How the YMCA is responding to COVID-19

The storied nonprofit shares how it is striving to continue its mission, even when it had to close its doors to visitors. The ‘Stay With Us’ campaign offers valuable lessons for working through this crisis.

How can your organization continue to engage the community, even when you have to close your doors?

That was the mission for the YMCA as the coronavirus pandemic swept across America, forcing almost all of its locations to close to the public.  The Y was able to reach out to its community stakeholders with a campaign it calls “Stay with Us,” bringing some of the community services the organization was known for to virtual platforms.

The change in tactics, and strategic pivot, offer takeaways for all kinds of organizations that are struggling to serve their audience during this crisis.

Here’s what Valerie Barker Waller, chief marketing officer and senior vice president for Y-USA, had to say about the campaign.


Ragan: What are the goals of your campaign? What challenges do you hope to address?

Waller: As one of the country’s most storied nonprofits with a 170-year history in the U.S., the goal of our “Stay With Us,” campaign is to call on the public to continue supporting the Y.

During this time of crisis, hundreds of Ys across the country are continuing to offer our most important services to the community such childcare, shelter, meals for kids in need and outreach to seniors who are the most vulnerable.

Almost all of the 2,600 Ys across the country have closed, but we are continuing to find ways to help those in need within each community. In recent weeks, we have addressed these challenges head on with the help of our volunteers and Y staff from hundreds of Ys in the US:

  • 504 YMCAs were providing food for children affected by school closures.
  • 672 YMCAs were providing emergency childcare.
  • 27 YMCAs were providing wellness checks for seniors and other vulnerable members.
  • 5 YMCAs were providing emergency housing for those in need.
  • 6 YMCAs were providing virtual youth programming.
  • 46 YMCAs have committed to being a blood drive site.

In order to continue to offer these vital services and to be there to help communities rebuild when the crisis is over, we need the public, both members and nonmembers, to remember and support their local Y.


Ragan: How are you engaging audiences during the COVID-19 outbreak? What’s working for your comms?

Waller: In addition to providing the necessary support for our communities, we recently launched YMCA 360, a new online community program that allows participants to stay connected and active, even when they can’t visit the Y. We launched YMCA 360 because we know how important physical activity and community is, especially in such uncertain times, to our members and the public, and we want the community to know that we’ll continue to serve them as we shift our approach.

In addition to YMCA 360, YMCA of the USA’s digital team has been working to expand our video content. We currently are posting daily relaxation and stretching techniques, because we know the stress people feel working from home or being suddenly without employment. We also are posting child-focused music lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Local Ys are also expanding video content, offering everything from art classes to ways for seniors connect and more to keep their online communities engaged.


Ragan: What are the key messages to share during this crisis?

Waller: Ys across the country are doing everything they can to support people and communities during the incredibly challenging time: providing child care for kids of health care workers and first responders, feeding children without access to school meals, connecting with seniors who face social isolation, and so much more.

The Y has always been there to help people and communities continue to thrive in times of crisis, and in addition to doing what we can today, when this is over, we will be here to help our communities recover, together.

We find it most important for our communities to stay together and stay connected through these times of uncertainty, so we hope that no matter how connected someone is with their local Y, that they stay with and support the Y now and in the future.


Ragan: Are you measuring your efforts? What metrics are you looking at?

Waller: Quite honestly, Ys are needing to respond so immediately and pivot so quickly that the data will come later. But what I do have are some amazing stories coming from the front lines.

For example, on any given day the Rome-Floyd YMCA in Rome, GA provides roughly 107 meals for kids who need them. On Thursday, March 26, the Y delivered 2,400 meals! This just tells you how the need has increased in barely any time. One of the staffers said, “I worked one of our busy Grab-and-Go sites yesterday; people are really scared, and incredibly grateful for the Y’s work. So many of the parents have been laid off already and just don’t know what to do. Diapers and food were our biggest requests yesterday.”

Another great example comes from Plattsburgh, NY where the Ys are offering childcare to first responders, healthcare workers and other “essential” employees. The program called “School’s Out Club” helps kids get homework done, get meals and have fun. A local doctor who was the first to sign her kids up for the program told their local media, “I was really worried. I have two little children and me and my husband still work full time at the hospital…I will be in peace of mind practicing my work without worrying about my kids.”


Ragan: How can communicators and marketers keep their organizations in the conversation right now?

Waller: During this unprecedented time, it’s important for brands, companies and organizations to continue to engage and assist their audiences and communities wherever they can.

At the same time, it’s imperative that organizations are mindful of both public sentiment and the current media landscape.  Authenticity and brand alignment are critical as companies insert themselves into the conversation.

Given our mission, the values we live by and the work Ys do every day in communities all across the country, we just want to connect with the people who need our help, and we want to engage communities to let them know we are here for them and always will be.

To remind the public of the Ys need for support and public service, we hope the PSA launched today, ”Stay With Us,” delivers our message in an effective way.


Ragan: What are the lessons we should take with us from this current moment? Any big takeaways?

Waller: It sounds trite to say, but it takes a village. Our entire marketing and communications team has been working nonstop to ensure that our YMCAs have the communications support they needed and to make sure that the stories we wanted to elevate were being told.

And this was all under the new complication of everyone working off-site and dealing with their own personal stresses and concerns.


How is your organization responding to COVID-19? Share what is working for you in the comments.

Get more insights on responding to this crisis and learn from your peers by joining Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.

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