For the past 115 years, the YMCA Calgary has been a fundamental institution in this city. It has served the needs of the young and the old, the needy and the affluent, the newcomer and the born-and-bred. It has been a place of sport, recreation, community and learning – a place to foster both physical and mental health – for more than 40,000 Calgarians every month.
As Calgary has grown and changed over that time, so too has its YMCA. Whether through the addition or upgrade of facilities, expanded programs or new community initiatives, the charitable organization has strove to never lose touch with the city it lives to serve. That city has, in turn, supported its YMCA.
The most recent example of this support was born out with the YMCA’s Power of Potential (POP) Fundraising Campaign. Begun in April 2014 (the public kickoff was in February 2015) with the goal of raising $30 million – $23 million for three new facilities, $4 million for upgrades to Camp Chief Hector and $3 million to expand community programs – the campaign is in the final phase and has raised $27.1 million at the time of printing. No small feat considering Calgary’s current economic climate.
The campaign cabinet could not be happier with the accomplishment. Foremost among them is Ian Dundas, campaign co-chair. He is also president and CEO at Enerplus Corporation. “To be honest, I didn’t think raising $30 million would be that hard,” Dundas admits. “It’s not a small amount of money but it’s not a small little charity, it’s a very impactful one.” He highlights the YMCA’s broad footprint: “What really appeals to me is that they are at the heart of sustainable community building; a focus on families, on children and on building life skills.”
A husband, father of four children and Calgarian all his life, Dundas agreed to become co-chair after he was approached by two friends, both of whom are members of the YMCA board of directors, for the job. “I thought it was a social call,” he laughs, “and then the pitch came.” Though he was familiar with the YMCA’s story and what it did (he is a member and sends his kids to camp), his friends enlightened him further.
“They’ve got these buildings and they lever off them and benefit such a wide range of people,” he explains. “In some instances these are the community centres of old, in other instances kids without anything else going on have a place to go. Calgarians from all walks of life end up using these facilities and building these life skills.”
There are currently six YMCA facilities in Calgary, the newest being the Remington YMCA at Quarry Park which opened July 1, 2016. This facility was one of three that was funded, in part, by $23 million from the POP campaign. The other two are the Rocky Ridge Recreation Facility, estimated to open in 2018, and the Seton Recreation Facility, estimated to open in 2019. All three facilities are owned by the City of Calgary, which contributed $447 million to the total project budget.
Narmin Ismail-Teja, chair of the YMCA board of directors, is excited about the new buildings. “By the time all three facilities are open, we will have doubled,” she says enthusiastically. Close to 300 jobs will be created, with another 400-600 volunteer opportunities.
The facilities will be world class, she says, with beautiful architecture, state-of-the-art equipment and plenty of natural light. There will be new features as well, including ice rinks, theatres and art studios. When the Rocky Ridge facility opens, it will be the largest YMCA facility in North America (at just under 300,000 square feet), only to become the second largest once the Seton facility (just under 330,000 square feet) opens the following year.
Another portion ($4 million) of the funds raised will be used for upgrades to staff housing and additional family accommodations at Camp Chief Hector (CCH). Opened in 1930 in Kananaskis Country, CCH has provided unforgettable outdoor experiences for more than 200,000 children. Each year, roughly 10,000 campers attend one of the programs offered at CCH, including summer camp, year-round outdoor programs for schools, Mountain Haven (a program for women leaving abusive relationships) and family camp.
The third tranche ($3 million) of the funds will go towards YMCA community programs. These include employment, leadership, education enrichment, recreation, childcare and international awareness programs at more than 60 sites throughout the city. For Ismail-Teja, this is what the YMCA is all about. “When I think of the work of the Y, it’s not about the facilities,” she says. “It’s all the community work.”
She references the YMCA’s strategic plan: “It boils down to four words: belong, grow, thrive and lead – that’s what we’re about. We might do that through basketball, through swimming or through a leadership program, but those four words are the most important things for why we do what we do.”
