Meet our conference speakers: James Blake

The 2019 edition of our annual conference will take place at the Business Design Centre in London on 21 November, and will focus on Leading Outside the Ordinary. The full programme is available on the website, and in this blog series, you will get the know our speakers a little bit better.

James Blake is the chief executive of YHA (England & Wales). At the conference, he will take part in a panel discussion about “Encouraging ethical entrepreneurialism”.

Photo of James Blake and the name of the panel he will take part: encouraging ethical entrepreneurialism

What’s your favourite thing about working in the social sector?

I feel immensely fortunate in my position as the chief executive of a leading charity that transforms young lives through travel and adventure, to be leading an organisation which does something that makes such a big difference to young people. The passion of our staff and volunteers never ceases to amaze me.

I joined in 2017 from a local government background. Before that, I’d volunteered in the sector as a trustee for YHA. Nothing could have prepared me for how I’d feel and what I’d witness first-hand.

It’s also fascinating (and sometimes challenging!) to me that the commercial and charitable sectors are increasingly learning from each other and harnessing leading-edge practice from both sides to benefit sustainability and the customer journey. YHA is 90 years old next year and we’re using our learnings to shape the next 10 years with our 2020 Strategy. I am immensely excited about the strategy. A key part of which is to work with a range of partners to introduce new programmes and deliver bespoke residential breaks in order to broaden YHA’s reach and have a greater impact.

What does leading outside the ordinary mean to you?

‘Leading outside the ordinary’ to me means having the courage to challenge the status quo, move in a direction you feel is right, even if it isn’t always popular or obvious. I find myself in this position now ahead of the launch of our 2020 strategy.

Towards the end of the last century, YHA became reluctant to shout about its charitable purpose, as we became hung up on keeping pace with the boom in affordable holidays. Over the last decade, we’ve recognised that our social mission is what sets us apart. Being a successful business allows us to pursue our charitable goals and we need to be upfront about our history and experience of supporting those in need. Our new strategy will boldly reposition us as a charity with a social mission at its heart. It signals a return to our roots as an organisation associated with social reform.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given?

A previous boss introduced me to the concept of ‘strategic detail’ – i.e. the things that should be operational or technical but have significant strategic or political implications if they go wrong. Being able to spot these and keep an eye on them is key to success as a CEO.

Oh, and to expect that around once a month you will always have a day when you feel like Edward Munch’s The Scream… but it will pass.

What’s your favourite thing to do for your own well being?

I love the outdoors and walking. It is through this that I was first introduced as a child to YHA through holidays with my parents. Getting out for walks or runs in the countryside is always the best way to refresh and recharge after a busy or stressful week!

Being the Chief Executive of YHA gives me more opportunity than most to travel and get outdoors when I get out into our network. I get immense personal enjoyment from being in our network, meeting staff, seeing the impact YHA is having on people who stay with us. It’s the ultimate feel-good factor.

Through my own love of the outdoors I understand the importance of YHA’s work in creating access to the countryside. Going forward we will work with partners, including mental health charities, to develop programmes, potentially wellbeing retreats that may include visits to cultural and arts venues in order to support people living with poor mental wellbeing who will benefit from this type of therapeutic break.

The opportunity to stay in one of our hostels can inspire a lifelong love of adventure, wildlife and heritage which in turn promotes a healthier and more active lifestyle. Anecdotally we know that a stay with us allows people to recharge their batteries, as well as revive or initiate an interest in outdoor pursuits, thereby kick-starting a healthier lifestyle. In future, we will work with others to help people maintain an active lifestyle after staying with us. Sport England defines physical activity as everything from walking and cycling to participating in sports and athletics. Most people who stay at a YHA attain Sport England’s ‘active’ rating (150 mins per week) almost without realising it. 

Our latest Impact Review demonstrates the tangible benefit of our charitable programmes for young people that may otherwise miss out on the life-changing benefit of a YHA break. We have compelling evidence of the power of a YHA to boost health and wellbeing, promote community cohesion and raise educational outcomes and aspirations.

Why do you think it’s important to attend networking events?

Networking events are critical if people and organisations want to learn about new innovations or best practice. It’s also an excellent way to make connections with like-minded organisations and forging meaningful partnerships. My team and I have spent the last 12 months actively networking as we accept that we can’t do everything we want to do on our own. We’ll reach more young people in a shorter time if we work with a range of partners, many of whom we are meeting through networking events.

It’s through networking events that we meet future partners and gain feedback from partners we are already working with. This feedback enables us to continually improve. For instance, we have listened to our education partners and are now responding to the need to provide support around periods of transition, for example by providing subsidised stays at the start of the academic year.

Partnerships have been at the heart of YHA for the last 90 years. We’ve always worked with others to pursue our charitable mission, not just those concerned with the promotion of outdoor pursuits and the National Parks, but philanthropic organisations such as the Quakers and Trusts associated with Cadbury’s and Joseph Rowntree. Whereas once upon a time, our partnerships were primarily concerned with building our property portfolio, today our partnerships are focused on broadening our reach and impact.

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