After 134 years, we are still looking ahead…

Malcolm Smith is Chief Executive Officer for Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Humber Region YMCA. Growing up in Gillingham, Kent – a port town whose decline in many ways had mirrored that of Grimsby’s in the 1980s – in Malcolm’s family the Christian faith had always been at the heart of what it meant to live your life. He reached a point in his teenage years when there was a ‘coming together’ between his beliefs and what they meant in reality: faith wasn’t simply something to hold onto, a kind of ‘Heavenly life assurance’. He began to think about how he might make his life count, initially becoming involved with Youth for Christ (YFC), a group whose mission was to provide moral and spiritual direction for young people. After university, he returned to Gillingham and took over the running of YFC. Offered the opportunity to work for YFC in Europe – a decision which would have kept him from his family for long periods – Malcolm chose, instead, to take up a post with the YMCA, moving to Grimsby in June 2010 to revitalise the Association’s children and young people’s work. He admits he was intrigued by the organisation:

‘I didn’t really know too much about the YMCA. I think externally, within Christian circles at that point, it wasn’t really seen as a Christian organisation, and that attracted me, because I wanted to find a place where my faith could work out every day, but didn’t necessarily have me pinned as “a Christian doing his Christian faith stuff” or whatever baggage is tied up in people’s perceptions of what Christianity is.’

A year later, Malcolm was asked to take on the job of acting Chief Executive Officer of Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Humber Region YMCA, a post he took over permanently in October 2013.

Speculating as to the future of the YMCA is by no means straightforward. With fewer people identifying as Christians, what does that say about an organisation whose foundations and mission are so clearly faith-based? The concept of re-branding hardly seems appropriate, yet selling the work of the organisation for future generations is unlikely to become easier, something the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) discovered in 2010. Founded in 1855, the YWCA underwent a rebranding which resulted in a name-change. According to a statement made at the time, they believed their name ‘no longer stood for anything’. However, after three years as ‘Platform 51’ and considerable downsizing, the charity once again changed its name and now operates as the Young Women’s Trust.
Malcolm Smith is well aware of the debates around the way YMCA is perceived nationally and locally, the disconnection between most people and the Christian faith, and the ways in which that presents challenges for the Association in the 21st Century:

‘The YMCA in the past five or six years has been asking the question, what should our name be? What should our branding look like, what does it mean to be a YMCA in the 21st century? And overwhelmingly, over 80% of YMCAs said, we are a Christian organisation. Let’s not run away from that; let’s not try and hide that or try to redress it, let’s try and understand what it actually means. And three years ago we rebranded into our new logo. Interestingly, in that rebrand, we dropped ‘the’, so now, within our brand, we are YMCA.’

He acknowledges the debate around Christian identity currently taking place within YMCA, but sees the solution contained within the organisation’s origins and the Paris Basis:

‘When you deconstruct it and understand that what the Basis is saying is drawing people of a like heart and a like mind together to make a difference in the community. That’s what it talks about, wanting to further the Kingdom of God, and when you unpack that – and it took me a couple of theology degrees to do that, and I still have more questions than answers – at its heart, it’s about trying to live a life that makes a difference to other people, a life that’s self-sacrificial, that goes the extra mile, that cares for other people in the same way you care for yourself, that puts other people before yourself.

‘I think that’s what is interesting in the 21st century; now, in times of austerity, where money is tight, that message is really important, because it’s so easy to look at the ‘other’, someone who is different to me and think, they’re the issue, they’re the cause of the problem – immigrants, people on benefits, whatever it is that the media portray as being different – well it’s all their fault – I think that’s where organisations like YMCA, people with that Christian heart who want to live out a life that makes a difference to other people, can really step into the gap and care for people, and love people, and form community around them and, as YMCA’s mission statement says: “belong, contribute and thrive”.’

With the Paris Basis as an anchor and the words of George Williams as inspiration, Malcolm believes the Christian heart of the YMCA is as important as ever:

‘George Williams said: “If men will no longer go to the churches and the chapels, the churches and the chapels will no longer feed the souls of the people, then there must be somewhere else.” It was a case of: you’re good enough because you’re a human being and we want you to belong. And when you belong, you’ll find a space to contribute and to thrive and, perhaps, somewhere down the line you’ll consider what that means for you spiritually.’

