MSLOC Students Help YMCA Unite Employees behind Its Cause

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Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

1800 Sherman Avenue
Suite 3500
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376

The MSLOC staff are currently working remotely. Please email us with any questions about the program.


MSLOC Students Help YMCA Unite Employees behind Its Cause

How Northwestern MSLOC Students Combined Modern Methods with an Ancient Art to Help the YMCA

By Drew Scott

Kevin looks into the camera and holds up a handwritten sign with six words that sum up his feelings about his local YMCA: “POWERFUL WORKOUTS HELPING ME FIGHT CANCER!”

Kevin is sharing his personal story for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City’s most recent annual report. He is one of many customers and employees conveying their opinions about the Y in powerful six-word statements for this report. In a companion YouTube video, he explains his choice of words, saying the Y helped him get into “some of the best physical shape in my life” to battle the colon cancer he had been diagnosed with a year earlier.

In a way, Kevin’s story is just a simple, local anecdote about one man and one Y. But YMCA of the USA, the parent of all American chapters, sees it differently. Kevin’s words are a contribution to a nationwide storytelling effort, a critical element in a mission to unify the 170-year-old organization in a single, purpose-filled culture.

And thanks to a unique partnership with the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) program in the School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University graduate students are an integral part of the pathway to how YMCA staff and volunteers tell the Y’s story. In the year since the multi-course collaboration debuted, Y-USA has integrated graduate students into its decision-making process on this initiative, to the point that Y leaders and students share the credit for the innovative solutions they discovered together along the way.

Unifying a culture

Kathy Kuras, senior director of organizational change management at YMCA of the USA, shared with the MSLOC team
Kathy Kuras
Kathy Kuras of Y-USA. very early in the process that the Y is reshaping its public perception, helping more people to understand that it’s a nonprofit for strengthening community, not just a place to work out.
“Most people understand the Y from the experience they have. But there’s so much more than they realize,” said Kuras. “Ys are always meeting the specific needs of their communities. Their programs are as diverse as the communities they serve.”

Kuras and the leaders of Y-USA wanted people to view the Y as a thriving member of the 10,000 nationwide neighborhoods where they can be found supporting youth, promoting social responsibility and changing lives one at a time. Kuras said the Y needs to unite its own community – members, staff and volunteers alike – behind the idea that the organization is a powerful agent for good wherever it opens its doors.

“We are furthering our cause-driven culture,” Kuras said. “We refer to ourselves as a movement.” Part of that movement is getting staff and volunteers to view their daily activities as the living embodiment of the Y’s mission and cause. “Ideally we want our people to see their jobs as more than a title,” Kuras said. “We want to ask them, ‘What is your role? Now, what do you really do?’”

It’s no small challenge. With more than 250,000 employees and a half million volunteers, the 170-year-old organization is diverse and far-reaching. Complicating matters, the Y is a federated structure, meaning the 2,700 associations are independent and autonomous, and not obliged to initiatives of the Chicago-based Y-USA.

Kuras was excited to discover the resources of MSLOC. Students in the master’s program learn how to grapple with the complexity of fostering change in organizations, focusing not on case studies and hypotheticals, but real-world challenges that require immediate solutions. In fact, the MSLOC program selects organizational partnerships every year for quarter-long projects and six-month-long practicums with organizations that can provide real-world issues for students to tackle.

“Our real value is in providing a thinking partner who can help an organization’s leaders come up with innovative ways to solve a problem, as opposed to delivering a prescribed end-product to them,” said Jeff Merrell, MSLOC associate director. “That’s part of being an internal change agent. We’re not just going to design something for you. It’s a process, and we’re going to co-create some new ways to think about the problem.”

Kuras said student involvement was the impetus her team needed to throw themselves at the problem – or more accurately, the solution they had in mind. Kuras said the Y already knew the tool it wanted to use to embed a cause-driven culture: storytelling. “Stories are a wonderful mechanism to connect people with the greater cause,” Kuras said. “Storytelling can be a way of deepening relationships by bringing values to life and creating an emotional or relatable connection to them. It’s not just for communicating data. Plus, it is fun. Storytelling lifts us up when we’re at our best.”

