Exploring the World of Sports Stars’ Charities

17 July 2017 | By Cause4 staff

The UK’s charity sector is complemented by an increasing number of Foundations established by sports stars. The variety of these Foundations reflects the diversity, success and charitable spirit of today's UK athletes.

Over the years, there have been notable successes, including The Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which provides opportunities for disadvantaged young people and recorded a substantial income of over £3.6 million in 2016.[1] Others that have followed suit, however, have been brought to the public’s attention for the wrong reasons, including Bradley Wiggins’ Foundation and, more recently, Craig Bellamy’s Foundation – both of which were scrutinised following financial mismanagement.

So why are many of these charities failing to prosper?

Many charities that are established by athletes are done so with initial enthusiasm, grand expectations and high objectives. This fever goes further, with athletes often pouring their own funds into the projects – former Premier League footballer Craig Bellamy is reported to have contributed £1.4m of his own funds to his Foundation.[2]

Despite this initial success, Foundations can rapidly suffer from costly overheads and expectations that become unsustainable. Mo Farah’s Foundation, for instance, recorded over £900,000 of income following his Olympic success in 2012, but was closed in 2016 after two successive years of significantly lower levels of income.[3] The Foundation has since been criticised for lacking a clear strategic focus and for having poor operational oversight.[4]

Various sports stars’ Foundations are also failing to keep pace with administrative demands, negatively impacting the way that they are run and their overall public perception. The accounts for the Foundation of Craig Bellamy were not filed in the year prior to its closure in September 2016 and it is now under investigation over financial irregularities.[5] As with all Foundations, mismanagement is a dangerous attribute that can negatively affect the entire operation of a charity and its effectiveness. Athletes ought to consider seeking support from experts in their efforts to guard against such mismanagement.

Paradoxes of Sporting Foundations

Athletes are intending to create a legacy to match their careers, however their Foundations are often short-term projects: Craig Bellamy’s Foundation lasted only eight years, and The Bradley Wiggins Foundation lasted fewer than three years.[6]

Sports stars may be using Foundations to improve their public image, but their attachment to this public image explains why they are likely to close their charity when facing scrutiny: In 2015, following investigations into a lack of transparency over how donations were spent,[7] Bradley Wiggins closed his Foundation, citing a need to focus on the 2016 Olympics. As athletes are both brands and public figures more than ever before, they are more likely to prioritise their own careers ahead of their charitable efforts.

Winning Over a Sceptical Public

In the current environment, the public is increasingly interested in the salaries of sports stars and how they use their wealth in charitable efforts. If the frequency of the scandals and the deregistration of these organisations continues to be a problem, the public and the press will continue to keep a sceptical eye on them. This will regrettably detract from the successful projects that some athletes are managing to sustain.

Foundations established by athletes have the potential to make real differences to causes all over the world; and many are. The evidence would suggest that the same mistakes are being made too frequently. Simon Lansley, founder of Connect Sport, has recently commented that rather than starting their own Foundations, ‘we need more high-profile athletes supporting the most productive and sustainable charities. That really would be using their name for good.’[8]

In summary, Foundations set up by sports starts are experiencing the same problems as national charities, including lack of transparency, concerns over donations and overall effectiveness. I don’t think we should discourage athletes from embarking on these charitable missions, but they must recognise the level of commitment required to be successful – growing a charity is hard work and needs expertise. Perhaps by initially supporting and becoming involved with more established charities, they could learn more about the charity sector and have greater clarity when deciding on their future in charitable work.


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