When you’re in the business of supporting people through their most testing life challenges and bringing solutions to communities in need, there’s a very real gravity in your ability to attain growth, success and sustainability.
To achieve this, you must make tough decisions, waste no time re-setting the bar and be prepared to change, says the Chief Executive of YMCA Lincolnshire, one of the county’s biggest and oldest non profit organisations.
Malcolm Barham, 54, might know how to have fun, with a quick spin on his motorbike, a round of golf and a weekend in the mud at Glastonbury; but he gets equal enjoyment out of seeing the 147-year-old Lincoln-based social enterprise changing lives in the county and beyond. His determination must have been what the doctor ordered as in his almost 30 year tenure at the organisation he has seen an outlook of “financial ruin” transformed into one of the biggest employers in the city with a £3 million turnover.
With commercial expansion on the horizon and a £3 million homeless shelter just a few pushes away from drastically improving the offer of emergency housing and support in the city, Malcolm has a lot on his plate. Amazingly though, he still finds time to oversee life-changing community and education projects in Romania, and invest his time heavily in making sure the YMCA team are challenged, happy and singing from the same hymn sheet.
When reminded of his years of commitment to the cause, Malcolm says it’s all quite “frightening”. “Firstly,” he explained, “because it doesn’t feel like it, and secondly because it’s just really enjoyable. You’re doing things that impact people’s lives and that’s what charities are all about.
“I’m most proud of the fact I took a really struggling organisation that was in financial trouble to one which is stable and respected in the community, does really good work and is noted for its quality.”
We caught up with Malcolm just weeks after he was named as an IoD Awards winner for the Public/Third Sector, and as the charity sits a heartbeat away from hearing whether it’s won YMCA of the Year in the prestigious 2016 Youth Matters Awards.
Originally joining the long-established national movement as Lincoln YMCA in 1896, the local organisation was moved from rooms above Mawer & Collingham’s department store (now House of Fraser) to its present site on St Rumbold’s Street in 1969.
Now, the association has expanded to run a range of emergency housing and support services; as well as leisure, business training, health and fitness services, education, childcare, conference facilities and youth work from The Showroom on Tritton Road, which also boasts the largest indoor climbing wall in Lincolnshire. Together with a growing number of charity shops, profits from the organisation’s commercial arm are injected into life-changing community projects and staff.
Malcolm, who spent his childhood and education in Sunderland, began his YMCA career in 1988. He quickly developed his skills and worked his way up from gym instructor to CEO, but he didn’t always have such a clear sense of direction, he explained. “I left school with very few qualifications, like a CSE in maths and a grade D in cookery or something like that. I wasn’t very good at school. I don’t think it was because I wasn’t very bright, it was probably just that the environment of our school was somewhat tough.
“I immersed myself in sport. I did almost every sport for the school, three of them for the town and one, badminton, for the county. Then I left school and I had a job as a trainee manager at a Tesco for a very short period of time. I didn’t like that.”
It was a role in the Royal Air Force that brought Malcolm to Bomber County. He spent three and a half years servicing power units for the Vulcan aircraft, but when the Vulcans were decommissioned he was sent to RAF College Cranwell and asked to swap Vulcans for irons and kettles. “I hated that,” he admitted.
“I did a couple of jobs in warehouses for MFI and Michelin Tyres and then in 1988 I was approached by the YMCA chief executive in Lincoln who knew I was into sport. I joined as a gym instructor, but I quickly rose through the ranks.”
A brief transfer to the YMCA in Nottinghamshire, where Malcolm settled down in his current family home with his wife of 35 years and two boys, saw him running housing as well as a taking on a diploma and ultimately a masters degree in management.
“It just proves I wasn’t as stupid as I thought I was at school,” he laughed. “I actually cried when I picked up my MA. My two sons and my wife came with me. They were still in school and one of the things I was able to say to them was, ‘It’s never too late to achieve what you want’.
“When I came to what was Lincoln YMCA in 2000, in effect we were a housing association on St Rumbold’s Street with 28 staff and a small gym.
“Over the 16 years that I’ve been CEO though, we’ve grown from something like a quarter of a million pound turnover to about a £3 million turnover, and the staff team has grown by more than 100 people.”
Facing challenges head on
In the early days at the YMCA, Malcolm had some harsh realities to learn and he quickly figured out that if he was going to fulfil his ambition to become chief executive, he needed to first wake up to the challenges around him, eyes open and skin thick. Alcohol, drugs and violence issues in particular were plaguing hostels across Nottinghamshire, and in Lincoln conflict often ensued when the help was unrequited.
“It was a real eye opener. A couple of times I actually had to lock myself in the office and call the police because someone was threatening to harm me. I guess you toughen up. I’m as robust as they come now and very little phases me. I think part of that is age.”
In Lincoln, the work of the YMCA and other support charities has made a huge difference to people in dark places and the number of “revolving door” service users has decreased. But periods of economic and political instability continue to suspend unsettling threats over their mission.
Homelessness is still a glaring problem on the streets of Lincoln, where 231 people requested accommodation in 2015, and a looming benefit cap on social housing from 2018 is creating added unease in the sector. Housing associations and charities have warned that an estimated 82,000 specialist homes for vulnerable residents seeking refuge could close in the UK as a result of the government changes. Rather than joining others in preparing for catastrophe though, Malcolm has a different response.
“We’ve got some real challenges coming up because of the legislation changes. We are aware of them but we’re not fearful of them. We’re already preparing what we’re going to do in response. You’ve got to be aware of the environment around you and you’ve got to prepare for it. We are going to increase our housing stock, which is probably contra to what most people are doing. Whatever happens we’ll still remain viable as an organisation.”
In 2003, YMCA Lincolnshire merged with The Nomad Trust, a small local homelessness charity, to operate the county’s only direct access night shelter for rough sleepers, securing the provision of services and investing in improvements. In early 2016, the team announced plans to expand on this provision, drawing up an ambitious proposal for a new £3 million shelter with additional apartments, training and health and social facilities. ‘The Nomad Centre’, which has already received planning permission, would be based opposite the charity’s St Rumbold Street headquarters.
Fundraising for the project is already gathering pace with Malcolm even sleeping rough for a night with others to raise more than £10,000 and get the collection rolling.
There’s still a significant hurdle to conquer, and Malcolm explained he’s looking to the country’s most illustrious charities for inspiration. “We’ve had meetings with potential funders and we have a lottery bid and a bid to the Homes and Communities Agency that’ve gone in so we could even get £2 million in big chunks. We’ll still have to fundraise on top of that. If everyone in Lincoln was able to donate £20 we could do this. We’re looking at ideas like Macmillan’s coffee mornings where you have a lot of people raising little amounts. My wife hosted a Macmillan tea party and raised hundreds.
“We have strong links with Macmillan because one of my sons had cancer and my niece died from Leukemia when she was 18. That’s the other bit. Because YMCA Lincolnshire is so multifaceted not everyone thinks of us as a charity. The kids playing in the activity centre today probably just think we’re a youth club or a climbing wall. If we had one message it would be a lot easier.”
An outstretched hand
The influence of the YMCA reached international ambition 14 years ago, when the organisation welcomed the national secretary of the Romanian YMCA. “We got on really well and we shared the same values and missions. We began yearly projects over in the poorest communities in the centre of Romania and did things like refurbishing entire camps for kids, where they learn English, sports and music. One year we invested around £30,000 in a camp refurbishment and that now runs as a guest house and generates money for the YMCA.
“I went to visit the home of the president of the YMCA in the north and discovered that the kindergarten was a room smaller than my office with 20 kids in it. The teacher told me she just used to shout at them all day because there was nothing constructive to do. We went back the next year and transformed the school, and then we found one the next year in an even worse state. The building was being held up by props to stop the ceiling falling in. We totally renovated it.
“When the mayor thanks you for what you’re doing and says ‘you’re making a difference to their education’… you can’t buy that.”
Brimming with pride in the project, Malcolm was keen to show us photographs of the incredible transformations the team have been responsible for in poverty-stricken towns and villages. He admitted the team still has a lot of work to do and must continue to expand to carry it on.
“Our retail division helps us to raise money for the work we do and our international work in Romania. In that area we’ve really grown and we’re spreading the word to other businesses across Lincolnshire.
“We run training for first aid, fire warden, health and safety, manual handling for example and the prices of those courses are really competitive so it’s a win win situation. Businesses are saving money on their training bills and we’re making money for the YMCA to carry on our charitable work.”
Right now, Malcolm is focusing on expanding the training department with ongoing recruitment phases as well as adding to the charity’s retail operation and shops. He also wants to grow the workforce to 200 people by 2020 and there’s little room for team members who don’t share the vision. “One of my mantras would be ‘change the people or change the people,” says Malcolm frankly.
“We know from a survey two weeks ago that 90% of the people who work for us are proud to say so. When you are trying to steer an organisation your most important asset is the people who work for you.
“I may well be the CEO but I’ve not done it all. It’s through other people and we’ve worked together to achieve it, so that’s the biggest achievement. It’s nice being the figurehead and you get a lot of acclaim for things and I’ve won a lot of awards, but actually all of that stuff is not down to me, it’s the people around you who want to work with you.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 94 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.