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By Matthew Leger • April 12, 2021

With its first US-based location established in 1851, the YMCA is one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofits. Today, the organization has a presence in over 10,000 neighborhoods across the country and serves millions of youth and families of all backgrounds. As a young kid growing up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, the local YMCA was a pillar in my community, and it was a place where I easily spent more than half of my days growing up. They played an enormous role in my development and have had a lasting impact on my life, and that same can be said by millions across the US.

 

A hyper-local, data-driven approach to serving the community

The YMCA emphasizes the importance of acting and thinking locally. According to their website, they are “working locally to empower young people, improve health and well-being, and inspire action in and across communities.” I can tell you from firsthand experience that the organization has always lived up to these values. However, while the mission of the organization has withstood the test of time, it was just two or three years ago that the organization turned to data to inform service delivery in the communities it serves. For Maria-Alicia Serrano, Senior Director of Research, Analytics & Insights at the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA), effectively serving local communities starts with a better understanding of who lives in the communities where YMCAs are located, not just those who walk through their doors. 

That’s why Serrano and her team launched the Community Insights tool in 2020, a self-service geospatial resource that allows local YMCAs and their staff to explore the demographic and socioeconomic makeup of their surrounding communities. In launching the Community Insights tool, Y-USA is looking to empower local offices with the information they need to ensure that they are providing services that are truly beneficial to the youth in their area. The ultimate goal is to provide local offices – which are independently operated – and their staff with critical insights they need to ensure they are effectively serving their communities and spending operating budget dollars most effectively. 

 

YMCA Community Insights map that shows Y locations, mapped against race/ethnicity, income, and social vulnerability indexes for the area.

The Community Insights tool is the first of many geospatial resources Serrano and her team are building to enable local YMCAs to be more independently data-driven. The team's focus is on providing user-friendly tools that help local staff get the information they need quickly, freeing the national office up to focus on providing assistance to offices that need more advanced analytics capabilities and support for projects. Serrano’s team has also developed an Insights Hub for the  YMCA’s State Alliances –offices located in each state to provide strategic planning and resource support to local YMCAs – which Serrano referred to as her “GIS super users.” The Hub is meant to serve as a one-stop-shop for all of the organization’s analytics tools and data, and it is available for all State Alliance offices to use when supporting different locations.

 

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Data-informed, mission-driven service delivery

As the organization’s analytics capabilities have matured and offices across the country have adopted these tools, Serrano is very careful not to let data be the sole driver of decision making. To her and her team, data should inform decision making, but the mission is what needs to drive actions. 

Despite her job title, Serrano said in an interview that she has a love-hate relationship with the term data-driven for two reasons. The first is that people can get too comfortable with letting data tell them what to do; “for example, economic data can lead us to look at a high-income neighborhood and decide that we need to put a YMCA location there because the data indicates that there is an opportunity to raise revenue. However, our mission is to serve all people, so we need to take into account community needs such as support managing diabetes, or quality and affordable afterschool programs to ensure the organization is meeting the most important needs of the community.”  

The second reason is that the term “data-driven” implies that an individual's knowledge or lived experience is secondary or irrelevant. The national office may have the data and the resources to analyze the makeup of local communities, but no one knows those communities better than those who work and live there. Data should not overpower the experiences and real-world understanding the local leaders have, and that concept is at the forefront of Serrano’s advocacy work as she has rolled out Y-USA’s geospatial tools.

 

Applying an equity lens to the data that drives decision making

The rollout of these tools during the pandemic was especially critical to the organization as they worked to make hard financial decisions regarding the future of the YMCA. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the YMCA’s national leadership wanted to ensure that the financial decisions they made included an equity lens. Given their role supporting youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country, they were very intentional about where services were cut so not to further perpetuate inequities. 

With any equity focus, some YMCAs shifted their services around and opened Virtual Learning Centers in communities where parents had to go to work during the pandemic, but couldn’t leave their children at home for remote learning. Additionally, some offices may have needed to close their locations due to financial constraints, but some were able to adapt services to a program-only model where they focus solely on providing community programs without a physical YMCA location, ensuring a presence in the community was sustained.

 

The Y’s Keys to Success

For Serrano and her staff, the keys to success are not necessarily rooted in their ability to create advanced, user-friendly analytics tools – that’s only a fraction of the battle. The real keys to success, according to Serrano, were threefold:

 

  1. Grassroots advocacy from local YMCAs: When tough financial decisions needed to be made as the pandemic began, local staff needed hard data about their communities to make mission-driven decisions. Local staff across the country, from small local offices to the nation's largest YMCA locations, advocated for broader access to technology and data, which helped to advance the Research & Analytics team’s work.
  2. Executive-level buy-in: The YMCA’s leadership fully recognized the need to leverage data to better serve local communities even before the pandemic. Given the organization’s intention to be an active “anti-racist” institution, CEO Kevin Washington understood that data about local communities was key to living up to that promise.
  3. Adopt a test-and-learn culture: To get these tools off the ground and to make them a part of the organization's daily operations, Serrano and her team worked to expose local YMCA staff to these tools through training and hands-on learning to demonstrate their value. “It is important not to get bogged down by trying to make a perfect and robust tool. Just get the minimum viable product out there that gives end-users the baseline information they need to make decisions. Then you can gather feedback and improve the product based on how it is getting used,” said Serrano. This has helped local Ys get comfortable with the tools and make them a part of their process for making decisions for the broader organization.

Looking ahead: An outcomes-driven approach to data use 

Moving forward, Serrano is shifting her team’s focus slightly to include a more outcomes-driven approach to data use to measure the effectiveness of the services they provide. One example is the Men and Boys of Color Initiative, which the YMCA is participating in in an effort to track economic mobility outcomes of youth of color that grow up leveraging the organization’s services. They are also tracking socio-emotional factors related to a child’s relationship with their family and the broader communities in which they live. Given the YMCA’s role in early childhood intervention, the leadership of Y-USA is hoping to better understand what role their services play in helping improve the lives of those they serve in the long run.

Although they are still in the early stages of using data to inform decision making, the YMCA has already demonstrated the power of geospatial tools in providing the critical context needed to improve services, while also ensuring more equitable outcomes for all.


Want to learn more? Listen to Maria-Alicia Serrano on the accompanying Data-Smart City Pod, hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith.