Martti Muukkonen

Organisational Models for Youth Organisations – A Lesson from the YMCA History

A presentation to the 4th International Youth Research Conference in Carelia. Niittylahti, Finland, June 7-10, 2003.


Organisational models are resources that facilitate the work of an organisation. Some organisations in any organisational field are more central than others. Their models and organisational practices define the standards that others must follow if they want to get legitimacy in that field. In different eras, the occupation of this central position may vary. There is also significant spatial variation. Thus, for example, in the field of education, the Halle University gave model for the modern university replacing the older Medieval model that traced from Paris and Bologna (Imfling & Chambliss 1994, 36). In similar way, there has been pioneer organisations in youth work that have laid the standards in youth work.

All organisations and organisational practices reflect to some degree the problems of their founding dates or critical periods of their history. Organisational solutions to these problems are not only practical answers but ideological statements as well. Later, when diffused, solutions become legitimised and taken-for-granted models. Therefore it is important to understand in what kinds of situations different organisational practices have occurred and what kinds of ideological impact the solution carries.

In the case of youth organisations, much of organisational practices have been developed in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) from where they have been diffused to other youth organisations and to institutions of society. It is one of the largest international youth organisation today with its 45 million members in 150 countries. Along with its size, the YMCA is one of the oldest contemporary youth organisations. It is one of the pioneers in the field of youth work. American organisation scholars Walter W. Powell and Rebecca Friedkin (1987, 190f.) call the YMCA as a successful organisation, because it has not only expanded but managed to maintain its basic mission.

This paper focuses on the early development of the organisation models and practices of the World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations. My aim is to look what kind of lesson the YMCA could give to contemporary youth workers.

The Birth of the YMCA

When we look at the emergence of the first YMCAs, we have to look a bit to the context where the movement took form. The first YMCA emerged in London in 1844. Although there has been older associations in Germany, it was the London YMCA that created the movement. In general, the German YMCA relied much more on the local parishes than the Anglo-Saxon one. Therefor its institutional arrangements differ from the latter one. In this paper, I focus mainly on the Anglo-Saxon version of the YMCA.

When the London YMCA was founded, there were three important factors influencing its foundation. First, the emergence of youth as an age group brought forth the special needs of this age group. Second, the size of this age group in industrial towns made the needs visible. The first general secretary of the London YMCA, Edwyn Shipton (WConf 1855, 56), mentions in his report to the First YMCA World Conference that there were 150 000 young men in London in 1844. Another writer of the time, Charles Booth (quoted in Gillis 1974, 55), in turn, reminds that 80 per cent of migrants from English villages to London were from 15 to 25 years of age. Thus, London was crowded with young people, and society was not prepared to handle the problems of this vast migration. Third important factor was that in Britain social problems were traditionally solved by local parishes, private philanthropy and voluntary associations rather than by state action (Thane 1996, 5ff.). This traditional model of philanthropy led peer groups to find solutions through volunteer activity. The YMCA of London, was in the beginning just one peer group that aimed to better the life of its members.

The YMCA, however, is a religious movement and the YMCA must also be seen as a fruit of the Evangelical Revival of the 19th century. Contrary to several other separatist religious movements, the YMCA idea was based on a sense of unity among Christians. The YMCA tradition emphasises that the founders of the London YMCA came from four different denominations. Thus, the YMCA was ecumenical from the beginning. This led the YMCA to co-operate with the major streams in the Ecumenical Movement of the 19th century. The YMCA leaders were active in the Evangelical Alliance, Missionary Movement and Sunday School Movement, which were the leading Christian movements of the time.

None of these factors alone explain why the YMCA emerged and managed to grow to a world movement while other similar movements were just shooting stars. The crucial factor was the YMCAs ability to secure its financial basis in the same time as it concentrated on its mission.

While the London YMCA begun as a peer group of young shop assistants, it had business-minded resource people in its membership. When these young shop assistants grew older, they had more influential positions in their companies and this enabled them to find wealthy sponsors for the new movement. They also used their business experience in order to organise the YMCA finance in a firm basis. For example, entering to lectures and library services required either payment of entrance fee or annual fee. In the expansion of the YMCA, their influence could be seen as well. Businessmen’s working duties led them to travel and in these travels they spread the idea of the YMCA. Vice versa, travelling merchants visited the London YMCA and brought the idea back home (Shedd 1955, 30, 42, 68; The YMCAs of the World 1958, 28, 39, 138, 197.). Moreover, contacts with the business world led the members of the London YMCA to find such opportunities as the ‘Great Exhibition of Industry’ (1851) in their evangelisation work (WConf 1855a, 67f.; Shedd 1955, 30ff.).

Changes in the Context of the YMCA

The YMCA changed from a small revival movement to a world organisation a hundred years later. Its membership expanded from 35,000 to 4.7 million from 1855 to 1955. This expansion was partly due to favourable opportunity structures which the YMCA could utilise. Economically, the YMCA was a product of industrialism and a growing middle class in North America and Europe. The middle class had both a need for YMCA services and the ability to pay for them. At the same time, the same middle class supplied the YMCA with leaders who could use their business methods in Christian work. On the other hand: ‘the customer is always right’ - the YMCA had to modify its mission and activities according to the needs of its constituency.

Cultural opportunities largely followed the path of industrialism. A constant phenomenon was a move - from countryside to towns and from Europe to North America. In this situation, the YMCA, which had a mission to serve young men, modified its activities to meet the needs of youth on the move. At the same time, the fragmentation of society created special groups of young men who had special needs: soldiers, railwaymen, racial minorities and students. The spread of the YMCA idea among these groups created special YMCAs that focused on the special needs of these groups. The last group was especially important because youth in higher education had expanded in order to meet the growing needs of industry and business. University youth was not only a strategic target for the YMCA mission - it was also a source of recruits for the work. When Western culture triumphed round the globe, these young men implanted Christianity, western education, sports and lifestyle - and new YMCAs - in Africa, Asia and Latin America. When the mood changed and Nationalism raised its head in these continents, the YMCA had enough indigenous leaders in these areas to enable the organisation to adapt into a new cultural climate.

Politically, the YMCA emerged in a time when, in Britain, Germany and North America, the associations were seen as tools for solving social problems. When the YMCA had institutionalised itself, it had the capacity to serve governments - and individual young men - with its knowledge of physical education and recreation. Need for these services emerged especially during the First World War when almost the whole YMCA machinery was modified to serve men in armed forces. This, in turn, created a good reputation for the movement (except, of course, in Soviet Russia) and it was able to enter as yet unoccupied areas. One thing led to another: work for soldiers led to work for prisoners of war and work for refugees, migrants and displaced persons.

In the religious context, the YMCA continued to be active with its earlier allies but it found new niches in two fields: leisure and social work. YMCA leaders were in the spearhead of the Muscular Christianity and student awakenings; they were inspired by the Social Gospel movement; they led the first meetings of Missionary Movement and the World Council of Churches. Although the YMCA was Protestant in origin, it also adapted itself to Orthodox and Roman Catholic contexts. In general, the attitude of Protestant and Orthodox church leaders was positive, while that of Catholics was negative because the YMCA was not under a clerical control. In all different religious contexts, the YMCA aimed to lead youth to their respective churches. Extending out of Europe and North America, the YMCA faced new problems and sought answers to them. In the Near East, the YMCA faced Islam and in India, it faced Hinduism and Buddhism. In both contexts, the movement took the lead in interfaith dialogue with these world religions.

However, these new historical moments and experiences in new continents do not automatically change any organisation. The new situation must be interpreted at first, and it is the task of the leadership to formulate in words what the members are thinking. This formulation was made in 1855 and it is called the Paris Basis.

The YMCA Paris Basis

After the first YMCAs had emerged in Britain and Germany in the first half of the 19th century, the idea diffused to Belgium, France, Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States. Representatives of associations in these countries come together during the conference of Evangelical Alliance, which, in turn, took place during the World Exhibition in Paris in 1855 and formed the World’s Alliance of YMCAs. Evangelical Alliance was the leading interdenominational organisation of the time. Its role was significant since it served as a midwife-organisation for the new YMCA. Many local YMCA secretaries were Evangelical Alliance secretaries as well. Thus, the YMCA received much of its legitimacy from the EA. Actually, the argument of the time was that the YMCA was Evangelical Alliance among the youth.

