The Big Society and sport

…how sport and active leisure providers can play a key role for their communities and develop as social enterprises

The Big Society and sport

The third sector, particularly social enterprise, has moved into the policy mainstream in recent years. Under the Labour government social enterprises were regarded as potential deliverers and civic activism, community capacity and cohesion. The Coalition government is continuing on this path with the Big Society emerging as an early important theme.

The Coalition plans include giving communities more powers and rights to manage local assets and services, training a generation of community organisers and growing the size of the role of the third sector. Early policy statements (see below) emphasise the role of social enterprises, supporting the growth of existing ones and the establishment of new ones.

The Cabinet Office recently announced how the Coalition will Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises:

We will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.

We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will
provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other non governmental bodies.

Sport in the UK generates a lot of social capital. It builds bridging capital, bringing communities together, breaking down racial and social prejudices – indeed it is in many sports clubs’ financial interests. Sport also creates bonding capital – clubs and teams help people find identity and purpose, in essence they help them belong. It gets people active, keeps young people of the street and develop hubs for their communities.

However, community sport is regarded by many people in the Third Sector as isolated and solely focused on ‘sport for sport’s sake’ and as much part of the problem as part of the solution. Also, it has to be said that a number of leading people in sport adopt a rather puritan approach and advocate that society/Government should support sport through grants because of the good sport does in itself.

There seems to be massive scope for improving the communication and relationship between sport and the third sector and for sport to play a strong role in the Big Society where it should be integral and not just a spectator. And there are indeed many cases where sports clubs are playing key roles in their communities and deliver key services through their sport. These clubs almost inevitably become vibrant, visible and viable community sport enterprises as a result.

But how to develop these relationships? How to play that strong role in the Big Society without losing sight of the sporting aspect? How to develop a common purpose and language between sport and its community partners? Can all this be achieved within voluntary community sports clubs or do we have to develop separate community sport enterprises? How do we develop a better understanding within sports bodies of how to engage with their communities? For many people in sport being part of the Big Society represents a huge cultural change and for many in the third sector community sport is still regarded as ‘the odd one out.’

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