OnSide was created to replicate the innovative and sustainable way that Bolton Lads and Girls Club delivers high quality youth work, so other towns and cities could benefit from the same for their young people. I took over from the founding CEO and now, remarkably ten years later, I am handing over to Jamie, our new CEO.
As this is my final blog, I will reflect on my time as CEO at OnSide.
Firstly, I would like to recognise the massive national team of supporters who have backed OnSide and the OnSide model since our inception, be that locally with their Youth Zone or nationally helping OnSide deliver on its youth work mission. Without each and every one of those backers, (and there are hundreds of you!) OnSide and the Youth Zones would not exist, so a big THANK YOU from me personally.
Over the decade, I have witnessed some amazing philanthropy. Time and again, those with wealth putting it to good work, making investment decisions to charity in the same way they make their business investments.
If anything, they have become more generous over the years, it seems society is becoming more acutely aware of inequalities, and those with the means feel a huge responsibility to do their bit to create change.
Opening a Youth Zone isn’t something that’s easy to deliver, each one is an sizeable and ambitious project in its own right, a masterpiece in the making! One by one we have steadily grown the Network, with considerable effort from many many people, not just those within OnSide, local authorities, many committed and caring individuals who gave up their time and focus to help us.
And there has been so much learning on the way, where else do you get the opportunity to go again and again, each time building on the successes of the last and trying new innovative things to make them better. The move to London, transferring the successful OnSide model 250 miles south was one of the biggest challenges we have faced.
OnSide is all about its people and their knowledge and expertise, the team spent so much time in London we used to regularly bump into each other at Euston coming and going!
The energy and time it took was substantial, I have a huge debt of gratitude to the OnSide team for delivering that important part of our history and giving young people across the capital their own Youth Zones, where they can discover the power of youth work for themselves – which is a key purpose of youth work.
Like most organisations, things aren’t always going exactly as you would like, but resilience is the key when you are pioneering. It’s just the same as what we aim to teach young people; resilience, that it’s not always going to be going your way or as fast as you would like, there are bumps in the road to contend with. Finding and recognising their own resilience, through encouragement from staff and volunteers at a Youth Zone, is a great way to grow and develop, ready to face life’s challenges.
The most memorable thing about the last ten years has been the interactions I’ve had with young people at the Youth Zones, seeing them becoming more confident about themselves and their futures. There have been so many inspiring young people, coming alive in terms of their belief in themselves and their future. Only at the weekend I bumped into an ex-member in the Arndale Centre in Manchester, he was able to tell me he is now at university, a fantastic achievement for him.
Over the years we’ve observed young people becoming more isolated. They spend even more time in their bedrooms and on screens than before, and covid has taken this a step further. It’s very worrying for our next generation’s future. Our recent survey, Generation Isolation, found 77% of young people spend most of their time at home, often alone.
Young people aren’t getting enough opportunities to connect, emerging into adulthood without the skills and confidence they need. It’s also made it more difficult for the youth sector to reach young people. The need has never been greater, youth charities are needed more than ever and need to work even harder to reach young people and help them discover the benefits of youth work.
It’s brilliant to see how the sector has come together in recent years, with the creation of the Back Youth Alliance (BYA), recognising we have a stronger voice together and can achieve more. I’m proud that OnSide is part of the BYA, and it has been fantastic to co-chair the group helping move us forward in the measurement and articulation of our impact as a sector. And to work with inspiring youth charities to ensure there is greater recognition of youth work.
We’ve seen great strides being made with this, particularly during covid when youth work was cited by many as being the fourth emergency service, but there’s much more to do to make the value of the youth worker role truly understood and recognised.
Something I’m proud of behind the scenes is our systems, not very compelling compared to young people and their stories I know, but as a relatively young charity with big ambitions we were able to build systems that would grow with us and that can stand the test of time.
On this hangs all of our impact measurement, through the evaluation framework, developed with the Evidence Development and Incubation Team (EDIT) at King’s College London. There’s become a strong focus within the sector on demonstrating the value of youth work, as can be seen in UK Youth recent research on the economic benefits of youth work.
OnSide is going well, a network of 14 strong and sustainable Youth Zones is impressive, but there is so much more to come! We’re at such a pivotal moment – comparing our journey to a marathon, we’ve just completed that steady jog to the start line and we’re ready to go. We’re in a strong position as a credible youth charity that delivers youth centres and supports youth work all over the country. I look forward to seeing many more towns and cities benefiting from their own Youth Zone in the not-too-distant future, many more young people seeing their lives transformed.
I’m still going to be part of the OnSide team, and I’m glad to continue to play a role in our growth. There are many exciting times to come, and I wish Jamie all the best as CEO of OnSide, I hope his ten years are as enjoyable and rewarding as mine have been 😊.