Four steps to engage athletes in sustainable development projects

Four steps to engage athletes in sustainable development projects

With trust in politicians and big business reaching new lows, and the increasing reach of social media, the athlete voice has never been more important when engaging the population. Three sports executives explain how to effectively involve them in you sustainable development projects

Around half the world’s population (3.4 billion people) tuned in to watch at least some part of this year’s FIFA World Cup. An extreme example maybe, but those viewing figures show the extent to which sport, if played at the highest level, can capture the imagination of swathes of people.

We watch for the entertainment first and foremost. And fortunately those who caught the action from Russia earlier in the summer were blessed with an exceptional tournament with few dull matches.

But the human element of sport emotionally invests us. Many fans of sport, whether they follow team sports or individual competitors, will have their favourite player, runner or rider. We watch in awe of them, aspire to be like them and (although many live lives we can only dream of) we relate to them.

And in a global environment where politicians, big business and traditionally strong institutions like religion are being questioned more and trusted less, the athlete voice is being touted as an increasingly powerful tool for influencing the public to do good.

The undoubted star of the FIFA World Cup, Kylian Mbappé, celebrated France’s win by donating all his financial winnings from the tournament to a charity that supports disabled children. If the estimated amount of $500,000 is correct, Mbappé’s gesture is not only generous, but has the potential to be hugely impactful.

As important as the money is, Mbappé’s selflessness highlighted the work done at the Premiers de Cordée, the charity he supported, to the world overnight. That kind of publicity is priceless for organisations that constantly require grants and funding to operate and help those in need.

Sports organisations that attempt to further sustainable development have always tried to convince athletes to become ambassadors and demonstrate their cause to the wider public. With the ubiquity of social media increasing the reach of the already high-profile sport stars, there’s never been a better time.

But recruiting the right athlete for the right cause is no easy task. Talking to sustainable development professionals working in the sport industry who have successfully harnessed the power of athletes, The Sustainability Report presents the important steps to address:

1. Identifying the right athletes

According to Michael Pedersen, founder of sports governance consultancy M INC. > change the game, the sweet spot is finding sportspeople with the right values, a strong fanbase and credibility to talk about the cause they’re representing.

Pedersen’s mission is to give athletes a platform to influence people’s behaviour with regards to tackling climate change. His pilot project at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland, alongside Protect Our Winters (POW) Finland, encouraged competing skiers to participate in a video demonstrating how spectators could fight climate change through everyday behaviours. He is currently working with other sports to find the athletes with the right credentials to bring the increasingly important climate change message to a wider audience.


When Katia Juárez Dubón was searching for the right athletes to promote her burgeoning Ride Green sustainability plan at the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) in 2011, she came across a young rider from Spain called Marc Márquez, and instantly knew he was a fit.

“I remember I saw a picture of him in Australia and he had a penguin in his hand,” the director of the FIM’s International Sustainability Commission tells The Sustainability Report. “I saw the look on his face and said ‘he’s the one’.

“He was riding around Australia, but he had time to go to a shelter and play with the penguins. This is the kind of person I wanted. I tried to contact him with his manager and somebody introduced me to his mother and father and I presented the programme. They loved it and knew that their son would too.”

FIM Ride Green Ambassador, Marc Márquez (Credit: Lukasz Swiderek via FIM)

Now a four-time World Champion in MotoGP Márquez is one of six Climate Ambassadors for the FIM across disciplines, including Randy de Puniet, Greg Hancock, Laia Sanz, Takahisa Fujinami and Alex Salvini.

Juárez Dubón adds: “The values are totally necessary. We need people with a family background. And young athletes. Over the summer I was trying to find out what the ambassadors were doing. Marc spent time with a dog. Alex was with his family. They have family values and love animals. If there is a sportsperson who is partying all the time, they might not be a good fit.”

Common Goal, the initiative developed by streetfootballworld that asks professional footballers to donate 1% of their wage to sustainable development causes, it slightly more flexible with its approach.

“We try really hard not to judge anyone based on what we have seen in the press or heard second hand, but we really try to have a conversation,” explains Andrew Wisniewski, strategic communications lead at Common Goal. “Players are men and women who have a tonne of voices in their ear. They are being pulled in multiple directions, and most of the time, even if we have heard something not so positive, we start talking to them and take in their side of the story.”

However, Wisniewski is clear that Common Goal scrutinises the athlete’s intention is to make sure they want to make a “genuine impact”, not contribute in order to create a positive PR campaign.


