YHA, the right to vote and young people

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Democracy in 1934 – guests at the official opening of the youth hostel at Bellever, Dartmoor, in June 1934. (Photo courtesy YHA, from its archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.)

Democracy is coming to the YHA. Not as Leonard Cohen imagined, with a driving drum and a rousing chorus but democracy all the same. One-member-one-vote democracy.

After the Youth Hostels Association’s annual meeting in London on Saturday 30 June, from next year all members over-16 will be able to vote in elections to YHA’s Board of Trustees.

These changes have been happening for a long time. Peter Gaines, current chairman, is the latest representative of all those chairmen and trustees who have driven change for YHA for many years.

Governance is not the concern of paid staff, but all the same, congratulations also to James Blake, current chief executive, and all the previous chief executives and paid staff who have helped bring about this change.

Reform

YHA has shown that organisations can reform themselves. Its story has lessons for any organisation struggling with change, for businesses and others, from parliament, the police and the NHS to the BBC.

Most of the lessons are to do with governance reform. Unless governance is revitalised change fails. The same old ways of doing things brings the same old results.

YHA launched this round of reform to its governance in 2005. Before that regional groups held sway over YHA and had done since the early 1950s.

To participate in YHA democracy members had to attend regional meetings. Those meetings then told representatives who and what to vote for at YHA’s annual meeting. Individual members had no direct say and few took part, less than 1% by 2005.

Poor representation was among factors which held YHA back from reforms to modernise and attract younger members. It stopped YHA allowing guests to use cars for a long time. It kept YHA focused on rules for too long. It meant YHA paid too little attention to its finances and too much attention to opening new hostels for too long.

YHA has been battling to change its democracy for many years and if you’d like to understand the issues better, I recommend reading Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world.

A new generation.

Youth hostels and YHA have been going through record breaking years and success in recent years, posting financial surpluses and investing millions in its properties.

Let’s hope YHA now attracts young adults, under 30 or 35 years of age, to take part in its affairs and that they in turn help the organisation find contemporary ways of opening travel to young people, from this country and around the world.

From all accounts, young people and especially young adults are struggling with finance, health and opportunity. They may be on the verge of being excluded from the opportunities and benefits of our society, including travel, nature and the countryside and their benefits, as much as their great-grandparents were in 1930.

I don’t think it has reached that point; they are a bold and hopeful generation and YHA is already active in opening opportunities with them. YHA has these issues in mind and is developing ideas to tackle them as it develops a new strategy for the future. YHA needs the involvement of young adults as much as it did in its pioneering years.

I wish YHA all and every success in attracting a new generation to take part in its affairs. Meanwhile congratulations to those at Saturday’s AGM for the bold decision they have made.

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