Kuras knew the Y was generating thousands of stories every day, and not just from cancer survivors like Kevin. A positive Y story could range from a swim coach exulting about a 12-year-old’s first solo lap, to a daycare teacher recounting character development to a child’s parents. Each of those moments in time paints a picture of the Y impacting lives for the better. The unresolved challenge Kuras presented to MSLOC was: How do we harness that storytelling engine?

Y leaders meeting with MSLOC students and staff
A project review meeting with MSLOC students and faculty. Clockwise from bottom left: Ryan Smerek, MSLOC assistant professor and assistant director; Sharon Bautista (MS14); Laura Zeligman; Andrew Greenawalt; Y-USA's Kathy Kuras; Lisa Tallman, Y-USA senior director of knowledge management; and MSLOC associate director Jeff Merrell.

Learning by design

The process began in early 2013 with a meeting between members of Kuras’ team and MSLOC program leaders. They crafted a project scope and plan that started with MSLOC's Designing Sustainable Strategic Change course offered in the summer and fall quarters, the MSLOC Foundations course offered in the fall, and the MSLOC Practicum that ran through the fall, winter and spring quarters. Some MSLOC students visited Ys around the country, including the Evanston association’s McGaw Children’s Center, observing how stories percolated through daily interactions between staff and clients of the center. Students in each course gathered information and contributed different elements to the overall effort: observations and insights; research on storytelling; prototype solutions to encourage or develop storytelling capability; change management plans; and stakeholder analysis.

“In the first phase, we had to discover what’s going on, like an ethnographic study,” said Georgianne Hewett, an MSLOC student involved throughout. “We learned storytelling was already going on. People do it quite naturally. It’s a way to transfer culture.”

“They already spoke the language of storytelling,” said practicum student Claudia Richman. “When they talked, they would often start off with, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ Our challenge was, how do we use that to engage people?”

Each course delved deeper into its institutional understanding of the Y while working with Kuras and other Y leaders to brainstorm methods of implementing storytelling activities in meaningful ways. Student teams in the six-month practicum course had the longest exposure to the project and were challenged to think innovatively about the problem. “Every team took different directions,” Richman said. “We all had the same assignment yet we came up with different approaches.”

That diversity in the process was by design. The MSLOC teaching philosophy embraces the complex world of human relationships and encourages students to make allowances for the nuance and ambiguity they encounter. In MSLOC parlance, “there’s never just one way,” said Merrell. “Organizations are not puzzles. They’re complex systems,” he said. “You can’t just have a process where you can force people through the steps. You’ve got to be open to opportunities and surprises and let stuff emerge.”

Laura Zeligman and Andrew Greenawalt
MSLOC Students Laura Zeligman and Andrew

“The Y was fascinated by our methodology,” Richman said. “It looks linear, but it’s designed to go back a stage when you learn more. There’s an ongoing process to our design.”

After each course applied its lens to understand the organization, students had to pass on their findings so the next course could use what had been learned as part of the discovery process. Because MSLOC comprises a mix of full- and part-time students living throughout the United States, collaboration tools played an integral part in keeping students and instructors informed. MSLOC’s main collaboration tool is a customized social networking system called The Hive, similar to the enterprise social networking systems used by companies, The Hive allows students to connect with each other, share resources, post questions and discuss topics with MSLOC instructors, classmates and program alumni.

“We had to be deliberate about sharing information,” Hewett said. “They’re changing people’s lives in tangible ways. We had to look at our contribution as, ‘How can we help them do that?’”

Because any initiatives would have to be adopted voluntarily by staff in each location, the team had to consider how activities could be packaged in “attractive morsels,” getting people excited enough to share them and perpetuate them, Richman said. “The best idea in the world will sit on a shelf if you can’t convince people to try it.” 