Common Goal has been lucky enough to generate extensive media attention due to the fame of its growing membership. World Cup winner and Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata was with the organisation from day one, creating interest right from the beginning.

The next four members were Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, who both represent the US Women’s football team, Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini and hot Bayern Munich prospect, Serge Gnabry. Between them they have 14.5 million Twitter followers alone.

But engaging sportspeople with that kind of profile is extremely difficult. And they may not be the best fit for certain causes.

Pedersen explains that while high-profile footballers can generate the most general interest, athletes in more niche sports (like snow sports, for example), can still have a solid, loyal following. Sportspeople in the public eye are generally harder to reach and often live in a complete different world from the fans, so athletes excelling in lower-profile sports might be able to connect to their fanbase more directly.

“The football fans are different from the ice hockey fans, who are different from the volleyball fans,” explains Pedersen. “What we are trying to figure out is what is the best way to actually motivate fans to change their individual behaviour.

“Is there such a thing as a universal message that is very effective when provided by the top athletes in a particular sport, or do we have to look for effective messaging along the lines of being very sport specific, very region specific? Or do we have to have a mix of the two? We’re not at the stage where we can firmly conclude on any of those questions.”

After discovering Marc Márquez as a rookie rider, Juárez Dubón can now reap the benefits of her first ambassador being the main man in his sport. He has a social media following of 2.4 million Twitter followers, 3.1m Instagram followers and 3.9 million Facebook likes. Put simply, he is one of the most recognisable faces in motorsport.

Juárez Dubón, however, points out the importance of engaging athletes of several nationalities, different sexes and various motorsport disciplines so that a large section of the global population can identify with them and their messages around environmental stewardship.

“We have to have a balance because of the nature of our sport,” she says. “I’m lucky because I have superstars in the Ride Green team. But we engaged them before they were superstars. I had to present something last year and asked Marc to come to the presentation. He told us that he always had time for the programme because we believed in him when he was a nobody.”


Superstardom, Pedersen suggests, may actually have a negative effect on the credibility of an athlete, particularly if they’re, for example, championing an issue like climate change while flying around the world in private jets.

“If you earn a lot of money as a sport celebrity there’s a chance you also have a bit of a lavish lifestyle,” he says. “If you’re flying around the world in private jets it’s difficult to come across as a credible climate ambassador asking normal people to reduce their footprint.”

But Juárez Dubón isn’t concerned with material lifestyles, as long as the work the athlete does makes a genuinely positive impact.

“Leonardo DiCaprio (famous for his work fighting climate change) travels in private jets,” she says. “It’s a question of balance. If you use your private jet to fly around the world convincing millions of people to do something good for humanity it’s worth it.”

2. Convincing the athletes to get involved

A month after Juan Mata revealed his intention to donate part of his wages to projects stewarded by streetfootballworld via Common Goal, former Italy international defender Giorgio Chiellini sent a message to the organisation’s info@ email address to enquire about getting involved.

Juan Mata has been a member since Common Goal launched last August

“Everyone in the office looked around not believing it was him,” says a laughing Wisniewski, acknowledging that convincing the right footballers to get involved has not been a problem thus far for Common Goal.

Many are convinced by teammates to get involved. Others have found the movement via its coverage in the mainstream press, as well as social media. Once the scheme is presented alongside the several sustainable development projects a footballer can contribute to, there doesn’t have to be a whole of of cajoling done, Wisniewski admits.

But that wasn’t always the case. Last year, Common Goal and streetfootballworld chief executive Jürgen Griesbeck said that before launching the scheme with Mata, streetfootballworld “had a hard time of getting in front of footballers and telling them about the initiative”.

The new-found interest, says Wisniewski, is all about simplicity. Getting a footballer to donate 1% of their wage to charity is a significant gesture, but takes little effort.

“It’s about presenting it in a really seamless way,” Wisniewski adds. “It’s something we’ve worked really hard on. If a footballer comes in to talk about the project, we ask them what their passion points are, what areas of the world they care most about, and what issues they care about – whether it’s gender equality of quality educations. We then develop some recommendations and present them with a few organisations they can choose to donate to.”

Juárez Dubón agrees that simplicity is key to engagement, particularly when dealing with professional athletes who have very little time.

“We started the programme with very simple activities, like videos, that don’t take too much time,” she explains. “We focused on simple messages, like how to save water and putting plastic bottles in the proper recycling containers.”

