Interview: Matt Hyde takes the Scouts back to the future

The chief executive of the Scout Association tells Andy Hillier why it is returning to its roots and seeking opportunities for collaboration

Matt Hyde
Matt Hyde

At the Scout Association's headquarters in Essex hangs a picture, dating back to 1913, of a group of scouts assisting a family living in poverty in London's East End. It is an image far removed from the scouting stereotype of Bob-a-Job Week and dyb, dyb, dyb; dob, dob, dob.

In many ways, the painting represents the future of scouting in the UK rather than the past, according to Matt Hyde, chief executive of the association.

Towards the end of last year, the movement launched a campaign called A Million Hands, through which it hopes to encourage half a million scouts to support six major charities working in the fields of dementia, disability, mental health, and sanitation and clean water.

In a statement issued when the campaign was announced, Hyde described the move as a "new direction" for the scouts, but in this interview he qualifies that description. "In some ways it's a radical departure and in some ways it isn't," he says. "In a way, it's consistent with our origins and heritage. If you look back to the past, particularly during the war efforts, scouts were helping to gather in the harvest and acting as lookouts in coastal locations. It is about moving the focus on to the big social issues of the day - and making more of a difference to people's lives."

The association works with young people of between six and 25 years old, offering them "fun, challenges and adventure", according to its marketing material. Activities such as supporting older people with dementia and learning about mental health issues do not exactly fit the familiar image. But Hyde says that A Million Hands has not been foisted upon young people by a senior management team seeking to make a bigger impact - it has, rather, come about after a substantial piece of research was carried out among young people themselves. "The research showed that they wanted to take practical, collective action," he says. "They weren't interested in campaigning, but wanted to do something good in their communities."

There has been a tendency in recent years for scouts to take part in litter-picking and fundraising, Hyde says, but members of Generation Y - those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s - increasingly want to do more. The scouts will remain fundamentally about young people having fun, he says, and it will continue to offer a mix of outdoor and creative activities - "and if a six-year-old doesn't think it's fun, they won't want to take part any more".

The six charity partners are the Alzheimer's Society, the Canal & River Trust, Guide Dogs, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mind and WaterAid. Hyde says the research found that the causes they represent were considered the most important by young people themselves. But all six charities are large national organisations - why are no smaller organisations among them? "The charities selected are national brands with a local reach," he says. "They have volunteers from local groups who will come and support scout groups locally."

Third chief executive role

Hyde became chief executive of the Scout Association in April 2013, at the age of 38. Despite his relative youth, it is his third chief executive role after running Goldsmiths Students' Union at the University of London and then the National Union of Students. He joined the NUS in 2006 as deputy chief executive, but within three months his boss left and he became its fifth chief executive in as many years. He faced a £1m deficit on a turnover of £6m a year and the challenge of trying to halt a decade of spending outstripping income. "I was thrown in at the deep end," he says, "but we trebled the turnover while I was there, we saved students about £2bn, we won a lot of campaigns and we did a lot of good for students."

Hyde grew up in the market town of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire. His family ran a local business and were pillars of the local community, he says: "Dad was chair of the school governors and was involved in the church and the local Rotary Club. It was the sort of family that made a massive contribution and helped to keep the community running."

scouts collecting donations
Scouts collecting for a foodbank in London

Hyde's upbringing has had a lasting effect on him and his values, he says. He decided early on that making a difference and bringing about social change was what motivated him. The seed was probably planted during his own time as a scout, he says: "It was the first time I volunteered and the first time I led something."

He later studied English at Queen Mary University of London, becoming president of the University of London Union in the late 1990s. He then embarked on a full-time career in the student union movement.

When Hyde eventually took the helm at the Scout Association from his long-serving predecessor, Derek Twine, he inherited a charity in a stable position. But the past two years have brought challenges: a year ago it admitted it had paid out about £500,000 in the previous two years to victims of historical abuse by scout leaders. Hyde says that victims continue to come forward, but he is unable to give the exact number or the amount of further payouts it is likely to have to make in the near future.

