Sport Sister Podcast - Season 2, Episode 2

Episode 2 – Sport with a Social Conscience: Nicky Affleck and Chris Roberts.

Sport with a Social Conscience- Nicky Affleck and Chris Roberts

Nicky Affleck is an award-winning leader and consultant in delivering purpose-driven strategies and delivering transformational change in the grassroots sport, youth, and not-for-profit sectors.   Chris Roberts is co-founder of the award winning North Wales Dragons Community Football Teams, a truly amazing example of how social responsibility can work for a business.

Nicky and Chris join Natalie Doyle to discuss using sport for positive change.  They cover the importance of sustainability, both from an environmental and financial perspective; how to develop effective partnerships; and provide lots of advice for clubs and other organisations wanting to use sport to create positive change in their communities.

“It’s something that we’re all learning as we go, but it is most certainly on people’s agendas now.”

- Nicky Affleck

Read this episode’s transcript

Natalie Doyle:

Welcome to the Sports Sister Podcast, where we bring together professional experts with grassroots pioneers to discuss key topics for grassroots sport.

I’m Natalie Doyle, and in this episode, I’m joined by two people who are fantastic at using sport to make a positive impact on the world.

Nicky Affleck is an award-winning leader and consultant in delivering purpose-driven strategies and delivering transformational change in the grassroots sport, youth, and not-for-profit sectors.

Chris Roberts is the co-founder of the North Wales Dragons who provide recreational community football opportunities for players aged between 16 and 65.

They’ve got some fantastic experiences to share with us today. Let’s see what they have to say.

Right. Nicky and Chris, thank you so much for giving up your time today to chat with me. We are going to talk about sport with a social conscience, which I think is going to be a really interesting subject to chat about and I know is something that is close to both of your hearts. Before we get into the chat, it would be good if you could maybe give the listeners a little bit of background to yourselves and where it is that you’re coming to us from today. Who wants to kick us off first?

Chris Roberts:

Ladies first.

Natalie Doyle:

Oh, very polite Chris.

Nicky Affleck:

Thank you. Natalie, thank you so much for inviting me onto the podcast. It’s really great to be here and obviously talking about a really important matter. My background, you probably can hear from my accent, I’m originally from South Africa. I’ve been living in London for nearly 15 years as of this year. My career was mostly in education and coaching prior to moving into sport development in the last eight years or so, and built quite a successful consultancy business that now supports grassroots sports organizations to be more transformational and sustainable with purpose at the heart of everything that we do. So, I now run my own consultancy business.

Natalie Doyle:

Great. How about you, Chris?

Chris Roberts:

I am the co-founder of North Wales Dragons community football teams. They’re recreational football teams. And we were formed in 2009 after a one-off game raising money for a charity called Boots for Africa. We considered that it would be a one-off game at the time but we decided that we would do it next year and it’s just ballooned from there really. 

So I have lost count of how many matches we’ve done for charity now. I’ve lost count of how much awareness we’ve done. It’s been one amazing journey. By trade, what I do during the course of my working day is I’m a mechanical engineer for Bangor University, and I work within the department that looks after ventilation, air conditioning, that kind of thing. So my role is to make the university or help make the university sustainable by 2030. This actually goes hand in hand with what we do within the dragons because we are also members of the United Nations football for goals. So the idea is that we look towards the 17 sustainable development goals again and try and make them work hand in hand. So sustainability and environmental, economic and social are right up my street in so many ways.

Natalie Doyle:

It’s brilliant. It’s really interesting that sustainability is obviously such a big part of what you both do, but coming from very different areas in that respect. Nicky, if I start with you, why do you think it’s so important, sustainability and social change and purpose within sport? Why do you think that’s so important?

Nicky Affleck:

Well, interesting that you say, there’s obviously a very natural link between what Chris and I both do, but actually the word sustainable, havs slightly different meanings in terms of Chris’s areas of expertise compared to mine. But looking at sustainability in the grassroots sports sector is very much considering how to support charities and not-for-profits mostly to understand what they can do to better equip themselves to be sustainable outside of potential core funding support. So, if for example, you know your grant funders, your major ones like Sport England, if any of those were to reduce harder, we make sure that organizations that are delivering really meaningful grassroots community initiatives can be sustainable outside of that core funding. But also one of the greatest things for me is really understanding the various priorities within those.

