Huddled around a personal computer in a community center in Eltham, a suburb of London, a group of young people is devising a plan to secure sponsorship for a football (soccer) team. Among them is 19-year-old Kieran (not his real name), who is trawling the Internet for clues on how to attract commercial patrons. Logos and advertising on football stadiums and the shirts of Premier League football players flash across the screen.
As a child, Kieran did not much care for school. As someone who has attentiondeficit/ hyperactivity disorder, he found it hard to sit still and to concentrate. The only subject that really held his interest was football. After dropping out of school, he drifted.
Now Kieran, who has never been employed, is applying for jobs. His ambition is to work as a security guard. Thanks in part to Vi-Ability, a social enterprise in the United Kingdom, that goal is a step closer.
Vi-Ability uses the motivating power of sport to help disengaged young people better their lives. It is not a conventional sports-for-good program that seeks to build the self-confidence of young adults through sports participation. Rather, Vi-Ability teaches them the commercial skills to help struggling community sports clubs transform themselves into sustainable businesses. In so doing, Vi-Ability not only improves the employability of the young people with whom it works; it also strengthens the communities in which they live.
Run the Club, Vi-Ability’s flagship eightweek program, has not only taught Kieran how to write a CV but also given him structure. Organizing himself to show up punctually each day for the course has boosted his selfesteem. “When you have been getting up at nine, getting up at seven every morning takes a bit of determination,” he says.
Kelly Davies, the founder and CEO of Vi-Ability, finds that Kieran’s experience mirrors that of many young people. “Being in a traditional classroom just doesn’t suit some young people, so they rebel through their behavior,” she says. “Though people are intelligent in many different ways, their intelligence isn’t being tapped into.” One way to raise people’s aspirations, Davies explains, is to put them in an environment that they find motivating. For young sports enthusiasts, that ideal environment is often a sports club.
A Football Revival
Before founding Vi- Ability, Davies played professional football for the Wales national team and top U.K. clubs. In 2008, while studying for an MBA, she noticed two trends, the rise in youth unemployment and school dropouts on the one hand, and the closure, or threatened closure, of many community-based football clubs on the other. She came up with the idea of a work-based education program to teach unemployed young people to help cash-strapped sports clubs become viable.
To test her idea, Davies recruited 18 unemployed youths and approached Colwyn Bay Football Club (FC), in North Wales, for permission to run a pilot. At the end of 12 weeks, all the young participants found jobs, and by the end of the first year, the club, which had been losing money, was generating a surplus.
Vi-Ability launched in 2009 with no paid staff. Today, it employs 16 people and has expanded across Wales and into London. And while growing—in 2017 it aims to enroll 400-500 students—it has remained effective. Of the 300 young people whom it worked with last year, 76 percent graduated into jobs, education, or further job training.
The pilot project at Colwyn Bay FC provided the blueprint for Vi-Ability’s Run the Club. Bobi Beach, 21, learned about the program after graduating school in North Wales in 2013, unsure of his next step. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in life,” he says. “However, I had always had an interest in football, and so I thought that I would try it.” When the course finished, Vi-Ability employed him as a trainer and administrator. Today, Beach is completing a local government apprenticeship in Denbighshire and referees for the Welsh Rugby Union.
Conwy Borough FC, in North Wales, has worked with Vi-Ability since 2011. Darren Cartwright, the club’s vicechairman, says that Vi-Ability’s students have helped the club strengthen its ties with the local community. The students have also come up with fundraising ideas and community-engagement events for the club, invented team mascot Strike it Steve (a child dressed up as a knight), and proposed a club membership scheme that it plans to implement. “When people are put in the right environment, it’s surprising how good their ideas can be,” Cartwright says. Many of the students also volunteer as stewards, kitchen staff, or community football coaches, or assist in the production of the club’s match-day programs.
Though Vi-Ability started modestly, it soon won contracts to provide employability programs for local councils and the Welsh government. The professional services firm Deloitte accepted Vi-Ability into its Social Innovation Pioneers program in 2013, and then, in 2016, into its elite Super Pioneers Program, which provides extensive pro bono support to high-performing social enterprises with the potential to scale up. Timothy Bridge, a senior consultant at Deloitte U.K. and an independent director at Vi-Ability, says that it was a combination of Vi-Ability’s vision and results that distinguished it. Policy circles often discuss encouraging people to become physically active, Bridge observes, but this requires “having people with the skills to organize sports clubs and provide sporting opportunities.”
