Social Impact Heroes: How Nick Keller is leveraging sports as a global force for sustainable social change

The youth of today are provided access to spread their messages far and wide, but they have not been helped in adapting to how that information comes by the masses with little context and, in many cases, from a polarized view. It isn’t conducive to an inclusive and warm society. Sport being used as platform […]

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The youth of today are provided access to spread their messages far and wide, but they have not been helped in adapting to how that information comes by the masses with little context and, in many cases, from a polarized view. It isn’t conducive to an inclusive and warm society. Sport being used as platform to help reconnect with community has never been more important. Finding ways to share experiences and have the humanistic benefits that exist around sport are all unique elements that sport can bring. Sport is now vital.

As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Keller. Nick is an established leader within the sport industry, working with some of the most significant decision makers and influencers and playing a leading role in driving forward sport’s commitment to social change. In 2008, he founded Beyond Sport, the global force for sustainable social change through sport recognizing that, in light of the financial crisis, businesses relationship with society was going to have to change. He has created strategies, projects and initiatives that focus on how sport can be used to achieve both authentic societal change and genuine business objectives. Since 2015, and through the establishment of Beyond Sport’s consultancy arm, thinkBeyond, Nick has advised some of the biggest brands in the world around sport for social change, including SAP, World Rugby, ESPN, the IOC, Bloomberg, Barclays and Legal and General. Nick has been at the forefront of best practice in the sport industry having founded Benchmark to invest in purpose-driven business, companies in the group include, among others, Beyond Sport, thinkBeyond and the Sport Industry Group which owns the largest commercial sport awards in the world, the Sport Industry Awards. He also established Square Mile Sport, which runs the largest privately-owned corporate running race in the world the Bloomberg Square Mile Relay. Nick has sat on the Global Advisory Board for The World Economic Forum on Sport and Society and is a regular commentator on sport’s role in the world, having had 24 years’ experience at the forefront of this sector.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Nick! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Saying just one thing brought me to this journey wouldn’t do all my experiences and the people that I have met along the way true justice. I have to start by saying I come from remarkable privilege. My Mum’s Grandparents escaped from Vienna, 10 days after the Nazi occupation. They escaped in a baggage compartment of a train. The majority of the rest of the family where killed. The privilege is their escape and to be alive because of their bravery, wit and enterprise.

I was an anxious kid and not a great student. At the age of 10, I was told I was “unteachable” and so it was my struggles inside the classroom that resulted in me finding solace on the rugby pitch. It was there I found sanctuary and where I was able to develop a true identity through sport. From rugby, I learned hard work, commitment, resilience and teamwork. The comments from teachers and coaches on the sports field were really the first time I enjoyed praise from adults. I was rewarded with remarkable mentors who saw students as more than a function of their grades and recognized the humanistic attributes that I brought. I took those principles to the classroom and then to life and was able to build a successful career with sport as the base.

I didn’t realize that right away. It took years and an endless journey of understanding my purpose before I reached that foregone conclusion. It was the graft that got me the most surprising of grades and of I went to Durham University to immerse myself in the sport I loved and one of the top rugby schools in the world. I was fortunate to play at a good level, being coached by the great Ted Wood and Dick Greenwood (England Coach) who named me the Ferocious Ferret.

In 1995, Lomu destroys England and Mandela hands the trophy to Francois Pienaar, the dream of a Rainbow Nation comes to life in South Africa and the game goes professional. I quit my job in real estate and became a rugby agent My first clients the people I had played with and against that would go on to win England the Rugby World Cup — Will Greenwood, Richard Hill and Tony Diprose.

This is where my business journey started — it has been a complete roller coaster with the first 15 years spent trying work out how my slightly over active mind could blend with the focus of building something that would be successful.

Starting Beyond Sport in 2008 was a defining moment and a huge risk — the simple notion that sport can have a significant impact on people, communities and society was compelling but was not really mainstream in the industry. I set of with my usual ambition — Tony Blair as Chairman and Archbishop Tutu as Patron.

We recognized that in the midst of the financial crisis that the relationship between business and society had to change and sport was going a brilliant way to soften.

There was a real appetite for the narrative but little appetite to fund it from the sport or the corporate sector. After 5 years we had had a huge social impact, but I was not sure how long we could sustain the organization.

