Why strategy matters

James Blake, chief executive of YHA, will be part of a panel about ‘encouraging ethical entrepreneurialism’ at our upcoming conference on 21 November in London. In this blog, he writes about the importance of thinking long-term and in-depth.

When I arrived at YHA in 2017, we were having our best ever year. Surplus was up, KPIs were green, customers were more satisfied than ever, board governance reforms had worked well, and we were just about to open new hostels. As one senior trustee said to me at the time ‘It’s taken us 10 years to get to here – just don’t break it James!’

But something was missing. The problem was what? It clearly wasn’t a lack of talent, passion or commitment. This came through in spades as I travelled around the YHA network meeting people from all parts of the organisation. Nor was it planning for the future – we’d just launched a three-year business plan full of projects and programmes designed to make YHA even more successful, with a goal of reaching over 1 million young people a year.

The first clue came from our trustees, through the one to one conversations I had with them all when I started. I asked what they saw as my top priorities in the job. And without exception, all mentioned one thing – what’s the purpose of YHA?  

The second came from my early visits to hostel teams around the network. Without exception, people were passionate about working for YHA, and were delighted with our success. But many told me that while they took inspiration from seeing the delight of young people who stayed with us, they found it hard to connect this with our overall impact as a national charity.

The final clue came at a Board meeting where we were discussing investment. One trustee asked what the priorities were for re-investing money over and above our budgeted surplus. We didn’t know. We’d never been in this situation before.

It dawned on me that in our 10 year modernisation journey – reforming our governance, improving our quality and standards, bringing in commercial and operational best practice and taking tough decisions on how many properties we could support – hadn’t been able to lift our sights to think long term and in-depth about who we were and where we were trying to get to.

Our focus had by necessity been about financial survival, delivered through a number of shorter-term strategic and business plans. Our annual impact report showed how much we delivered against our object, but it was hard to put this in context when talking to partners or funders. 

It was clear that if the last 10 years had been about modernising our business; the next 10 years had to be about modernising our mission. And to do that, fundamentally we needed a new long-term strategy. Our charitable object – about how youth hostels help all but especially young people through access to the countryside and heritage –  had served us well for 90 years, but we needed a better bridge between that and the work we do in hostels day in day out throughout the year. A  North Star to guide us on what we were trying to achieve; something that would give us a framework to make decisions.

Fast forward nearly two years and we have launched a conversation on our Strategy2020. A key first step has been capturing the impact we already have – which is significant and gives us a great platform to build on.

We’ve been delighted with the response so far, from inside and outside the organisation. Not everyone likes everything – and if they did we wouldn’t have tried hard enough. But fundamentally people have been telling us that they like three things:

  • Clarity on who we are and where we want to go. We’re clear that we’re not just a budget accommodation provider who does some good work on the side. We’re a leading national charity for young people, underpinned by strong social enterprise principles that emphasise commercial success and operational efficiency.
  • Boldness about what we want to achieve. With an overriding emphasis on inclusion and access, especially for the most disadvantaged young people, our new strategy themes centre on how we help individuals; how we support communities; our role in building the sectors and movements within which we operate; and our responsibilities as a charity, a social enterprise and a hospitality provider.
  • How understanding our past has inspired our future. Whether it’s ensuring that we rediscover the traditions of social reform and voluntarism that fired our pioneers, or build on the commercial approach that turned around YHA in the last 20 years.

It’s still early days in our strategy journey. The hard yards are still ahead. What does our strategy mean for which programmes, partnerships and activities matter most? Should we seek breadth or depth in our impact? How do we resource for change while maintaining the commercial discipline that’s underpinned our success? And overall, how do we evolve our culture – combining the best of the commercial and the charitable – when the language and traditions of each can be so different?

I’ll be reflecting on all this at the ACEVO conference in the session on ethical entrepreneurialism in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, I’m pleased that our strategy conversation has at least provided the means for us to debate these questions with ourselves, and with those who help and support us. Join the conversation here and tell us what you think!

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

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