So everything from, things like strategic planning, partnerships and stakeholders, communications, funding stability, there’s a number of elements that should be considered when looking at sustainability. And nobody wants to see any of those organizations fold. Yet, sustainability is an element of day-to-day that often gets, I guess because of need and resource, gets kind of swept under the carpet a little bit because not many organizations have the capacity for someone to dedicate their time to it, but it’s probably one of the most fundamental areas that need to be considered right from the start. So that’s the other bit that I found with previous clients is they want to weave sustainability into the planning, but at a very much later stage of their strategic planning, when actually it should be considered as one of the first elements when looking to shape something or looking to shape a strategy. How do we remain sustainable if things change, for example?

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. And do you find that, you talked about there around sometimes you get swept under the carpet because they maybe don’t have somebody to lead on that particular area. Do you see that that’s changing? Are we making progress in that area, do you think?

Nicky Affleck:

Yeah, I think there’s been a really welcome shift in the way the sector is being invested in from I guess like main funders like I mentioned, Sport England and obviously Sport England’s new 10-year strategy being transformational itself. So moving away from more short-term goals and priorities to longer-term vision. Because I do think it’s been a long time coming that we’ve often tried to plug ourselves into trying to make all of us do stuff that we’re not naturally really good at doing, because we had to reach a brief that said, this is what you had to be measured by. And as we start to move away from KPI driven outcomes and more purpose-driven outcomes, it’s actually allowing people on the ground to be able to do what they do really well, using the investment to the best way that they can to make change happen on the ground. But most certainly a shift is happening. I think it’s a slow burner and I think coming out of the pandemic as well, it’s kind of slowed even more so, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s giving everybody the right amount of time to kind of get things right as we start to move forward.

Natalie Doyle:

And is this something you see in your organization as well, Chris?

Chris Roberts:

Sustainability within the business was a bit of a culture shock, if I’m honest, because as I say, when we first started it was a one-off football match, and then the next year we did another one and it just grew steadily and then to a certain point where we thought, we are doing so much here. We’ve got these limited resources both in manpower and financially, that if we’re not careful, we could tip over the edge purely because we haven’t thought about the sustainability of what we’re doing. And that was the case then of looking at what we were doing, looking at the next five years and saying, well, this is the way that trajectory has gone so far, this is the way that it would go. How do we put the resources into that? And yeah, as Nikki said, we were never that business-minded, shall I say, because the idea, it wasn’t to be a business. It was just meant to be a recreational football team. But we found that a severe learning curve.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point, isn’t it? It’s easy to say, well, it’s just a hobby, it’s just something we do to give people enjoyment or to keep them healthy or active. But it is about how do you look at yourself as a business. How do you treat the organization as a business? And is that something that you’ve done naturally, Chris, or is that something that’s evolved over time?

Chris Roberts:

I think it’s something that has evolved over time. Again, going back to my daily employment, I’ve been a project manager for as long as I can remember, and I was put into positions where bosses that I’ve had have gone away for three weeks, four weeks on holiday and said, we are going away. I’ll leave it to you. You can deal with it. So I think I had a good grounding, in the way that businesses were run, and I think that that’s more by luck than judgment. And fingers crossed, so far I like to think that we’re, I won’t say we are the best, but I would say that we are making the best of what it is that’s been presented to us and to what we’ve grown as well.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. Nicky, you must have seen some other great examples of clubs and other organizations who do this really well. Is there any that you’d like to share with us?

Nicky Affleck:

Yeah, there’s so many great organizations that do that and do sustainability well. I would say it’s probably quite a relatively new area as we’ve spoken about for organizations to have as part of their considerations and long-term plans when looking at strategy. One particular organization that I actually did a piece of sustainability work for was the Laureus Sport for Good around their model City London program, which works really closely with local community organizations based in three specific areas in London but really community driven. So right in the grassroots and all decision-making is community-driven from, from bottom up. And that sustainability piece was really interesting because I was keen to make sure that whatever the project deliverables landed up being, that it was something that could be used to move things forward as opposed to a document that perhaps just sat on a desktop that people reflected on maybe every three or four months.