What is beyond doubt is that the name YMCA has social and moral capital in the wider community. Nationally, the organisation is diverse: one association can look very different from another. And that, in a sense, is part of YMCA’s strength, a flexibility to adapt and respond to community needs. With five strategic areas: family work; support and advice; training and education; health and well-being; and accommodation, YMCAs across the country are able to connect and come together behind deeply-held convictions and a unity of purpose. ‘We believe everybody deserves to have a roof over their head; everybody deserves to grow up in a loving community. We’ve taken our Christian belief and turned that into some real statements about what that looks like now in the 21st century.’ What does this mean for Grimsby? Malcom does not shy away from the fact that locally, he believes YMCA has perhaps lost what it really means to be an Association:

‘Our membership has dwindled over the years. I think we’ve lost what it means to be a Christian organisation. And here we’re looking up history and thinking, well what does that mean for our future? We’re definitely working with all people. For our YMCA, we want to be a youth-minded organisation, not necessarily working with young people all the time, but having some of that youth mind, that creativity and excitement, of opportunity and hope. That’s got to be the core of where we go in the future.’

There’s no doubt that YMCA, like so many charities has, in its recent past become a pseudo non-governmental organisation, providing services no longer delivered by central or local government. That focus on contract detail and externally imposed outcomes has, in some instances, diverted the organisation, detracting from the need for meaningful community engagement and involvement with the Association.

‘If our name is to mean something, the ‘A’ needs to mean something. What does it mean to be an Association? What does it mean for people to associate with YMCA? I think that’s been lost in the past 10, 15, or more years. When we look back to the early 90s, so it’s not that long ago, and we look to annual reports, the list of businesses that were associated with the YMCA was vast. And that’s not the same anymore. I think we have good relationships with certain businesses, but it’s very much through one-to-one relationships rather than anything that’s nailed down with businesses saying YMCA is a charity we work with, that we associate with.’

Crucially, the vision for the future does not include Peaks Lane and the hostel, which, for nearly 45 years has come to symbolise much that the ‘YM’ is associated with in Grimsby. Currently, the hostel houses 98 people and, while there is a sense of pride that YMCA takes people at times of crisis, Peaks Lane in its current state falls short of the ambition for the new vision of YMCA. The building, ambitious in its time, and which almost bankrupt the organisation, has reached the end of its useful life. With a new Campus development on the horizon, Malcolm Smith is well aware of the need to avoid the mistakes of the past:

‘I think it’s important that, in the future, we don’t put ourselves in that same position where we are hand-to-mouth and can’t collectively serve people. If we are just serving a debt, and serving a bank, that’s not what YMCA is about. We are an organisation that’s there to transform young lives, to create communities where people can contribute and thrive and, in order to do that, we need to be modern day philanthropists. We need to learn from our history.

‘Our Peaks Lane building isn’t fit for purpose. It houses people, but it doesn’t transform lives as we’d want it to. The building itself, if we are being good stewards of the money we have, it costs so much to run this building, it doesn’t care for the environment. The energy that we waste out of the windows or that it takes to heat the building.

‘We want to make sure that every moment of our customers’ journey within YMCA is an opportunity for learning and this building doesn’t allow us to do that. So we want to flatten the place and build a campus. We want to move from having a hostel to creating a campus and we use these words deliberately, because we think about university when we think about campus; we think about opportunity and aspiration.’

With the new building, to be called Trinity Campus, comes a change in focus and a more structured development of small communities within a setting that gives young people confidence and reassurance, a sense of what it means to interact with other people. The aim is for each person to learn to cook, to budget, to clean together and get by in day to day life with one another before moving to take on more responsibility in different types of supported accommodation and, eventually, independent living. Each person will have their own private space and be taking part in training, education and employment:

‘We want to provide training opportunities; we want to set up small businesses. A lot of people who come to us, they’ve been in prison or they’ve got a criminal record, they’re considered as unemployable. That’s the point that YMCA need to step in and say: we believe you are employable and we’re going to employ you and give you the opportunities to make mistakes within that safe environment and have your first achievements.

‘We’ve got some great staff and fantastic volunteers and they can do so much to make a difference every day, but if the building isn’t backing that up, if a young person comes down to the end of Peaks Lane and their heart sinks because they think they’ve hit rock bottom, then that doesn’t reflect what we believe about that person as an individual. We believe that young person can be more, that they can be more and that they’re not alone in their journey. And we want that building to scream that. We want that building, as the first thing they see, to think perhaps this might be one of the best things that’s happened to me – yes, what’s happened to me in terms of the point of crisis is awful, but perhaps there is hope.’