Kelly Davies is re-engineering the role local sports clubs can play in their communities. Rather than being a venue for sports and matches alone, Kelly believes they are an ideal public space to revitalize communities from within and take on a role that spans issues from employment and education to inclusion and health.
The New Idea
A former Premier League football player herself, Kelly knew sports clubs have a unique position of trust and connection in their local communities. At the same time thousands of clubs fail due to a lack of proper management. Kelly founded Vi-Ability in 2010 to engage unemployed local youth in re-energizing run-down clubs and turning them into thriving and sustainable community hubs whilst equipping youth with valuable employability skills.
Where existing “sports for good” initiatives engage young people to play sports in order to gain social skills, Vi-Ability is proving sports can give young people business-, employability- and life-skills. Rather than inviting young people to play, Kelly actually puts young people in charge of managing their local sports clubs, enabling those who lack sufficient work experience and qualifications to gain transferable employability skills in an environment that is un-threatening and fun. By enabling young people to gain real work experience and accredited qualifications, Kelly is transforming sports clubs into pre-employment training opportunities and has thus identified a new bridge into employment, which virtually every community with a sports ground can put in place. Having started with football clubs in Wales, Kelly has now demonstrated her model in a range of different sports settings and expanded her model across the London area, with plans to reach across the UK and internationally.
By working with both clubs and young people, Kelly is encouraging sports clubs to take on a broader role in society and offer more services to communities. By empowering local youth to expand the activities clubs offer, they are reaching their untapped potential as valuable community hubs. By taking on and tackling broader societal issues such health, education and unemployment, Kelly is exposing the value of a resource literally every local community holds. Ultimately, Kelly is re-defining what sport stands for, aiming to get communities, sports associations and policy makers to recognize clubs as untapped public resources: to educate and train young people and to address the national education, employment and health agendas.
Youth unemployment in the UK peaked with the financial crisis hitting the European job market in 2011, leaving 1 million young people without jobs. With a large number of qualified job seekers competing over limited employment opportunities, less experienced youth are left with little chances. With poor GCSE results and preparation for the working world, too many young people leave school hopeless and without aspiration. An additional lack of work experience opportunities means that many young people miss out on being introduced to work as a rewarding and positively challenging experience. Without support in place during the crucial transitioning time from school into the first job, many young people feel failed by the current system, distancing themselves from the education system and other institutions and entering a vicious cycle of demotivation and self-doubt.
Current attempts to bring young people into employment often fail to attract the most vulnerable. Standalone approaches teaching young people interview skills, literacy classes or brushing up CVs fail to address the underlying problems that hinder young people from gaining employment. Many programs require great initiative from the young people and are unlikely to be considered by those who have lost self-esteem and confidence. Other projects in the UK try to get young people who are not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) into industries with low barriers of entry such as the construction industry, but often require young people to move and fail to match their interests and aspirations.
The local community is more likely to serve as a first step for these harder to reach youths, but public sector cuts, as well as poor financial sustainability leave many communities with little means to maintain youth clubs, community centers or in fact many institutions that can offer jobs or preoccupations. Local sports clubs in particular can be a vital part of the fabric of community life and bring a range of social and economic benefits to people. However, many sports clubs suffer from funding as well as management and staffing issues: one of the key issues underpinning sustainability is that clubs fail to operate in a business-like manner, with less than 25% of sports clubs in the UK having a business plan in place. While some staff are involved in catering or maintenance work, few staff are trained in skills such as finance, marketing and accounting. With clubs being left financially unstable, young and old are missing out on the role clubs can play as community hubs and a place for learning.
Kelly’s mission is to broaden the definition of sport and its societal gains and to reveal the power local sports clubs hold as places to educate unite and transform communities. Her ultimate aim is to change the perception of society to see sport not as a siloed “add-on” activity, but as an integrated way to tackle issues such as education, un-employment, isolation and health.
The first part of Kelly’s strategy is to prove that local sports clubs can serve as places for education and training. To do this, she is inviting local youth to come on a transformational journey, slowly restoring their self-confidence while gaining hard business and life skills. Taking on self-referrals as well as referrals from job centers and partner institutions, Vi-Ability selects young people with potential but little opportunity. By limiting groups to 12 participants, Vi-ability is able to provide the all-important personal attention every young person needs to thrive, and maps each participant’s needs, goals and skills. To strengthen trust and allow for deep and lasting learning, courses run over a period of 12 weeks with direct training delivery two days a week. Building on the structure and content of traditional business courses, participants explore disciplines such as commercial management, human resources, finance, community engagement and marketing and can gain accredited qualifications. All teaching happens in the form of group work, problem-solving sessions and hands-on engagement, allowing young people to entrepreneur in action and fostering skills such as teamwork and leadership. They are run by facilitators with credibility: often young local leaders or program alumni whose life stories the kids can really relate to. Simultaneously to the courses, Vi-Ability encourages participants to take on voluntary roles in the community to put their learnings into practice and strengthen their empathy and social skills. With retention rates exceeding 90%, Kelly has successfully created a unique training model outside of traditional educational institutions.