So we actually collectively agreed to mould those plans into action plans. And what has been really refreshing is to see, they started originally as 20-page documents, which can be quite hefty to look at, but when you take the specific priority areas that I mentioned earlier, like strategic planning, funding stability, communication, stakeholders and partnerships, as well as environmental influences, you can create a really exciting action plan that you can actually map out the why, what, who, how and when. And I think that’s the important bit. 

And they are doing a very good job of that at the moment. So they’ve used those plans since September and they’ve had an extension of two years on their core funding, which gives them a longer runway to really get the sustainability plans embedded locally. But it is very much a, not for everyone, but it certainly is a new area of focus for many organizations in grassroots sport because like Chris says, there’s so much going on and often the best organizations are born out of the simplest ideas.

And before you know it, like Chris is, you are running this massive project that actually is a business when you look at it from the outside in. And it’s just something that we’re all learning as we go, but it is most certainly on people’s agendas now, which it never used to be before. So one of my examples would definitely be the model City London program amongst a couple of others that I’m currently working with. But it is something that I’d like to weave throughout my conversations with my clients as well as around whether they are considering elements of that when they look at strategic planning and coaching as well internally.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s a really good point, isn’t it? This area is such an easy one where you can put together a plan and then it gets left on someone’s computer or put in a drawer or whatever. So the importance of those action plans to actually make sure that actions are happening as a result of the plans that you’ve made is really important.

Nicky Affleck:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that was the critical part for me was that potentially they were expecting that piece of work to maybe look a bit different, but the more time I spent with the local groups, the more understanding I had of where the need was. And actually these people do amazing work on the ground. They are servicing a really important need in their community is using sport and physical activity to really make a difference. And the support that they need is the level above that, that strategic level of, okay, well I’m doing a great job, but how do I do better? Or where can I do this piece of work? Who can I chat to? And it’s a very exciting element. I think also as a sector, the movement towards more collaboration and teaming up is a lot more of a natural approach now when back in the day when you were going for funding, everybody would be going for the same funding pot, so they were unlikely to perhaps work together because it was like, well we need that money to do this.

Well actually, so do we. But now it’s more actually what we can achieve collectively might be much greater, definitely more complex when it comes to different partners, but actually it is the right thing to do.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, definitely that importance of working together and collaborating is really interesting. Chris, is that something that you try and replicate from a grassroots perspective as well? Is building relationships in your local area and looking for opportunities to collaborate?

Chris Roberts:

Huge! Because we’ve formed partnerships. One of the great partnerships that we’ve got at the moment is with Bangor University, purely because I’m here, I’m embedded in the stuff that I do and obviously we’ve got links to other departments as well. I work with medical health sciences, we work with employability, we work with campus services, so there’s quite a diverse range just within Bangor University alone. We’ve got a partnership with Football for Humanity and we are providing footballs to communities out in the Philippines at the moment. We work with the Tyler Robinson Foundation over in Las Vegas. 

They are a pediatric cancer charity, and we have tied those into a three-way partnership with Teenage Cancer Trust and also with a small local hospice that we’ve got in our area as well.

So yeah, we’ve got probably about five  or six key partnerships that we work with all the time. And the thing with those partnerships too is they’re actually replicated on our football shirts. So we try and give them some of the advertising, shall we say, some of the exposure, the awareness, that kind of thing. It was interesting what Nicky was saying before about the plans and what we were saying about the sustainability and what have you. I go around universities, schools, colleges, and I give various talks on how the Dragons started and where we are now. And I often get asked what the plan is or what the plan was. And the only analogy that I could ever give it is that we were given a 5,000 piece jigsaw face down and over the last 14 years what we’ve been doing is we’ve put all the edges together and then slowly but surely we’ve been filling in the bits in the middle. And that’s probably a bit scary for Nicky to hear because…

Natalie Doyle:

<laugh>

Chris Roberts:

…that is planning on the opposite scale if anything. So yeah, I think that’s a good example of how sporting entities, if you could call us a sporting entity, how they need assistance and help in actually planning going forward.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it, because you might, I mean, it probably is a different approach to planning, but I suppose that was one of the questions I was going to ask you, Chris, it sounds like your plans are perhaps more informal or maybe you might have a bit of an idea in your head, but it’s not maybe being formalized into some sort of documentation. Do you feel like you have an idea of where you want things to go next?