In the Paris Conference, YMCA leaders adopted a statement that became one of the most important ecumenical declarations in the 19th century, the Paris Basis, which reads as follows:

The delegates of various Young Men's Christian Associations of Europe and America, assembled in Conference at Paris, the 22nd August, 1855, feeling that they are one in principle and in operation, recommend to their respective Societies to recognize with them the unity existing among their Associations, and whilst preserving a complete independence as to their particular organization and modes of action, to form a Confederation on the following fundamental principle, such principle to be regarded as the basis of admission of other Societies in future:

The Young Men’s Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and saviour according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be His disciples in their faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of His Kingdom amongst young men.

This fundamental principle being admitted, the Conference further proposes:
  1. That any differences of opinion on other subjects, however important in themselves, but not embraced by the specific designs of the Associations, shall not interfere with the harmonious relations of the confederated Societies.
  2. That a travelling certificate of membership be designed, by which members of the confederated Societies shall be entitled to the privileges of any other Society belonging to this Confederation, and to the personal attentions of all its members.
  3. That the system of correspondence adopted by this Conference shall apply to the Societies of this Confederation.
In this Basis, there are some important organisational aspects that laid the rails for the further development of this kind of organisations. The first one is in the Preamble: " preserving a complete independence as to their particular organization and modes of action." This stress on the local independence was originally based on the Lutheran Confessio Augustana and its 7th article. This principle of Reformation gave a legitimatisation for the idea of local independent action. Thus, the federal structure emerged as a manifestation of movement’s basic beliefs. This principle has been a leading force through the life of the organisation.

A second feature in the Basis is the requirement that future associations adopt the Paris Basis. In this way, the Basis, which, following Clifford Geertz’ (1973, 93) terminology, was a model of the YMCAs in 1855 became a model for the future associations. However, again in this, the interpretation what is according to the Paris Basis was left to the local level. Anyway, this expressed unity in diversity has enabled both the flow of innovations in the YMCA and mutual help in the times of troubles. Moreover, the basic YMCA model gave new YMCAs institutional respect when they started to work. Actually, in some countries, the government asked the YMCA to start its activities because they had heard its work abroad.

In the Fundamental Principle, there is a stress on youth’s own action. The YMCA emerged as a network of peer groups and this tradition emphasised the action of members. Basically, it is question of membership contrasted to clientele. Youth is not only object of youth work but a subject of modifying their own world. The idea of local independence also meant independence of youth departments.

The stress on youth’s own activity has also another aspect. When the Fundamental Principle underlines the faith and desire as a requirement of membership, it is simply a practical strategy of recruitment. It is far more easier to concentrate on those who already have a motivation than trying to motivate those who are not interested. In later years, when the YMCA extended to non-Christian territories, this motivational aspect was preserved with a principle of open membership and Christian leadership. Thus, any youth movement or organisation should have a core of committed members if it wants to fulfil its task.

A third aspect in this stress on youth is the emphasis on lay activity. The YMCA is primarily a lay movement. This means that although there are strong professional management, the decisions have been made by members. For example, in some countries this has been underlined with a tradition that no professional YMCA secretary acts as a chairman of national meetings. In relation to churches and clergy this has meant two things. First, pastors who participate in the YMCA are there not primarily as pastors but as equal members. Of course, their special talents are utilised as well as talents of others. Second, the YMCA does not want to be under the leadership of any particular church. It is an ecumenical movement aiming to serve all of them as well as their respective communities. Even in Lutheran countries where the bond between the church and the YMCA has been close, there is a clear organisational independence.

