Lo-res_173622243-SOver the years, the YMCA has come to mean different things to different people. Depending on the meanings that people embrace, the charitable organization sometimes struggles to achieve its mission and goals. Accordingly, a key element of its efforts, at both national and local levels, is to conduct ongoing and persistent research into what people perceive when they think of the Y—because some of those perceptions are not quite accurate.

As the president of the national organization explained, even as membership numbers were climbing, other data related to charitable donations suggested some concerns. That is, people were perceiving the Y “as a gym and swim place. We’re also a charity, and that is the missing ingredient. We want people to realize that we’re deserving of their charitable donations.” To make that case, the Y (which rebranded in 2010 to take the single-letter moniker, though it also still relies on the longer YMCA acronym to maintain links to its historical functions) relies substantially on research. The goal is to show, with data, facts, figures, and graphics, how programs run by the Y and sponsored by charitable donations actually change lives and improve communities.

The national organization also considered its mission—to give families resources that they needed to build self-esteem and self-confidence, and thus build communities—evident, but the market research showed that these notions were not widespread among people who might use or contribute to their local organizations. In other, more targeted market research projects, the national and local arms of the Y also have sought to determine which price points will attract the most members. For example, the Boston branch cited extensive market research that showed that if it cut membership fees by 11 percent, it could attract 10,000 new members. The research got it a little bit wrong though: After it reduced the fees, the membership rolls swelled by more than 20,000 users.

Research also has informed which initiatives the Y has made its primary focus for the near future. It is expanding a summer camp program in an effort to reduce the well-documented “achievement gap” between children from poor and wealthy families. To support this initiative, the Y also instituted its first national advertising campaign, in which one televised advertisement highlights the various after-school, summer, and meal programs available for children. It also ends with a clear call for contributions to support such programs.

Some evidence suggests its efforts are paying off. Visits to the Y’s website increased in just the two months after it launched the national advertising campaigns. So the Y means a lot of things to a lot of people. The national organization continues to find out what people think of when they think of the Y. In addition, it seeks to learn how it can convince them to think about the Y and its valuable programs as a destination for their charitable donations.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kinds of market research has the Y conducted?
  2. Which questions has the Y sought to answer with each different type of market research it has conducted?

Sources: Alina Tugent, “The Y Embarks on Its First National Advertising Campaign,” The New York Times, January 23, 2016. See also Melissa Harris, “Kevin Washington Sets Agenda for YMCA’s National Organization,” Chicago Tribune, November 21, 2014.