Kevin Washington, President and CEO, YMCA of the USA

Kevin Washington, President and CEO, YMCA of the USA

When Kevin Washington talks about how the YMCA shapes children's lives, he speaks from experience. Growing up in a tough section of South Philadelphia, the Christian Street Y was Washington's refuge from the gangs that roamed the streets of his neighborhood. At the same time, the Y helped foster in him a love for learning and basketball, which in turn enabled him earn a scholarship to Temple University.

In February, Washington became president and CEO of YMCA of the USA. A thirty-six-year veteran of the organization, Washington served as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston from 2010 to 2014 and was credited with doubling that organization's membership to more than forty thousand households and forging a common identity for the region's thirteen different branches. He also has served as a member of the Y-USA board of directors (2004-09) and chaired an advisory committee that guided the development of the national organization's new strategic plan.

Earlier this summer, Washington, the first African-American president and CEO of the national organization, sat down with PND to discuss the organization's Hop the Gap campaign and the ways in which the organization has changed its approach to donor cultivation and partnerships.

Philanthropy News Digest: We're both reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, in which Putnam examines the class-based opportunity gap that has emerged in America over the past forty or fifty years. What role does an organization like the Y play in helping to address opportunity gaps of the kind Putnam describes?

Kevin Washington: Well, our Hop the Gap campaign is expressly designed to fill gaps for kids during out-of-school time related to hunger, health, learning, water safety, and access to safe spaces. It's part of our larger commitment to ensuring that all children, regardless of income or background, have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

For example, many of the more than one million kids in the U.S. who attend the Y's resident and summer day camps are from low-income communities. During the school year, kids learn things at a certain age and at a certain rate. But the summer months, and summer learning loss, are a problem. We know, however, and statistics show, that kids who engage in the Y's summer learning loss prevention programs gain on average two to three months of reading and math skills over a six-week period.

Looking at nutrition, kids who receive breakfast and lunch at school lose the benefit of that program during the summer months. The Y, with support from the Walmart Foundation, is focused on making sure that the food-insecurity gap is addressed by providing four and a half million healthy meals and snacks to nearly two hundred thousand kids this summer.

Last but not least, all kids need to know how to swim. The CDC has found, however, that African-American kids are three times more likely to drown than white kids. So our water-safety initiative is vitally important.

PND: Wow, I had no idea the disparity was so great. What's behind it?

KW: In many low-income communities, there are no pools where kids can learn how to swim. It's also a family thing — if your mother or father never learned how to swim, chances are you won't, either. We know that if kids haven't learned to swim by third or fourth grade, they likely never will.

PND: What are the key barriers to health and academic achievement for kids from low-income households?

KW: In terms of health, the biggest is education — making sure parents are knowledgeable about what they and their children need to be healthy — and the other is access. Growing kids need to eat fruits and vegetables. Everyone knows that. But if you live in a community or neighborhood where fruits and vegetables are hard or impossible to find, well, that's a problem.

In terms of academics, we all know that the public education system in parts of this country fails to provide kids — particularly kids in low-income communities — with opportunities to achieve. The Y, in partnership with other organizations, is working to break down some of the barriers that keep kids from taking advantage of opportunities to achieve and ensure that all kids, regardless of race or family income, have the foundation they need to be successful. When I worked in Boston [as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston], we had staff in the schools, which made it easier for us to know whether a child was having difficulty in a specific area and what we needed to do to address the problem in our afterschool programs. We consider ourselves to be partners with the school system, and enlightened school administrators understand that the work doesn't begin at 8:00 a.m. and end at 3:00 p.m. They understand it's a collaborative effort and that in order for in-school time to be a success, they need the help of folks who are with their kids during out-of-school time. I see that happening more and more, and Putnam emphasizes it in his book.

PND: In recent years, the Y seems to have looked for opportunities to collaborate with foundations. Is that an accurate characterization, and has the organization changed as a result?

KW: As you know, we're a federated organization, which means that I, as the head of Y-USA, don't control the operations of your local Y. But we recognize that if we work thoughtfully and collaboratively, we can play a role in solving some of the nation's most urgent and difficult problems. It's that collective sense of responsibility that has motivated us to approach foundations in a more proactive way. We have great partnerships, for instance, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Walmart Foundation, who see us as a valuable partner on some of issues they are working on.

Earlier this year I was in San Francisco talking with a local philanthropist about our Power Scholars program. He looked at our network of more than twenty-seven hundred YMCAs in ten thousand communities and wanted to talk about how we could use it to scale the program. After he saw our scaling plan for the first couple of years, which has us going from ten thousand to fifteen thousand kids, he said, "I'm more interested in how you can get to a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand kids. That's what I want to invest in."

In the past, any one of our affiliates might have said, "I like this program, but I'm going to do it like this." That's changed. Today, as it relates to Power Scholars or our diabetes prevention or our water-safety programs, we're more likely to say, "If you're going to be a part of this, here's how you have to do it, here's how you have to report it, here are the methods associated with it so we can ensure that, as we report out to our investors, those reports are consistent, evidence-based, and demonstrate results."

As a federated system, it can be a challenge. But there's an incentive for all of us to be engaged in the process, and it's not just money; it's the outcomes we are trying to deliver for our kids and families. That's the cause people want to support. And we can help them do that with our resources.

By the way, that philanthropist ended up investing $3 million in the program.

PND: Is it fair to say that creating that kind of change in a large federated system with a long history is a significant challenge and will take time?

KW: It is, and it will. But the organization is in a great space. We continue to get people who enjoy being a part of the Y, and we are 100 percent committed to what we do. It's about healthy living and youth development in the broadest sense of those terms, and it's about social responsibility. I want folks to understand the Y is an institution that is doing great work in these three big areas — healthy living, youth development, and social responsibility — and that those areas roughly align with our traditional approach, which was focused on body, mind, and spirit. The Y has been creating positive change in our country for more than a hundred and sixty years, and every day, all across the country, YMCAs are adding to this great legacy. I truly believe we're more unified as an organization today than we have been. We are focused on maximizing our considerable capacity to reach more people, do more good, and move the needle on some of the critical social issues facing our country — and we won't be deterred.

— Matt Sinclair

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