Down at the Y

NEW VISION: YMCA South and Mid-Canterbury general manager Keith Shaw is leading the charge in rebranding the YMCA in New Zealand.
NEW VISION: YMCA South and Mid-Canterbury general manager Keith Shaw is leading the charge in rebranding the YMCA in New Zealand.

Keith Shaw, of Timaru, is helping lead the YMCA New Zealand into a new era. Rosa Studholme reports.

It is one of New Zealand's oldest charities, but most people would not know that.

In fact, while most people know the dance moves to that Village People song, many would struggle to describe exactly what the YMCA, the Young Men's Christian Association, does.

ON THE MOVE: A group from the Opihi Services Academy perform a haka at the top of little Mt Peel.
ON THE MOVE: A group from the Opihi Services Academy perform a haka at the top of little Mt Peel.

South and Mid-Canterbury general manager Keith Shaw wants that to change.

The organisation is on the brink of a rebirth in New Zealand with the aim of becoming more relevant and more visible.

However, to get there will require major changes to the way the organisation operates and a firming of its identity and place in the community.

KIDS HAVING FUN: Young skaters make the most of the Timaru skate park during the Break Away holiday programme.
KIDS HAVING FUN: Young skaters make the most of the Timaru skate park during the Break Away holiday programme.

Shaw, in his role as YMCA New Zealand Chief Executives Group chairman, is leading the charge in doing just that.

He challenges: "If I said to you name the first three charities that come into your mind in New Zealand, I'd venture to say you would not say YMCA."

So what does the YMCA do?

"It aims to strengthen communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility [and] we do that through local relevant programmes and services," Shaw says.

YMCA South and Mid-Canterbury offers more than just the traditional "gym and swim" programmes the organisation is often associated with.

It offers second-chance education, holiday programmes, sport and recreation programmes, including archery, and events. It also operates partner programmes Youth Alley, the Opihi Services Academy and Aoraki Alternative Education. Is it a Christian organisation, as the name would suggest?

Shaw thinks not.

"We don't practise it because we are inclusive of all people through our door."

But the four core values - honesty, respect, responsibility and caring - reflect Christian values, he says.

So how do you rebrand a century-old organisation?

He reckons it should start with making the organisation stronger nationally.

"If we have a strong national profile, then it's a little bit like the McDonald's golden arches. It's the McDonald's Big Mac burger. You don't go to two different restaurants and get two different burgers. Because we look different in different regions, sometimes we don't really look the same."

There are 12 member associations throughout the country, each self-governing, operating with its own constitution and set of rules.

The national council, too, has its own constitution and board. This, Shaw says, is the problem. It has created a lack of cohesion nationally.

"The current [national] constitution is somewhat outdated and lacks what I call teeth.

"We have to give some authority and some teeth back to our national council, otherwise they can strive hard and the registered associations can willy-nilly go off and do what they want."

In March, Shaw packed his bags and headed to the United States with a five-strong delegation to study how during the last decade the YMCA USA has undergone its own successful rebranding exercise.

The first stop was Long Beach, California, where the local YMCA has launched an innovative scheme.

It uses the talents of creative young people from vulnerable backgrounds in the community to form the Change Agent Productions. The company produces video productions, graphic design projects and digital media training.

About 100 young people are identified in schools each year and sign up to the one-year programme. It is a successful company that turns over an impressive profit.

The concept is a step away from the traditional programmes of the YMCA, Shaw says.

"No swimming and gym. They use technology as the tool to deliver youth development work, and I liken that to how we use sport and recreation as our tool to do work with young people in this community."

The visit offered a key lesson, Shaw says. "Don't be afraid to employ young people, despite them not necessarily having the skills and experience."

In Chicago while visiting the national headquarters, he was entranced when during a halftime break at a local YMCA basketball game, instead of the usual division and fierce competition, the teams gathered and discussed the YMCA's core values.

"It was fantastic. Such a simple thing." Shaw returned to New Zealand with several goals, one being to increase non- government funding.

About 89 per cent of funding comes from government sources. Only 6 per cent comes from charitable purposes or donations.

"If I can turn 6 per cent into 20 per cent, that would give me about $200,000 a year to do work in the community that is not tagged to a specific government outcome."

It means tackling a Kiwi psyche around giving. "It's not part of the Kiwi ethos to ask for money. We do shy away from it."

But there is a groundswell of giving bubbling under the surface just waiting to be tapped into. He has seen it with the Central South Island Charity Bike Ride, which this year raised $180,000. It has collected just over $1 million in its nine-year history.

"So perhaps the psyche is there in Kiwis. It's perhaps a dormant psyche."

The rebirth of a vibrant new YMCA is going to take a new approach, Shaw says.

"As a tradition we sometimes get a little bit narrow focused. What the delegation has been trying to do is start to send a message of change - a change in thinking, a change in positivity relative to celebrating success."

Nationally, there needs to be more cohesiveness with a shared "signature programme", he says.

He wants to pursue opportunities for outreach programmes with other countries, similar to one between YMCA Long Beach and YMCA Cambodia.

"Until that visit, I had always deemed such an opportunity to be an expense. What I learned is, yes, there is a financial expense, but the benefits far outweigh the fundraising and expenditure.

"The opportunity exists, but we have to change the way we think if we are to be successful in achieving what they are achieving. We need a new vision for where YMCA New Zealand should look in five to 10 years.

"We are doing that work on the ground, but we're struggling to do that cohesively. We can either continue to meander nationally or we can get on with what we're doing locally and just make ourselves equally as visible and valuable nationally also."

The US visit was the "shot in the arm" needed.

"Let's make sure that the movement doesn't fall away."

The Timaru Herald