YMCA of the USA History

Address:
101 North Wacker Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60606
U.S.A.

Telephone: (312) 977-0031
Toll Free: 800-872-9622
Fax: (312) 977-9063

Website:
Not-for-Profit Organization
Founded: 1844
Employees: 30,000
Sales: $3.13 billion (1998)
NAIC: 81341 Civic and Social Organizations

Company Perspectives:

The YMCA's mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all. The effect of the national system is not measured by the number of conference reports, newsletters or phone calls we handle. It is counted by the number of lives changed through what we do--the lives of the 16 million people served by YMCAs, the lives of the 57,000 volunteers who govern YMCAs nationwide, and the lives of the hundreds of thousands of staff members and volunteers who carry out the work of their associations. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

1844:
YMCA is founded in London by George Williams.
1851:
First Y established in the United States, in Boston.
1854:
First international convention is held in Paris.
1917:
YMCAs begin canteen and war-relief work.
1944:
YMCA youth secretaries adopt the 'four fronts' of youth work.
1945:
With the end of World War II, women's membership in YMCA begins rapid expansion.
1958:
Association initiates Building for Brotherhood for renovations of old facilities and building of new Ys.
1983:
The Y formalizes childcare services.

Company History:

The YMCA of the USA is a not-for-profit, charitable organization offering various services to local, independent YMCAs throughout America. It provides assistance in many areas, including accounting, financing, purchasing, and programming. It is currently organized into six major groups: (1) the Association Advancement Group, which handles communications, marketing, advertising, public policy, and media and corporate relations; (2) the International Group, which oversees the integration of international education into current YMCA programs and such international activities as emergency and development assistance, training events, and conferences; (3) the Knowledge Management Group, which is responsible for disseminating knowledge, conducting research, and maintaining computer and other technological services; (4) the Leadership Development Group, which is responsible for human resources, staff training and development, and such matters as national YMCA employee benefits; (5) the Membership and Program Development Group, which helps develop and support programs, membership, volunteer enlistment and training, and purchasing; and (6) the Organizational and Management Consulting Group, which provides consulting services for the individual Ys across the United States. The national organization also staffs four Field offices and supports eighteen MRCs (Management Resource Centers). It is through the Clusters that individual Ys have input at the national level. Each elects two members to its section Field committee. The four Field committees in turn elect thirty members, or three-fifths, of the National Board. The other twenty members include the immediate past chair and nineteen persons elected by the Board.

Through its elaborate infrastructure and centralized administration, the YMCA of the USA assures that 2,227 individual YMCAs in America offer programs and services to the public that are consistent in quality and variety, but it does not micro manage the operations of any of the Ys, all of which are administered at the area and branch levels and maintain a high degree of autonomy. Of the total number of Ys in America, 1,260 are branches of the 967 units that are formal members of the national organization.

The services and programs of YMCAs in America have an impressive range, appealing to all age groups, as is suggested by the current slogan of the Ys: 'We build strong kids, strong families, strong communities.' They include health and fitness programs, day camps, childcare, youth sports, job and GED training, mentoring, counseling for abuse victims, international exchanges, and substance-abuse prevention--an aggregate of programs developed over the long history of the YMCA. The individual YMCAs also belong to the World Alliance of YMCAs, consisting of independent Ys from about 130 countries.

1844--1900: Founding and Expansion into an International Movement

The Young Men's Christian Association was founded on June 6,1844, in London, England. Its prime mover was George Williams, a draper (a cloth and dry goods salesman) who had migrated to London from a rural section of the country to seek work. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was still condemning many urban dwellers to abysmal working and slum-like living conditions, to lives, in short, of unrelieved gloom and despair. Like all the working-class sections of the rapidly over-crowding industrialized cities of England in that era, much of London was a virtual cesspool, with streets overrun with pickpockets, thieves, murderous thugs, prostitutes, beggars, drunks, and destitute and abandoned children, the conditions that Charles Dickens exposed in such novels as Oliver Twist (1837--39) and Hard Times (1854).

Williams and some fellow drapers sought to help alleviate the gloom of the city working class by providing Christian fellowship, prayer, and bible study as an alternative to the squalor of the streets. Their efforts were very successful, and the movement quickly spread. By 1851, there were 24 Ys in Great Britain, with a total membership of 27,000, and by late in that same year the movement had spread to North America, first to Canada, and then to the United States, where, in Boston, the first YMCA was founded on December 29th, under the tutelage of a lay missionary and retired sea captain named Thomas Sullivan. As it did in Europe, the YMCA quickly took hold in the United States and sprang up in various seaboard cities.

