Ben Szreter, CEO of Cambridge United Community Trust, explains the challenges facing the charity arms of British football clubs

You may already know that most, if not all, professional football clubs in England have a charity arm. The only professional club that I know of that does not have a linked charity is Ipswich Town (and even that results from unusual circumstances). These charities – known within the industry as Club Community Organisations (CCOs) – vary in suffix from ‘Football in the Community’ to ‘Community Trust’ to ‘Foundation’. They likewise vary enormously in size. Chelsea Foundation turned over around £6.8m for the financial year 2015/16 whilst the smallest turn over little more than £200,000.

All of them, however, have the purpose of developing their respective football club outside the sphere of elite football through programmes benefitting the wider community. The charity I work for, Cambridge United Community Trust (CUCT for brevity), was founded in 2010, and has a core aim of ‘using the power of sport and the brand of Cambridge United to have a positive impact on our local community’. We are so used to hearing the link between sport and giving, whether through people running marathons for good causes or larger campaigns such as Sport Relief, that it can often ring a little hollow. With top level footballers earning exorbitant wages, sometimes the charity wing might appear little more than an afterthought, or worse still, a PR strategy.

I think that is to misunderstand the connection between football and charity, especially its ability to break down barriers and to provide an instant point of connection and belonging. Our mental health campaign in secondary schools is a prime example of the ways in which a football club’s reach can be used to greater effect than traditional charities. Footballers are expected to be tough and competitive, and hearing that they too must manage their mental health is a real leveller and a powerful ‘way in’ to talk to young people about mental health. But that reach of sport also has more surprising manifestations, such as during our ‘dementia cafe’ sessions, which use sporting memorabilia as a way of stimulating memories.

Football’s megabucks image also masks many of the realities for their charities, where players are not multimillionaires and clubs are often situated in deprived areas. Even in Cambridge, a city known for its university and economic dynamism, the challenges are persistent. The city has been named for two years in a row as the most unequal city in the UK by the Centre for Cities Think-tank. The Abbey Ward of the city (where the club’s Abbey Stadium sits) has child poverty rates of around 27%. The hope at CUCT is to raise awareness of these challenges and to channel the wealth of Cambridge into poorer areas through CUCT’s projects. At a time of cutbacks, the club’s physical space has become increasingly important, for example with computer-equipped classrooms able to be used by the community for digital access and tuition.

At CUCT we benefit from a very strong relationship with Cambridge United, our ‘parent club’. I myself sit on the senior management team and CUCT is seen internally as the ‘charity department’ and not as a separate organisation, although of course CUCT’s finances and governance remains separate from the football club.

Footballers are expected to be tough and competitive, and hearing that they too must manage their mental health is a real leveller and a powerful ‘way in’ to talk to young people about mental health.

However, unfortunately a good relationship between CCO and parent club is not always a given. I have heard stories from other CCOs of clubs charging charities to bring children on tours of the stadium, extortionate rents for office space within the stadium and a complete lack of engagement from parent clubs in getting footballers to visit community events. These stories are not necessarily the norm but at the meetings I attend, the challenges of relationships with parent clubs is always a much discussed topic. Indeed, the aforementioned Ipswich Town’s former charity is now unaffiliated with the Football Club and titled ‘Inspire Suffolk’.

Relationships with parent clubs can vary around cycles of results, personalities of managers, CEOs or the chairs of clubs. At certain points in a club’s lifecycle their CCO can be extremely important. In the last five years, both Tottenham and Brentford have given huge emphasis to their community work as they sought planning applications for new stadium developments (both were successful). Ultimately, whilst CCOs are legally independent of their parent clubs their successes and failures are very dependent on those of their parent clubs: relegation can significantly threaten charitable funding streams coming from the Premier League and English Football League, whilst poor team performance can affect donations from fans and good results can open up new opportunities for growth of CCOs.

Clubs and their associated charities are able to do immensely important work in their communities and can be a remarkable force for good by harnessing the social power of football to positively influence people’s lives. Working for one such charity is both an exciting and challenging experience. However, it must be said that being able to combine a lifelong love of football with a lifelong vocation for helping people and doing it in the city I grew up in is a true privilege.

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