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A Lesson from the 19th Century on How To Be Successful in the 21st Century

Many organizations are suffering from declining membership and engagement among Millennials. Here are three things 21st-century associations can learn from a 19th-century invention about how to be successful and thrive.

Young man, young man, there’s no need to feel down

Young man, young man, pick yourself off the ground

YMCA, it’s fun to stay at the YMCA.

Are you singing along yet?

I cannot imagine one person who will read this blog that does not know the YMCA song by the Village People. It’s at every wedding reception and sporting event and is an indelible part of American culture. Much like the song, the YMCA organization has been a part of our culture for a long time. It is one of the oldest organizations in our country, and for years the Y was the place to go for young people to “build healthy minds, bodies, and communities.”

In recent years the Y has struggled to find its place. Not connecting with younger generations led to declining membership and a high employee turnover rate. However, it’s not just the YMCA.  Many membership associations find themselves in the same unenviable position. Behind closed doors, some of these associations are beginning to question if they can survive in the 21st century. I wish I could get in on those meetings, so I might tell them not to give up hope. All is not lost!

The YMCA of the USA worked with XYZ University to reverse these negative trends and developed a plan to engage the modern millennial family at the Y. I hope that other membership associations may continue to be an integral and valued part of our culture if they just pay attention to what got them there in the first place.

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For example, did you know that the YMCA invented BASKETBALL? Yes, basketball. The story goes that in the late 1800s, a Y staff member named James Naismith was challenged by his supervisor to come up with a new activity that would engage people during the winter months.

At the same time, Naismith was assigned to coach a class of young men who were completely uninterested in the routine exercises available to them. Propelled by the vision of his supervisor and an understanding of what wasn’t working from his first-hand knowledge of his class, Naismith created an early version of what is now one of the most popular sports in the world.

Here are three things 21st-century organizations may learn from this 19th-century example about how to be successful:

1. Be future-focused. Naismith’s supervisor had a vision, and he shared it. He saw that the Y’s current offerings would not always engage people, and he knew they would need something new for the future. Does your organization have a vision for the future, or do daily operations just bog it down?

2. Have humble leadership. Naismith was young and new to the Y staff when he was asked to develop a new sport. This means his supervisor was humble enough to recognize he did not have all the answers and invited a new perspective from someone younger. Is your leadership willing to do the same?

3. Recognize needs and values. Naismith utilized his knowledge of the young men he had in his class to create this new sport. He looked at what they enjoyed and what they did not. He paid attention to what they needed and valued, and out of that came basketball. Does your organization know your young people? Are you paying attention to what they need and value? Are you allowing that to drive your efforts for the future?

Now back to our favorite wedding reception song. Have you listened to the lyrics? I honestly had not until I was writing this blog. I’m usually too focused on my dance moves whenever I hear this song. In much the same way, organizations focus too much on bemoaning what they’re offering is not working instead of asking why it’s not working. Today I read the lyrics and heard something that offers great wisdom.

No man does it all by himself

I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf

And just go there, to the YMCA

I’m sure they can help you today

No man (or woman or generation) can do it all by themselves. Put your pride on the shelf and be willing to learn from younger generations. Look to the story of basketball and the YMCA. I’m sure it will help you today.

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