How Sport-for-Development Organisations can Build Bridges Between Businesses and Refugee Communities

Mary Connor is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Soccer Without Borders, a global non-profit that uses soccer as a vehicle for positive change in the lives of underserved youth. Here, she discusses how its direct-service programmes support refugee and asylum-seeking youth in their journey to create a new home, and the ways in which brands can contribute to the growing issue of displaced people around the world.

This article forms part of a series looking at how sport can support refugee communities, run in partnership with Goal Click and thinkBeyond.

The 2020 UNHCR Global Trends Report announced that there are now 82.4 million displaced people in the world, an increase of 4% from the previous year. While children under the age of 18 account for 30% of the world’s population, they make up 42% of displaced people. For these 34.6 million children, displacement too often goes hand-in-hand with experiences of violence and trauma; social-emotional support and healing must be central to any efforts to meet the needs of displaced youth. 


Sport, and particularly football – the most widely known and played sport on Earth –  is an ideal platform to do just that. Sport-Based Youth Development (SBYD) programmes are intentionally designed to maximise the physical, mental, and interpersonal benefits of sport for the individual young person, while making contributions on a community level toward positive social change. In the case of refugee and asylum-seeking youth, effective programmes are able to combine individual educational, social, and mental wellness activities with family support and community-building.




This is the holistic approach that  Soccer Without Borders employs in its year-round programme hubs. The SWB’ hub in Kampala, Uganda regularly serves more than 450 refugee youth, with a majority having fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the United States, SWB serves refugees, asylum seekers, and new immigrants, including nearly 200 Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth (UIY) at its Oakland hub alone. The UNHCR reported that 44% of people arriving at the U.S. southern border are unaccompanied minors.


When refugees and UIY arrive in the United States, they are placed into schools that correspond with their age, regardless of prior schooling or English proficiency. SWB programmes are well-suited to offer educational and social-emotional support to these young people as well as community building through soccer programmes. When families arrive together, often the adults also need assistance with English language learning, in addition to employment, housing, and immigration procedural support. SBYD organisations such as SWB may serve as a referring partner and trusted link between the refugee community and other service providers. 


Moving Beyond Shared Value to Shared Purpose 

As businesses engage in a conversation around how to contribute meaningfully to pressing global issues such as displacement, it’s essential that there is a common vocabulary and understanding of why and how. In recent years, the concept of “shared value” and the phrase “doing well by doing good” have become popular, yet there has been little attention paid to measures of accountability around the “doing good” part. This has led, in many cases, a sense of “doing well by looking good” to consumers, without meaningful change to back it up. Without a sense of shared purpose via an embedded, long-term commitment to making meaningful change, and a willingness to be accountable to that commitment, these efforts are at best cosmetic and, at worst, exacerbating the very same challenges they claim to want to fix. 


Together, the public, private, and non-profit sectors can align around a shared purpose and make meaningful change in the world. To do this well, it’s essential that any efforts toward “meaningful business” establish some accountability and best practices. Here are a few proposed indicators:


  1. The effort at creating change starts inside the company, not outside: Current economic, social, and environmental policies and systems are the underlying causes of almost every social justice issue that a company could seek to address. That means the very first place a company should look to make change is within themselves. Every company should first ask itself, do we reflect the change we want to see in the world? Are we contributing directly or indirectly to the problem? 
  2. The timeline for the effort is realistic and unattached to marketing or profit benchmarks: Any expectation that a business will see the results of their social purpose investments in the first quarter, first year, or even in some cases the first decade is unrealistic. Issues such as global displacement are generational and intersectional, and will not be solved by the next quarter’s profit report
  3. The partnerships and collaborations aim to be transformative, not transactional: Traditional corporate social responsibility involves transacting with an NGO or other entity to do the legwork of implementing community programmes, while also finding ways to engage the company’s employees in that work. This dynamic implies that complex social issues like displacement could be solved swiftly if only for talented corporates turning their attention to it. This mindset is counterproductive, because it allows individuals to “check the box” instead of working together to leverage their unique assets and platforms toward solutions.
  4. Financial investment is equitable: Shared purpose requires sufficient investment to achieve the stated goals. Too often, the time and knowledge of those working in under-resourced communities is undervalued. Yet the company is relying upon individuals and organisations in that community to deliver the outcomes they desire. When outcomes involve partnerships, all roles and responsibilities involved must be valued equitably 
  5. Purpose goals authentically align with the company ethos: Every company has a core competency, a core product, a core mission, and/or an origin story. Some of the best efforts in meaningful business are those where the social purpose the company pursues aligns authentically with who they are. A prominent example of this is Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant to the USA from Turkey, who is committed to supporting refugees and immigrants both through his philanthropic efforts at the Tent Foundation and also through hiring refugees at Chobani. When the purpose can naturally integrate into a company’s raison-d’être, it is much more likely to have staying power. 


