By Melissa Harris
YMCA national’s first African-American CEO’s two goals: expand summer options for kids, help prevent diabetes.
Kevin Washington was the first African-American to lead the YMCA in Boston and Hartford, Conn. — and beginning in February, he will be the first to lead the Chicago-based national organization, known as the YMCA of the USA.
“Our diversity program is picking up steam,” Washington dead-panned before bursting into laughter.
“But seriously, there are others in the movement who are in CEO positions in Jacksonville; Washington, D.C.; Albany, N.Y.; San Francisco. So there are some of us across the country. It’s about timing and opportunity coming together.”
Washington, 60, a former chief operating officer of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, likes data, having used market research in Boston to convince board members there to cut membership fees by an average of 11 percent.
Washington launched the strategy with a $300,000 advertising campaign, promising in an online video “More Muscle, Less Moola” and “More Flow, Less Dough.” Each Y offered different prices, based on income, and Washington also slashed rates for young people across the board by expanding the definition of “young” to adults up to age 29.
Washington projected the price decrease would attract 10,000 new households to the Y; 20,000 signed up, he said. Overall revenue also went up.
“We used statistics to determine what communities could afford,” he said. Washington said a lack of performance data is a key reason the Y “has not gotten our fair share of philanthropic support.”
And he needs more of it to persuade wealthy families and foundations that the Y is more than a gym.
“I can sit here and tell you the Y helped me, but how do you know?” Washington asked.
“We have to be able to demonstrate in graphics and metrics how the Y is changing people’s lives. So as we look at our new achievement-gap program and our diabetes program, we have to be able to show in charts that we are making a significant difference.”
The Y has been a part of Washington’s life since age 10. Growing up in a rough South Philadelphia neighborhood, the Christian Street Y was seven blocks from his home.
Among youth director Bill Morton’s recruits, the Boston Globe reported earlier this month, was a kid named “Extension Cords” because of his long arms.
“If I wasn’t at home during those years, I was at the Y,” Washington said.
There was archery, swimming and, most appealing to Washington, competitive basketball.
Rather than be out on the corners, he volunteered for Friday night church leagues, keeping score and sweeping up until he was old enough to play. He would win a basketball scholarship to Temple University. After Washington graduated from Temple, Morton — who had risen to executive director of the Christian Street Y — hired him as his youth director. Washington has spent his entire career with the organization.
This should help explain why the YMCA of Greater Boston began offering free summer memberships — June to September — for all teens ages 13 to 17 and up to 19 if the student was still in high school.
“We have to translate great feelings into persuasive numbers,” he says now.
“ I’d be hard-pressed to say that any Y could replicate what we did in Boston, but I think using data to make decisions around pricing and around programmatic support is what all of us should do.”
He applied for the national job two days late, although he said he called ahead to make sure it was OK.
His connection to the search was Christine Marcks, a former Hartford YMCA board member, who served there when Washington was CEO. She is now chairman of the national organization.
Boston’s Y recorded about $67.5 million in annual revenue in 2013, whereas the national organization’s annual revenue was $97.2 million in 2012, the most recent figures available.
It is a federation of 2,700 branches, meaning each local is its own nonprofit with its own board and doesn’t take direct orders from Chicago.
The national Y-USA staff numbers about 400 with about 125 to 150 working from headquarters on South Wacker Drive.
“We can do something significant for the health of this country, that’s why I’m doing it,” Washington said. He said his focus will be on two programs.
The first is expanding a summer camp pilot program aimed at closing the achievement gap. Studies repeatedly have found poor students fall behind more affluent students most in the summer months when not in school.
The second initiative is diabetes prevention.
“We know we need to get people engaged in this process because 86 million are pre-diabetic and 5 percent weight loss will significantly impact this disease, which we know is a drain on the health system and is avoidable,” he said.
“And the national YMCA has been driving that process.”