Re-imagining Sport - The Conversation Continues

Published November 25, 2020

Recently, we’re been asked to join virtual AGMs, town halls, and other gatherings to stimulate discussion, challenge outdated mindsets, and open hearts to new possibilities. What started as an invitation by one CEO to join her group in a discussion around the limiting forces that are keeping her organization stuck, has morphed into an invitation to re-imagining what might be possible if the sport sector came together to explore better ways to govern.

Amateur sport is not alone in wondering whether current governance structures are impeding performance. The entire not-for-profit sector is reeling due to a number of trends and scandals that are impacting the capacity to lead and govern given the challenges we are facing in the 21st Century. For anyone interested in “Reimagining Governance in the Non-Profit Sector”, Peering into the Future is a thoughtful report that provides compelling evidence why we must modernize.

Given sport’s reliance on a volunteer governance model, our sector, more than any other, is at risk of not being able to navigate the increasingly complex environment. We know that many Boards (from the grassroots to the national level) are struggling to adapt to the changing environment and are facing serious capacity and recruitment challenges to fulfill their mission. We know that many more don’t have the right people in the right seats to survive, let alone thrive. The effort required to achieve ‘system alignment’ becomes an exercise in frustration, if not an impossible task.

This blog shares some of the highlights of the key trends we have been sharing as we host and participate in ‘Reimagining’ keynotes, governance modernization discussions, and transformation projects. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider reading the first Re-imagining blog published this past April 2020 by Dina Bell-Laroche.

Trend 1: Shifting nature of volunteering

In one recent meeting, an organization’s President offered an inspiring analogy related to fossil fuels that stuck with me. As the car industry is working to reduce its reliance on fossil fuel by 2040, much needs to be undone before we can work toward a more environmentally conscious relationship with the planet. Reengineering cars, converting gas stations, and shifting attitudes all require time, effort, and a compelling vision. It feels like sport’s version of ‘fossil fuel’ is an over-reliance on a shrinking resource – volunteers. We need to grapple with generational change and the shifting attitudes about work, play, and giving back. Research shows that the next gen is focused on shorter-term, personalized, and skill-based volunteer experiences. Given that amateur sport relies on a healthy volunteer base to support our efforts, we must face facts and challenge the current mindset that there will always be an abundance of volunteers to replace those that are retiring.

Trend 2: Increased responsibilities of fiduciaries

With the fast pace of change, Directors must also meet new world challenges without the benefit of time. As we try to keep up with societal shifts towards more equitable, inclusive, and diverse environments, sport still reels from its ongoing issues related to safety, inclusion, unethical conduct, nepotism, and conflict of interest.

Directors must be data experts, strategists, sense-makers, and innovators. They must be financially literate, take smart risks, and be able to recognize all potential conflicts. And now they must adopt a more humanistic leadership orientation. This is a tall order for people trying to navigate a pandemic, raise a family, and manage their paid work commitments.

Trend 3: A shift from Management by Objective to Management by Values

In my book Values-In-Action: Igniting Passion and Purpose in Sport Organizations (2012), I wrote about a shift in management ethos that offers a more humanistic approach to leading others. The days of ‘power over’ has shifted towards a ‘power with’, inspiring people to achieve the extraordinary. As poet David Whyte remarked in his compelling book “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America”, today’s corporate workers find themselves lost in their day-to-day duties and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find meaning in the workplace. Without meaning, we flounder along feeling uninspired and fearful of trusting our internal longing for a ‘better way’. Most management books worth reading have been signaling the end of the ‘do as I say’ leadership style. Given our new reality and a next generation that is forcing the elder generations to ‘walk the talk’ as it relates to ‘living our values’, our current system is ill-equipped to support an ethos of servant leadership that is humble, compassionate, and resilient. As shared in the Ontario Not-for-profit Network’s report “Leading our Future: Leadership Competencies in Ontario’s Non-Profit Sector, “in the face of an increasingly disruptive and uncertain environment for nonprofits, leadership competency will be the factor that will distinguish those organization that fail or succeed, struggle or thrive.”