To help bridge participants successfully into a future long-term career, Vi-Ability connects them into government-funded employment programs, connecting participants with future employers and offering personal support from Vi-Ability for up to 13 weeks. During the course, experienced staff also help young people identify and tackle personal issues like health and wellbeing, mental health or young parenting. Through this intense and long-term commitment to the individual, Vi-Ability can confidently offer a keen and reliable pool of young talent to the local and national employment markets. Vi-ability is engaging 380 individuals each year and successfully bridging 85% of participants into full-time employment. Kelly has already expanded her work creating partnerships with clubs in other European countries.
While Vi-Ability courses bridge young people into employment, they simultaneously transform local sports clubs. Best practice is shared, club profiles rise, new ways to engage the community are developed and a pool of trained talent is made available. Depending on a community’s needs Vi-Ability encourages clubs to engage other target groups such as the elderly or disabled. For example, Vi-Ability has helped clubs engage homeless people in partnership with Street Football Wales, supported young fathers in their parental responsibilities through a ‘New Dads through sports’ course, or encouraged the elderly to become active community members. Having successfully run programs in some of the UK’s most deprived areas Kelly showcases the role clubs can play as agents for social change.
To date, Vi-Ability’s model has expanded to clubs in all counties of Wales. Most recently, Kelly expanded her work in London through a government partnership, doubling her impact over the next two years. Kelly has already scaled her social impact internationally by partnering with European Football clubs and by sending participants to developing countries to gain experience and life skills while volunteering with local charities. She has also widened her methodology to other sports such as tennis, hockey, golf and swimming showing the robustness and scalability of her model. Currently, Kelly is expanding her model into the digital world, developing an app that allows anyone to run and manage a virtual football club. Mirroring the Vi-Ability courses, people who buy the app can learn through play and gain business and management skills while setting up virtual teams.
Ultimately, Kelly aims to use her on-the-ground experience to inform and influence changes on a policy level, addressing the mainstream education, employment and health agendas through sport. By proving the benefits to all sides, including reducing unemployment and re-vitalizing deprived communities, Kelly is showcasing the untapped potential sports clubs hold. She aims to incentivize sports clubs across Europe to see themselves as having a wider role in society, creating a movement from the bottom up, starting at the local community level, one club at a time. At the same time, she aims to influence policy-makers so they fully understand that funding sports initiatives can be an investment in employment, education and community regeneration.
Kelly grew up in rural Abergele, a small market town in the North of Wales in a family passionate about football. Her father, who was running a successful food packaging business, played for a local club and Kelly was a season ticket holder at Liverpool from the age of six. When Kelly was still very young she suffered from a serious and at one point life-threatening disorder in her relationship with food and compulsive exercising. She spent most of the time between age eight and twelve in and out of hospital. It was her father who got Kelly out of hospital and into football. In football, Kelly found a way to escape her illness and re-build a healthy relationship with eating and exercising. She showed a natural sporting talent, and soon regained full strength and played in the national under-14s league. At 16, Kelly signed a contract with esteemed football club Arsenal.
Due to her illness and lengthy stays in hospital, Kelly felt excluded from mainstream. The decision to join Arsenal full-time would mean sacrificing education for sports, but Kelly took the risk. Age 16 she moved to London, a city she had never visited before, and started a pattern of studying in the mornings and training the rest of the day. Reflecting on what career options there were for her future after football, Kelly could not imagine herself being a coach or physiotherapist, but had always been interested in the business side of sports.
She knew that there weren’t many women in the industry but decided to study and gained a scholarship to Loughborough University to read both Sports Science and Business Management. When finishing her studies aged 22 Kelly started a full-time MBA in Football Management, becoming the youngest graduate of the subject in Europe by 16 years. She studied from 9am-5pm while training from 6pm-11pm and writing a dissertation on the viability of a commercial department for football associations, where she developed a model identifying 10 different areas that would make a club financially viable.
Kelly found a fast-paced job, managing premier league tours across Europe. Her boss was the owner of a football club and after looking into their books for a while she made him aware that one missed cheque would turn the club bankrupt. With no money at hand, Kelly took the initiative and set up a football in the community scheme to bring in extra income. With just a bag of balls and cones, the scheme developed into a proper community program attracting £175,000 in the first year. It was this success that made Kelly realize that she could turn her dissertation into an educational program. Starting a pilot in her hometown club Colwyn Bay, Kelly engaged 20 NEETs age 16-18, taking on school drop-outs as well as ex-offenders. The success was unheard of with 20 out of 20 completing the course and 18 of them going into full-time jobs. Kelly gave up her football career after playing in the highest women’s league and being at the top of her career as a full welsh international. A year after piloting, Vi-Ability was awarded the Wales Social Enterprise of the Year. Soon after, Kelly was awarded the Big Society Award by the UK Prime Minister, and decided to dedicate her full-time attention to bring Vi-Ability’s model to its full potential across the UK.