London 2012 gave us a boost but still not many organizations quite understood how social and business could work together, and therefore, we established thinkBeyond the consulting division.

More recently it has felt like our pioneering spirit is being rewarded as more people, companies and organizations recognize how blending business and social objectives are a necessity.

More significantly sport is now more important than ever as we look to challenge polarization in society and help younger people understand the value of face to face community interaction. I learned that sport can’t solve every societal problem on its own. What is true, however, is that sport’s potential to be part of the solution has never been more relevant.

Through Beyond Sport and thinkBeyond, including our Talent division, I have collaborated and connected with thousands of organizations and world leaders, all with the passion to leverage sport in some of the most inspiring and impactful ways. But, for me it all started on a rugby field.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In 2015, while visiting the Zaatari refugee camp on the border of Syria — at the time a high-risk place to visit — I went to explore the role sport was playing in the camp in advance of our creation of a Sport Refugee initiative. I was staggered at how little thought went into sports provisions. Sport pitches where locked up, boys and girls had different set times, 30,000 youth got to play football twice every 3 months and limited disability provision — quite important in a war zone.

The camps where a recruiting ground for ISIS as the time and their use of sport, money and porn was acknowledged — they where also offering a release from boredom and a warped sense of community.

It was not lack of money as you see there was a litany of international agencies, organizations, names and brands all plastered above run down and locked up pitches.

From my perspective, it seemed that sport should be a vital part of helping in rebuilding a sense of community, engage young people and get eyes on the most vulnerable A more strategic approach to sport in refugee camps could go a long way to helping some of the fundamental issues of the fragmentation that must happen to young and old who are displaced.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m in Copenhagen for the International Olympics Committee (IOC) decision for the 2016 Olympics. I’m walking around with my usual overly heavy bag and a slew of marketing materials. President Obama has just given his speech and is outside surrounded by IOC members.

I wanted to get a glimpse of the most famous man on the planet, so I go and stand on tip toe and crane my neck to see if I can get closer. A nice gentleman next to me takes one look at my cauliflower ears — shaped beautifully through two decades of rugby — and politely asks if I’m a wrester. This is a very common mistake by our American cousins as rugby is not as big in states.

I’m perplexed, but take a look at his ears, thinking we will be mated by our lobes and realize there is instead a very official security ear piece. After a brief chat he says “you want to meet the Pres — follow me”. “Really?” I’m thinking quickly that I need to make a good impression — this is my moment to make a connection with one of the most powerful and influential people in the world.

In my head, I’m reciting my lines, “Hi, I’m Nick Keller, I run an organization called Beyond Sport and my Chairman is a friend of yours, Tony Blair.”

I cleverly think that’s the way to create impact, he will ask more or engage in a conversation. But, before I know it and far before I’m rehearsed, I am standing in front of — well the rather tall President of the USA. His hand reaches out to mine and I utter out loud my introduction “Hi, I’m Tony Blair.”

I did not know whether the quizzical look on the President’s face was acknowledgment of my mistaken introduction or him thinking, “is this guy not the reason I have security?” He is moved on quickly, and I have missed my moment, my shot to make an impact and discuss all the ways sport is helping society.

The Lesson is don’t introduce yourself to a world leader as another world leader they know really well when you are not that world leader.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our biggest impact has been the power of convening in a strategic way. When you bring like-minded people together with intent to collaborate and create impact so much happens. Beyond Sport does just that and it has acted as a catalyst that has driven the movement in sport inspired influential bodies to change how they operate and helped grow NGOs in one location to grow to over 60 globally.

Even more so, it has been rewarding to see brands rally behind leveraging sport to embrace shared value and leading with purpose work. When I started my organizations decades ago that was always the vision. In recent years we have been able to facilitate innovative cross sector partnerships across leagues.(In the USA we are 8 years in to Beyond Sport United the unlikely but powerful collaboration of the US Leagues — NBA, NFL, NHL, WNBA, MLS & MLB) the most reputable brands in the world, NGOs and charitable organizations. For example, the San Francisco 49ers and Chelsea FC Foundation connected through us and ended up joining forces to collaborate on their innovative STEM education programs using football and soccer, respectively.

So, 11 years of bringing the world of sport together to inspire the influential, share insight, create partnerships and empower those brilliant leaders across the world doing the tough work — it is immeasurable.

