For Jonathan Lever ’91, life is about giving back. It’s been the common thread that’s run throughout his life, from his early days in Williamsburg to his most recent feat — his tenure as the first-ever executive vice president, chief membership and programs officer for the YMCA of the USA, the organization’s executive level.
Lever boasts a master’s in education from Harvard University and a J.D. from Northeastern University. But before any of that, he was an undergraduate student at William & Mary where he sent four years studying religion.
“William & Mary was the only place I really wanted to go,” Lever said. “I grew up in Baltimore and visited the campus one time and just fell in love with it. It was one of the best things that ever happened.”
While at William & Mary, Lever was involved with the Admissions Office, worked with the Alumni Association, and was the President of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Lever also met his wife, Laura, at the College, and the two were married at the Wren Building in 1994.
When the time came to graduate, Lever knew that he wanted to pursue a career in philanthropy, and the College turned out to be just the place to get started. Lever’s first job post-graduation was for the William & Mary Alumni Association, where he worked for two years as the assistant director of Alumni Relations.
In 1993, Lever left the College for the Jessie Ball Dupont Fund, a nonprofit providing aid to religious institutions, and then became a Jane Addams Fellow at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University from 1994-96, where he was exposed to the inner workings of the nonprofit business sector.
Following his time at Indiana University, Lever sought a career in law as the way to best pursue his philanthropic interests. After graduating from Northeastern with his law degree in 2000, Lever practiced law with Choate, Hall & Stewart, where he focused on non-profit organizations and high net worth individuals who wanted to be charitable. However, after two years practicing law, Lever found something to be missing.
“I ultimately decided that being a lawyer was more about fixing things and I liked to build things,” Lever said.
And so Lever went and built something. Lever’s solution to this problem was his founding of the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida, an organization that provided management support, legal assistance and strategic planning for other nonprofits in the greater Jacksonville, Fla., area.
Fast forward 20 years and Lever has stayed true to his core passion of philanthropy. In February 2016, he was promoted to the position of executive vice president, chief membership and programs officer for the YMCA of the USA. Lever has been with the YMCA of the USA since 2005 where he first served as the national director for Activate America, the YMCA’s healthy living initiative.
“The YMCA has this amazing footprint — about 80 percent of U.S. households are within five miles of a YMCA,” Lever said. “And so we began to think of ways that we could leverage this amazing footprint to help do more to help the country become healthier.”
Lever previously served as vice president for health strategy and innovation for the YMCA of the USA, where he worked to continue sponsoring programming for healthy living.
“I grew in the Y through various positions, but all kind of starting from this basic premise of ‘how can we make the whole be greater than the sum of its parts in the area of health’ and leverage our collective national movement to improve and help make the YMCA one of the leading organizations to improve America’s health,” Lever said. “The YMCA is kind of this ‘sleeping giant,’ that if mobilized in the right direction and brought together in the right way, can really have a substantial impact on the nation. The Y could never single handedly change health in America, but health in American cannot be changed without the Y.”
In his new role, Lever will continue in his efforts to mobilize this “sleeping giant.” In this position, he will be responsible for the YMCA’s work in youth development, healthy living, social responsibility, organizational strategy, innovation, and character development. One of the elements he is most excited about is the opportunity to better integrate the YMCA’s resources into local communities.
“The Y is really leading the charge in helping to bring about what I call ‘community integrated health,’” Lever said. “Your doctor only has about eight minutes to spend with you, so if we’re really going to help improve population health, we have to engage more than the clinical sector. The YMCA is really on the cutting edge to help bridge health and healthcare and bringing that into the community. We are now, for example, the largest in-person provider of diabetes prevention programs in the nation.”
And healthy living is just the tip of the iceberg. In his new role, Lever will have the opportunity to continue expanding his philanthropic initiatives, branching out from health initiatives and into areas such as youth development, developing programs, for example, to help close the achievement gap for youth in low socioeconomic communities, among many other programs.
“I hope to continue to evolve the YMCA to meet the ever-changing needs of our communities,” Lever said. “The Y, in its history and in its DNA, has always changed and adapted.”
No matter where he ends up, Lever will continue to stay true to his passion — giving back, something he credits, in part, to his time spent at William & Mary.
“William & Mary will always be with me,” Lever said. “I learned how to interact with a lot of different kinds of people. There is a direct line back to my days in Williamsburg.”