While societal issues like race and gender equality, poverty and hunger are “easy to advocate for”, Pedersen reveals that climate change issues can “be a bit of a hard sell” to potential athlete ambassadors who fear having their lifestyle habits scrutinised.

Some athletes, he adds, have to be persuaded to be involved. For this, Pedersen has two strategies.

“Firstly, we’re opening their eyes to the value of engaging positively in addressing societal issues,” he says. “This can broaden and deepen their fan engagement, and therefore their potential value to sponsors. Beyond the most popular sports they’re all fighting for sponsorship, and this is a concrete thing that can help them in competition for limited sponsor money.

Pedersen (left) together with local project partner Teemu Kalliojarvi from Protect Our Winters (POW) Finland during the pilot project at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland

“The other aspect is that professional athletes retire at a very early age, so becoming an ambassador gives them the opportunity to develop experience, skill expertise and a network that will set them up nicely for eventually pursuing a career in sport for development, either through starting their own foundations or supporting existing efforts.”

3. Training the athletes

Basic facts around climate change and the damage it does to the Earth is integrated into the training of ambassadors, adds Pedersen. They are also educated on how they can “positively address” societal issues and add value to the cause.

Training for the Ride Green ambassadors is also crucial to Juárez Dubón’s programme. Athletes have to be properly briefed and prepared before they start to talk about sustainability due to the nature of their sport.

“They need the tools to answer potentially tricky questions,” she says. “In our case it’s always very difficult to speak about sustainability because we are in motorsports. People think all we do is burn gasoline. It’s true to some extent, but if you compare what the programme is doing for society to the negative impact created by the sport, the positives have more weight.

“Most ambassadors are also not native English speakers, although most speak good English. So we decided that when they talk about the programme they should do so in their own language so they have clarity.”

4. Measure their impact

One day, Juárez Dubón was about to have lunch at one of the circuits during a race. With no spare tables, a family of seven asked her to join them and offered to share their pizzas.

“I said ‘no’, but they said ‘eat, eat’. Then one of them told me that we have to eat everything because Marc Márquez said we cannot waste food.”

The family had watched, and paid attention, to a video that was being played on a loop around the circuit all day. The video, fronted by Márquez, was part of the United Nations’ Stop Food Waste campaign (in collaboration with the FIM), encouraging spectators to manage their food more consciously.

“I was amazed,” she admits. “They watched the video and the message was at the forefront of their mind.”

Despite heartening stories demonstrating the impact Ride Green work is having on spectators, the FIM is not currently measuring fan engagement or behaviour change as part of a statistical study, although Juárez Dubón would like to.

Instead, her team monitors the social media activity of the ambassadors and the responses they receive after posting a sustainability-themed update. According to Juárez Dubón, less than 5% of the comments are bad.

As far as Common Goal is concerned, results simply equal money generated for the projects it promotes. In the first six months, the organisation brought in $500,000 that was distributed to 27 sustainable development causes around the world, plus two signature projects – a menstrual hygiene management programme for girls in India and a social enterprise project in Lesotho.

To date, more than $850,000 has been generated by Common Goal for sustainable development projects worldwide

To date, Common Goal has generated $850,000, with a second window of allocation due in the coming months. And the money isn’t exclusively from the wage of professional footballers.

“From the very beginning we heard from fans asking how they can take part,” says Wisniewski. “We’ve been working on facilitating that and making it possible. Right before the FIFA World Cup we launched a digital platform that allows fans to pledge the 1% like the footballers, or make one-time donations.”

For Pedersen’s 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships pilot project, data was the goal as he tries to build a picture of sport fan attitudes towards climate change, and how athlete-fronted projects can alter those perceptions and encourage behaviour change.

Over the next year, his organisation will be undertaking five similar projects in other sports to gather more data to see how messaging can be harnessed to make the most impact.

Pedersen’s partner on the project, Tapio Kanninen (president of climate change organisation Global Crisis Information Network), has developed a citizens climate pledge, which asks people to make a concrete commitment regarding their carbon footprint. Their ambition is for athletes and sports fans alike to adopt this pledge with more frequency.

“We’re keen on creating a positive spirit,” says Pedersen. “Climate change is a challenging topic, so it has to be fun, engaging and compelling. We have a lot of ideas we’re going to test. Social media is very interesting because we don’t want to concentrate on fan engagement just during competitions, but on a more continued basis.”

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