Claude-Alain Danthe retires after 40 years’ service to World YMCA

Topic: 180 Anniversary

Date: 30 May 2024

“Claude-Alain is more than just a name; he is an icon, an institution within the institution” (World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee)

Geneva, 30 May 2024.  Archivist, digital strategist, and so much more, Claude-Alain Danthe retires from the World Alliance of YMCAs today. On the eve of YMCA’s 180th anniversary on 6 June 2024, he has served a remarkable 40 of those 180 years.

Claude-Alain began work at the World YMCA on 28 May 1984. “Should I wear jeans to the interview?” he had asked a friend. “No”, came the reply. So he did. “I have always had a rebellious streak”, he says.

Claude-Alain loved the archive as living, breathing history. He stood in awe of what he curated, and those who had gone before him. His knowledge of the YMCA Movement is encyclopaedic, and he loved to work with many – including his brother Michel – who studied and wrote about the YMCA Movement.

And yet the custodian of the past was also the pioneer of the future. He loved technology for what it was and what it could achieve. He pioneered the use of ever-changing platforms in the IT whirlwind of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

A veteran of 6 YMCA World Councils, 12 Presidents, 7 Secretaries General and – he estimates – some 150 World YMCA colleagues, we invited Claude-Alain to look back and reflect, and others to reflect about him.

Claude-Alain writes:

I realize the extraordinary richness of my journey with the YMCA. I had the privilege of diving into our past, highlighting our roots, and exploring our archives. At the same time, we turned our gaze to the future, integrating new technologies to strengthen the mission of YMCA.

There have been unforgettable encounters. Over 150 people, each bringing a unique cultural richness, crossed my path, enriching me with their diversity.

My greatest regret is not being able to instil a culture of data collection in the YMCA: we have not reached the enormous potential of our Salesforce platform.

If I think back on some of my achievements, well, I’m proud of overhauling and cataloguing the archives, which are now housed on over 400 metres of rolling shelves. I think back fondly to the paper exhibition of our history at the 150th anniversary in Paris in 2005, and to the way we digitised 25,000 old photos in 2023. I want you all to use this remarkable resource!

I’m also proud of moving fast with technology, even though I didn’t use a computer until I was 36 years old. I took a 2-year IT diploma at the University of Geneva. Our first website appeared in 1997. We were ahead of our time, as we were when we updated it in CMS format with Typo3 in 2005: we did it for USD 5,000, when the going rate was 40,000. It was also so important to me in 2009 to commission a full website audit by the company Nelsen, the usability guru, which still informs our thinking today.

In 2010 I took charge of IT and elections for the first time at the World Council in Hong Kong. I ran a session on knowledge management and took charge of the YMCA global village. In 2012 we set up a cloud-based environment with Google for all our work, and organised the 1st YMCA World Challenge, a tremendous digital experience. Meanwhile our social media presence grew, we adopted Convene software for Board Management, the Salesforce project launched with the incredible help of a brilliant young developer, Mayank, in India, and in 2022 we held the first electronic elections at the World Council in Aarhus. It was stressful – but it worked.

And still we were learning and growing, and I was especially pleased last year to organise a webinar on the use of ChatGPT, which attracted over 400 listeners. With the explosion of AI, we are only now in the prehistoric age of its potential. There is much more to come, and hopefully, it will be for the best.

But all that really matters to me is that the YMCA, through the permanence of its positive values, continues to live on for a long time with the ability to evolve, adapt, and change for the wellbeing of humanity, in service of its vision and mission, which I hope are eternal. Thank you all so much. Merci beaucoup.

Claude-Alain reflects on seven World YMCA Secretaries General

Hector Caselli (Uruguay), 1977-1985 
The artist. I remember he had the letterheads redone, and that he had quite an impressive graphic talent.

 

 

Lee Soo Min (South Korea), 1985-1991 

The politician. During his term of office, the YMCAs took a more political stance, with global issues at the heart of the debate.

 

John Casey (USA), 1991-1998

The Boss. A cultured and intelligent man, John Casey published a book of his messages to YMCAs on his travels, which I highly recommend. He made some controversial decisions, such as selling the Quai Wilson building and closing the refugee department. He shaped a new horizon with the Challenge 21 Declaration.

 

Nick Nightingale (UK) 1998-2002 

L’équilibriste. He had to endure and navigate the turmoil of the conflicts in the Middle East. He was the first Secretary General to perceive the potential of the Internet.

 

 

Bart Shaha (Bangladesh) 2002-2010 

The peacemaker. He allowed the Movement to breathe and regain its composure.

 

Johan Vilhelm Eltvik (Norway) 2010-2018 

The hurricane. He was the Secretary General who really shook up the YMCAs, waking them up and giving them visibility and a clear statement of their Vision and Mission.