The tip of the tale

After hours of brainstorming, prototyping, surveying and testing, the practicum students arrived at a suite of solutions. Some focused on low-tech bite-sized “engagement activities” that could integrate storytelling into a daily schedule with minimal Y staff effort. Other program ideas centered on developing expert storytellers or creating mobile apps designed to help Y staff and members share stories across the network. Students also looked at research themes which could contribute to a “storytelling philosophy” to help guide efforts – including the use of a framework researched at Harvard to tell “public narratives” in social movements. Known as “self-us-now,” the framework calls for storytellers to connect with their audiences emotionally by sharing stories of the “self” (my values), “us” (our shared values), and “now” (how our values matter at this moment). Each of these outcomes included documented research and details that the Y-USA team continues to mine as the storytelling effort evolves.

Students looked particularly for opportunities that would create simple additions to a daily routine that an entire local association could get behind, and which could leverage activities that were already partly in place – like the six-word story.

It isn’t the only activity to be picked up by member organizations, but the six-word story is the one that has caught on the fastest. The concept calls for each association to pass out simple blank cards that ask, “In just six words, describe the impact your Y makes in your community.” Staffers, volunteers and members respond in any way that’s meaningful to them, then the Y shares the results for its community to see. Like cancer survivor Kevin’s testimony, the results reveal an outpouring of inspiration that now plasters everything from YMCA Facebook pages to chapter web sites to hallway bulletin boards around the country, with such entries as these:

  • “Building future leaders day by day.” ­– Clarion County, Pennsylvania
  • “Erasing child obesity as a disease.” – Greater Oklahoma City
  • “Helping superheroes learn how to fly.” – Western Seattle
  • “Strength lies in differences, not similarities.” – Monroe, Michigan
  • “This job isn’t work for me!” – Long Island, New York
  • “Toda mi familia para mantenerse saludable.” (Keeping my family healthy.) – Western Connecticut

“It’s simple, easy and fun,” Kuras said of the six-word story’s popularity. “It fits into the larger campaign to raise awareness.”

“When you’re passing by these signs in the hallway, you see you’re part of a bigger community,” Hewett said. By highlighting that connection to something bigger, she said, the Y can begin to build a culture where every employee and volunteer wants to live up to the values the Y espouses. “It secures in your mind that you have a relationship with your work, and it’s important.”

Kuras is happy with the way storytelling is taking root across the Y as a result of the partnership. “With 2,700 Ys, we often see things as being really complex,” she said. “Sometimes the reaction is that we must need a complex solution. We’re learning that solutions must have simplicity. You can’t fight complexity with more complexity.”

Kuras said her group is now better equipped to shepherd its culture thanks to the intense year-long collaboration with MSLOC students and faculty. “It couldn’t be a better match,” Kuras said of her MSLOC collaborators. “The students were really passionate. We were learning and growing as they were learning and growing. And now they are making a real difference by helping us strengthen our communities.”

In a wrap-up address to students in the final practicum, senior managers from Y-USA heaped praise on the program for their intensity, efficiency and consistent focus on the Y’s goals. Sara Ryan, senior manager of staff and volunteer engagement, told students their impassioned involvement helped leadership focus on results and get internal buy-in around the organization. “We have a level of credibility when talking about storytelling that we didn’t have before,” she said. “It is at the forefront of our thoughts about how we embed storytelling in everything we do. That comes from the nature of the partnership.”

Kuras added, “There is something special about your methodology. The way you collaborate and work as a team is absolutely stellar. It doesn’t feel like a (typical) client-consultant relationship.”

“It’s a combination of methodology, program culture, student community and learning design,” said Kimberly Scott, director of the MSLOC program. “Collaboration is at the core of everything we do as a program. Students can get easy access to the latest research and best practices, but partnering with leaders to figure out how to use that knowledge in solving problems is often where the insights emerge, for our students and our partners.”

Northwestern University’s strategic pillars are what make these partnerships more likely to occur in their environment, Scott said. “We are part of an institution that promotes the importance of learning beyond the classroom and partnering with organizations to make an impact,” she said.

The partnership with the Y had its own significant impact in the MSLOC community. Asked to sum up the results with her own six-word story, Scott offered: “Great challenges always inspire great learning.”

About the author: Drew Scott is freelance writer who is currently a communication specialist for Northwestern University Library.

Contact Us

Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

1800 Sherman Avenue
Suite 3500
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376

The MSLOC staff are currently working remotely. Please email us with any questions about the program.