In 1854 the first international convention was held in Paris. By that time there were almost 400 Ys in seven countries, having a combined membership of 30,369. Because it cut across class, sex, race, and denominational barriers that usually segregated various social and ethnic groups during the Victorian Age, the movement was almost unique. So was its social aim of ameliorating the plight of the destitute.

The rapid growth of the YMCA in the United States was temporarily reversed during the Civil War, when Y memberships were reduced by two-thirds. Nevertheless, the Y's in the Union states played an important role as the U.S. Christian Commission, which was formed to assist both soldiers and prisoners of war. A necessary rebuilding took place after the war. The number of Ys at war's end had been reduced to 59, but four years later had grown by an additional 600. In the aftermath of the war, the prestigious New York YMCA had proclaimed a fourfold mission: 'The improvement of the spiritual, mental, social, and physical condition of young men.'

It was not until the 1880s that the YMCAs began erecting buildings that needed full-time staff members, replacing the volunteers that had formerly run the Ys. By that time, large auditoriums, swimming pools, gymnasiums, and bowling alleys were included in the large urban Ys, as were dormitories or residences that allowed members to lodge in the Ys for one or more nights. It was in the gyms of the YMCA that both basketball and volleyball began their evolution into important indoor sports. The residences remained until the late 1950s, providing income for the various, proliferating YMCA activities, including boys' work programs, summer camps, special classes featuring such activities as exercise drills using dumbbells, medicine balls, and Indian clubs, and social activities for young adults.

In 1894 George Williams was knighted by England's Queen Victoria for his great contributions to the welfare of his fellow citizens. Before his death in 1905, he had seen his YMCA grow into the premier, worldwide organization of its kind. A bit earlier, in 1899, Dwight L. Moody had died, marking an end to formative period in the YMCA's development in the United States. An influential lay evangelist and national leader, Moody oversaw the growth of both national and international voluntary and missionary work and was the dominant force in the organization.

1901--29: Continued Growth and Wartime Services

By the end of the century, the fourfold purpose advanced by the New York Y had been revamped into a triangle: spirit, mind, and body. For the next half century, the leading figure in the YMCA was John Mott, who, like Moody, was also a lay evangelist. As Moody had, Mott served long periods as a staff member, paid for his professional services.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Mott initiated the move to place YMCA volunteers and paid workers at the service of the country, operating the canteens at military camps at home and in France. The organization also raised funds for other military projects, and also took on war relief aid for both prisoners of war and refugees. In the war's aftermath, it eased the plight of African American soldiers returning to their Southern, segregated communities, and it also supervised laborers in Europe brought from China to clear areas devastated by the horrific trench warfare. The YMCA also used residual funds from its war-effort fund raising to finance a decade of new building, to foster its outreach to small communities, and to develop YMCA trade schools and colleges.

1929--40: Surviving the Great Depression and Helping the Destitute

Even before the infamous Black Tuesday that ushered in the Great Depression in 1929, many of the YMCAs were already involved in helping the poor. Unemployment had been worsening before the stock market crash, and in 1928 these associations began using direct relief to alleviate the plight of those out of work. Less emphasis was given to such things as Bible classes, which saw enrollment drop by 60 percent between 1929 and 1933. By that year, when the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun providing government relief, the YMCA and other private nonprofit organizations were able to direct their attention to surviving. Many of the local YMCAs had suffered from a significant loss of income, many up to 50 percent. That caused some necessary self-scrutiny, as did pressure exerted by militant student YMCAs, which wanted the movement to become more involved in the socioeconomic difficulties facing the nation. The result was that the YMCA entered partnerships with various welfare agencies. Engaged in joint community projects, the association stressed that both character-building and social-amelioration activities were its responsibility in such unfortunate times. In addition to the traditional physical and mental health activities, Ys across America offered both educational and vocational training as well as medical assistance.

1941--79: World War II and New Peacetime Challenges and Changes

As it had in the first World War, in the second global conflict the YMCA served both the nation and, internationally, the victims of the war. It helped create the USO (United Service Organization) for servicemen and servicewomen and worked with refugees and displaced families. The YMCA of the USA, then known as the Nation Council of YMCAs, also collaborated with YMCAs in thirty-six other countries to aid prisoners of war.