To Dundas, that the YMCA is the “entire package” appealed to him. “The Y is an organization that’s doing everything it says it will,” he says. “It’s managing these assets, delivering programs and has good governance. All of those things are so critical.”
Despite all of this, fundraising wasn’t as easy as Dundas had expected it to be; as the campaign began, the price of oil plummeted, bringing Calgary’s economic fortunes down with it. “This took way longer than we thought it would,” he says. “We were talking to people as they were seeing their wealth evaporate on a daily basis at levels they’d never even imagined. And yet they still contributed.”
He credits the resilience of the campaign cabinet, who never gave up, in a city which never gave up. “We knew that if we kept going we’d get there, and we have.” In particular, he applauds co-chair, Evan Hazell. “He is superman,” Dundas says. “He’s worked so hard on this.”
Calgary’s resiliency, and its citizens’ desire to give back, was also key. “It’s been an incredibly generous city,” says Ismail-Teja. “There are people here that do really well, who also have very generous spirits. And so at a time when we weren’t sure how we’d make this happen, we’re pretty much there.”
Donations ranged from $5 to $3.5 million from individuals, families, organizations and corporations. Dundas put his connections in Calgary’s oil and gas industry to use, starting with a $650,000 donation from Enerplus. This is notwithstanding the fact the company, like all others in Calgary, has suffered the downturn.
Dundas became CEO on July 1, 2013 after having spent 13 years at the company in various business development roles. Prior to joining Enerplus, he was a merchant banker, investing mostly in oil and gas companies, and before that, he had a short stint as a lawyer.
The story of Enerplus – a moderately-sized public oil and gas company – is one of ups and downs. “We were the bomb at one point,” Dundas says. “We had a little bit of everything in Canada and a great valuation.” That was pre-2011 – the year the federal government began taxing royalty trusts. “That wasn’t so fun,” Dundas recalls. Other challenges included the financial crisis and the fracking boom in the U.S., both of which forced Enerplus to change or risk dying.
An overhaul of the asset base and a repositioning of the company’s balance sheet and cost structures (the company cut 30 per cent of its costs over the last 2.5 years) was prescribed. A decision that growth would take a back seat to preserving financial strength was also made, which meant paying down some debt. These actions helped Enerplus withstand the downturn. “Today we are a resource-play focused company with the single-largest growth project in the company coming out of the U.S.,” Dundas explains. “We’re drilling some of the best wells in shale in North America.”
The company’s investor makeup has also changed dramatically – from exclusively retail to strong institutional investors today – as has its growth pattern, which Dundas describes as organic.
The makeover was not without pain though, the worst of which came with layoffs. With most of Enerplus’ assets now in the U.S., it meant fewer people were needed. “Our company has fallen by more than half,” Dundas says of the roughly 450 people who were let go. “We’ve parted ways with some exceptionally dedicated people, but there was no choice. That was a low moment.”
The tough decisions paid off, and Dundas says Enerplus’ business looks more interesting today with $50 oil than it did at $90 oil. “We can be profitable,” he says. “We can grow organically living within our cash flow. It’s an incredible financial turnaround.”
With the wrap up of the POP campaign, Dundas’ formal role with the YMCA has come to an end, though he’s open to working with it in the future. “There’s need everywhere in the city,” he says, “and a lot of opportunity to help.”
The YMCA has no plans for another major fundraising campaign other than the Strong Kids Campaign, which aims to raise around $1.5 million each year to subsidize children and youth who can’t afford to be engaged in YMCA programs. For the foreseeable future, the plan is to open the new facilities and continue to grow its community programs.
A successful fundraising campaign in a time and place which, to the rational observer, would seem impossible. But with an undeniable cause and a leadership team to make any fundraiser swoon, the YMCA’s POP campaign had a high probability of success from the start. Its fruitful conclusion is further testament to Calgary being a great city.