The First Additional Proposal made a limitation to the policy of the YMCA. It ruled out controversial political issues from the Associations. It was adopted in 1855 because Americans feared that the growing tension, that was about to lead to North American Civil War, would split the fragile unity of the movement. In this, YMCAs followed the traditional British philanthropy practice that made a distinction between political and philanthropic organisations. After Franco-Prussian War it became a Second Fundamental Principle. During this war, the YMCA for the first time practised reconciliation between its members who fought against each other when the periodical of Geneva YMCA was a channel to maintain the torn unity between German and French YMCAs (Shedd 1955, 189f.). However, through the years, there emerged some political issues that were seen more religious than political and, thus, were downplaying this principle. The major issues of this kind, were issues of racism and war. Both were condemned as violations against the will of God (Muukkonen 2003, 225, 399). In general, however, this principle meant that the YMCA tried to be more conciliator than fighter. As a result, especially in Britain, Germany and the US, the YMCA was seen as a perfect tool for middle class to organise the leisure of their youth.

Second and third Proposals remained as proposals. They never got the similar status as other parts of the Basis but were, actually, practised informally. The importance of these practices has been in the strengthening of the mutual sense of unity.

Organisational Consequences of the Paris Basis

The model of the Paris Basis had, additionally to above, significant organisational consequences. First, the network of associations led to stability. Miller McPherson (1983) has argued that a networked organisation is "better able to absorb shocks from the environment" and, thus, organisational mortality is lower than in the cases when an association is just lonely local one.

There were basically two ways of this networking. The first model was the British one where all local associations were branches of the London YMCA. This model was rejected in international level and the YMCA adopted the German federation model. In North America, these models were mixed into the solution where the ‘local’ meant the metropolitan YMCA which had suburban YMCAs as its branches. However, as Mayer N. Zald (1970) has shown, these branches also enjoyed significant independence.

If we compare European and American associations, we can see that in 1920 North America formed already more that half of the constituency but only one fourth of associations. In 1955, the North American figures were three fourths of members while association share remained the same. This meant that in 1955 there were, in average, 122 members in European associations but 1854 in their American counterparts. What is interesting here, is that both American associations and North American International Committee of the YMCA were so large that they did actually need this networking. European YMCAs, instead, were so small that they did not have organisational resources for leadership training, organisation of large scale conferences or international camps. Thus, the small associations needed both national and international federative body. As a consequence, the World’s Alliance of YMCAs remained largely a European organisation up to 1920’s. (Muukkonen 2002, 210ff.)

Networking had another major organisational consequence as well. When local and national associations were independent, they had a better possibility to adapt themselves to the local communities and answer their needs. This led to an enormous patchwork quilt so that today there is not a single YMCA model although the basic distinction between small European-type clubs and large American-type metropolitan associations has remained. The previous has been more a membership movement and guarded better the mission of the YMCA. On the other hand, they have been more vulnerable to economic shocks and to mobility of members causing higher organisational mortality than on the other side of the Atlantic. North American YMCAs have protected themselves well against economic setbacks but in this process members have tended to become clients. Especially Europeans have criticised that the Y’s in North America have ceased to maintain their Christian identity. They have become community organisations which give similar services that municipalities give here.

Local adaptation has enabled the YMCA be both global and local in the same time. In fact, majority of YMCA international interaction is between local associations without Geneva headquarters’ acknowledgement. Local adaptation has led to organisational inventions that had, then, diffused through YMCAs international network. Best known of these local efforts have been Basketball and Volleyball, which were developed in YMCA Springfield College in the US; soldier homes, which can be traced both to Henri Dunant and Solferino Battle, and to North American Civil War; development banks were invented in the Indian YMCA; Scouting has its roots in British Birkenhead YMCA. A conference practice that is self evident for us today, namely group work, first emerged in international level at YMCA Helsinki World Conference in 1926.

The principle of local adaptation of the YMCA required trained youth workers who had capability to modify the program according to the needs. For this purpose the North American YMCA established schools for secretaries first in Chicago and Springfield and later to other locations. Many of these schools formed a nucleus for later universities in their respective areas. The North American model of secretary education diffused also to other areas, especially to India and South America where they were the first in kind. From the YMCA, the model also diffused to churches and other organisations. Along with the YMCA leadership model also some of its methods diffused to other organisations. Such methods as youth centres with qualified staff and facilities trace their origin from Chicago YMCA. It can also be noted that one root of this kind of youth research conference where we participate now is in the YMCA. Perhaps the first international conference concentrating on youth work was held in 1893 in Geneva when the French speaking boys’ workers came together and formed the Central Commission of French Speaking Boys’ Associations, which is probably the oldest international body of youth work (Shedd 1955, 323f.). The first international survey of life of youth around the world was prepared for the YMCA World’s Conference at Helsinki in 1926 (An Inquiry as to the Christian Way of Life in Social and International Relations 1926). Its method was interesting: YMCA boys’ clubs discussed on given issues and prepared their common answer which they delivered to their national office.

