Mary Sanchez

YMCA damaged its image with how it handled closings

Updated: 2013-04-08T03:47:06Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

A student seeking a public relations-gone-awry case study should choose the YMCA.

First lesson: Do not unleash visions of a new $40 million location downtown while shuttering three sites serving less affluent demographics.

Raytown, Independence and Kansas City, Kan., got the news last month that the YMCAs in those communities would close Friday.

That’s the crux of the problem.

Leaders in those communities contend the decision came out of the blue. The one-month notice felt like having a rug pulled out.

It’s hard to fathom how the Y can claim it studied the issue for two years, including with focus groups, yet community leaders weren’t aware that memberships were declining drastically, that building maintenance was being deferred.

If nonprofit organizations can’t be counted on to be honest with the communities they serve, then cities need to be more proactive in keeping tabs. Residents shouldn’t have to suffer when things collapse.

A deal has been made for the Kansas City, Kan., YMCA to channel up to $100,000 in casino revenues to prop up finances for a year, with the hope of finding a permanent solution.

Independence is in a better position to maintain programming the Y handled elsewhere, through school district and city offerings.

In Raytown, no such reprieves are on the horizon. The city hoped for a six-month extension on the closing date. But people began to cancel memberships by the hundreds after the closing announcement. With fewer members, the monthly costs needed to keep the doors rose dramatically, from $18,000 to $40,000.

The crazy thing is the Y is now being slapped by its hard-earned good reputation. The quickest slam has been that the nonprofit is chasing the almighty dollar instead of holding to its mission of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

Is that only for tony downtown, not Raytown?

More effort earlier by the YMCA to be upfront could have deflected much of the anger now. Human nature doesn’t value what it has until it’s threatened with losing it.

The financials, the declining memberships might be the same. But at least the Y would have some cover for the massive blowback it’s taking now.

A good portion of community relations is just that: engaging with the community.

Did the Y think so little of its image that it didn’t expect a strong reaction to its decision to close three locations?

The sad thing is the whole drama has proven how valuable the YMCA’s presence is to the metropolitan area.

Then, it set itself up to be trampled.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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