How community sports clubs could benefit from learning from social enterprises

There is increasing focus on how the social enterprise model could play a bigger in delivering public services. 

The third sector is operating in an increasingly complex environment. Charities and other voluntary organisations must become more enterprising to survive; social enterprises are increasingly recognised as key players in local economic development and tackling social exclusion; and organisations right across the spectrum are being encouraged to contract with government to deliver public services. It is important that the independent values and principles of the social economy are promoted and protected.

Traditionally, volunteer-based, community sports clubs have been focusing almost completely on their sporting and coaching endeavours, with all other functions within the club being expected to support this. At the same the people performing those functions are very much taking a back seat to the sports and coaching people within the club. 

Most clubs have traditionally been run by volunteer coaches and parents (who are normally involved for as long their kids are).  As the vast majority of training, skills and qualifications have been focused around coaching whatever particular sport(s) the club practices, non-sports volunteers, who represent around 45% of volunteers have been expecting to perform their functions mostly unrecognised and out of the spotlight.

This has also been the attitude of policy of many sports organisations and National Governing Bodies who have seen the sport, increased participation and improved elite results as the overriding Key Performance Indicators.  They may been organising a few sessions on fundraising or on how to improve the clubs’ facilities, but topics such as

  • creating a welcoming club
  • how to use new technology to communicate with members and supporters
  • how to develop stronger
  • relationships with local businesses as potential
  • how make your club a hub for the community

have more or less been left to the clubs themselves who have had to learn from each other and from best practice from other sectors. 

In short, running these clubs is left to chance and the goodwill and enthusiasm of the volunteers. Some are well run, many are not but luckily a small, but growing, number of governing bodies and other sports organisations have now realised that we simply cannot deliver sport without vibrant, visible and viable clubs.

Also, the good news is that an increasing number of sports clubs have implemented some of these points, but still far too many clubs are struggling day-to-day to survive and deliver their sporting/coaching aspirations, ironically because they see themselves as sports clubs, delivering ‘sport for sport’s sake’.

 The term ‘enterprise’ has traditionally not been associated with our volunteer-managed sports clubs.  The ‘business of sport’ concept has been regarded as something that was the domain of the professional sports (initially football and later rugby union and league) clubs.

Even many professional clubs probably would not survive without the financial support of backers and few would probably win any business awards for their marketing, IT or customer service. 

Increasingly, our sports clubs have also been required to comply with a number of regulations and follow initiatives around areas such as child protection, equity and accessing hard-to-reach groups. Although these are important issues in themselves, they are not helpful in terms of improving way community sports are capable of developing as enterprises; in many cases they are indeed a hindrance.

Society needs our community sports club to prosper. We need them be places where people will want to play and exercise, become volunteers and generally become hubs for their communities, in short becomes places ‘where people live their lives’.

Introducing an enterprise culture into community sports clubs…

There is now a realisation that in order to deliver strong sports at all levels sports clubs must improve their enterprise operations and also become more welcoming and customer focused.  Also, as the pressure to increase participation intensifies governing bodies are becoming much more pro-active towards providing practical support for their clubs for them to become better equipped to attract and serve new players and members.

if sports clubs are to grow they will have to get away from “just being sports clubs” and become Community Sports Enterprises (CSEs) benefiting from introducing some of the principles applied within social enterprises.

Of the 1.8 million volunteers in the 140,000 sports clubs in England approximately 800,000 are NOT coaches, but the people who run the non-sport aspects of  clubs and there is very, very little training and support available to these people, whose role it is to attract new members, run the bar, secure sponsorship, engage with their local communities, etc.. 

What is a social enterprise anyway?

According to the Social Enterprise Coalition: “Social enterprises are business organisations that trade in the market with a social purpose”. They are enterprises which are developed and constituted to fulfil a particular social or community purpose. Their profits are reinvested towards those social or community purposes, and they are normally owned and managed by the members of the community in question.

In sport, social enterprises could be developed in order to provide for explicit community needs and maybe provide opportunity to fill the financial gap caused by falling public expenditure.

There are five common characteristics for social enterprises which could be of great value to community sports clubs:

  1.  Enterprise orientated (the focus is on developing a culture where business planning and creativity is at the forefront) 
  2. Customer and community focused 
  3. They have social aims – for sports social enterprises these social aims may include: providing affordable sport to people on low incomes, to improve activity levels amongst those who do not usually do exercise, or to support unemployed people into sports careers 
  4. Profit is NOT a ‘dirty’ word because when they make a profit, that profit is put back into the enterprise
  5. They are liberated from other organisations’ policies, bureaucracy and procedures 

Many community sports clubs are already functioning as de facto social enterprises simply by being part of their communities, developing income-generating events for the club members and beyond, linking up with community partners from Housing Associations and the Police.  Often these clubs have achieved this through a core of few dedicated, skilled, open-minded individuals, but rarely with any outside support.

Where there’s a will, there’s skill…

the challenge is how to add enterprise culture and business skills into our community sports clubs

 What is happening right now and what are the lessons for the future?

Many community sports clubs are already functioning as de facto social enterprises simply by being part of their communities, developing income-generating events for the club members and beyond, linking up with community partners from Housing Associations and the Police.  Often these clubs have achieved this through a core of few dedicated, skilled, open-minded individuals, but rarely with any outside support.

However, there are also a number of community sports clubs where either 

            a few individuals within the clubs are keen to develop their clubs into social enterprises and don’t know how to

            or where ( often negative) external factors are forcing the club boards/committees to have a considerable review as to how their club operate (these external factors could include loss of a major sponsor/benefactor, decline in club house generated income   or loss of members to more welcoming sport/leisure providers).

These clubs could benefit from external, skilled support who could guide them through the legal, cultural, technological, management and marketing challenges.


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