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YMCA pushes harder to turn away from ‘swim and gym’ in a competitive fitness industry

The YMCA is instead focused on another vision: Becoming America’s “charity of choice.”

A rendering of how Fairless Hills YMCA in Bucks County will look after it is renovated.
A rendering of how Fairless Hills YMCA in Bucks County will look after it is renovated.Read moreCourtesy Bucks County Industrial Development Authority

The almost 40,000 gyms in the United States advertise energetically, with offers of $10 monthly fees, personal trainers, specialty sports leagues, and, at the most luxurious tier of health clubs, spas and freshly pressed juices.

Then there’s the YMCA — the 175-year-old nonprofit founded on the belief that physical fitness lent itself to “a healthy moral spirit.” It has gone in the opposite direction in a saturated health club industry.

The Y has long sought to distance itself from a “swim and gym” reputation, its leadership says, and has pushed forward with its own campaign in the last several years: To become America’s best charity.

“We love that everyone remembers us from their days of swim lessons, but we want to be more than that,” said Tricia Feinthel, chief operations officer at the YMCA of Bucks County, which serves 60,000 people and will start next month on major renovations. “We want to be your charity of choice.”

In Bucks County, the Y has been campaigning to raise $20 million — and has collected $16.5 million — to provide more financial assistance to families in need and upgrade its facilities. Feinthel said the Y annually serves thousands of free meals to children, gives away close to $2 million in financial assistance, and provides babysitting, day camp, and subsidized memberships.

Last year, the National Council of YMCAs of the USA received $29,159,917 in contributions, gifts, and grants, according to Charity Navigator, and $5,206,296 in government grants.

At the same time, reports have said membership is declining at certain Y’s; revenue is shrinking, according to charity trackers; and some facilities are due for upgrades.

During the last year, 62.5 million Americans belonged to health clubs, an all-time high, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Globally, IHRSA counted more than 183 million people as members of around 210,000 health clubs.

Bolstered by growing health consciousness, the industry touts revenue of $32.3 billion. IHRSA does not count nonprofits, like YMCAs, in its statistics.

“Believe it or not, we don’t compare ourselves to Planet Fitness, LA Fitness," Feinthel said. "We don’t compare ourselves to them at all.”

Instead, she said, the nonprofit is emphasizing its commitment to service. Over the years, the YMCA has helped fund-raise and rebuild communities devastated by crises such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as disasters outside the U.S.

“Our members and neighbors need us," she said. “If not, who? Who are they going to?”

Charity harks back to the Y’s roots in London, where it was established in 1844 by 22-year-old George Williams.

The YMCA was grounded in Protestant evangelism, pulling young men off the city’s streets in favor of what the Y’s website calls “a refuge of Bible study and prayer,” and fulfilling a need for social charity, whether doling out clothes or coal to the needy.

Williams, a farmer who would later work at a department store, named his group the Young Men’s Christian Association. Sometime in the 1950s, the YMCA of Des Moines estimated, the first woman joined, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In 2010, the YMCA rebranded as the Y, officially coming in tune with the nickname the public had long assigned it. There are more than 2,700 Y facilities in the U.S.

The nonprofit operates on a “federated structure,” meaning each Y is as a separate nonprofit, said David Byrd, senior vice president of movement advancement of the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA.

“So from that perspective,” he said, “we’re able to witness the great work that Y’s are doing across the country to meet their community’s needs, whether it’s bridging divides within communities or addressing social isolation."

And that’s where the YMCA wants to stand out in a pool commanded by the likes of Planet Fitness, SoulCycle, and Equinox. “It wouldn’t be fair for us to compare ourselves to gyms and health clubs, because we’re doing work to meet and address so many community needs that they’re not doing,” Byrd said.

But in recent years, various YMCAs have closed. Silicon Valley in 2014. Washington in 2015. Chicago in 2017. Mesa, Ariz., in 2018.

“There’s so much more opportunity now," said Alli Schulman, a spokesperson for the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, based in Silver Spring, Md. “People are able to try out different things, and you hear about people going for experience over a specific product.”

To cater to a growing number of fitness consumers, some gyms and trainers are using biometric data-collecting trackers. More health clubs have apps to allow members to sign up for classes online. Virtual reality, the IHRSA said, “and, in the not too distant future, adapted reality (AR) are avenues with enormous potential for creating immersive club member experiences."

In Bucks County, the Y, too, is moving to modernize. Starting next month, it will redevelop its Doylestown facility with bigger gyms and specialized exercise spaces, such as spin studios.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the community," said Debbie Sontupe, the county Y’s chief development officer.

Major contributors to the campaign include NovaCare Rehabilitation, pigment and concentrate company Penn Color, auto dealership Fred Beans, the Danaher Lynch Family Foundation, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which gave a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant, the Y said.

It has received from the county $20 million in tax-free financing to revitalize the buildings and to help refinance $10 million in debt the Y assumed when its separate units in Doylestown, Fairless Hills, and Quakertown merged to help reduce overlap in operations, a source with the Y said. Renovations will start in the spring at Fairless Hills.

“We have to remain relevant," Feinthel said. But, she noted, the nonprofit is deeply hesitant to imitate others.

“We thrive on what it is that we do well," she said, “and that is without a doubt relationship-building in a low-pressure environment. ... Where we make mistakes is when we try to be someone that we’re not."