Unfortunately, there are few formal accountability mechanisms to make sure that a business is actually committed to the causes they market. At this stage, the primary accountability is the consumer, who is becoming increasingly savvy at spotting symbolic gestures and demanding that businesses support the causes they believe in. For example, a 2019 study in Italy, Germany, and France showed that 77% of consumers aged 18-35 and 44% of all consumers were more likely to purchase from businesses that support refugees. In the U.S. a 2018 study found that nearly half of consumers aged 18-35 looked favourably upon businesses that support refugees. While these statistics are promising, they do not add up to sustained, meaningful solutions. 



Soccer Without Borders

Needs of SBYD and Refugee Serving Organisations 

In the absence of purpose being embedded at the core of the private sector, partnerships between businesses and NGOs can create meaningful impact in the lives of those most affected by global displacement. In addition to considering strategies to make products and services more accessible to refugees and ensuring that refugees have access to employment opportunities, businesses can also partner with SBYD organisations and other NGOs that are serving the refugee community. Direct, unrestricted funding is by far the most impactful way of supporting a service provider, however there are several other effective ways that the business community can make a meaningful difference. 


SWB has strategic partnerships with multiple international businesses and individual professionals, who provide an array of support to our programmes. To illustrate different types of business support and partnership, here are a few examples:


Example 1: Business Model


An increasing number of companies and individuals are embedding philanthropy into their business models by donating a portion of sales to social causes that align with their products and purpose. This approach allows donations to be ongoing, planned, and repeated, providing stable support to a non-profit over time. 



  1. Fair-trade soccer equipment manufacturer Senda Athletics donates 1% of its sales to organisations that are improving lives through sports
  2. Women’s sportswear brand Goal Five, whose name references the UN Global Goal 5: Gender Equality, donates 5% of its profits to its nonprofit partners that get more girls involved in sports.
  3. Common Goal unites the global football community behind a shared vision, mobilising members of the professional football industry to pledge 1% of their salary to football-for-development efforts that align with the United Nations Global Goals. In addition to the financial support, partnering nonprofits benefit from Common Goal’s group promotional efforts.


Example 2: Product Donation


In 2019, Capelli Sport became the official uniform provider of SWB USA. In forming this partnership, Capelli Sport asked what would be a truly meaningful and useful gift to our programmes. Because game play is a major incentive for youth to participate, and because we work to create a sense of belonging through a team, the idea of a uniform donation emerged. Capelli took the time to seek out sizing and team locations, and distributed over 60 complete sets of team uniforms across five U.S. states where we operate. This mutually beneficial partnership:

  1. Provides product that serves a direct, specific, and significant need of the organisation (game day uniforms that increase the feeling of team)
  2. Co-branded as Capelli and SWB, the uniforms contribute to a sense of pride and belonging for refugee and immigrant youth in a way that donated or unbranded uniforms had not been able to provide
  3. Provides visual promotion for the Capelli brand on uniforms
  4. Creates cross-promotional opportunities for both the business and nonprofit
    (Ex: Social media posts, visibility in sports leagues)


Example 3: Skills-Based Volunteering


A third area in which businesses and individuals can support nonprofit organisations is through pro-bono work and skills-based volunteering. Oftentimes non-profit funding is tied to specific programmes, leaving few resources for business development and operational improvements. While many law firms often have explicit commitments to pro-bono work, few other sectors do, making it difficult to align needs with capacity. When a business or individual is able to donate their core competency toward an organisation, it can have a significant impact on the nonprofit’s ability to effectively serve the refugee community. 



  1. Many nonprofits rely on software to run the organisation and communicate with beneficiaries, clients, community members, and donors. The TechSoup marketplace is a powerful way to centralise access to these donations, but many other businesses are transparent about their willingness to discount their products or provide licenses for free. 
  2. In a world of fast-moving digital media and news, it can be hard for social issues like global displacement to gain the attention it needs to drive support. Companies or individuals with these skills can help elevate the work in a way that few community programmes could do themselves. For example, SWB was fortunate to have pro-bono support from Nemo Design to capture the stories and impact of its work with girls in the lead-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup. 
  3. Sometimes a need is less visible, such as a need for greater efficiency or better process. SWB recently received skills-based pro-bono work from Propeller Consulting, who helped design a tool to assess new growth opportunities and supported the facilitation of board meetings to consider and adopt new organisational strategy goals. 


As Nelson Mandela declared, “sport has the power to change the world.” Addressing the causes and effects of the global displacement crisis requires bold action across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and the sport industry can lead the way. Mobilising just 1% of the global transfer market in football alone would unlock over 40 million USD to invest in sport-based youth development programmes globally. Together we can put our shared humanity at the forefront of decision-making to ensure a brighter future for all young people. 



Soccer Without Borders

Mary Connor, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Soccer Without Borders



to join the ‘Game on’ working group,  alongside other leaders committed to social impact through sport, apply to become a member of meaningful business here



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