Why is trust so fundamental to sport? Angus Armour explains why.

    “Trust is so fundamental that sport in the absence of trust can no longer be sport,” Sydney-based sports lawyer Darren Kane recently wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. It is a strong but profound claim. Sport at every level relies on subtle networks of trust, the implicit rules of the game, which allow it to play a central role in community life.

    Parents trust that sports clubs and coaches will look after their children when they drop them off at training. Every weekend passionate fans place their trust in their teams. Clubs trust their fans to support their team in the right spirit, eschewing spiteful abuse of the opposition. Athletes trust that administrators will catch and punish those who flout the rules on performance-enhancing drugs.

    For sporting organisations to achieve their goals... they must foster and maintain trust with their stakeholders.

    For sporting organisations to achieve their goals — not simply winning but encouraging participation, healthy lifestyles and a sense of camaraderie among their community — they must foster and maintain trust with their stakeholders.

    Good governance is essential to sporting organisations and their boards being confident that they meet the standards expected of them to maintain the community’s trust. The modern sports official talks as much about ‘engagement’ as they do about trophies. Dozens of sporting bodies, from the grassroots to the elite level, have engaged the AICD’s Advisory team in the past year on what they should be doing to ensure long-term organisational success, and many more members have undertaken our short courses dedicated to sports governance.

    For example, QSport, the major representative peak body for sport in Queensland, engaged the AICD to provide training programs covering governance, finance and strategy for its members, which are mainly not-for-profit state sporting organisations. “We provide these opportunities as part of our annual program of professional development to enhance the capacity of our members’ personnel to effectively govern and manage the development of their sport,” says QSport CEO Peter Cummiskey.

    The breadth of our engagement reflects the challenges facing the boards of sporting organisations. Leading Australian writer Gideon Haigh, who has interviewed a large cross-section of directors and administrators of sporting organisations, believes governance can be more complex for sporting organisations than for corporates.

    “You have multiple overlapping stakeholders who have different degrees of influence,” Haigh said in an interview for the AICD last year. “There are relationships with fans, participants, government, sponsors, broadcasters, history and tradition — and with a sense of values that are sometimes almost more binding and onerous than a corporate mission statement.”

    The challenges involved in the governance of sporting organisations are manifold. As with many NFPs, financial sustainability and diversification of revenue streams is a primary concern for many boards. There are multiple reporting structures and regulations. Governments are imposing governance standards as a condition of funding. Grassroots participation must be balanced against supporting elite high-profile athletes. Diversity must be a priority at all levels of participation.

    Shaping club culture, managing volunteers, expectations of player behaviour and duty of care to those involved in the club are all complex issues. And the roles of senior leaders — which can include the board, CEO, president, coaches and senior players — need to be clearly defined to keep the organisation accountable.

    The most iconic Australian grassroots sporting organisations, our Surf Life Saving Clubs, are globally famous volunteer organisations. Just as every surf lifesaver must complete the bronze medallion, the AICD has worked with the volunteer board of Surf Life Saving New South Wales (SLSNSW) to make sure they are equipped to oversee an organisation that by its nature takes on substantial risk. We are proud to facilitate their work, as well as the work we do with other sporting bodies and their leaders.

    Sport and its rituals — from the sausage sizzle at nippers to a day at the cricket — play a central role in Australian life, and it is vital to our communities that sporting organisations continue to nurture trust as much as they nurture champions. The vast majority of officials, administrators and directors are volunteers, passionate about their sport. The richness of Australian sporting life is testament to the hard work they do behind the scenes to build trust, what Kane describes as the “essence” of sport.

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