Written by Nick Cotton

Executive Director of Outward Bond Hong Kong 

Measuring the impact of an Outward Bound experience is a challenge we have all grappled with repeatedly. What questions do you ask? When do you ask them? How reliable are the answers? Here at Outward Bound Hong Kong we have what we believe to be a robust and externally validated system which not only measures the changes in specific outcomes recorded by participants, but also allows us to quantify those changes. This can be hugely powerful when reporting back to client organisations, who can now quantify day-to-day changes and therefore make a more credible case for further funding. 

However, it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Condensing the benefits of a course into a number ignores the layers of impact that a course can have; the personal stories, the friendships forged in a tent in a storm, or the shared laughter of the group all seem to be lost in the quantification of the experience. 

This is why it was a welcome surprise when, after taking over as Executive Director of Outward Bound Hong Kong, I discovered a file of papers that included a course report written by a young professional participant of the very first OBHK course. The author, a Mr. Howard Young, had gone on to serve in the Hong Kong Legislative Council but, more importantly, also became a central figure in the Outward Bound Alumni Association (OBAA). Page three of Howard’s report (his “Description of the Course”) states, “ The course can be concisely described as a strenuous course consisting of tough outdoor physical activities designed to help young people discover and develop their potential.” 

Clearly the course was not too strenuous as Howard went on to be a founding member of the OBAA, a group of OBHK graduates who meet regularly to extend their passion for the outdoors and maintain the bonds created at OBHK. The OBAA, perhaps more than any impressive number on a report, represent the true impact of an Outward Bound course. 

Since 1971 this group of ‘Outward Bounders’ have been held together by their appreciation of the OB experience and their willingness to volunteer time to keep the spirit alive. Volunteers meet up once a month on a piece of land donated to them, to keep it looking smart and to share stories and a drink. is base is also used to facilitate regular group activities such as sailing, hiking, and kayaking trips for those who remain interested. Additionally, the Association makes its mark on the local community by organising the Tolo Harbour Canoe Race, which has introductory and competitive categories in distances from 5 to 21 kilometres. The race has been running for 43 years, a testament to the enthusiasm and determination of the members, but even more impressive is the competitor who has appeared in every year of the race! 

In July of 2016, the OBAA were at it again, organising a kayak expedition from Hong Kong to Macau. This event has been held every ten years since 1982 but was brought forward in 2016 to mark the 45th anniversary of OBHK. Sixty paddlers departed from the western island of Lantau after an official send-off and battled through 45 kilometres of challenging conditions before arriving in glitzy Macau just before sunset. The paddlers were made up of OBAA members as well as paddlers from three local secondary schools who had been working with OBAA volunteers to gain experience and fitness for the crossing. 

I shall never forget that I was on the first Outward Bound course in Hong Kong and shall strive to keep up the name of an "Outward Bounder"

It was a great day which highlighted the sense of shared values and spirit amongst the alumni, all enhanced by a celebratory dinner for the tired paddlers. If ever there was an embodiment of the Outward Bound impact, it was surely the energy and joy that was evident in that room in Macau, generated by a group of now ‘mature’ enthusiasts. 

Howard Young’s OBHK story did not end with his participation in Course One. Yes, he went on to sit in Hong Kong’s government and co-found the OBAA, but he also served on the Executive Committee of OBHK and maintained his enthusiasm for our work. When he felt that the time was right to step down, he was replaced by his son Jeremy, who has now been charged with maintaining links between the school and the Alumni Association. In that course report written in April 1970 Young stated, “I shall never forget that I was on the first Out ward Bound course in Hong Kong and shall strive to keep up the name of an ‘Outward Bounder’.” Howard, along with so many of the members of OBAA, has lived that spirit and has a great deal to offer OBHK and the young people we serve. As such we are looking forward to hosting him, and them, at our base in November to celebrate our 45th anniversary. 

Howard’s final reflection reads, “Never in my life before had I ever felt so cold, so tired, so wet, so seasick or sweated so much than during those eventful days on the course, but if I were asked whether I would have gone on the course had I known beforehand that it would be such, I could only say: ‘YES’.” 

Let’s hope that he has set the tone for future generations who will reflect as positively on their experiences in 45 years’ time! 

There is obviously a place for analytical analysis of course impact, but we can’t forget that the human impact, such as the stories and energy of the OBAA, speak even more about the power of Outward Bound.