K evin Washington had been president of Greater Boston YMCA for just six months when he startled trustees and branch directors with plan to cut membership fees by an average of 11 percent. Their reaction: “Are you crazy?”
Washington forged ahead, confident in market research that projected lower dues would increase membership by 10,000 households and ultimately increase revenues. That estimate, however, proved wrong: The Y added 20,000.
Washington “is somebody who would make a bet and take a step outside what the comfort zone would be for some leaders,” said Hope Aldrich, a Y director and chief executive of Eastern Insurance Group in Natick.
Washington’s ability to think strategically, push boundaries, and see the big picture helped him nearly double the membership of the Greater Boston Y to more than 40,000 households and forge a common identity among what were 13 turf-conscious branches. Now, after four years, Washington is moving to Chicago in February to take the reins of the national Y, making history, as he did in Boston, as the first African-American to serve as the organization's chief executive.
Selected in September from a field of 100 applicants, Washington will oversee a federation that serves 22 million people at 2,700 branches. He is already thinking big, hoping to expand a pilot academic program that last summer served 1,000 students to eventually reach 1 million.
He aims to make the Y a national leader in diabetes prevention. And he wants to get out the message — listen up, philanthropists — that the Y is much more than “gym and swim.”
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The YMCA has played a central role in Washington’s life for a half-century. The fourth of six children, he was raised by a father who worked as packer in a lamp factory and mother who occasionally did administrative work. They lived in a rough neighborhood in South Philadelphia that was afflicted by drugs and gangs.
Every week, a man named Bill Morton would collect students at the local grade school to take them to the Christian Street YMCA, where he was he youth director. Among his recruits was a 10-year-old boy nicknamed Extension Cords because of his gangly arms. That was Kevin Washington.
Morton kept the kids busy, learning to swim, playing ball, shooting pool. Washington gravitated to the basketball court, where he honed his game. Some kids Washington knew would succumb to the call of the streets, dying when they were barely out of their teens. Washington won a basketball scholarship to Temple University, and was the first in his family to attend college.
“I wasn’t a bad kid, but he kept me from being one of those kids,” Washington said of the man he still refers to as Mr. Morton.
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A few months after he graduated from Temple in 1978, Washington got a call from Morton, who was then executive director of the Christian Street Y. He hired Washington as youth director. Washington rose through the ranks, leaving the Philadelphia Y (where he met his wife) after 14 years to work in Chicago and then in Hartford, where he became the first black chief executive of the Y association.
In Hartford, Washington defied conventional wisdom by expanding into one of the city’s most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods with a new branch. Many believed it was crazy to invest in such a troubled area, recalled Christine Marcks, then a Hartford Y board member and now chairwoman of the national organization, Y-USA. But Washington insisted it was where the Y was needed most.
“Kevin called it an oasis of safety for kids,” said Marcks, president of Prudential Retirement, a unit of the New Jersey insurance company. “It really has turned out as an oasis of safety in Hartford.”
Defying doubters and deepening the Y’s role in the community would characterize Washington’s tenure in Boston, as well. Shortly after arriving in September 2010, he questioned why membership levels were lower than comparable YMCAs, such as those in San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C.
He commissioned a market study that found potential members viewed price as the main obstacle to joining. Although the Y offered financial aid to lower-income residents, many were put off by the paperwork required to obtain to it. Others didn’t apply out of pride.
Washington hired the study’s author, Mark Dengler, now executive vice president of operations, to put it into action. Fees were cut across the board, but most deeply at branches in lower-income neighborhoods. Membership surged, and overall revenues rose nearly 50 percent.
Though some wondered if the Y could handle the influx, Washington later offered free membership to teens over the summer. More than 10,000 took him up on it. Once again, skeptics became believers.
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Washington said he had no apprehensions about becoming the Greater Boston Y’s first black chief executive, though some friends questioned his decision because of the city’s turbulent racial past. But Washington soon found the problem wasn’t prejudice, but parochialism.
In Philadelphia, people thought of themselves as Philadelphians, Washington said. But here, they identified themselves by neighborhoods, Charlestown, or Dorchester, or Roxbury. That proved an obstacle to Washington’s vision of one Y — “not the Oak Square Y, the Huntington, the Wang, but the YMCA of Greater Boston.”
Complicating relations among branches were differences in finances: Some operated at deficits, others at surpluses. The better-off branches resented their money going to what they called “deficit Ys”; the less well-off viewed such attitudes as greedy.
“It’s not a have or have not,” Washington would stress repeatedly. “It’s what we all have.”
To ensure that the Y brand represented the same quality of services everywhere, Washington centralized, upgraded, and standardized training. He emphasized that his approach would make staff members better managers and leaders, while strengthening the organization.
At the same time, he recognized that different branches served different populations, and often needed to take different approaches. He listened to staff and members.
For example, Washington frequently attended meetings of teen coordinators from each of the branches, according to Joseph Gaeta, 31, the association-wide teen director, who is based at the East Boston branch.
Gaeta came up with a plan to help keep teens in school. Boston schools offer a Web-based program that allows students to earn credits for courses they had failed.
Gaeta told Washington that teens would be more to likely take advantage of the program if the Y provided an inviting space equipped with computers.
Washington found a donor to foot the $25,000 bill for such a facility, which opened last winter in the East Boston branch. As a result, Gaeta said, East Boston High’s class of 2014 had 15 additional graduates.
“It was never him telling us what to do,” Gaeta said. “It was always us discussing what to do.”
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Washington said his experiences in Boston, dealing with different populations, interests, and priorities among branches will help in his new job overseeing a federation of urban, suburban, and rural Ys.
“I don’t think the missions are different,” he said. “We’re talking about strengthening the fabric of community. People in Wisconsin have health issues too, they have youth development issues. Young people, regardless of where they grow up, are at risk.”
Washington said he first hesitated to pursue national Y’s top job, even sending his resume a few days past the deadline. “Leaving was tough because we’re on a roll,” he said in an interview at his office in the Huntington Avenue building.
Hanging on his wall is a picture that looks like a movie poster of Yul Brynner and the other stars of the Western “The Magnificent Seven.” A closer look reveals seven African-American faces, that of Washington among them. In 2004, when time the graphic was made, they were the only black CEOs among the nation’s 70 largest Y associations.
Washington said the count is now up to 10. He sees his appointment to lead the national organization as an example of the Y’s commitment to diversity. More needs to be done, he said. But, he stressed, the movement has long opened its doors to people of all colors, incomes, and heritage.
Washington looks back to that shy, wiry boy trying to grow up on the streets of South Philadelphia a half century ago.
“I tell everyone the YMCA found me at the age of 10 at the William S. Pierce elementary school,” he said. “The Y can be a bridge from adolescence to adulthood. It was for me.”
Steve Maas can be reached at email@example.com.