Joining sport and development as a female leader

By Lisa Cornish 06 December 2016

Students playing basketball in Elandsdoorn, South Africa. Photo by: Sport Matters

When Jackie Lauff began her career in sport, women were so underrepresented that a bathroom break during a meeting could mean decisions might be taken without any female input.

The sector still struggles with gender parity, but Lauff has done her part, becoming one of the 45 women who head NGOs in Australia. Her organization, Sport Matters, uses sporting as a tool for community development, with a particular focus on including women and girls as well as people with disabilities.

Building the organization hasn’t been easy. Lauff had to convince peers both in sport and development that it made sense to combine the two. In the field, she saw the hurdles to incorporating vulnerable groups in development — and the benefits of doing so. Representing Sport Matters abroad, as a woman, has at times been challenging.

Sport Matters is now five years old, and Lauff is more likely to be asked about her expertise in sport than about being a woman in the sector. “It is great that we are considered the experts in this area of development,” she said.

Lauff spoke to Devex about her experience founding an organization and building a movement around sport.

An early passion

Lauff didn’t grow up imagining she would start an NGO, but with masters degrees in international and community development, and another in adapted physical activity, it made sense to combine the two.

Initially, she worked with the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education, Basketball Australia and in a Paralympic organization, giving her insight into the best inclusive practices and processes in sporting organizations. Lauff was struck by how often questions of development came up in her work.

“I was continually being asked about running programs for communities,” Lauff said. “There was an obvious gap that needed to be filled.”

Many existing sport-based NGOs focused on delivering single sports such as soccer or rugby. For Lauff, the type of sport was not as important as what it achieved. “It’s about finding out what the development needs are and then selecting the right tool, or sport, to get there,” she said.

Building an NGO

Although she had seen the need for a new organization first hand, Lauff had to convince many of her peers. “People didn’t understand that we were an NGO,” Lauff said. “It took a lot of explaining about what we aimed to achieve, but we didn’t give up.”

Almost a year after the initial concept, Sport Matters launched in September 2011 focusing initially on Australia, Fiji, Laos and South Africa.

One of the organization’s first achievements was becoming accredited with the Australian Council for International Development, Australia’s professional body for NGOs involved in international development. That helped to show legitimacy, but outcomes showed the organization’s impact.

Lauff points to a workshop Sport Matters held near Johannesburg as a turning point. The event brought disabled and able-bodied children together to play basketball. Initially, she recalled, the disabled children thought they would not be listened to and should follow what the able-bodied children said.

Instead, the workshop empowered the disabled children to take charge by leading the ideas and direction of the program. “They realised disabled people should have the same rights as everyone else,” Lauff said. That initial success encouraged Lauff to expand programs into countries in the Pacific, Asia and Africa, as well as Pakistan.

Women at the top

When Sport Matters first began, Lauff recalls, “100 percent of our participants were male. We knew we needed to do more to get girls involved.”

Lauff wanted to build strong and inspiring female role models in the communities she worked. “I want women who come from the same background and hardships and will inspire others,” she said.

Focusing on gender balance at the early stage of program development has made a difference. Girls are now nearing half of all participants in Sport Matters programs. A new program partnering with Squash Australia to bring squash to schools in Pakistan is aiming for a 50-50 ratio of girls to boys when it rolls out  next year. “It is still aspirational, but an important target we are aiming for,” Lauff said.

Some of her inspiration draws from her own experience advocating for women. According to the ACFID’s 2015-16 annual report, 43 percent of international NGOs are headed by women — a total of 45 women. Twenty-six of these women, including Lauff, head small NGOs, while 13 are at the head of a medium organization while just six represent a large NGO.

The representation of women at the top does not represent their value to the sector, Lauff said. According to ACFID, women make up 67 percent of the INGO workforce in Australia. Lauff is happy a regular attendee of Women in Development meetings which encourage networking and discussion in for Australia’s development sector.

“Gender equality is a global issue that is significant enough to have its own stand-alone global goal,” she said. ”Women’s empowerment is a precondition for this but it’s not the end of the story and bringing the voices of men and boys to the table is so important.”

Similar conversations are happening in sport, where women are also still under-represented.

“No one sector has answers for overcoming these issues yet,” she said.

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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