Dan Burke: From DJ to Social Change Leader

Published by Gary Ellis on July 10th 2024, 8:08am

Dan Burke, the CEO of the Young Harrow Foundation, has a career trajectory that defies convention.

As a young man, Dan aspired to achieve a professional sports career, but a severe knee injury prevented these plans from coming to fruition. Undeterred, he turned to DJing, discovering success in the music scene at a time when electronic dance music was starting to dominate the airwaves. Yet, despite the financial rewards, he grappled with a sense of guilt—getting paid well for participating in a culture he didn’t truly connect with.

It was a local church that changed the course of Dan’s life. They offered him an opportunity to engage with troubled youth, including a young man causing havoc in their community. Dan’s approach was straightforward: he would teach DJing and provide positive guidance, but only if the young man committed to change. The transformation was gradual but impactful, and Dan fell in love with youth work.

His journey continued as he helped establish Ignite Trust, a charity addressing youth violence and supporting marginalised young people. Dan’s leadership skills evolved, emphasising empowerment, support, and boundaries. No longer just a DJ, he became a driving force in creating positive change for those on the fringe of society.

Dan Burke’s Leadership

Reflecting on his leadership philosophy, Dan highlights the importance of balancing people and processes. He believes that being a great leader means not only inspiring vision and motivation in others but also enabling them to achieve greatness independently. This balance also involves implementing processes that reduce the risk of mistakes and ensure smooth operations, and thus real freedom.

The challenge as a leader, Dan notes, is to maintain this delicate balance, especially as a leader. He reflects on his time at Ignite, where he realised that solving problems for his team didn’t help them grow. "I started taking on their problems and helping them solve this thing," he recalls, but this approach led to recurring issues. At Young Harrow, he shifted his strategy, seeking people who were entrepreneurial and eager for responsibility, giving them the freedom to succeed or fail within a clear framework.

Dan’s own background significantly shapes his leadership style. Dyslexic and struggling academically, he excelled in sports and as a DJ. These experiences, he believes, were crucial in developing his teamwork and leadership skills. "If someone asks what is the best way for a young person to really learn teamwork? It's sport," he asserts, highlighting the lessons in responsibility and perseverance sports teach.

As a DJ, Dan learned the art of communication and engagement. He loved the dynamic nature of DJing, where reading the room and adapting to the audience was essential. "The aim is to build an amazing environment for people to truly enjoy themselves," he explains, drawing parallels between these skills and his current role.

A Community-Centred Foundation

Dan went on to set up Young Harrow Foundation in 2015, which introduced a new place-based model of support for the wider CYP voluntary sector in Harrow. In 2024 it has over 280 organisations locally in the network and is helping the charity sector locally to thrive and offer vital services to local families.

Dan’s vision for YHF is multi-faceted, focusing on three core areas: unlocking funding, development, and fostering collaborations. He describes how the foundation has significantly scaled its impact in recent years. Initially, they distributed modest grants of about £30,000 annually to local charities. Now, they manage to unlock and distribute approximately £1.4 million each year. This growth, he explains, is largely due to their ability to instil confidence in government councils, corporates, donors, and foundations that their funds will be used effectively to create substantial changes in young people’s lives.

Unlocking funding, however, is not just about distributing money. The foundation also plays a crucial role in facilitating partnerships, particularly in the early stages. Dan emphasises the challenges inherent in partnerships, especially when money is involved, but highlights the importance of these collaborations in achieving meaningful impact. By not directly handling the money, the foundation can provide unbiased support to ensure that all parties involved understand their roles and objectives, helping to navigate and resolve any potential conflicts.

The second area of focus, development, involves extensive training programs designed to equip youth workers with the skills needed to address complex issues. Dan points out that modern youth workers, such as football coaches, need to be prepared for a range of issues beyond their primary role, from mental health to domestic violence to gang involvement. The foundation’s training programs aim to prepare these individuals to understand their roles in identifying and addressing such issues and knowing when and how to refer to specialists.

The final area, collaborations and connections, draws on Dan’s love for networking, a skill honed during his days as a DJ. The foundation works closely with councils, government bodies, the NHS, and its 270 member organisations. A significant part of his role involves linking these various entities together, facilitating communication and cooperation to enhance the collective impact. “My biggest thing is to listen,” he says, stressing the importance of understanding why certain groups or organisations are not working together and finding ways to bridge those gaps.

Reflecting on his decade-long journey with the YHF, Dan shares the satisfaction of seeing the organisation’s influence grow. He describes the pride he feels when others speak highly of the charity and its impact. The foundation’s approach centres on putting young people and their families first, striving to work collaboratively to ensure that they thrive. This often means allowing other groups to take the lead in providing the right support or adapting their roles as necessary to best meet the needs of the community.

Vision for the Future

Approaching the end of the conversation, Dan reflects on his legacy with a focus on trust, effective leadership, and fostering the next generation of leaders. He highlights the importance of creating environments where people love their work and thrive, without micromanagement. His quest as a leader is to ensure that those he manages are supported and trusted to do their jobs effectively.

Dan values the trust he has built throughout his career, acknowledging how fragile it can be: “It takes a lifetime to build trust and a moment to break it.” This principle guides his interactions with everyone, from funders to council leaders. He strives for open and honest conversations based on mutual trust, ensuring that his actions are always aligned with the best interests of the community rather than personal gain.

A significant concern for Dan is preparing young people to become great leaders. He worries that social media and contemporary culture often promote short-term success and instant gratification over long-term commitment and hard work. On this, he believes in the value of investing time and effort to create real change, citing the concept of 10,000 hours to master a skill. He stresses the importance of guiding the next generation to understand that true leadership and expertise come from dedication and experience, rather than immediate results.

Overall, Dan’s legacy is rooted in fostering trust, effective management, and nurturing future leaders. His dedication to these principles shapes his approach to leadership and his vision for the Young Harrow Foundation, aiming to create lasting, positive change in the Harrow community and for future generations.

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Authored By

Gary Ellis
Senior Editor
July 10th 2024, 8:08am

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