Organisational development of the World’s Alliance of YMCAs

The organisational changes in the World’s Alliance were largely due to the expansion and extension of membership explained above. In the beginning the movement was a network of local associations. No central committee was founded because of the fear of any super-structure. On the other hand, the network was based on the friendship relations of the early leaders. They did not see any reason to formalise their relationships. The London YMCA acted as a centre of correspondence but it did not have any power over other associations but those in Britain, which were its branches. The board of the next host of the next World’s Conference played as the planning committee of the conference.

As a ‘second generation effect’, there emerged a process towards an organised world body. This went in tandem with developments in the communication and transportation. These devices enabled the organisation to avoid hindrances that did not allow it to function according to its core values. When the main railway network in Europe was ready in the 1870’s, the YMCA established its Central International Committee (CIC) in 1878. In the same time, the first World’s Secretary, Charles Fermaud, was appointed and a headquarters was located in Geneva. The foundation of the CIC in 1878 changed the nature of the World’s Alliance from a network of loosely attached associations to an international organisation. For the first time, the World’s Alliance had its own staff, and the organisation could start its own activities. Before that time, it existed merely in the minds of the YMCA leaders. However, here we can again see the emphasis on the local leadership. Because of the fear of centralisation, the CIC was not given enough resources to enable it to take leadership in the movement. Moreover, the CIC was consisted of the Executive Commission residing in Geneva and the Deliberative Commission, which consisted of members of CIC outside Switzerland. Decisions needed agreement of all members whether in Geneva or not. One can imagine how difficult the decision making was via correspondence although the YMCA utilised the new innovation of telegram.

From then on, the organisational history of the World’s Alliance was that of organisational experiment. Without previous models, and in a rapidly changing world, the CIC developed and tested new organisational models that could best implement the YMCA idea of global unity and local independence. The more that transportation systems developed, the more movements far from Geneva could take part in the decision making process. This was especially important in the case of the North American movement, which started to take its place as a leading force of the World’s Alliance when transportation systems allowed relatively rapid travel across the Atlantic. Because of the distances, there was continuous tension between efficiency needs of the Executive Commission and democracy needs of the Deliberative Commission. As a resolution to this tension, the YMCA created a yearly plenary system of CIC.

It may be a bit surprising that only in 1891 the World’s Alliance got its first Constitution. At first, it only legitimated existing practices. Later, however, the constitution played important role when it determined the share of representatives from each member movements.

In the beginning, the representation was based on the number of associations in each country. This favoured Europeans because all countries had at least one representative and because Europe had more associations than North America, which, in turn had more members in its larger associations. In this time, the World’s Alliance was practically an European organisation. The negative result was that Americans started to act independently in their foreign work. Actually, there was a time when there was de facto two international committees: one in Geneva and the other in New York comprising the US and Canadian YMCAs.

When there also emerged policy differences between American and European – especially German – movements, this was seen as a thread to the whole movement. Therefore, in 1894, when the CIC was enlarged, the representation in plenaries was changed, to be based on the amount of members instead of the number of associations. This change favoured American movement and from that on, the American influence increased in the World’s Alliance. Further revisions were made in order to keep representation in pace with changes in the membership proportions of different movements. Next significant change in organisation occurred when, in 1926, four special committees were appointed under the Executive Committee. From the point of view of youth work, the most important of these were the Boys’ Work Committee and Young Men’s Work Committees. When the work of the YMCA had enlarged to issues of peace and justice, these two committees could focus on the special needs of the youth. In YMCA language of the time, ‘boys’ were those under 18 years.