However, with peace and the onset of the Cold War, the YMCA faced new challenges. World War II had prompted a growing sense of women's opportunities outside the home, and by the end of it 62 percent of the nation's Ys were admitting women. In 1944 YMCA youth secretaries had adopted what became known as the 'four fronts' of youth work: Y-Indian Guides (a father-son program) and three boys' clubs (Gra-Y, Junior Hi-Y, and Hi-Y). These, originally for boys alone, would eventually serve as models for similar clubs for girls and, finally, for gender-integrated clubs. There was still an emphasis on youth, but the gradual shift from young Christian men to the entire family, without any gender, sectarian, or racial restrictions, was underway and would not be reversed.

In the next decade, the YMCA undertook a program to refurbish some of its facilities and build new ones. In 1958, with Canadian Ys, under the rubric 'Buildings for Brotherhood,' the Y raised $55 million to renovate or build almost 100 buildings at home and abroad. After the war, many old YMCAs in the inner cities had been abandoned as demographic changes shifted America's rapidly growing citizenry into suburbia, forcing the YMCAs to relocate or dissolve through membership attrition.

During the social and cultural upheaval of 1960s and early 1970s, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, the YMCA faced new challenges. It was charged by its National General Secretary James Bunting to discover new ways to remain both viable and relevant or face possible dissolution. In some parts of the country, certain programs, like the four-fronts youth programs, were already dying for lack of interest. With the support of the YMCA of the USA and federal aid, community Ys redoubled their outreach efforts, offering some new programs, but when the federal aid was withdrawn, many Ys faced financial problems. The organization was also subjected to some aggressive criticism, both at home and abroad, something difficult for many of its associates to countenance. However, starting around 1975, thanks to a growing health consciousness in America, there was a resurgence of interest in physical training programs and facilities of the Ys.

1980--2000: Revamping the YMCA's Image and Redefining Its Mission

The new health consciousness and the rapid increase of families in which both parents or a single parent are employed prompted a new period of growth and program changes in the 1980s. Responding to community needs, local Ys began updating both their facilities and their equipment, becoming family health and fitness centers on a par with many of the burgeoning private health clubs. In 1983 Ys also began formalizing childcare services for working parents, a service that had been provided for years. It quickly became an important source of income for the association.

Starting in 1984, the refurbishing and updating of the Ys brought them under the scrutiny of federal and local tax authorities. Why, the various agencies asked, were Ys tax exempt when they seemed no different in kind than privately owned health clubs and spas? By 1992, when the query lost its steam, the matter had been raised in 40 states, and although the investigation had no effect on the YMCA's non-profit status, it did prompt a reexamination of the organization's mission and programs, the first such reappraisal undertaken since the 1930s.

The last decade of the century found the nation's Ys in good health, with a stabilized array of income resources, an increase in both clients and volunteers, and an impressive spread of programs reflecting the movement's sensitivity to social change. Also, the organization's self-scrutiny and re-evaluation begun in 1980s gave the Ys, in their own words, 'a new appreciation both for their mission as community service agencies and for the Judeo-Christian values that lie at the heart of the movement.' According to the organization, 'during the 1980s and '90s, the ideas of `values clarification' were slowly replaced by ideas of `character.' Much of the concern in the national leadership of the YMCA has been directed to the moral laxity and relativism and disruption of the family that seemed to be eroding traditional values in which the YMCA itself was firmly rooted. The result was the formulation of four 'core values' (caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility), part of an 'asset-based approach' to solving social problems through developing character and instilling a sense of civic virtue in the nation's youth. In collaboration with The Search Institute, the YMCA of the USA studied the issue and turned its findings into practical results, measures to enhance family and youth 'assets' that would serve as shields against irresponsibility and unhealthy or negative behavior. Clearly, it is through this sort of continuing self-appraisal and redefinition of its mission in response to social change that the YMCA will continue to thrive.

Principal Subsidiaries:Three Aches Limited.

Further Reading:

  • Hopkins, Charles Howard, History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America. New York: Association Press, 1951.
  • ------, John R. Mott, 1865--1955: A Biography, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • Macleod, David I., Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
  • Mjagkij, Nina, and Margaret Spratt, eds., Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City, New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • Simpson, Elizabeth, 'YMCA Director to Give Advice to Strengthen Nation's Families,' Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, Norfolk, Virginia, January 21, 1999, Local Sec., p. 1.
  • Zald, Mayer N., Organizational Change: The Political Economy of the YMCA, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 31. St. James Press, 2000.