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Comic Relief: Bringing ‘sport for change’ centre stage

The government’s new focus on engaging inactive populations is helping to bring the ‘sport for development’ sector into the nation’s consciousness. Simon Lansley speaks to Sue Wicks about Comic Relief’s work in the area, in an article originally published by Sport Management magazine.

It’s 17 years since Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “sport has the power to change the world”. Now, at long last, ‘sport for social change’ is going mainstream.

Thanks to the Government’s Sporting Future strategy, the idea that sport can support society – from improved physical and mental wellbeing to economic and community development – has been thrust onto centre stage. Sport England’s new funding scheme has played a big part in this. New funding pots have recently been made available to organisations that are equipped to help, for example, those with a lower income, or older people, to become more active.

The idea, however, isn’t new. It’s a similar approach to that taken by Comic Relief over the last 13 years, with money raised by Red Nose Day and Sport Relief funding a range of projects that engage under-represented, disaffected and disadvantaged groups.

Its second round of ‘Communities and Sport for Change’ funding has recently opened, and it is expected that 10 to 20 grants will be made to organisations that have “identified social issues affecting their communities and the ways in which sport can be used to address these issues”.

          2nd Chance works with young people at risk of re-offending

2nd Chance works with young people at risk of re-offending

Whether it’s The Boxing Academy offering alternative education to hard-to-reach young people through the discipline, ethos and culture of boxing; the Sporting Memories Network supporting older people who are living with dementia; or the 2nd Chance Group working both in prisons and with people at risk of re-offending, Comic Relief’s remit has been to encourage a tangible social return on the money it invests in sport for social change.

“It’s fantastic that the power of sport is now being recognised on an even wider scale,” says Sue Wicks, Strategic Lead for Sport for Change at Comic Relief. “Because of the (DCMS) strategy, some of the forward-thinking national governing bodies are now saying, ‘how do we go out and engage with different groups of people?’

“This is no longer about assuming you know what communities’ needs are, then parachuting in and delivering something. It’s about asking, ‘what do you want and how can we work with you to deliver it?’ It’s a long-term commitment.”

One shining early example of this brave new world of collaboration is British Fencing’s project with Maslaha, an organisation that aims to raise the aspirations and self-confidence of Muslim girls and young women. The partnership has been supported by Comic Relief in London’s East End, and is now being rolled out in Birmingham.

“If you had spoken to British Fencing 10 years ago, I’m not sure whether they would have said that Muslim young women were a target group for them,” says Wicks. “Now, British Fencing is looking at how it can grow the sport but at the same time increase the confidence of a new audience.”

Maslaha and British Fencing team up

Maslaha and British Fencing team up

Similarly, Comic Relief has been tasked by the Rugby Football Union with managing its recent ‘Try for Change’ fund, which uses the power of rugby to improve the lives of people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Partnership is key to me,” says Wicks. “It’s about being bigger than the sum of the parts. With the current challenges around funding, we are seeing people coming together across all sectors and working together in partnerships. It’s about helping communities to find their own solutions.”

Another important part of the process will be for organisations to begin to take notice of where they’re situated on the spectrum. This ranges from programmes that purely promote participation in sport to ‘plus sport’ programmes that have a clearly-defined social outcome, such as employment or education. A good example of ‘plus sport’ is Street League, an initiative that uses football and dance-fit programmes to help unemployed young people get into work and training.

It’s not necessarily better to be one or the other, says Wicks. It’s about understanding your contribution to the bigger picture – whether you’re an NGB or a local grassroots club or charity.

“I think a lot of people in the sector are trying to understand what ‘sport for change/development’ is. In the past, NGBs have been very much focused on participation – which is fine because people do gain confidence and self-esteem through that.

“But then we get other organisations that deliver additional outcomes, such as supporting people who are homeless or living with mental health issues, or promoting gender equality or community cohesion.”

Street League builds employability skills for young people

Street League builds employability skills for young people

“It’s important for organisations to ask, ‘is it just soft skills, or is it harder skills that the community needs?’ Traditionally, at Comic Relief, when we support organisations delivering projects that use sport, we’re looking for clear social outcomes, as well as these increases in self-confidence.

“But there’s value in that middle ground – organisations might deliver work around healthy eating alongside getting people to participate in sport, or they could teach people about HIV or CSE (child sexual exploitation), through the sporting exercises themselves.”

“A lot of the small grassroots clubs and organisations are doing the work anyway, it’s just that they wouldn’t label themselves as ‘sport for change’ yet, and they might not yet be able to articulate the specific outcomes they’re delivering. We need to get people to use a shared language.”

As a member of the Leadership Group for the UK Sport for Development Coalition, Wicks has been involved in the creation of a Shared Measurement Framework that will help to create that shared language and will enable organisations to better describe the social impact of their programmes when they’re applying for funding.

“What we’ve had to date is lots of different organisations delivering activities extremely well but measuring the impact with varying degrees of success. What the Framework will do is give organisations – particularly grassroots organisations – a language and structure that will help them explain what they’re achieving in a consistent way.

“This will be helpful because they’ll quickly understand that while they might not be doing all of the things that are required in one particular area, they’ll know that what they’re doing does count towards the bigger picture. It’s going to take some time to gather all of that evidence and get people to think in that way, but I think it’s a really positive direction of travel.”

May 25, 2000: Nelson Mandela addresses the first Laureus World Sports Awards Ceremony

“Sport has the power to change the world” – Nelson Mandela at the Laureus Awards 2000

She adds: “The sport for change sector is still relatively new. It’s gaining momentum, but I think everyone is grappling with how to measure it and collate the evidence, in order to show people, including government, that sport can play a really important role in society.

“If you look at 2nd Chance, they’ve used their evidence to demonstrate the ways in which sport can be used as a tool to work with people either in prison or at risk of re-offending. When asked, they can directly provide the evidence to show that this is effective.

“Once we get to that point, where we can demonstrate the power sport has to deliver social change, we should be able to unlock much more support,” says Wicks.

So what’s next for Comic Relief? It is likely that any future sport for change initiatives will have a focus on health and wellbeing, as well as children and young people, both of which are a priority within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I’m really keen that, where we can, we align our sport for change objectives with the SDGs,” says Wicks. “It’s the first time sport has been specifically mentioned in the SDGs. For it to be recognised as a tool for change internationally feels like too good an opportunity not to take advantage.”

Read the article in Sport Management magazine.

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