Abstract: Real or Rogue Charity? Private Health Clubs vs. the YMCA, 1970-2010

Marc Stern


Late twentieth-century America witnessed an enormous fitness movement among both men and women. One of the most visible aspects of this was the growth of thousands of private health clubs serving millions of Americans. But these clubs were not the nation's only fitness venues. After 1980, these clubs increasingly challenged tax-exempt, not-for-profit and public institutions. Clubs battled the YMCA as its member divisions rebuilt aging branches and replaced urban facilities with either suburban or business-district branches that served some of the same clientele as the for-profit clubs. Club trade groups repeatedly challenged the YMCA in court, in state and federal legislative hearings, and in the court of public opinion over its tax exemptions, its standing as a charity, and its 'right' to serve middle-class Americans. The Y was, said the clubs, a "rogue charity." These lawsuits (including defeats), public relations attacks, and lobbying forced the Y to respond and to rethink its practices, its mission, and its presentation of itself as a community organization and presence in American society.

BEH On-Line Paper