Learning to Scale Up
In 2014, at the invitation of the U.K.’s Cabinet Office, Vi-Ability applied to the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund (CSAIF) and was awarded £265,500 ($333,000) to replicate its operations beyond Wales. The program would serve as an opportunity to learn, with money set aside to evaluate what worked and what did not, to gain guidance for future expansion. Davies chose London to expand into. Carrie Deacon, a senior program manager at Nesta, a U.K.-based charity and partner in CSAIF, says that Vi-Ability’s growth model held particular interest. Many of the organizations that Nesta works with expand out of London nationally, but few expand into London from such modest beginnings as Vi-Ability.
Picking London for the pilot proved to be a tough challenge. The first problem was finding partner clubs. Unlike in Wales, most of the semiprofessional London clubs had well-developed community and commercial programs, while the professional ones offered apprenticeships and traineeships and saw no reason to partner with Vi-Ability.
Rather than reverse gear, Vi-Ability adapted its approach to fit local needs. To dovetail with the existing outreach programs of the larger London clubs, it devised a tailored version of Run the Club for wellknown teams such as West Ham United, Fulham, and Millwall. The new program focused on teaching employment skills to students through football-themed scenarios, rather than on enhancing the commercial strategy of the host club. At the same time, to keep its focus on community regeneration, it has dug deep into the grassroots of football and forged partnerships with small amateur clubs that lack any sort of commercial strategy—let alone a clubhouse.
The expansion into London and engagement with well-known teams has boosted Vi-Ability’s profile and credibility with the young people that it seeks to attract. In 2015, Social Enterprise UK, the national membership body for social enterprises, named Vi-Ability UK Enterprise of the Year. However, the scale-up has also exposed some vulnerabilities in its model. That can be a good thing for a pilot, says Deacon, if management then acts to improve matters. One vulnerability the experience exposed was Vi-Ability’s organizational immaturity. From its beginning, Vi-Ability had scaled leanly; when there was a staff shortage, Davies would step in personally. With two geographically separate centers, that soon ceased to be practical.
Then there was Vi-Ability’s financial model. The strength of Vi-Ability’s program has helped it attract grant funding. However, being reliant on grants has brought its own dilemmas. A case in point is Erasmus+, a European Union-funded program that placed its students with leading European football clubs, such as AC Milan and SL Benfica. When the grant period ended, so did the program. Then Britain voted to leave the EU, all but nullifying the possibility of reviving the program in a future funding round. For Davies, the implication was clear: Vi-Ability needed to generate independent income.
To do this, Vi-Ability is parlaying its sports know-how into revenue-generating activities. For instance, it organized a Corporate Social Responsibility day for Red Bull, the energy drink brand. The initiative paired company employees with a community sports club that needed tips on how to improve its finances and market itself. With assistance from Deloitte, Vi-Ability has also developed a mobile gaming app, Football CEO, that enables fantasy football fans to have a go at revitalizing a failing football club. Deacon believes that such entrepreneurialism bodes well. “The fact that Vi-Ability is still quite experimental is really positive,” she says.
Vi-Ability’s revenue in 2016 was just £780,000 ($978,000). But this total should rise as its income-generating strategy, which includes plans to engage in franchising, pays off. In the meantime, it has appointed a new non-executive board that taps skills in strategy, marketing, and finance from the private sector to support Davies and her team. Tony Colville, a philanthropy and advocacy consultant and a long-standing advisor of Vi-Ability, sees this as a milestone. “Today, Vi-Ability is pretty much running the structure that it had when it was a small startup. The new board will look at how to restructure it for the organization that it is now.”
The move into London has also given Vi-Ability access to businesses with complementary know-how to contribute to its programs. Back at the Eltham community center, 18-year-old Jamal is enthusiastic about a mock interview that Vi-Ability organized with staff from Barclays Bank. He began the program torn between his love of sport and his desire to make more of his mathematical ability. Now he thinks that he “can have a career that links sport and finance together.” He is about to start an apprenticeship in administration at a local school and has enrolled at a college to study finance and administration part time. His ultimate goal: to work as a financial controller for a football club.