When I started my first chief executive job at St Albans Council, I asked my predecessor for advice on what to read before starting. His answer surprised me. It wasn’t the latest management or leadership texts, or the corporate plan, or the customer survey, but to “read the history of St Albans”.
This turned out to be the most useful piece of leadership advice I’ve had. Since then I’ve often looked to the past to provide insight and inspiration for the future.
10 April 2020 marked 90 years to the day since the Youth Hostels Association – YHA (England & Wales) – was founded. Coronavirus is the most severe crisis to face us across this history, leading us to close the entire hostel network for the first time.
As I write, much remains uncertain and there will be some difficult choices ahead. However, this has only reinforced my view that we must use our history to inform our future.
We have faced adversity before. In the Second World War, less than 20 years after the organisation was established, a third of YHA’s hostels were requisitioned for soldiers on leave, ambulance training camps, makeshift schools, emergency meeting rooms, feeding stations, refuges for the sick, the vulnerable, refugees and those made homeless as a result of air raids.
Half a century later, we had to close the majority of hostels for a summer as the countryside battled against foot-and-mouth disease. YHA’s leaders in both crises faced upheaval that brought into question the organisation’s long-term future, but in both cases the charity emerged stronger, the need for our mission enhanced and the case for organisational reform more urgent.
History feels like it is repeating itself. In the short term many of our youth hostels have been repurposed to provide support for key workers or those who are homeless. In the longer term, YHA will have a key role to play in the national effort to rebuild society. And that’s when our new strategy, inspired by our history, will be even more important.
In 1930, we were born of social reform, a determination to improve the life chances of young people drawn through rapid urbanisation to the slums of the cities, but increasingly lacking access to activity, adventure, fresh air and countryside. We were always a social enterprise, reliant on trading our hostels for the majority of our income.
Our first chair talked about the ultimate goal being “the health of body and mind”, and our first National Council in 1930 demonstrated how close our links were to schools, to youth work organisations, to government and to organisations working internationally.
Of course, no organisation should be imprisoned by its past, and there will be aspects of many charities’ history that feel uncomfortable or even inappropriate when judged with hindsight.
But looking to our roots can give us an important guide to our direction and our style, and precedent is a powerful tool to overcome any doubters.
So we are pressing ahead with YHA’s new strategy. When we emerge anxiously from lockdown, the case for our vision – that every child can access the benefits of adventure, for the first time and a lifetime – will be even more urgent.
More than 200,000 young people will miss out this year on the chance for a life-changing stay at a YHA hostel. And sadly, in many cases, this will be the only chance in their childhoods to see the sea, visit a museum or roll down a hill.
As we emerge from the ravages of Covid-19 and look forward to the next 90 years of YHA, we will redouble our efforts to fulfil this vision and play our part in the recovery of society.
James Blake is chief executive of Youth Hostels Association (YHA) England & Wales