The ‘C’s and Y’s’ of the YWCA

Print More

A National Organization for Women (NOW) press release in May trumpeted the good news: “Women’s rights supporters across the U.S. cheered” as Patricia Ireland, president of NOW from 1991 to 2001, was named CEO of the YWCA of the U.S.A. Her political pedigree and talents lend weight to the recent relocation of the organization from the Empire State to the nation’s capital, where the pit bulls play.

But Ireland’s appointment to the 145-year-old group that claims it “represents approximately 2 million women, girls and their families” received nothing but Bronx cheers from conservative activists. They are offended by Ireland’s ample public record of lefty political statements and by what Audrey Peeples, chairwoman of the national YWCA board, diplomatically calls “her personal choices.”

At its heart, the dust-up is over the moniker “Christian” in the YWCA’s name, a legacy of what one close observer calls the group’s “venerable history” that, says a recent annual report, is “nourished in the Christian faith.” But to conservative columnist Terry Eastland, the appointment of Ireland, “at heart a cultural warrior” (as is Eastland), is an affront to all Christians. He quotes a “warrior of the right” who attacks Ireland as “not a good role model for young girls.”

In a newsletter dubbed Traditional Values Special Report, put out by the D.C.-based Traditional Values Coalition, a recent headline blared, “Patricia Ireland’s New YWCA Mission: Former NOW leader, bisexual and socialist now controls this girls’ organization.” Coalition Executive Director (Mrs.) Andrea Lafferty wrote, “Ireland’s view of the world is anti-Christian.” Lafferty quotes from an interview Ireland gave to Bonnie Raindrop of Voices of Women, a website ( for women in business. (Lafferty claims it’s a “website for witches”.)

On feminists, the site quotes Ireland saying, “Perhaps historically we have been guilty of almost theophobia, a spiritual neglect, because of our history with organized religion.” Despite Lafferty’s lacerations, Ireland goes on to praise in the article a so-called Re-Imagining God Conference where women went about “reclaiming” their spirituality.

But conservatives need not have fretted over the Ireland appointment – not because they are wrong, but because they are right. The alleged takeover of the national YWCA by the purported “secular humanists” that conservatives so love to hate actually occurred decades ago.


Six types of people land jobs running most national youth-serving organizations: career staff, fund-raisers, business executives, career policy wonks, ideological advocates and celebrities.

Naturally, most popular with service providers are up-through-the-ranks youth workers-turned-managers. Roxanne Spillett, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1996, is one example, as are Kathy Cloninger, the newly appointed CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Stuart Smith of Camp Fire USA and Margaret Tyndall, a former Pittsburgh YWCA executive who preceded Ireland in the YWCA’s top post.

The second category is made up of those who are hired for their actual or perceived ability to raise significantly more funds than the groups raised in the recent past. Examples include Judy Vrendenburgh of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Ken Gladish of the National Board of the YMCA of the U.S.A. Lacking much programmatic depth, their tenure succeeds or fails based solely on their ability to bring home ever more bacon. Improvements in the quality of youth services take on a secondary role for this group.

Perhaps the riskiest hire for a national youth-serving agency is the career business executive turned nonprofit leader. Such people are often unprepared for the range of skills required and the necessity to perform at “C” level or above in every single subject. One “F” and you’re history. Examples of such bomb-outs include David Funk, former executive director of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and Eric Graham of Children’s Express. Neither lasted long in jobs that were just too entrepreneurial for them.

Another group consists of the career policy types who skipped sustained face-to-face work with children and youth but, through earlier jobs, acquired considerable policy and philanthropic acumen. Examples include Sid Johnson of Prevent Child Abuse America and Peter Goldberg of the Alliance for Children and Families.

Then there are the ideological advocates with fixed points of view. Often constitutionally incapable of working for others, the successful ones of necessity start their own national organizations. In this category are liberals such as Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund and Vinnie Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, and conservatives such as James Dobson, president emeritus of Focus on the Family, and Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development.