Chris Roberts:

Yeah, yeah. And I think it’s all about ambition and dream and what makes us kick our legs out of bed every morning, because I suppose I’m probably okay at having conversations with people and saying, this is what I would like to do. Is there any way around actually getting to that point? And yeah, it’s interesting. I would say definitely I’ve got the seed planted as to where I would like it to go, but you know, again, sustainability, resource, finance, always the sticking point all the time.

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. You’ve both talked about the importance of those partnerships and of collaboration. How do you know that it’s the right partner? You’ve talked Chris about a variety of different organizations that you are working with. Nicky, you would’ve seen this in multiple different situations where either your clients are working with a particular partner or yourself. How do you identify who the right partners are and where those partnerships need to be developed?

Chris Roberts:

Conversation definitely. We sit down and have had many conversations about what people’s goals are, what their objectives are. There’s also morals as well. You know, we’ve come across people in the past who’ve approached us and I don’t know whether Nicky feels the same or even if you’ve had the same as well Natalie, where you sit down and you think something hasn’t started off on the right foot here and you get the gut feeling and you think to yourself, do you know what, I’m really not comfortable taking this any further. And I sometimes think that you should definitely go with your heart rather than go with your head. But yeah, some of the big partnerships that we’ve got at the moment, the one with Tyler Robinson Foundation, that was a weird one the way that came up. I don’t know whether this is a bit relevant to this conversation, but I’ll just share briefly. 

What happened was it was October 2021 and we were back in lockdown again, and I was using LinkedIn to search for people who were using #SocialImpact, and I came across a lady who was the Chief Executive of the Tyler Robinson Foundation. When I looked into it a bit further. I don’t know if you’re both into music at all, but there is a Grammy award-winning band called Imagine Dragons.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah.

Chris Roberts:

So Tyler Robinson Foundation was founded by Imagine Dragons, and Tyler Robinson was a fan of the band and unfortunately, he passed away. It was a bit like serendipity. So I contacted Ken who was the chief executive and we discussed about dragons, her dragons being on her side of the world and our dragons being on that side of the world. 

We ended up getting online, having a Zoom chat, and we found that there was so much alignment between the two and what we were trying to achieve and what they were trying to achieve. And it just felt really comfortable. And I think it’s just two years now where we’ve been working with each other and doing stuff across the pond and it’s been really amazing and I think it was all about gut feeling and going with the heart.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. How about you Nicky? Would do you think?

Nicky Affleck:

Gosh, partnerships are probably one of the single biggest influences of my career. You can’t really place a value on what it means to just spend a bit of time with other people, really understanding whether that’s informal or formal, but really understanding what people are trying to achieve. And actually, it’s probably what I’ve kind of built the success of my consultancy on the back of as well because I spent so many years of my career trying to make sure that when I worked for London Youth Games, it was really understanding which partner of the sector does what. 

And now, I find myself being almost that go-to person because there’s been this shift into tackling inequalities and making sure that we are doing things not necessarily on scale, but actually focusing our attention and efforts on smaller scale pieces of work that actually make more of a difference to those who haven’t had the access before.

I was actually writing it down as Chris was speaking, but really understanding that if we’re all aiming to tackle inequalities, understanding what those communities might need on the back of that, because one of the risks that we run is everyone now shifts to this new agenda and we start plugging into the same areas. And actually overwhelming the people that we are trying to help. So conversations is a big one just to really understand what other USP’s and objectives are. And sometimes it’s not a natural fit, but actually sometimes you’ll find there probably is a really nice fit because there are people doing great work and actually if I’m in an organization that’s trying to tackle inequalities in a certain ward, for example in London and I know that people living with disabilities are one of those audiences, should I be approaching an organization who specializes in servicing people with disabilities with sport and physical activity?

