YMCA Calgary: Articulating a Social Purpose

The Opportunity



The 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 so many demographics, their communications have often lacked an overarching story about their impact and value in our community. The YMCA Calgary engaged JS Daw & Associates to help them strategically identify and articulate the value they bring to our community. The Y had already made significant progress towards defining its social performance outcomes. What was missing, was a clearly identified series of social issues they were working to address. JS Daw & Associates worked in partnership with the Y’s executive and staff to define their social purpose. The goal was to tie the social purpose into their communications and more clearly focus their work.




We asked: “What challenges are unique to Calgary and relevant to the Y's mission and mandate? How does the Y leverage its strengths and pursue positive solutions to some of the relevant social issues in Calgary?” In short, what is the Y's social purpose?These were the findings from our initial discovery research and discussions:

  • A Community of Newcomers: Calgary is a city of newcomers from all across the country and around the world. 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 belonging in their communities.

  • 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, affordable child care is a major need.

  • Inactivity: Canadian kids get an average of six hours of screen time everyday, 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 communicate this more effectively, and focus more of its efforts on deepening the already significant impact being made. 


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

Throughout this project, 3 principles guided our work:

  • 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. We determined that a significant number of the Y's programs were 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. We developed a positioning statement to help reconcile this tension and clarify the Y's purpose.

  • 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.

  • Get the inside onside before going outside: 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.


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 community challenges are they working to solve? Their social purpose provides the reason why 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 step in 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. For more information about this project, please read our full blog here.