Finally, in the category where we find Patricia Ireland and the YWCA, are the celebrities who can easily get quoted in print and interviewed on TV. This group wins celebrity status through various means, including family ties, great wealth, holding public office, Hollywood success, outstanding athletic ability or TV journalism. For example, brothers Tim and Mark Shriver run Special Olympics and Save the Children U.S.A., respectively. (And brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been a staffer at his Inner City Games Foundation, now known as After-School All-Stars.) People in this group are often hired with a wink and a nod, as in, “We’ll hire someone to actually run the railroad while you draw media coverage to help brand our esteemed child-saving organization.”

Ireland most closely fits that celebrity mold. She openly casts her job as that of a public voice for the YWCA, “branding” its good works in the public mind.

Gone from the job description is much of a role in internal leadership and management of an organization whose aggregate national income (including its affiliates) totaled some $646 million in 2002. Since the estimable Dorothy Height, still active on social policy issues at age 91, left the YWCA of the U.S.A. in 1977, “the national group,” says one former staffer, “just hasn’t had the leadership.”

Why Sagging?

In the quarter-century since Height’s departure, the YWCA’s decline has been precipitous in comparison with similar national groups. One barometer of business success is the ranking of the top human-service groups compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. In 1997 the YWCA ranked as the 13th-largest human services group, based on the aggregate income of the national board and its affiliates. It ranked ahead of such major organizations as the Boy Scouts of America and Campus Crusade for Christ International. In 1998, the YWCA ranked 39th; in 2000, 47th; and by 2002, it had slipped to 73rd.

The reasons for the shrunken responsibilities for the top job reside in “The Plan,” a thorough reinvention of the YWCA’s management and corporate structure that is in its final stages of implementation. Supporters hope it will rejuvenate an organization that has been, says one observer, “limping along.” One national YWCA leader followed another, most with egos big enough to fill the Empire State Building, where the national YWCA (with 70 staff) was once housed. These CEOs often used the YWCA’s international ties to justify worldwide junketing. Back in the states, the number of affiliates declined from about 400 in 1977 to 303 today. The former CEO of a big city YWCA says the national office compiled “a history of nonresponsiveness” to its affiliates.

Ireland ascribes the drop-off in member associations to social changes of the ’60s and ’70s that opened up “more choices for women” in leadership roles.

Critics of the YWCA (but not those of Ireland) take no joy in describing the group’s problems. One lifelong national advocate for girls’ services sadly recalls her enthusiasm in first meeting the YWCA’s new CEO in 1994, Prema Mathai-Davis. Eager to collaborate, the advocate was taken aback when all that Mathai-Davis wanted to talk about was having other girls’ organizations join a campaign against female genital mutilation in Africa.

Just how distressed the YWCA had become is revealed in hindsight by a press release announcing Mathai-Davis’ departure in June 2000. “In recognition of her vision to end violence globally,” it says, the YWCA “will inaugurate the Prema Mathai-Davis award for nonviolence this fall.” Three years later, no one has ever received this phantom award.

To the Rescue

Time for The Plan, formally called The Change Initiative.

In September 2000, more than 870 of the faithful gathered in Dallas and approved a fundamental shift in the YWCA’s national structure, a shift driven by a cadre of big city CEOs, including current board chairwoman Peeples, who then ran the Chicago YWCA. Gone are the technical support functions of the national office, in favor of advocacy to promote what Peeples calls the YWCA’s “two hallmark programs”: the economic empowerment of women and racial justice.

Gone, too, is every person on the 70-plus national staff in New York and the Washington office. They have been replaced by a staff of 13 in Washington, led by Ireland. Even Jo Uehara, the national YWCA’s best-known staffer, is gone. Uehara spent three decades running the YWCA’s outpost in Washington, and served as interim executive director several times.

Gone is the old CEO job description that was, says Peeples, “a much bigger job” than the one Ireland fills now.

Gone are the big executive bucks. Tyndall, the YWCA’s top executive before Ireland joined, got $524,514 in salary and severance pay, according to the group’s 2001 IRS tax returns. In the previous tax year, Tyndall earned $219,331. Ireland will be paid $111,000 out of a current national budget of $3.2 million – a far cry from the $14.7 million spent on national operations
in 1997.

