Flynn's Harp: YMCA national CEO sees future as time of change for Y (June 17, '09)
Posted on 7/1/2009 by Mike Flynn
Neil Nicoll, president and CEO of the YMCA of the USA, would rather focus on what kind of Y evolves after the nation’s current economic turmoil passes than spend time wringing his hands over the challenges his non-profit is weathering.
And he sidesteps the opportunity to be critical of the fact that non-profits seem to be the only entities not getting stimulus or bailouts in any of the plans rolling out of Congress and the Administration.
I’d only seen Nicoll once briefly since he left Seattle in May of 2006, after 14 years as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle to take the reins of the Y nationally. So I called him this week to ask about the present, the future, and his views on what I termed the federal slight of non-profit needs.
YMCA of the USA finished 2008 with revenues of $89.5 million, buttressed by contributions of $28.1 million. It’s too early to know how 2009 will turn out, but Nicoll says most of the local franchises are making their fund-raising goals.
He concedes, however, that the capital campaign effort has slowed dramatically and large national gifts (that the Chicago-based headquarters passes through to the local offices) “are having some challenges. And we’re finding it difficult as we approach new donors” with existing commitments and resources dramatically impacted by the market declines.
“But Y useage is higher than ever before, with a lot of people making the choice not to spend money to do other things and coming to the Y more often,” Nicoll says. “And we’re seeing a lot of increase in children’s use and childcare.”
He says Y’s across the country have pretty much all adopted a policy in which, “if someone says they are having to cancel their membership because they lost their job, we’ll keep them on the membership rolls,” something the local Ys obviously can’t advertise or promote, but for which they deserve community plaudits.
Nicoll’s view of the future YMCA may surprise some who view the facilities as places for fitness and programs for families. “In five years, we’re going to be much more known as a health organization and be less focused on fitness,” he says.
“We are working heavily now with the Center for Disease Control, and as health reform grows legs and more effort is put into prevention, we’re a prime candidate to be a delivery mechanism,” Nicolls adds,
And Nicoll says the YMCA of the future is also “going to be a lot more involved in education.”
“A lot of people forget that in the late 1880s through the early 1920s, we were primarily an education organization,” Nicoll says. “We basically founded the community college movement and 60 colleges have their roots in the YMCA, including the founding of Northeastern University in Boston.”
“The dynamics were very similar in those days: low high school graduation rates, large population of new immigrants,” he adds. “We work with 9.4 million kids a year and we’re going to find significant ways to get kids the right educational experiences and prepare them, particularly for higher education.”
Nicolls seems particularly pleased to discuss the Y’s plans to use a $5 million grant from the Indiana-based Lumina Foundation that is focused on helping high school seniors from low-income families fill out forms for financial aid.
“There are about 400,000 high school seniors a year who don’t apply for aid because they, nor anyone who can help them, can fill out the forms,” says Nicoll.
Beginning next February, local Ys will run a College Goal Sunday where “we’ll provide free assistance all over the country for a one-day crash course to get forms filled out for all those kids.”
Nicoll deflected, with a chuckle that conveyed “I’m not going there,” a question about whether Congress and the Administration have flawed priorities in offering every kind of private-sector stimulus and bailout, including cash for junk cars, with no gesture of aid for the non-profit sector.
He will acknowledge that “the whole proposal to eliminate tax deductions for the wealthy, at a time when we’re all scrambling for contributions, is very shortsighted. Doing something that disincentives contributions is not in anyone’s best interest.”
“But I think the idea is dead,” he adds.
“It is the same thing with stimulus dollars,” says Nicoll. “Larger amounts are targeted primarily at government organizations or around issues that don’t allow nonprofit organizations to benefit.”
And Nicoll is willing to chastise states that are seeking to retain cash by stretching out non-profits owed state dollars for social and community programs for which those non-profits are the delivery vehicle. In some cases, the non-profit’s receivables may be as much as 90 or 120 days old.
“They’re managing their float on the backs of non-profits and the poor and the needy the non-profits support,’ he says.
There’s an effort to get President Obama and Congress to provide for bridge loans in cases where states are withholding payments owed some non-profits for community-service programs. Nicoll used the example of Catholic Charities in Illinois, which is owed $20 million by the state for services delivered and payment well past due.
“My sense is that the good non-profit organizations are putting their resources into places where there is going to be a lot of need when things start turning around,” Nicoll adds.