The YMCA: Would the Walmart of all charities really be good for Rutherford County?

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 04:03 AM

News of a drive to bring the YMCA into our county should make someone like me swoon with giddy joy.

After all, I’m the mom of a family on a miniscule budget, a proponent of local recreation, and a tireless (some would say tiresome) advocate of the importance of community. Isn’t that what the Y is all about?

It’s certainly amassed a fortune in assets thanks to this impression. In fact, today the YMCA is cited as the most valuable non-profit brand in the world.

But even though I might fit the conventional profile of one, I’m not a brand believer. Why? Because I’m fairly certain that if a YMCA does indeed come here, Rutherford County will be the newest host body to the big box of all charities.

It’s true. Today’s YMCA is a one-stop shop for fitness, childcare, sport leagues, summer camp, art classes, swimming lessons, martial arts training, dance classes, personal fitness training, community theater, and at branches like the Raleigh YMCA, noshing on pastries and espresso at its newly opened Benelux Café.

Convenient? Yes.

Charity? Only if you consider it charitable to intentionally compete with local businesses while doling out just a skimpy percentage of revenue to the financially needy.

The YMCA itself characterizes these businesses as competitors, at least in some of the feasibility studies they hire consultants to conduct in advance of locating to a new area. Although the YMCA describes this process as “assessing a community’s needs,” what they’re really examining is the existing paying market.

For example, in a feasibility study conducted for a group wanting to bring a YMCA into their Washington state community, consultants enthusiastically confirmed the demographics were “excellent” as, among other reasons, incomes in the area were “higher than average.”

In his meticulously researched essay, “Real or Rogue Charity? Private fitness clubs versus the YMCA,” history professor Marc Stern also provides numerous examples of evidence that the YMCA intentionally operates more like a for-profit business than a charity, including this gem from one of its officials: “We are one of many businesses after the recreation and fitness dollar.”

Most obvious of all that we’re not dealing with what the vast majority would consider a real charity is that the YMCA gives out surprisingly little financial assistance.

Let’s look at an example close to home. According to the Cleveland County YMCA’s 2011 IRS 990 tax form, the organization earned $3,395,017 from program services; $966,351from donations and grants; and $246,698 from investment and other revenue.

How much did it give out in financial assistance? A whopping $198,907.

That’s just 5 percent of its revenue. And we’re talking about an organization that doesn’t have to pay certain taxes that legitimate businesses do, and has access to grants, bond financing, and property donations that businesses – again, the legitimate ones - don’t.

Their fees aren’t that cheap, either.

None of the above information requires much effort to obtain. And it is a testament to the YMCA’s marketing prowess that so many people never think to seek it out. Instead, most unquestioningly trust the YMCA’s motives as genuinely altruistic and assume its programs are low-cost or free.

Like its Diabetes Prevention Program. Although the program receives millions of dollars in government grants, the YMCA still charges members over $100 to participate and non-members even more.

In addition to savvy brand marketing, there’s another way the YMCA wins over a community before appropriating a good deal of its recreation and childcare commerce (and charitable donations). It colors the opposition as heartless and greedy, concerned only with making money.

In 2011, several Virginia fitness center operators filed suit against a local municipality for shutting for-profit businesses out of a bid to partner with the municipality on a recreation program. The municipality had awarded the bid instead to a YMCA.

Furious with the legal delays, Piedmont Family YMCA CEO Denny Blank zeroed in on his chief opposition, the owner of the area’s largest fitness center.

“We’ve taken the high road up until this point and haven’t mentioned Mr. Wendel by name. But this community is tired of one man’s greed,” Blank said to a reporter.

The suit eventually found its way to the Virginia Supreme Court. The fitness centers lost.

Did Blank express grateful relief that the YMCA could finally get on with its noble mission of serving the community now that greed had been banished by the courts?

“This has cost us $800,000 in real dollars plus the lost revenue from not opening,” Blank icily stated to local media.

In the days ahead, Rutherford County citizens will probably hear similar accusations leveled at local business owners who oppose cutthroat competition posing as a charity. Even though during the worst years of the recession, these businesses kept their prices down, people employed, and offered Rutherford County families – including my own – some respite.

I’ll share some of their concerns in upcoming columns.

I’ll also talk about the many other organizations already here, charities and businesses alike, who were there for Rutherford County when the chips were down. And why it’s a far better idea to advocate for these resources instead of a YMCA whose omnipresence would hurt them.