Last month, we hosted a social impact event with an esteemed panel focusing on the justifiable expectation for businesses to demonstrate a care for societal and environmental issues. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of sport and entertainment, an industry celebrated for its ability to bring people together, create positive change and inspire a better world. Modern fandom now demands results not just on the ground, but off it too.

In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and with participation rates in sport falling in the UK, are brands, rights holders and federations doing enough to support the communities they seek to serve? This was the overarching question we delved into, as our expert panel discussed why companies should be investing in purpose-led partnerships, who they will benefit and how to ensure these partnerships result in meaningful impact for those who need it the most within the sporting industry.

The panel was hosted by Stacey Knight, CSM Live’s Commercial and Marketing Director, who was joined on stage by  Stuart Ramsey, RFU Commercial Director, Michelle Dite, The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Operations Director, Rob Young, CEO and Founder Switch The Play and Ray Nowak, Bromley Borough Foodbank Community Mobilisation Coordinator.

The discussion kicked off with a general question regarding why it is incumbent upon organisations today to care about social impact. For Stuart, not only is there a moral and ethical case, but also a business one: “Getting involved with (social impact) helps improve staff retention and acquisition.”

Naturally, commitments to social impact and supporting a certain cause requires investment, and the conversation soon turned to how businesses can make the case for financing these commitments, when up against scrutiny on profits and the bottom line.

For Michelle, the answer lies in stakeholder buy-in. Referencing the tradition and history of the All England Tennis Club, Michelle conceded that debate and difficult conversations would be a feature of any social impact strategy – “the AELTC is steeped in history and started off as a private members club”, but having everyone pull in the same direction will produce results. She continued: “It takes time and patience, but you do all need to get into a collective mindset, for everyone to buy into it, so you can activate your purpose.”

For Rob, the beauty of investing in social impact is the snowball effect that often comes with it. His Switch the Play Foundation is the only charity in the UK that supports sports people to transition to a life outside of sport. Alongside that, though, each of the athletes they support are also encouraged to invest and support their local community.

We know the power of sport can have such an impact but our community can also have an onwards impact as well. Part of our work is to help sports people identify what their social impact purpose is and the best way for them to-do that and have a voice that has an onward impact. Having a double impact on community and enlarged community.”

And its not just charities who can shift the dial on social impact. Major events are another platform for creating change, and none more so than Invictus Games. Michelle Dite was involved in its early years, and she spoke to its incredible impact. What started out as a route to recovery for wounded, injured and sick service men and women, soon turned into a “galvanized community of emotionally charged and able individuals rediscovering a sporting environment” and all the benefits that come with that.

Similarly, Rugby World Cup 2025 – being hosted in the UK, is likely to be a catalyst for the growth of women’s rugby in this country, and for Stuart, the real goal here is encouraging participation: “These major moments are catalyst for change, which kickstarts people getting involved. We at the RFU have a number of programs whether it’s getting girls all around the country to get involved and their community clubs welcoming them in or rugby united and going to black and Asian communities, showing them that rugby is a sport for all.

By this point, the benefits of social impact were obvious, and it was time to look at the strategy behind creating impactful, long term partnerships. In other words, what does successful social impact look like?

For Stuart, authenticity was the key. “Brands need to concentrate on value alignment.” He referenced how sport, given its influence, is often seen as a “shortcut” by brands to reach their consumers, but when it comes to social impact “if you are seen as unauthentic, short term and it looks like you’re only doing it for logo slapping all of the good work will get diminished.” A brand doing it well, to Stuart’s mind, was Aldi through its ‘Get Set and Eat Fresh’ program with Team GB, which has been running since 2016.

It was a point reinforced by Ray, who spoke of achieving authenticity by ensuring organisations “involve people in the project with actual lived experiences” of what you are trying to achieve, which will create more depth, credibility and meaning.

As with Aldi and Team GB, any successful outcome requires collaboration amongst different stakeholders. Driving effective social impact is difficult to do in silos – an experience Ray spoke to with their work at the Bromley Borough Foodbank. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the demands placed on the foodbank have increased. With that increased demand, Bromley has had to look at “the social contracts between us and social services…. we’re seeing the foodbanks having to deal with mental health issues, family breakups and domestic violence coming from poverty and food scarcity. We’re not equipped to do this and meant to be temporary service, operating at a smaller scale. However we’re finding and creating ways to operate like a bigger business and help with these issues.”

It was a point echoed by Rob who said “we see similar challenges within the Switch The Play Foundation. We had something recently where a couple of athletes needed more support than we could offer them and that puts in challenges as our driving force it that a person needs help, we’re going to help them but we can’t do them alone.” Charities partnering with other charities and coming together to better support and help the community.

That brought to a close an incredibly insightful discussion. A huge thank you to all members of the panel, who spoke candidly and helped bring to life what good social impact looks like.