Trend 4: Maintaining relevance

Perhaps the most effective and ethical way to maintain relevance is to ensure that people see themselves reflected in the decision-making structures connected to the organization. As one example, when fighting for equitable solutions, we might say “you need to see her, to be her”. As we consider the ethical imperative of ensuring sport is diverse, it is critically important that the targeted populations see themselves in sport. Effectively, “we need to see them, to be them.” In addition, exploring non-colonial forms of governance might open different possibilities and support more holistic outcomes.  With a much-needed push to increase diversity and to foster more inclusive environments, sport still has a long way to go to walk the talk that reflects a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment at all levels.

Beyond ensuring that your Board meets the principle of diversity, organizations are being encouraged to provide engagement opportunities to all stakeholders using creative means. This participatory form of governance invites stakeholders to have a voice and to shape a culture of belonging. For instance, we applaud the efforts of athletes and vanguard organizations who are demanding more equitable environments through a redistribution of power towards something more just. The next generation is calling for more transparency which will help to earn the trust required to maintain relevance.

Trend 5: Keeping promises

As someone who has been working in the sport sector since 1991, I have seen the increased focus on accountability, performance and outcome measurements required by funders, donors and the public. Overall, I believe it’s a good thing that we are held accountable (keep our promises) when we are receiving public money to fulfill our mission. However, we know that measurement beyond medal performance is largely under-resourced and, dare I offer, under-valued. Most of our clients lament the onerous accountability reports that are required to justify budgets and, with our over-reliance on government funding, this administrative responsibility creates even more imbalance.

As I complete my 14 year journey of teaching risk management to sport leaders across the country[1], I am inspired by the lessons learned and the trust that was granted when tackling some of the most difficult topics. Beyond not having enough resources, sport leaders openly acknowledged the struggles they were facing with keeping up with funding expectations, managing conflict, dealing with crisis, and not meeting expected standards. While risk management is a useful and refreshing way to strengthen decision-making, nonprofits are also being asked to reflect the impact they are having on meeting societal goals. For sport leaders, this means accessing different data to better report on outcomes, which often comes with hefty price tags and resources sport leaders don’t often have access too.  Monitoring and measuring impact will be required to show progress and will necessitate an entirely new way of capturing the fulfillment of their mission.

Where to from here?

There’s a poignant quote from Nicole Carty, founder of SumofUs, that speaks to being open to designing, or more likely, redesigning “structures where regular people can plug in, connect to each other, and stand up for what matters. As we do so, the more possible it will be to transform the deepest injustices in our society.” Despite efforts to diversify, demonstrate accountability, create safe environments and defend our reputation on the world stage, given current realities, the real risk is that sport will be cast aside as other, more pressing priorities, take over.

As we look to engage each other in more meaningful and inclusive ways through the use of technology, virtual platforms, and networked communications, let us approach our current governance systems with curiosity and an open heart. Some of the interesting questions we’ll leave you with as you consider the way forward for sport governance include:

  • If we were designing a sport system today, what might it look like? What shape would the governance structure take?
  • In what ways do our current ‘selection by election’ approaches compare to consensus-style decision-making such as modeled in systems of Indigenous governance? Rather than thinking outside the box, let us be inspired by Indigenous traditions that invite people to think inside the circle.
  • Can volunteers realistically be expected to govern with the growing level of complexity?
  • In what ways would paying a Director for their service help or hinder the organization? What assumptions are we making about Board remuneration?
  • What might a new definition of governance look like that sees governance as a shared leadership function that extends beyond the Board?

As always, we love to hear your thoughts so drop us a line at,, or


[1] Since 2007, in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, I have facilitated over 100 risk management workshops among national, provincial/territorial, and community-based organizations. This project has been deeply rewarding and I am grateful to the hundreds of sport leaders who have contributed to a better and more holistic way to make decisions. Beginning in 2021, my colleagues will be taking over the facilitation of the risk management workshops so I can focus on leadership development, cultural transformation projects, and increasing loss and grief literacy within sport and beyond.

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