To further exorcise the ancient regime, The Plan abolished the National Board of the YWCA of the U.S.A. itself and reincorporated in New York as the National Coordinating Board of the YWCA, with 22 members. Most support services, once done from New York, have been shifted to nine separately incorporated 501(c)(3) regional offices housed in local YWCA branches in Worcester, Mass.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Madison, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.; El Paso, Texas; Spokane, Wash.; Riverside, Calif.; Miami and Philadelphia.

Each regional office has either a part-time staffer or a consultant based somewhere in the region. Each region elects two members to the National Coordinating Board (only one of whom can be a paid staff member), but retired staffers like Peeples count as volunteers. Three board positions are reserved for women under 30. The 22nd board member is a holdover from the old board who simply refused to resign.

Girls’ Work Tags Along

Since its founding in 1858, the YWCA has made working with teen girls an integral part of its mission. Over the past half-century the autonomous local YWCAs have evolved into girl-centered programs, social service and health maintenance organizations for women and their children, or something in between.

Over the past decade the national YWCA staff has raised funds for a number of programs, including the Partnership for Tomorrow’s Women in the early 1990s, in which the YWCA and Girls Inc. collaborated to introduce Girls Inc. youth development programs into YWCAs. The effort proved successful, with about 40 YWCAs currently in affiliation agreements that include using Girls Inc.’s much-lauded curriculum. For $1,000 per year these YWCAs (including those in Waukesha, Wis., and Kansas City, Kan.) receive technical assistance from Girls Inc.’s National Resource Center in Indianapolis, run by Susan Houchin.

More recent efforts at promoting girls’ work have lacked staying power, the ability to be vigorously replicated, or both. These include the YWCA TechGYRLS Clubs for 9- to 13-year-old girls from poor neighborhoods. TechGYRLS began a decade ago with seven sites and now operates in 18 YWCAs, thanks to ongoing support from the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.

Other YWCA youth development undertakings have not fared so well. A leadership program funded by the PepsiCo Foundation faded away this summer. An information technology program known as NetPrep, funded by the EDS Foundation, has also ended. With urging from the Clinton White House in 1999, the YWCA launched a Stop Racism Youth Challenge effort that quickly petered out. “They just couldn’t operationalize it,” a former national staffer (an African-American) says of the YWCA’s anti-racism effort.

Ireland’s first five months as CEO have been dominated by internal matters, as the all-new (and all-female) staff learns to work within the new regional structure. When Ireland does focus on girls’ work, she will find a problematic organizational setup. The new national office, says Ireland, “is not allowed to do service programs.” They must be farmed out to the regions, thereby raising issues of standards and accountability that national funders may find wanting.

Youth worker Gabrielle Galluci is the only national consultant working on girls’ programming, and she’s part-time and based in Maine. A YWCA staffer since 1996, Galluci notes proudly that “none [of the YWCAs] who closed had a strong youth development program.”

Another veteran of several girls’ organizations was more cutting, saying, “The YWCA has been irrelevant since the ’70s in youth work.”

The local YWCAs have seen little financial benefit for girls work from their national affiliation. Soon after Mathai-Davis was shown the exit in 2000, uncollectable dues from local YWCAs totaled over $7 million, the rough equivalent of two years’ worth of dues.
The endowment, once $74 million, dropped steadily to $55 million in 2002, as operating losses accelerated.

The YWCA’s federal tax returns tell more of the story: In 1997 the national office’s income totaled $25.1 million. By 2000, income was $12.3 million, while losses totaled nearly $5.9 million. In 2001, the red ink had risen to more than $7.6 million. Even more ominous, dues that totaled $4.7 million in 1998 had dropped by 85 percent, to $724,000.

The ladies at headquarters had other priorities, such as spending $1.3 million to get out of a New York lease so they could move into the Empire State Building in 1999. To get out of that office lease (which cost $494,000 per year), the YWCA shelled out another $2,935,000 in 2002. Expenses directly charged to implementing The Plan totaled several million dollars. In fiscal 2002, the YWCA incurred $396,000 in severance pay for its New York staff (not counting Tyndall’s package). The money-losing YWCA Leadership Development Center in Phoenix, built at great expense in the late 1970s, has been rented indefinitely to Sodexho Marriott Food Services for about $220,000 a year.