The fundamental change occurred in 1955, when the whole Constitution and organisation was remodelled. The World’s Conferences and Plenaries were replaced by the World Council, which appointed the Executive Committee and sub-committees. The world had shrunk to the extent that effective federal administration was possible. Geneva was not anymore a distant city where it took weeks to travel but it was only a matter of hours or maximum of days to reach it. This enabled a world movement to apply similar organisational models in a world level that it had applied in local level from the beginning.

Inter-organisational networks

The diversity in unity aspect of YMCA ideology had a special impact in the YMCA attitude towards other movements as well. Already in the First World’s Conference in 1855, Edwyn Shipton ended his report by noting that there is enough work to do for all Christian organisations. Additionally, the London YMCA had ensured contacts with different denominations by appointing their pastors as its vice-presidents. The YMCA did not want to be a dissident sect but it aimed to bring Christians together. This ecumenical attitude had remarkable influences in movement’s later years.

When the YMCA was men’s movement, there soon emerged a question concerning women. What to do with wives, sisters and daughters of members? The major solution was the emergence of Young Women’s Christian Association. When the YMCA adopted a basis similar to the Paris Basis, these two sibling movements had a common ideological basis and this led them to close co-operation. However, especially in Nordic countries people favoured mixed associations and this brought a problem to the leaders of both organisations. In both movements, the aim to better women’s rights was recognised rather early and in the beginning the method was the same: separate associations. However, the YMCA slowly changed its policy and started to accept women as full members which led to two things. First, some YMCAs changed their names to include both sexes. Second, this caused troubles with the YWCA, which saw that the new policy weakened its organisational power. Even today, the argument of the YWCA is that especially in the Third World women need an own organisation in order to have their voice heard. The YMCA, in turn has tried to treat both sexes equally.

Along with the YWCA, the major ally has been the Student Christian Movement and its international body World Student Christian Federation. This movement emerged as a joint student work of the YMCA and YWCA, and together they formed the main stream of the Ecumenical movement before the foundation of the World Council of Churches. These three movements had their headquarters in Geneva and their interaction was close and they formed the future basis for Ecumenical work.

When the YMCA founded its headquarters in Geneva, there was only the International Committee of the Red Cross. Thus, the Geneva international society has been based on the two ‘children’ of Henri Dunant, the Red Cross and the World’s Alliance of YMCAs. Acknowledging their common roots, both organisations interacted closely especially during both World Wars when they took care of the work with prisoners of war. When new international organisations came to Geneva, they were drawn to different co-operative interaction that was based on these four organisations. A practical consequence was a diffusion of organisational practices that had been developed in the YMCA. Another consequence was an attitude that has favoured co-operation instead of competition between international nongovernmental organisations. This, in turn, has helped these organisations to concentrate on their common tasks instead of wasting their energy to the fight of influence.

Lesson of the YMCA to Contemporary Youth Movements

The YMCA has been a successful organisation during its history. It has been able to carry its mission and even diffuse its principles to other organisations. Actually, the whole concept of youth work is the YMCA invention. It was the YMCA who first appointed youth workers, first created professional training for them, first raised youth centres and camp centres, soldier homes, etc. Today these are self evident for us. Thus, the first lesson is: don’t compete with such organisations that might do part of your work. Or if you compete, do it with quality.

The second lesson is linked with organisational ecology. Any organisation must ensure that it has the resources it needs, whether they are fiscal or human resources. This, in turn requires institutional credibility. An organisation with good reputation has always better access to resources than a marginal one. In the case of a new association, reputation an be achieved both by getting support of the leading members of the community and being part of a larger and respected network. A best way to ruin a project in a few years is to keep it local and not appoint leaders of the community in its board. Organisational mortality is extremely high in such cases.

A successful organisation needs professional management, a board where both youth and donors are represented, and a committed membership. A youth leader must always remember the difference between membership and clientele.

Finally, an organisation must be both flexible to meet new needs and faithful to its basic mission. Without clear mission, the intensity of the work remains low and there are no committed members. Withouth the ‘flame of the spirit’ an organisations becomes just one bureaucracy among others. Thus, as St. Paul advised in his letter to Thessalonikians:

Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless. (1 Tess 5:19-23 RSV)

Geertz Clifford

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