Inc., a 43-year-old organization, objected to the change, however, and received a temporary restraining order from a federal judge. Girls Clubs contended that the name change would confuse the public and hurt its fund-raising efforts. Girls Clubs operated 110 local units with a total membership of 250,000 girls, while affiliates had 40,000 boys as members, some of whom also belonged to Boys Clubs. The matter was settled out of court in October 1989, with Boys Clubs agreeing to pay Girls Clubs $740,000 for the uncontested right to use the Boys & Girls Clubs of America name, effective September 1990.
In the late 1980s BGCA launched its Outreach '91 effort to increase its membership to two million. The goal was reached in 1993, as the number of clubs topped the 1,500 mark. A year later the national organization moved its headquarters to Atlanta, Georgia. Garth relocated as well, but soon his health failed. He retired and in January 1996 he succumbed to cancer at the age of 60.
In 1996 Roxanne Spillett was named BGCA's new president, becoming the first woman to lead the organization. She took over during a major growth spurt: During 1995 and 1996 the organization added 300 new clubs and membership reached 2.5 million. Although BGCA was established in response to 19th-century conditions, it was clear that the organization's mission remained relevant as the country moved into the 21st century. But BGCA also kept pace with the times. It established an alliance with Computer City in the mid-1990s to provide computer training. In 2000 Microsoft donated $100 million to BGCA to make every club "technology able." The organization enjoyed strong success in raising funds, a far cry from the days when William Hall had to draw on his own funds to keep the organization afloat. Donors were also confident that their money would be put to good use. In 2001 and 2002, Worth magazine ranked BGCA as one of the "100 Best Charities in America" because of its financial efficiency, strength of reputation, and program effectiveness. For ten consecutive years the "Philanthropy 400" report, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, ranked BGCA as the number one youth organization and among the top 15 of all nonprofit organizations.
The traditional purpose of BGCA was to start clubs and serve the local affiliates, but the organization also began striving to create value as well, passing through government grants and charitable funds. In 2003, for instance, BGCA passed through a total of $104.2 million in money, technology, and holiday toys to the local affiliates, which in turn paid just $5 million in dues. In an effort to fulfill its mission to serve American youth, BGCA launched its One Campaign plan in 2004 to raise funds for local clubs as well as to raise public awareness, a drive that would culminate with celebrations during 2006 marking the 100th anniversary of BGCA as a national organization.
- Browne, J. Zamgba, "Microsoft Donates $100M to Boys and Girls Clubs to Shrink Digital Divide," New York Amsterdam News, December 7, 2000, p. 6.
- Hall, William Edwin, 100 Years and Millions of Boys, New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961.
- Rothman, Andrea, "Group's Suit Wants No 'Girls' Allowed in Boys Clubs Names," Wall Street Journal, March 2, 1988, p. 1.
- Saxon, Wolfgang, "Thomas G. Garth Is Dead at 60; Headed the Boys and Girls Clubs," New York Times, January 5, 1996, p. D21.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.69. St. James Press, 2005.