“We need greater collaboration to empower youth” – NGS Conference in Brisbane


“If you want to change the world, start with yourself. As the oldest and largest youth organisation we should take the words of Mahatma Gandi to heart. We want to empower youth to change the world, but we need to first look at ourselves and ask whether we are going about things the right way. Are we making the most effective use of our resources? How do we need to change to meet the needs of today’s youth?”

World Alliance of YMCAs Secretary General Carlos Sanvee reflects after 48 National General Secretaries and CEOs came together at the 2019 conference in Brisbane with the perspective of increasing collaboration across local and national levels. They also tackled specific issues in the organisation as a whole regarding its relevance, reach and impact.

“It is my belief that as a movement we are at an inflexion point,” says Carlos. “On the one hand so many decades of success lie behind us with many achievements that we all individually and collectively are proud of. On the other hand, however, our movement is facing an ever-growing number of existential threats: many YMCAs are closing or facing uncertain financial circumstances and we are still struggling with a weak expression of our global relevance and impact.”

At the conference the diverse group of leaders explored new opportunities for greater innovation and collaboration together with other stakeholders to increase efficiency, fundraising, and outreach. They also looked at better ways to enhance internal collaboration and trust to make the most of the resources and potential across YMCAs individually as well as collectively.

Chief Executive Officer and National General Secretary of the YMCA Scotland, Kerry Reilly says the conference was an important meeting that came at a significant time.

“It gave the national general secretaries space to recognise and discuss the contribution that the YMCA is making around the world, especially to the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” says Kerry. “Aligning our work to the SDGs allows us to explain the impact of YMCA work in a language and a framework that is understood externally by NGOs, governments, policy makers and business. From a Scottish perspective the timing of this was great as both the Scottish and UK governments are currently researching the impact that NGOs are having on delivery of the SDGs.”

Project Coordinator and Global Change Agent at the YMCA Australia, Georgie Nichol, attended the final day of the conference and she put forward a challenge to the National General Secretaries:

“You’re the role models for not just the leaders of tomorrow, but the young people of today. Don’t underestimate the power of your influence – young people are looking to you. And don’t lose sight of the magic, the visionary stuff that gets us all out of bed in the morning: the impact we have on small communities that have felt left behind and the young people that need to be reminded of their value in this world. Make the effort to connect and feel this magic as often as you can. Keep your passion ignited and remind yourself why we must exist.”

One of the YMCA’s most powerful but underused assets is its global community – it operates in more than 120 countries, 12,000 communities, and reaches close to 60 million people. The sheer numbers can make the thought of bringing everybody together to work more closely for a shared goal seem overwhelming but that’s where its strength lies too.

“There are vast differences between the way that local YMCAs operate around the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t collaborate to make our collective work stronger,’ says Carlos. “We want to allow the individual organisations to tell us what they need and to give them the opportunity to contribute to the greater plan for the future of the organisation.

While for the last 175 years the YMCA has been that space where young people realise their potential, the need for safe spaces for youths to be empowered is needed now more than ever. At the same time a different approach is required to develop and manage the spaces and initiate transformation.

This is a question Carlos puts to all YMCAs around the world: “How do we create and maintain these kind of spaces in a way that attracts and engages young people to benefit their wellbeing, teach them leadership and life skills and get them more involved in helping their communities?”

President and Chief Executive Officer of the YMCA Canada, Peter Dinsdale, was inspired by Carlos’ approach to leadership at the conference.

“He set a great tone with the first meeting – it was open and it was all about national movements, the work we’re doing and how we can contribute to the goals of the organisation as a whole,” says Peter. “Carlos did a really effective job of bringing everyone together and making space for us to provide leadership. He put a lot of focus on our input to meeting the issues the YMCA is facing and he’s put the challenge to us as to how we can contribute, so I’m looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this approach.”

Carlos too left the conference with renewed optimism about the potential of the wider YMCA family to achieve the organisation’s goals around youth employment, civic engagement, mental health and environmental issues.

“I believe at the end of it we all had the will to clearly identify our collective north star as a renewed narrative around youth empowerment,” he says. “We have started the co-creation of our journey.”