YMCA General Assembly Observations

From July 8-11, over 3,000 staff, volunteers and vendors converged on Salt Lake City, UT for the 4-day General Assembly of the YMCAs. It’s an event that is held every four years and the whole city was infused with the YMCA community. Literally everywhere you went, were signs of endorsement for the event. It was  expected to generate $3 million for Salt Lake County’s economy. By the looks of things I’d be surprised if they didn’t hit that number.

We were there as an exhibitor. At first I was a bit skeptical of the potential return on such an event, but as we looked closer we began to realize that this is the perfect opportunity for our company to share our success stories from working with the YMCA of the Triangle as well as speak with close to 3,000 Y staff and volunteers. I’m confident now that being there was the right thing to do.

Here are some observations from our time at the General Assembly:

1. The YMCA has Some Serious History

Saturday’s general session ended with the introduction of the Y’s new brand and new strategy, (culminating with a very bizarre rendition of U2’s Beautiful Day, I might add) but the morning started with the introduction of the 2010 inductees to the YMCA Hall of Fame. The list included such notable men and women as Ellen Brown, the first female YMCA staff employee and John D. Rockefeller Jr. The surprising thing to me was that each one of the 17 inductees was born in the 1800’s! It was powerful to learn about each inductee as they splashed the antique photos up on the ginormous LCD screen and shared stories about how these people contributed to the organization that has had such an impact on millions of lives in local communities for the past 160 years! It was moving.

2. What about the “C”?

“For the first time in 43 years, the YMCA unveiled a new brand strategy to increase understanding of the impact the nonprofit makes in communities.” The organization is now referred to as “The Y” and the new logo reflects this. It’s interesting that the foundational guiding beliefs and truths upon which the organization was built continue to take a back seat in the organization’s core message. It’s also unfortunate that a search for the YMCA turns up tons of images for the Village People.

3. YMCA is Missing the Boat on Social Media

The Y seems to be missing the potential of social media. They want to re-introduce themselves to America. They’ve already appeared on Good Morning America and they’ve got big plans for an all-out media blitz. That’s great! But in his presentation, Neil Nicoll, President and CEO of YMCA of the USA had no mention of using social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to help create the powerful networks that can so easily spread your message for you. Perhaps they do have a plan and we’ll be surprised, but I’ve done social media presentations for Y executives and spoke with a LOT of others during the conference. My general observation is that none of the Ys are doing social media right and they’re all looking at each other waiting for one of them to just nail it. It would be a real help if the YMCA of the USA had a strategy in place that all other Y’s could turn too.

4. YMCA Spirit is Hard to Ignore

As a child, did you ever attend a YMCA summer camp?  I did. I spent 5 summers at Camp Kanata, in North Carolina and I also participated in the Y Guides program (at that time it was called Indian Guides…needless to say that had to change). The child-like enthusiasm and magic that happened in those programs can be felt throughout all levels of the organization and it’s people. Whether it’s a seminar at the YMCA General Assembly or a fundraising meeting at a local Y, the staff and volunteers always know how to balance a proper amount of silliness and professionalism in such a way that it’s hard not to want to be part of what they’re doing.

5. The Y is Going to Grow Even Stronger

Regardless of any missing religious affiliation and lack of social media prowess, the YMCA is going to continue to grow. The work that they do in communities is a true blessing to millions around the world and this can no longer go unnoticed. They’ve done 2 years of research to figure out how the general public perceives the organization and compared that to it’s core principles. They’ve done their homework for the new strategy which focuses on Youth Development, Healthy Living and Social Responsibility.

As Neil Nicoll said, “The Y is more than just a place for a gym and a swim.” It always has been and it will continue to be. Now they just need to remind the world who they are. The proof is already there! It is a blessing for us to be able to serve them!

Were you there? What did you take away? What do you think about the Y’s new strategy and logo?