Charities must evolve to stay relevant


In June 1844, a young man met with his colleagues in an upstairs room of a drapery store just a few yards from St Paul's Cathedral in London. That young man was Sir George Williams and the meeting resulted in the formation of the YMCA.

Existing for 175 years is a long time for any organisation, especially within the third sector. Reaching such a milestone often prompts you to reflect on the difference you have made and what lessons you have learnt along the way.

Sir George's prime motivation was to provide a sanctuary for young men from 19th century London. How much has changed since he felt the need to act? The struggle young Londoners, and indeed the rest of the UK, face still exists today.

Young people are not able to find suitable or safe accommodation; access to quality education is based on your locality rather than ability; and your life chances are still very much dictated by your socio-economic background more than anything else.

While these three particular issues have remained a constant, the landscape in which they occur has consistently changed over the past 175 years.

When providing services to young people, the third sector has had to operate on shifting sands, knowing the opportunities available to young people fluctuates greatly depending on the government of the day and their priorities.

Being adaptable and constantly evolving has enabled the YMCA to survive for so long. It has changed its operations depending upon the needs of the local community and it is this key skill which we impart on the young people who arrive at our doors.

If there were issues with homelessness, the YMCA provided these services, if there was no after school youth provision available, we delivered that too.

When young people presented themselves to us with more and more severe mental health difficulties, we researched and delivered programmes to support them.

What can look from the outside as an organisation that is "everything to everyone" is actually fitted to the needs of the young people it serves, in the communities in which it operates. But for how long will this continue?

Our world continues to rapidly evolve. While government and its priorities will continue to change, it is the leaps in technology that will have the greatest impact upon our work. The pace of change over the past decade has been rapid and this only looks set to continue.

As the beneficiaries of our services outpace us in their knowledge of the landscapes that we must exist in, we have to ensure that as an organisation, and a sector, we are ready for that challenge.

If we are not, we will be unable to support those who need us the most and, more worryingly, we may even be unaware of the issues that they are seeking help with.

  • Denise Hatton is chief executive of YMCA UK

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