One nonprofit in transition?

The organization formerly known as the YMCA, for “Young Men’s Christian Association,” is rebranding itself as simply “the Y.” Even after reading their press release about it, I’m not completely clear on the motivation for the change. One big part appears to be that many people refer to the organization by this even shorter version of the already-abbreviated name. I can’t discern the extent to which this is an active removal of the words “Men” and “Christian” in order to either appear more inclusive or reflect a more genuinely inclusive mission.

Obviously YMCA branches won’t kick you out if you’re not a man or if you’re not Christian, and that’s been true for quite some time. (Exactly how inclusive they’ve been through history, I’m honestly not sure. There must be some reason that the YWCA was formed as a distinct organization, and even that still has the “C.”) But even though the organizational profile doesn’t say anything about Christianity, in the “fine print” in light grey letters at the very bottom of the Y’s website pages it says: “The YMCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

When the Y was founded (as the YMCA) in London in 1844, it was as “a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets.” Today, they define their areas of focus to be “youth development,” “healthy living,” and “social responsibility” — all of which seem to be interpreted along secular rather than religious lines. If it weren’t for the fine print at the bottom of the page, I would think the Christian influence was just a historical relic.

Now, the Y isn’t eliminating the C altogether. The press release says that “the Y” is the name for the organization as a whole, while one single branch should still be called “the YMCA of” whatever location it’s in. The “national resource office” (essentially, headquarters) is still called YMCA of the USA.

In light of our recent conversations here about atheists donating to religious charities — how do you feel about the Y after this rebranding? If in general you refuse to donate to explicitly religious charities, does the Y now meet your standard for secularity? I’m inclined to say that we’re witnessing a transition, and the Y is currently somewhere in between religious and secular — perhaps, if I may geek out a bit, in a superposition of states. Maybe in a few years, they’ll shake off the last remnants of Christianity in their official practices and documents, and I’ll be able to call them a secular charity with confidence… but not quite yet. What do you think?

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4 Comments

  1. I honestly don’t know how much emphasis they put on Christianity now. I’m in a kickboxing class at a local YWCA and the instructor (the only person we see) is an outside trainer that they hire. I’ve heard nothing about Christianity since I started.

    –Leah @ Unequally Yoked

  2. I haven’t been to a Y in years, but when I was in high school I joined one to use their gym. It was a nice gym and was by far the most affordable option in town. It also had the advantage of being close enough to where I lived that I could bike there when I wanted to. The whole time I was there, I never once saw or heard anything even mildly religious. I wasn’t aware that they were considered a charity, religious or otherwise.

  3. Yeah, they might not seem like a very impressive charity especially if you know them only as a gym, but they are a nonprofit and they do a bunch of community outreach programs and have these goals of improving society. Exactly how religious they are can vary wildly from branch to branch … here’s an article from the LA Times in 2006 about the then “small but growing movement” to “lift up the C in the YMCA,” and the Christian-focused programs being used to do so.

    “It’s not necessarily politically correct to tell folk that Jesus is the way and the light,” said Dan Nix, executive director of a Y in Waycross, Ga. “But the YMCA should stand for Christ at all cost. His name is on our building, and we should not take that name in vain.”

  4. Aristarchus

     /  July 13, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Yeah, I don’t really know anything about what’s happening now, but it’s definitely been Christian in the past. The YMCA near me growing up had a big religious mural in the lobby. I suspect there’s a lot of variation between different locations. Maybe they’re moving a little bit away from the religious side, but they’re not anywhere near where they would need to be for me to consider them secular.

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