Articulating a Social Purpose: The YMCA Calgary Takes a Stand to Help our City’s Kids

By Jocelyne Daw & Kristina Roberts





Every non-profit organization has a mission that is central to its operations.  In today’s increasingly sophisticated non-profit sector, most organizations can articulate their mission and what they do bring it to life through programs and services. What many organizations can’t do is describe “why.”  Why do they do what they do? What is their social purpose and the reason they exist? In the absence of having a clear purpose, non-profits leave significant value on the table.A clearly defined social purpose provides an organization with the ability to tell their story based on the social issue they are trying to address, and what they are doing to address it.  Moving from talking about mission-based activities to purpose driven impact is a critical tool for engaging stakeholders and donors.It’s also a vital source of inspiration for employees; giving them shared purpose, a sense of excitement, and a reason to come to work every day. A clear organizational purpose becomes a ‘north star’ that drives everything the organization does. It galvanizes staff, generates alignment, and provides an inspirational and universal message– things that every non-profit needs.Last year, YMCA Calgary engaged JS Daw & Associates to help them distill, define and activate their social purpose. Here is their story… The YMCA Calgary’s OpportunityThe YMCA has been serving Calgary for over 112 years, and it is part of the fabric of our community. The YMCA Calgary (the Y) offers health and wellness programs, community outreach and newcomer programs, day and residential camping, leadership development and childcare.Since the Y offers such a wide range of programs and serves many demographics, their communications have lacked an overarching story about their impact and value in our community. The perceptions of the community at large were that the YMCA was a “swim & gym” facility. However, as one of the oldest and most successful social enterprises in Calgary, the Y offers a lot more than people were realizing.In 2013, plans were in motion to increase the number of YMCA branches in Calgary from six to nine, and to upgrade the current facilities. The Y needed to clearly define their social purpose before launching their capital campaign.In August 2013, the YMCA Calgary engaged JS Daw & Associates to help them identify and articulate the value they bring to our community.  The Y believed that identifying the true cause and social purpose behind their organization would help them to deliver greater social impact. The Y had already made significant progress toward defining social performance outcomes, but their social purpose had not been clearly identified and communicated in a tangible way. JS Daw & Associates worked in partnership with the Y’s executive and staff to define their social purpose and impact.The ProcessTogether we:

1)      Reviewed existing research and conducted additional research to discover the social issue(s) that the YMCA Calgary addresses

2)      Refined the outcome measurement framework based on the defined social purpose

3)      Aligned the purpose statement and impact work with the Y communications, engagement and fundraising activities to deliver clearer and consistent messaging

4)      Developed internal messaging and conducted communications training for key Y staff

The StrategyJS Daw & Associates asked:“What makes the Calgary community unique? How can the YMCA leverage its strengths and pursue positive solutions to some of the relevant social issues in Calgary?”These were the findings from our research and discussions:

  • A Community of Newcomers: Calgary is a city of newcomers from all across the country and around the world. In fact, Calgary is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. In 2012, two thirds of Calgary’s population growth came from immigration.

  • Social Isolation and the Absence of Social Networks: The majority of newcomers and young families arrive in Calgary without a support system in place. In 2012, 36% of Calgarians reported a weak or somewhat weak sense of community belonging.

  • The Lack of Safe, Positive Places for Children and Youth: Finding support for young people of all ages was identified as a challenge for Calgary’s parents (YMCA Calgary Community Stakeholder Interviews, 2012). Access to safe and affordable child care is a major need.

  • Inactivity: Today, kids learn, have fun, and make connections through the use of technology, rather than running around and playing outside with their neighbours. Kids spend an average of six hours per day sitting front of screens, and a shockingly high 93% of Canadian children are not meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of at least 60 minutes of exercise per day (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2013).

In collaboration with the management team, JS Daw & Associates determined that the YMCA Calgary was already making a difference on these critical issues but needed to clearly communicate this, and focus more of its efforts on deepening its already significant impact.The YMCA provides a positive place for kids to go, which helps them develop into strong adults. The Y also encourages the personal health practices people need to reach their full potential. Most importantly, the Y is a community and a social support network; a place where people can go to make friends and have fun.The Call to Action

This is the first generation of young people in history who are unhealthier, and may inherit a lower life expectancy than their parents. The YMCA Calgary is committed to ensuring that all children and youth grow up active and healthy together.

Overarching Social Purpose: Growing Up Active and Healthy Together




The YMCA Calgary has already started to roll out this strategy. Check out this recently released Youtube video, which tells the story of the YMCA Calgary’s social impact:

Universal Lessons

“It all looks beautifully obvious in the rear view mirror. But there are situations where on needs great imaginative powers, combined with disrespect for the traditional current of thought to discover the obvious” – Arthur Koestler

  • The power of focus: In order to tell a powerful overarching story about what you stand for, focus is critical. Since the YMCA Calgary is an inclusive organization that wants to serve everyone in the community, it was somewhat difficult to settle on a target audience. It was determined that the Y invests a significant portion of its budget and human resources in programs targeted at children and youth. However, there were concerns that focusing the messaging on kids would alienate adult members of the YMCA who don’t have children. Our positioning statement helped to reconcile this tension: “The YMCA Calgary ensures that all children and youth grow up active and healthy together. Our approach recognizes that healthy children and youth can only exist in a community with healthy families and adults. The YMCA is the safe, positive home away from home for Calgary’s children and youth.” In essence, adults are part of the story, but they are not THE story.

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Although the YMCA Calgary is customized to the local context, it is also part of a global movement. The connection to other YMCA’s around the world is an extremely valuable resource. A major part of our research was looking at best practices from other YMCA’s in Canada and internationally. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when a lot of great work has already been done.

  • Get the inside onside before going outside: In March 2014, JS Daw & Associates conducted communications training for key Y staff, which was critical to ensure that the entire communications team was aligned. This session was the first time the team understood what the Y stood for in a very clear way. After the session, the team had a unifying message to share with other staff members. Thus, they could ensure that the entire organization was buying into the same thing before communicating externally.

So what does all this mean? The YMCA Calgary has become bold enough to call out its emphasis on children, and re-connect with its true social purpose. They are addressing some of the critical issues that affect Calgary’s children and youth by offering programs and initiatives that focus on social support networks, personal health practices, and healthy child development-- all in a safe and positive place. The YMCA Calgary has deepened its commitment and we are now seeing this vision become a reality. As the Y grows in Calgary, this is a story we should all know and a story we can all take part in.