On the more tangible side the Beyond Sport and the Beyond Sport Foundation has supported 300+ organizations worldwide, providing $2 million+ in funds and $8 million+ in long-term strategic support to some of the world’s most cutting-edge sport for development organizations. This has led to a tremendous social impact across a variety of the UN Global Goals from inequality and peace and social justice to sustainable cities and communities.

The communities and organizations we reach focus on taking their local impact and approaches and expanding them globally. Watching our partners and network reach new heights and further drive impact is when you know that your vision, focus and efforts are truly making change.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Beyond Sport has acted as a platform not just to promote sport and its role in society but also to raise awareness and elevate some of the most innovative sport for development leaders and projects around the world. One of those is Coaches Across Continents led by Founder, Nick Gates. Last year, we were honored to award them with Global Impact of the Year, which included funding, at our Beyond Sport Global Awards — nine years after they had won our Best New Project Award which started them on their path to success.

We built their first pitch facility in partnership with SportCourt facility in rural Kigoma, Tanzania in 2008, which at the time, was part of their first and only program. They started as a traditional, ‘train the trainer’ model, but have since grown to a global collaboration of communities on six continents using their unique Purposeful Play and Education Outside the Classroom programs to impact the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They now impact over 16 million young people in 110+ countries working with governments, corporations, foundations and community-based organizations to implement Purposeful Play and have leveraged their expertise to aid various organizations in their sports-based, purpose initiatives including Bloomberg, Chevrolet, ESPN and Nike. Their model encourages corporations to move away from ‘one off’ event-based CSR to sustainable, locally owned social impact that will capture the imagination of the next generation.

Last year Nick stated: “Winning the Beyond Sport Best New Project in our first year was one of the most important moments for Coaches Across Continents. It gave us the confidence to build and develop our unique concept. Since then we have grown from one country to more than 50 countries. Winning the award opened up a network of incredible organizations and people that allowed CAC to share ideas and learn from best practises. We share our ten-year anniversary with Beyond Sport…For me, going beyond sport means engaging the hearts, minds and imagination of young people and communities around the world.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

They say as much as things change, they stay the same and that’s true for a lot of what we know about today’s most pressing issues. Technology has significantly changed our lives, but we are still plagued with issues of past generations from climate action and inequality to gun/knife violence — and the current digital culture is causing its own unique fractures in society.

From my perspective, the three things we should focus on with sport as the center point are:

First, how can sport act as a platform to help develop a vocal and action focused generation?

The youth of today are provided access to spread their messages far and wide, but they have not been helped in adapting to how that information comes by the masses with little context and, in many cases, from a polarized view. It isn’t conducive to an inclusive and warm society. Sport being used as platform to help reconnect with community has never been more important. Finding ways to share experiences and have the humanistic benefits that exist around sport are all unique elements that sport can bring. Sport is now vital.

Secondly, realize that driving impact in your local communities is the best place to start. The organizations that we work with today are better and more successful in driving change because they started in their backyards, and leveraged the people, tools and resources that they knew to drive change. The research and intel that we have garnered over the last decade proves that point, especially as it pertains to driving peace and social justice. All it takes is one good idea and one program to start driving change. So, don’t hesitate to start because you don’t think will be able to reach thousands. Start small. Dream big. Additionally, these communities are not difficult to reach or find. In June, we held Beyond Sport UK and that message was powerfully delivered by Immy Kaur, Founder of the Impact Hub in Birmingham England. It’s imperative that we do a better job to reach out to people where they are in order to address deep rooted social issues — and make sure that they are part of a holistic 360˚ solution, as they will know what works best in their particular communities.

Finally, I think it is important to recognize that sport is a long-term investment in any government strategy, but if used correctly that it can have an impact on health, education and justice. More so than ever sport has a role to play is bringing our communities together, engaging young people of line and providing a basis for a more fulfilling life. It is only seen as a vote winner around major events but as we can demonstrate it can have a meaningful impact on helping reach the SDGs

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

More recently I think Leadership has become far more complex and complicated. I still believe the basic premise of optimism, clear headed response to what going on around you and the ability to connect dots.

I now add in the need for emotional intelligence, honesty and communication.

