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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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I wish I’d known this when I was young

This opinion piece is over 2 years old

Louise Macdonald OBE reflects on her more than two decades at Young Scot

I wish I’d known this when I was young.

This is probably the sentence I have heard more times in my time as CEO with Young Scot than any other. It comes from older adults – and not so older adults! – and is usually in response to me telling them about our work on accurate information to help young people make informed decisions and choices. It is also invariably followed up by: “does this exist for adults?”

“It has made such a difference – I want more young people to know about this and get these kind of opportunities.”

That is the close runner up – from young people who have used the Young Scot National Entitlement Card to get access to discounts or services, or been involved in our codesign activities working alongside decision-makers to shape policy.

I have been a part of Young Scot since it became an independent charity in the year 2000, and been at the helm as CEO for 13 years. If I had a penny in funding for every time I’ve heard those sentences, I perhaps wouldn’t have had to dye my hair so often!

But those sentences always speak to our purpose – and our purpose is what has motivated me every day.

Despite the sad stereotypes that still persist, young people are – quite frankly – amazing. That incredible stage of their lives as they start to flex their independent wings – taking part in things for the first time; finding “their people” and trying to figure out what makes sense – and what doesn’t – for them. It’s their unerring sense of fairness that gets me every time – it doesn’t matter what the issue is we are discussing; it always comes down to what is fair. Compassion and empathy – and a highly tuned alert to spot dissonance a mile off – it seems to be in teenage DNA.  If there is one thing my time at Young Scot has taught me it’s that if you create the conditions and let young people lead, they will always, always, come up trumps – and compassionate trumps at that. If you want something to be fair and equitable, put young people in charge.

When I took over from the founder of Young Scot, the amazing Marcus Liddle OBE, people asked me how would I fill his shoes? Despite my heels being much higher, I knew that was impossible – he was and remains utterly unique. However, I knew that part of my task, as Young Scot’s second CEO, was to “carry the flame” of his founding vision, but also evolve us to ensure we could make even more impact in the lives of even more young people. It has been the honour of my life to be that custodian. It is now time for someone else to do that – to build what needs to come next.

It has been a ridiculous privilege to be part of Young Scot at all, never mind to lead it all these years. Whether that has been spearheading our digital and smart tech strategy; carving our path to evolve our participation work to specialise in codesign and systems thinking; seeking to innovate in our delivery of quality youth information to ensure it connects with the experience and needs of Scotland’s diverse communities; inventing a way to tell the stories of our amazing young Scots through the Young Scot Awards; building exciting connections across Europe through the incredible European Youth Card Association; or creating spaces where young people can share their expertise and lived experience to make policies better… And to do that with so many phenomenal cross sector partner organisations and collaborators (with a special shoutout for our wonderful Local Authority and third sector youth work colleagues in every community across Scotland)…it’s been a blast and a joy.

I have a habit of saving snippets of things I hear or read that strike a chord on my phone, and I came across this one from many years ago, which described the role of a CEO as like being in the circus: you have to be ringleader, lion tamer, tightrope walker, juggler, organ grinder and occasional clown. There are lots of far more sophisticated and learned descriptions of leadership to be found, but I’m not sure I’ve found another one that gets quite as close as that does!

There have been plenty of mistakes along the way of course – it took me longer to stop beating myself up about those and adapting my mindset to view them as learning opportunities than I wish, but I got there in the end. Tough choices; painful decisions and dark days – it’s all there. But the challenge found in those has unquestionably led to better decision making; more impact and deep pride about the difference we make every day.  As I shift my focus and energy into a new sector – leading the IoD in Scotland to support Directors to be the best they can be – the list of skills, experiences and learning that I take with me forged in the Young Scot fire is a long one. That’s perhaps a blog or article for another day. 

I barely know how to begin to express how much I will miss the incredible Young Scot staff team – such skill, talent and dedication, focussed on ensuring we put young people at the heart of every decision we make and action we take. Creativity, commitment and so much laughter – the memory bank is full to the brim with all the fantastic experiences we have been through together.  For every time I said: “Do we think we could have a go at…” and then my (arguably occasionally unreasonably) ambitious expectations were exceeded, I thank each of you from the bottom of my heart.

The same goes for our phenomenal trustees – past and present – it’s been such an honour to work alongside each of you as you have kept us anchored, challenged and ambitious, with our eyes fixed firmly on our North Star – young Scots.

And I want to give a wee shoutout to those young people who volunteer – or have volunteered – with Young Scot on so many projects. I’ve been truly inspired, moved and motivated by each of you and your stories every day. There is a special kind of gratitude to be found in seeing young people I have worked with throughout the years who are now “grown ups” – all making their own way and making their impact to create a better world. 

Young people need accurate information to help them make informed decisions and choices more than ever, and they need to be connected to their communities and have a sense of place. They also need to be given an equal place at every decision-making table across sectors. Which is why knowing that I am passing the baton on to very safe hands – with the fabulous Kirsten Urquhart taking on the role of interim CEO – fills me with excitement and anticipation about the future for Young Scot.

And whilst I am leaving the youth sector, I will forever remain a champion for young people – I’ll just be serving, supporting and cheerleading from a different part of the landscape, looking on with pride and love - because that’s in my DNA.