That’s quite a record for a nonprofit that Money Magazine ranked among the top five most effective charities in the country just 10 years ago.

The Outlook

Will The Plan work? Will it revitalize the national YWCA movement? “We all understand that we need to make it work,” says Rosemary Taylor, a national board member and executive director of the YWCA in Schenectady, N.Y.

Ireland is an experienced fund-raiser and has set her sights on a congressional earmark for the YWCA in fiscal 2005. She mentions the Boys & Girls Club of America’s $90 million in federal funding with admiration and a hint of envy. While local YWCAs receive federal funds for domestic violence shelters (the YWCA is the nation’s largest provider), welfare-to-work and other social services, the national office has no federal funds – making it one of the few agencies in the 46-member National Collaboration for Youth not ensconced in the federal budget.

One policy area that would seem to be a natural fit for Ireland and the YWCA is sex education and reproductive health. Ireland didn’t get to be president of NOW by being shy about abortion issues. But when asked about the push by the Bush administration and Congress for abstinence-only sex-ed policies, Ireland firmly says, “It’s not a fight we’ll take on.” What the YWCA will take on in Congress, Ireland says, is supporting the Violence Against Women Prevention Reauthorization Act, hate crimes legislation, affirmative action, increased childcare funding and women’s pay issues.

For now, Ireland is saddled with having to get sign-offs on policy moves from the nine regional YWCAs, each of which is a separate fiefdom. She knows that antiquated approach to lobbying won’t work. “If we want to be players,” Ireland says, the YWCAs will have to delegate broad tactical authority to her, something she hopes will happen once “trust” is established between the regions and the national office.

Hired to assist Ireland as director of advocacy is Angela Arboleda, most recently a lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza.
Each local YWCA controls its own real estate and other assets. Some YWCAs have opted for the swim-and-gym-only route. Others just go broke. They can be disaffiliated for a number of reasons, such as not paying dues (which now go to one of the nine regional nonprofits), dropping their YWCA name, merging with the YMCA and, most verboten of all, putting men on the governing board.

Good thing that the Equal Rights Amendment that Ireland campaigned for didn’t make it into the Constitution. Some YWCAs skirt the no-man-in-the-house rule by setting up a parallel structure such as an advising board of trustees.

If Ireland wants to see how the YWCA can have a bright future in girls’ work, she would do well to visit two of the YWCAs that emphasize high-quality youth development programming. In Kansas City, Kan., Cathy Breidenthal, the executive director for the past 17 years, says that tying in with Girls Inc. “works fine.” With a full-time equivalent of just 12 youth workers, the YWCA of Greater Kansas City serves 400 to 500 girls per week.

Like any savvy youth agency director, Breidenthal will latch onto any help she can get to meet an $800,000 annual budget. She works with America’s Promise as a “Neighborhood of Promise,” which qualifies the YWCA for grants and corporate matching funds in revitalizing Kansas City’s downtown area. It will use a recent $300,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to launch the Conner Café, which will be run mostly by minority YWCA girls who are learning entrepreneurial skills.

In Waukesha, Wis., 24 miles from Milwaukee, youth worker Gayle Becker-Protz is making girls “our priority.” She’s a veteran of 12 years with the Milwaukee Boys & Girls Club, and three more with the YMCA. In her 10 months as executive director of the YWCA, which she says was “almost ready to close our doors,” Becker-Protz has put together a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters and hired a full-time director for youth leadership. The YWCA of Waukesha serves 650 girls per week and runs several health and fitness programs on an annual budget of $900,000. What else would you expect from someone who was president of Milwaukee’s Youth Serving Coalition for four years?

For now, youth workers in YWCAs don’t know what to expect from Ireland and the new governing structure, either.

Contact: YWCA of the U.S.A. (800) 992-2871,