As we have become more open as a society, a leader is expected to not just read situations but people as well. Honesty for me is so lacking but so vital for enduring leadership. Finally, communication — we spend so much time considering what we are going to say, how we are going to say it and testing the reaction that I don’t believe it is possible to lead without understanding those tools.

True leadership means one must take a radical approach to their role. They step out of the line of their peers to explore the vast territory of unearthed ways to make a difference and truly drive impact. They are the enlightened leaders who define their own destiny before political and regulatory forces or the pressure of following the status quo — does it for them.

It is reassuring to see that corporate leaders have finally accepted the reality of being purpose driven in their actions. While it seems that most have the best intentions — employees, consumers, genuine concern for society — there are the few that just feel pressure to step in the same lane as their peers.

For me personally, Leadership is more than stepping in line to what you think is doing good or making an impact. Many leaders today feel that bringing their businesses into line with societal needs makes them feel proactive and that they are part of the solution and not the problem.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. That I would get there in the end. My first 10 years in the business were ones of many starts but not many finishes — always wanting to know what was coming next. To blend restlessness and focus would take me 20 years to master and I still struggle with it regularly. I have a strong desire to never miss an opportunity. The fine balance of keeping yourself in check with how you are going through life — career, personal, etc., is challenging. Even after decades in the industry, I am humble enough to understand that I need to let some opportunities go. It is an important skill to build, and I’m by no means done, but I’m finally taking to heart the words of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, both of whom identified focus as a means to success.

2. That sport could play such an important role in bringing society together. When I decided to pursue a career as a rugby agent, I never realized the true power of my decision. To me, I was being involved with something that I loved and felt that I could help people with their lives both on and off the pitch, court, field, etc. But it’s much larger than that. It is a universal language that pulls people together and connects them on a local community level that has the power to drive substantial change globally. One of this year’s Beyond Sport Awards shortlist finalists and one of the first programs I visited in Nairobi, is a group of girls in Kenya utilizing boxing to not only become healthier, more confident females, but to have the strength to avoid being pushed into a forced marriage to help their family alleviate their struggles of poverty. That is powerful. That is more than just the physical effects of sports — it’s life changing and transformative.

3. Third, that school isn’t everyone’s path. I was not the best student and actually still spend a lot of time exorcising the demons from my early years. But, it’s a distraction to running a successful business and the pitch became my preferred classroom.

4. After another set of dreadful grades my Dad once said, “sport will get you nowhere”. I really adore my Dad so this might have been a low teenage moment. I didn’t set out to prove him wrong, but I am really pleased I have. What a complete honour to be in the industry, to affect change and seek ways to help others thrive through something so compelling. Funnily enough for me, little will ever beat playing sports. Even after 24 years in the sport business, I still can have the odd dream about playing rugby. I started playing at age 7 and that was it for me. I fell in love with sport and fully immersed myself into the combat and camaraderie of rugby. And as a genuinely anxious kid, legally being allowed to thump someone was quite cathartic.

5. To understand that true happiness comes when family life and work are in sync. It’s that simple. There were times when I was really delivering at work, but they were nothing if I was struggling in my personal life and with my family and friends. But when all those things align and you are able to reach that perfect balance — there is no better feeling. I now spend my weekdays focusing on business, and my weekends changing my baby or taking one of my older children to one of their sporting activities or events. It’s an amazing balance that allows me to feel completely in sync with life — both personally and professionally.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

For years, we have been hosting our Beyond Sport Global Awards, convening all our shortlisters together to celebrate their achievements, but also so that they can learn from each other and make connections that will allow for even greater impact. I want to see the sport for development world elevated to the same level as professional sports — to a point where we are able to award millions in funding to leverage sport to create change every year. To see that type of acknowledgment be integrated into an international media property or platform would be truly a dream come true — and would take the sector to the next level.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Respond don’t react.”

It’s my New Year’s resolution every year — nothing else. I am an emotional and passionate person and that is a wonderful thing, but it means that you owe yourself and the world the lifelong work of trying to be more thoughtful.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

For me, it would be the Ernest Shackleton the polar adventurer — he defined British exploration and leadership. How he kept his men alive is a lesson in optimism over the reality of what they were facing.

Of course, I wouldn’t mind buying Barack Obama a beer. I would hope that his love of sport and his perspective on the world would see him get more involved in sports role in social change.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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