 

Carlos Sanvee (Togo) 2018-present 

The diplomat. He is the Secretary General who has opened the doors of the YMCAs to the outside world, and reaffirmed and updated our Vision and Mission with YMCA Vision 2030.

A favourite Claude-Alain archive item: the Paris Basis of 1855, the YMCA's founding document.

“I love its simplicity, its clarity, its authority.”

A favourite Claude-Alain archive story: the day when we paid out for a war-time YMCA prize, 40 years later.

“YMCA ran a very popular competition for essays written by prisoners of war in 1943. In 1985, the winner contacted me, claiming his 1943 prize of 20 Swiss Francs, with interest if possible …. Our Finance Director made it 100 Swiss Francs, hoping that not too many other long-lost winners would emerge! It was a nice end to the story.”

A favourite Claude-Alain IT moment: the launch of the first World YMCA website in 1997.

“We were ahead of our time. There have been several iterations since - the latest in 2023.”

Reflections about Claude-Alain

Carlos Sanvee (Togo), World YMCA Secretary General since 2018 

There is a saying in Africa that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. This sentiment perfectly captures how I feel about Claude-Alain Danthe retiring after 40 years of dedicated service to YMCA. Claude-Alain is more than just a name; he is an icon, an institution within the institution.

Although his official title was archivist, Claude Alain’s contributions far exceeded this role. I first met him in 1999 when I joined World YMCA. It took us some time to get to know each other, but once we did, we embarked on a journey of exploration, embracing new horizons, products, and platforms. Together, we navigated the transition from fax machines to ChatGPT, and from the YMCA Blue Book to the Salesforce data Platform.

Claude-Alain is not just someone who preserves old documents in an inferno of papers; he is the bridge between the past and the future, the analog and the digital. I deeply admire his vast knowledge and his passion for preserving the Christian identity of the Movement, despite his own claims of not being a Christian.

His retirement marks the end of an era, and the legacy he leaves behind is irreplaceable. As we bid farewell to Claude-Alain, we acknowledge not just the end of his tenure but the immense impact he has had on all of us and the institution as a whole.

Johan Wilhelm Eltvik (Norway), World YMCA Secretary-General 2010-2018

His name means friendship to me. He is a warm personality and finds joy in helping his friends and customers. I like him! He is a strong intellectual who is deep into French (and other) philosophers. I admire him! He was, and still is, a pioneer in the IT revolution and in the social media revolution. I am thankful to him! He changed the World YMCA in so many ways through his 40 years, and he changed my life.

Bart Shaha (Bangladesh), World YMCA Secretary-General 2002-2010

What impresses me most about Claude Alain is his passion for digging up important materials about the direction and work of the YMCA Movement and its peoples, wherever they may be. With our busy schedules, it was vital to have the right resources, very quickly, for impact in our work, and Claude Alain never disappointed us.

Danthe was the Archivist in whom we all trust

He dug YMCA history, finding ‘rubies’ in the rust.

 

Soheila Hayek (Lebanon), World YMCA President from 2022

Claude Alain’s dedication over the years has been truly remarkable. His unwavering commitment and invaluable contributions to preserving our collective memory is beyond any words of appreciation. He has simply made it possible for us to have a past that is accessible to generations to come: that is timeless and priceless.

I enjoyed my conversations with him and our mutual love for Brazil, the Portuguese language, Roberto Carlos songs, and so much more. We thank him for friendship and exceptional service.

Patricia Pelton (Canada), World YMCA President 2018-2022

In the heart of World YMCA’s journey for 40 years stood Claude-Alain, a beacon of kindness, humour, and commitment. His guidance, informed insight, and unyielding dedication, especially in IT and Archiving, has helped to shape the organization’s path. Amidst the challenging and ever-evolving landscape of technology, he navigated with grace, driving the IT agenda, always mission-driven. His departure leaves a void, not just in expertise, but in the warmth and steadiness of his presence.  His legacy will remain etched in the heart of World YMCA.

 

 

Peter Posner (UK), World YMCA President 2014–2018

Claude Alain has been a consistent support both with technology and of course as chief archivist.  I clearly remember entering the dusty Clos Belmont basement to be shown a small piece of dirty cardboard – the original Paris Basis from 1855!  What other wonders were at his fingertips?

For me, an incredibly significant technological change was his development of an on-line voting system for the 2022 World Council elections.  After extensive testing it worked flawlessly and enhanced the accessibility, reliability, and governance standards of a crucial democratic process.

 

Martin Vogler (Switzerland), World YMCA President, 1998–2002

For many YMCA people and researchers Claude-Alain opened the archives – including the original issue of our founding document, the Paris Basis of 1855. The visits and studies were inspiring and his commitment to the mission of the YMCA – serving and empowering young people based on Christian ethics – was both enlightening and encouraging.

Danthe’s Inferno – an incredible 37 years at the YMCA (6 January 2022)

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