Absolutely. Because actually my organization shouldn’t be doing everything. And that’s why it brings me back to my first point at the beginning around, we try to do the square peg, round hole situation when we went after each pot. So each pot of funding is almost try to mould and bend ourselves to fit the brief so that we could secure that investment when actually now the change to system partners as well from Sport England is really refreshing. And not only just in terms of the length of time that you can be a partner in the amount of investment, but it actually has encouraged the sector to know that there are organizations out there that do really nice niche pieces of work and it should be those that should be delivering on the ground. So I think you’ll know like Chris says, when you have conversations whether there’s a fit or not and sometimes there’s not a fit and that’s absolutely fine, but actually the more we move forward, I think I’m actually quite hopeful that there’ll be more fits than not fits.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, definitely. And like you say, it’s all about understanding people and what it is that they’re trying to achieve and communicating really clearly what it is that you are trying to achieve and trying to avoid that sort of duplication of effort, isn’t it? And making sure that you’re making the best of the resources that you have.

Nicky Affleck:

Yeah, exactly.

Natalie Doyle:

Brilliant. That’s really good. Okay, we’re starting to wrap up the conversation because we’re running out of time, but if we’ve got people listening to this, who are either organizations or grassroots clubs who are wanting to improve the work that they do in this area, I’m going to put you on the spot here, what would be your top tips for them?

Nicky Affleck:

This might be a real shameless plug, but I’m actually writing a blog series that I publish on my website every month that’s actually relating directly to the kind of themes that we’ve spoken about today, Natalie, around the reason I do everything with purpose and why purpose is important when looking at things like strategic planning and internal coaching. Personal branding was another one I launched last month and this month we’re looking at transformational change. So I would love people to read those as a real first step to understanding what can be done and what is being done differently. But equally, we are about to launch our client corner, which showcases a bit more of the work that we’ve done with our clients directly in terms of delivering on projects and purpose-driven work. So that might give people a bit more of a flavour of what can be done if they wanted to, obviously choose to do it themselves internally, but equally always more than happy to have informal chats or conversations with people. So I would encourage anyone listening who wants to get in touch to visit our website, drop us an email or just on LinkedIn would be great. At least like whether that leads to anything formal or not, I’m always more than happy to have informal conversations with people.

Natalie Doyle:

Brilliant. And we’ll link to all of your social channels and website in the show notes as well so people can find those nice and easily.

Nicky Affleck:

Brilliant. Thanks Natalie,

Natalie Doyle:

How about you Chris? What’s your top tip?

Chris Roberts:

I think anybody who’s starting out in this kind of work, I think what you should do is you should show an interest in your community because if you are a business or a charity or a community group, you have to show an interest in your community. Otherwise, why would your community be interested in you? And I think that is the method of growth and I think that is the method of collaboration as well because no matter what entity you are going to put together you should see what’s out there. You know, it’s again, something that Nicky alluded to before is that there are many pots and the way I imagine it is that you’re on the 10th floor of a hotel balcony, you’re looking down and all you can see is umbrellas underneath and people are doing different things under the umbrellas.

Well, the idea is let’s get a gazebo, let’s get a marque, let’s get people under one roof and have a chat and see where we’re going. That is probably the biggest thing. We have our players who come to us, they volunteer their time, they volunteer in these matches and they have some physical activity doing what they do. They have mental wellness doing what they do, they have social inclusion because they’re coming together, but they’re giving back to the communities that they serve. So again, I think everything that we do should always point back to our local communities because we do need our communities back. Our high streets are decimated at the moment. I don’t know what it’s like for yourselves down south, but here in North Wales our towns are slowly but surely emptying and we need that kind of thing back. So the only way that we can get it back is by creating more of a community.

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. And it’s about making sure that you’re doing things for the right reasons, isn’t it? And showing the reasons and your motivations for wanting to work in this area rather than doing it because it’s something you feel you should be doing, just showing that it’s something that you want to be doing and the reasons for that.

Brilliant. Well, thank you both very much for giving up your time today. It’s been really great to chat to you and I think there’s going to be a lot of helpful tips there for people. As I said, I’ll share any of the links to all of your relevant details in the episode show notes, and thanks very much for giving up your time.

That was a great chat with Nicky and Chris there. If you could have seen me, I was frantically making notes throughout because there were so many things that I wanted to take away from that conversation. All of the things that were mentioned I will link to in the show notes, so make sure you check those out if you want to get a little bit more information about any of the things that Nicky and Chris were talking about.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, please make sure that you do if you’re a regular listener and if you enjoy the episodes then please feel free to leave us a review. We’ll be back again soon with another great episode with some more fantastic guests. We’ll see you then.

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