How businesses can work with sports communities to become social change-makers

This image shows two women playing football, illustrating the power of sport to bring people together

Sport can work with business to heal divides. Image: Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

Michele Parmelee
WEF GLCSP, President of the IOE, Deloitte
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Sport has an enduring power that helps heal divides, spark conversations and catalyse change.
  • Business leaders can harness that power to enable sports communities to be changemakers.
  • Together, they can forge purpose-driven partnerships to help conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges on behalf of players, fans, communities and the planet.

In 1994, following years of apartheid, South Africa elected its first black president. Faced with healing a divided people and fortifying a young democracy, President Nelson Mandela, who had been incarcerated for 27 years, saw an opportunity in an unlikely place: the 1995 Rugby World Cup and South Africa’s fledgling Springboks Rugby Club.

The story, immortalized in the 2009 film Invictus, is a testament to the enduring power of sports to help heal divides, spark conversations and catalyse change.

Today, as we face a fragmented and challenging moment in history, business leaders can again harness that kind of power to enable sports communities to be changemakers.

Of course, as Mandela knew, doing so comes with challenges. Sports are not immune to the complications and contradictions of society at large; on the contrary, sports hold up a mirror to many of humanity’s greatest struggles. Over the last few years, including at the recent 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, teams, leagues and athletes have grappled with seminal challenges — from the COVID-19 pandemic to human rights and labour issues to ongoing debates about gender and LGBT+ equality — all while living up to their promise of showcasing awesome feats of human potential.

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The sports community is in a period of enormous transformation and that’s where global business leaders come in. We can congregate and counsel teams, athletes and civil society organizations with a vision for the inspiring, world-changing power of sports —because we know what it means to lead through moments of tremendous change.

In fall 2022, Deloitte completed a comprehensive study of purpose-driven partnerships at the top of their game: organizations of various sizes and sectors, coming together to help advance sustainability; foster diversity, equity and inclusion; better support athletes; help empower the next generation of players; and, build a strong legacy for players, communities and fans — top-of-mind goals for any sports organization.

Through this work, we identified three leading practices that any purpose-led partnership can implement to help maximize their impact and leave the game, local communities and our planet better than we found it.


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1. Convene and catalyse

To realize the enormous potential of sports to help advance social issues, it’s critical to rally people across the athletic ecosystem in the name of sharing knowledge. For inspiration, take the European Impact Hero Programme. During the summer of 2021, corporate volunteers provided business mentorship and professional support to entrepreneurs in the fields of sustainability and biodiversity. The entrepreneurs, in turn, delivered presentations to one of the sponsors, Volkswagen, on sustainability in supply chains, human rights and due diligence.

Through this collaboration, a leading brand pushed the boundaries of corporate sustainability efforts and emerging start-ups received the support they needed to grow. These efforts provide a roadmap for further collaboration across companies and sectors that can extend beyond these two organizations.

It’s easy to imagine how this information exchange can translate to a sports environment. Companies can work with athletes to turn their on-field talents into off-field business success and athletes can offer corporate executives lessons on teamwork and authenticity. As business leaders, it’s often on us to seek out these kinds of surprising, game-changing collaborations and to inspire others to do the same.

2. Amplify what matters

The roar of a crowd can amp up athletes to help them perform at their best. Similarly, the best purpose-driven partnerships can help maximize their reach to maximize their impact. That may mean harnessing star power or engaging audiences in new ways. But it can also mean exploring new channels of communication and investing in partnerships that target new audiences.

In 2021, for example, in an effort to promote COVID-19 vaccines to young, hesitant Americans, the White House and the US Department of Health turned to Riot Games, a player-based computer games developer that boasts 100 million monthly players. Though an unlikely pair, their partnership was a massive success: the White House reached some 1.5 million viewers and Riot Games demonstrated care for its customers’ well-being.

Similarly, my own organization, Deloitte, recently partnered with the International Olympic Committee on its Climate Action Awards to spotlight the federations, athletes and National Olympic Committees with leading plans for reducing carbon emissions and creating a more sustainable future. Through this partnership, we’re able to celebrate noteworthy changemakers and provide an incentive and a blueprint for others to follow suit.

Whether it’s the Riot Games or the Olympic Games, the lesson is clear: when we partner with high-visibility, high-reach organizations, we can amplify our impact to everyone's benefit.


3. Leverage open-source partnerships

Almost anyone who's played a team sport knows that the assist can be as important as the goal and that teamwork is the key to victory. The same principle applies to purpose-driven partnerships: some of the most successful collaborations share data, resources, leading practices and feedback with each other and with other organizations. They understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Consider Unilever’s partnership with Acumen, a nonprofit social venture fund. Hoping to better assess its programmes’ impact on women and girls, Unilever worked with Acumen to create a toolkit that can collate and interpret information from other social-purpose ventures. The team could have kept the toolkit private, but instead, it opened its work to the industry, creating a resource that other organizations can use and improve upon.

Business leaders can learn from their example, forging athletic partnerships that model openness and reciprocity and encouraging others to do the same. That’s how we transform individual partnerships into a far-reaching ecosystem.

Nearly three decades since the Springboks brought the Rugby World Cup home to South Africa, it is on all of us to lead by their example. Together, we can forge purpose-driven partnerships to help conquer seemingly insurmountable challenges on behalf of players, fans, communities and our planet. Let the games begin!

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