Many organizations have an immensely difficult time conveying bad news to their customers. Out of a desire to not displease or upset people, they provide too little information or spin the information in a way that ultimately comes back to bite them.
Nonprofits are often particularly inept at communicating bad news because their leadership teams generally have no experience in crisis management and they are understandably anxious about generous supporters who could sour on the organization in the face of financial or other difficulties.
The result is often a poorly thought-out strategy of providing limited or no information and believing that the problem can be contained and kept from the media and the broader public.
It is surprising and disappointing that an organization as large and well-respected as the YMCA of Silicon Valley, with local boards filled with prominent local people, could have stumbled so badly in the last two weeks over the Page Mill branch's problems.
Stung by the intensity of reaction to its announcement that the Page Mill YMCA would close Oct. 1, ill-prepared YMCA officials are now scrambling to contain the upset of many long-time members.
The Page Mill fitness center, located in the basement of an office building in the Palo Alto Square complex and surrounded by venture capital and law firms, has always been somewhat of a stepchild facility among Ys because of its lack of a family focus or programs that reflect the mission of the YMCA.
But as the reaction to the closure announcement clearly shows, its members care deeply about the community that has formed at the facility and are not enthusiastic about moving to either the Ross Road or the East Palo Alto branches or to another gym.
In their attempt to respond to upset Page Mill members by holding a public meeting Wednesday night to explain its actions, YMCA executives managed to make matters worse by barring the media from the meeting.
Reporters spotted by YMCA officials were asked to leave the meeting in spite of it being open to anyone else, YMCA member or not, who walked into Unitarian Universalist Church. Attendees were not asked to show their YMCA cards or verify they were members.
The Weekly had sent staff to videotape the meeting so it could be posted on our website for those unable to attend the 5 p.m. meeting, a service the Y should have welcomed.
Explanations given for excluding reporters included concern over the seating capacity of the room and their possible effect on attendees expressing their opinions.
YMCA officials knew the press would be attending, so their attempt to prevent coverage of the meeting was deliberate and reflected the same poor judgment that has characterized the last two weeks.
The YMCA is a nonprofit organization that enjoys broad support, participation and funding from Palo Alto residents, and operates its Ross Road facility under a use permit with the city. To exclude anyone from a meeting designed to explain the Y's actions creates yet another controversy and only reinforces the suspicions that not all information is being shared.
Data distributed at the meeting to explain the decision to close the facility shows that the Page Mill center has seen a gradual decline in members and operates at a deficit. Some members challenge that data because users of one YMCA facility don't necessarily belong to that branch. Bay Area-wide members, while they might not designate Page Mill as their "home" branch, pay a slightly higher fee to have access to all 29 YMCAs in the Bay Area. Any member can also pay a small daily fee to use a Y that is not their home gym.
The YMCA obviously has the right, if not the duty, to manage its facilities to ensure they are both meeting the mission of the Y and not imposing an excessive financial burden on the organization.
The problem is that YMCA officials botched the process of evaluating the future of the Page Mill Y, and in doing so lost the confidence and support of many of its members and risks losing support of the general public.
The membership and users of the Page Mill facility should have been informed and involved long before any decisions were made about the center's future and provided with the same data that management and the board were evaluating.
Had that open communication strategy been followed, instead of a strategy of secrecy and limited explanation, the YMCA could have maintained a good relationship with its members and, perhaps, developed an alternative plan that would have preserved the facility.