When my father grew up in East New York, it was a true melting pot of backgrounds and ethnicities. And the local YMCA was the place where everyone of every history could go to meet, play games and, through building relationships, knit the fabric of the community. Eventually my father became a successful manufacturer and philanthropist, moved us to Long Island and helped build up our regional Y, where today it remains the place where people of all backgrounds and ages come together in casual, neighborly encounters that create a healthy sense of belonging. Plant a Y and good things grow from it and around it.

That may be why Giving Pledge philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, when seeking to invest in pandemic recovery last fall, focused on community builders like the Y. She and her advisors took a data-driven approach, identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, operating in communities experiencing food insecurity, racial inequity, high rates of poverty, and low access to philanthropic capital. Ultimately, Scott gave $4.2 billion to 384 organizations, more than a quarter of them branches of the YMCA and YWCA.

Such funding is well spent: Community builders, those organizations that connect individuals and families to each other and to public benefits in any civic or regional system, may be one of our best bets for healing America’s health, racial, and economic divides – all exacerbated by the pandemic. Yet, few organizations have been squeezed harder in the past year. “All Ys are faced with significant cash deficits in 2020,” William Rueckert, who chairs the board of the YMCA Retirement Fund, told us in an interview this month. “All of them will have to fund operating losses in the short term, understand how to restructure and recover going forward while still providing community relief in the here and now. It’s a perfect storm.”

The funding of Ys is an opportunity for individuals and family foundations to invest in pandemic recovery in a way that ripples positively across families and towns, children, youth and seniors. My cousin John Treiber, who succeeded my father on the board of the Long Island Y likes to say, “Family philanthropy is the history of the Y.” He can point to family foundations instrumental in launching and nurturing each of our six regional branches. At a time of dire need for community rebuilding, we recommend three ways that individuals and families can provide meaningful support to community builders like the Y.

First and foremost, members can keep paying dues as a form of monthly donation, even if they aren’t using facilities. Given the Y’s funding model and pandemic-related need to operate far below capacity, membership dues have dropped by half and more at many sites. Anne Brigis, CEO of the Y of Long Island reported a 52% decrease in membership revenue and 54% drop in program revenue, given that the six sites she operates must work within New York State’s occupancy mandate of about one third capacity.  At the same time, Brigis’s team has become critical support for essential workers and those in isolation. “We pivoted to offer emergency child care for essential workers, outdoor fitness classes to give members a way to stay healthy, summer day camp with social distancing, and outreach to isolated seniors,” Brigis shared. In the fall, her team worked with local school districts with a high percent of students on free or reduced lunch, to create Y Student Support Centers for children on a hybrid or remote school schedule.   

Second, grant general operating support. While programs operate at one third capacity, facilities need to be wholly maintained, cleaned and disinfected. “The most important gift right now is an unrestricted gift,” said Rueckert, whose great, great grandfather, William E. Dodge, founded the YMCA of Greater New York City in 1852. “Letting the smart people who run the Ys figure out how best to use the dollars in a time of crisis is important.”   

The Y of Long Island, like many Ys, needed to invest dollars to develop virtual programming, including mental health services, which have spiked in usage, fitness classes, academic enrichment and chronic disease prevention workshops. However, because, the Y consolidated six Long Island branches under one administration, organizational headcount outstripped eligibility for the federal paycheck protection program. In addition, the crisis slowed government reimbursements, and forced Brigis to dig into reserves to bridge gaps. As of January 2021, the Y of Long Island was awaiting more than $3 million in committed county and state grants. “Unless you can rely on uninterrupted government funding, you cannot build your organization,” said Treiber, who works closely with Brigis.  

The financial fragility engendered by lags in government funding has a knock-on effect on strategic initiatives, like growing services to new communities and deepening means to address racial inequity. Ongoing funding for strategic initiatives is a third area where family philanthropy can make a difference. For Brigis and Treiber, the initiative hanging in the balance is a new YMCA for the hamlet of Wyandanch, a largely African-American and Hispanic community in central Long Island, where 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.  

Poor infrastructure, contaminated land, and high concentrations of poverty and crime negatively affected the community, until the local government officials engaged Sustainable Long Island to lead a community dialogue in 2003 with more than 500 residents. The visioning process produced a 40 acre master plan to transform the community into a walkable village with affordable housing, retail and services, a public health clinic and, at its heart, a YMCA. Ten years ago the Albanese Organization, a regional real estate developer focused on community building and green design, joined the public-private partnership as Master Developer and commenced implementation of the plan. Philanthropic fundraising for the Y was almost complete when COVID-19 hit. Public and private stakeholders remain committed to the project and its transformational impact on Wyandanch. But, with government IOUs, reserves depleted, and membership down, Brigis estimates she needs to raise another $12-to-$15 million to safely proceed.

“We could have borrowed the rest and been fine, if we could count on membership and revenue,” said Treiber. Added Brigis: “We have opened Ys on deserted main streets, and bakeries, spas and restaurants have followed. After 100 years of strengthening communities, we know we can help create a vibrant downtown.”   

To learn more about the Rauch Foundation’s collaborative focus, register for their webinar “Sparking Cross-Sector Collaboration for COVID Recovery: How a Family Foundation Catalyzed Local Investment,” hosted by the National Center for Family Philanthropy and open to the field.


Original contribution by Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President of the Rauch Foundation of Long Island.