James Blake: Collaboration is a necessity for curing organisational long Covid

As we move from acute to chronic crisis, how can working together help the sector’s long-term recovery?

James Blake

For the Youth Hostels Association (England and Wales), 1 April was a day of celebration. 

Finally we got rid of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions and returned to something like normal. 

It has been so good to see hostels open, programmes running, and to hear the excited voices of young people who have missed out on so much. 

But a few months on, things don’t seem quite so rosy. As a member of my team succinctly put it: “This new normal is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?” 

Talking to other sector leaders, I know we are not alone.

Demand is less predictable and prone to last-minute change. Staffing and recruitment on the front line is challenging. 

In some cases, we are having to pare back what we offer – reducing impact and income. Business as usual is far from usual. 

Normally resilient leadership teams are facing a real risk of burnout as they look to a future full of never-ending challenges. 

Soaring inflation is significantly affecting our potential to generate income. Putting these things together, there has been a dawning realisation that we are not simply going to bounce back to our pre-pandemic position. 

It seems the sector is facing its very own long Covid battle: a move from acute to chronic crisis. 

So, what to do? Many boards and management teams are developing individual recovery plans, but we cannot solve these issues alone. 

We urgently need to find new forms of collaboration that take us beyond vague promises of partnership working and stakeholder engagement. 

Three things would help.

First, we must build on new ways of working as we come out of the pandemic. 

Many charities have started new alliances. The larger volunteering charities came together quickly to form the Shaping the Future coalition to ensure we did not lose the impetus created by the pandemic. 

At YHA, we collaborated with five national charities and 10 national parks to form the Access Unlimited coalition, which delivered a 16-month environmental project – called Generation Green – during Covid-19. 

We also need to look more fundamentally at our strategies, asking: how many charities include partnership working as part of their vision or mission, driving different organisational behaviour? 

When YHA developed its latest strategy, the first draft of our vision was all about us – ensuring every young person could experience YHA by 2030. 

Nice as it sounded, it was too self-centred and, frankly, unachievable. 

Our vision evolved to: “YHA will work with others to end the inequity that means some children have never been to a beach, visited a museum or rolled down a hill” – the seed for a number of partnerships, such as Access Unlimited and Hostelling Together, which have united the hostelling sector for the first time. 

Charities should be bolder in taking partnerships further, including shared services and mergers. In the voluntary sector, we don’t have the shareholder imperatives that drive private sector mergers and acquisitions. 

Indeed, our history, politics and governance can often be a barrier to change. 

How many of us would feel comfortable initiating a conversation with another organisation about a merger that might see our own organisation fundamentally changed or even lost? 

But as costs rise, sharing services, spreading costs and benefiting from economies of scale becomes much more compelling. 

At YHA, being more proactive about seeking these opportunities must be part of our long-term recovery strategy. 

Sector infrastructure bodies and government also have a role to play. The NCVO, the charity leaders body Acevo and others can help to spot opportunities for collaboration and nudge things forward, while continuing to support individual organisations that pay the membership fees. 

The government can offer support specifically by reducing departmental silos and reviewing commissioning and grant processes that encourage competition, not collaboration.

None of this is easy. We need to understand the limits to collaboration, and when it is right to ‘go it alone’ in the interests of our beneficiaries. 

But with a bit of imagination, a spirit of generosity and building on the learning of the past two years, I believe we can create genuinely new models that will put the ravages of Covid-19, in all its forms, firmly behind us. 

James Blake is chief executive of YHA (England and Wales)

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