Sport as a force for good

Sport as a force for good

On my first visit to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, close to the Syrian border, I saw education, health and infrastructure projects close up, and the people who used them. I took away many vivid impressions from this huge, sprawling city in the desert.

One of them was of sport, and its ability to inspire even – or perhaps especially – in the toughest of environments. In Zaatari, this football fan’s eye was drawn to the English Premier League club shirts being worn by countless Syrian child refugees. There were plans for astroturf pitches so the same youngsters had somewhere to play football.

When stories of doping, bullying, cheating and vast wealth dominate the media, it can understandably breed cynicism about sport. We can sometimes forget how sport can be such an inspiration, and such a force for good.

This season, Manchester United’s Spanish star, Juan Mata, has challenged his fellow footballers to meet his Common Goal challenge by joining him in donating one per cent of their salaries to charity. It is a great initiative, encouraging others to use a small portion of their wealth to change lives for the better.

Soon Sport Relief will come around again, a national festival of challenges, celebrity and giving which harnesses both the UK’s love of sport and the innate generosity of its people.

As Director of Communications at the Department for International Development (DFID), I saw the power of sport for myself several times. There was the Premier League’s Premier Skills programme for young people in Africa, and the Soccer Aid fundraiser for UNICEF, with its prime time ITV coverage from a packed Old Trafford. DFID doubled the amount raised through the UK Aid Match scheme. Also, leading figures from football gathered at No10 Downing Street to raise awareness about a famine in the Horn of Africa. The International Inspiration programme lived up to its name.

What is clear is how, for clubs and sports businesses, and individual sportsmen and women, there is enormous potential to shape and build their brands through philanthropic giving. Many already attempt to do that, including via their own foundations.

Sports organisations have mixed ambitions when it comes to philanthropy. Some think globally, including to growing markets; others focus locally. Both, of course, are valid. What matters most is giving, and doing so effectively.

Yet with their global footprints and fan bases, and their ability to appeal to, and inspire, young audiences, sporting organisations really can have huge ambitions when it comes to philanthropy. Sport can be right at the forefront of the surge in philanthropic giving. To achieve that, sports organisations should consider the following:

  • Give effectively. Some studies estimate that 75% of social programmes have little or no impact. So make sure you are focused not just on doing good, but on doing the most good possible. Measure results achieved, and learn what works.
  • Communicate effectively. Good philanthropists now need to be good communicators, to cut through to audiences and be strong advocates for their causes. They should link their cause to the club or the individual’s existing narrative, and focus on where they can have the greatest impact.
  • Make the most of your network. Philanthropists need to use their existing networks – in the media, in government, in the corporate world, and fan bases – to help navigate a complex range of issues and to achieve success.
  • Be innovative. Look at where opportunities lie to make a difference and to have impact, even if that is not an obvious or well-trodden route. At this summer’s test match at the Kia Oval, for example, I loved Sky’s Ocean Rescue environmental initiative.
  • Choose your partners well. Many bigger sports clubs, including top football clubs, have partnerships with NGOs. As with any corporate partnership, making it work well requires initial due diligence, and subsequent effort and time, from all parties.
  • Maximise your assets. For sports clubs or businesses, this can mean providing significant funds. It can also require freeing up talent, giving them the latitude to embrace worthwhile causes. While at DFID we were contacted by the agent of an international footballer with a top club, who came in to the office after training just to hear about the UK’s aid programme to Africa. He was amazed, and enthused.

Juan Mata, and others, are showing the way. Just as Bill Gates’s philanthropy has blazed a trail in global health, so sports organisations can lead the way. What if each of the world’s most popular sports picked one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) each to focus on and help try to achieve by 2030?

Giving well is not just the right thing to do, but it can make genuine commercial sense as clubs and sporting organisations develop their global brands. Sport – and the people who play it and run it – really can help change the world for the better.

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