"The reality is that anyone involved in the youth sector and working with young people has seen an increase in the number of allegations in recent years," he says. "The key thing is that any allegation is dealt with appropriately and immediately with statutory services and other agencies to ensure that we're protecting young people from harm."

The safety of the young people who use the organisation's services remains its first priority, and Hyde and the board feel confident that the safeguarding procedures in place are outstanding. He says these procedures have been commended by external sources, including the NHS Jimmy Savile investigations. "We continue to do everything we can to safeguard young people," Hyde says.

Surge in applications

Another challenge has been keeping up with demand for scout places. After a dip in membership during the 1990s, the movement has experienced a surge in the number of young people wanting to join in recent years. This has not been matched by the number of adults coming forward as leaders, however, which has resulted in a waiting list of 40,000 young people. Hyde estimates that it will need to attract a further 16,000 adult volunteers if it is to reach its target of having 500,000 scouts within the next four years.

Traditional values for today's scouts - Good Service in a London Slum was painted by Ernest Carlos, a celebrated artist who founded the 107th London Scout troop. The painting depicts scouts assisting a poor family in the East End in 1913

Hyde, who volunteers as a Beaver Scout leader in St Albans, Hertfordshire, is optimistic that the association will hit its target. "We have been getting more adult volunteers in the past 10 years, but we need even more," he says. "We are selling this message in different ways, especially using the concept of flexible volunteering. We're keen to get the message out that this isn't about volunteering every week, but doing it once or twice a month."

The Scout Association has an income of almost £30m a year, of which £10m comes from membership subscriptions and the rest from its shops, donations and grants. It also owns the specialist charity insurance company Unity. Hyde believes the association has a good mix of income streams that help to protect it from fluctuations in any one area, but says its unrestricted reserves, which stand at some £4.4m, will fall over the next few years as the result of a decision to invest in various areas, including the centres it owns.

He says the association is looking for ways to increase its income further: "We carried out a restructure and introduced a commercial director, who is looking at this whole area. Our target is to double our commercial bottom line over the next four years, and we're making good progress. The more we grow our income, the more we can invest in our regional staff. We know that investment in our regional staff is one of the best ways to recruit more volunteers."

Hyde is also vice-chair of the umbrella body the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Although the Scout Association was not caught up in the recent attacks on charities by the press and politicians, he is worried about the effect on the broader sector. "The frustration for many in the sector is that these stories undermine the message that we're doing amazing things for our beneficiaries and making an incredible contribution to the country," he says. "We need to get on the front foot and get our message across. And we need to get our house in order so that we can regain any public confidence we might have lost."

He describes the recommendations made by Sir Stuart Etherington after his review of fundraising self-regulation as "proportionate and robust", but adds that any changes must strike the right balance between improving public confidence in charities and maintaining charitable income.

Lobbying act

And what of the government's controversial lobbying act, which, it has been claimed, stymied charities' ability to campaign in the lead-up to last year's general election? Hyde says the Scout Association was not directly affected by the act, but he does have concerns. "Political education and democratic participation are fundamental aspects of an individual's development," he says. "If we want to create an environment in which people, especially younger people, engage in the democratic process, we have to be cautious about any mechanisms that might prevent that."

Hyde sees himself as part of a cohort of younger leaders of national charities. Others he includes in this group are Julie Bentley from Girlguiding, Simon Blake from the National Union of Students and Charlotte Hill from Step Up To Serve. He says one of the defining characteristics of this younger generation is that they all enjoy working in partnership.

"We all have a similar outlook on what's possible in the charity sector when we work together," he says. "We feel that we can have more impact and use each other's expertise to get further."

So does he feel that others need to follow the lead and collaborate further? "I'll let them worry about their own affairs," he says. "But I think that charities are collaborating more. They understand that if you can share resources, you can spend more on beneficiaries."

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