Green-Sports is one spoke of the Purpose & Sports wheel that also includes child protection, diversity and inclusion, supporting refugees and more. Lex Chalat began working in that space in 2008 when she joined Beyond Sport, which was just starting out in London, and she hasn’t left.
Since then, she helped the organization become an influential convener and funder of sport-for-good nonprofits around the world. And Lex also has been a driving force behind thinkBeyond — a consultancy born out of Beyond Sport — that “helps organizations and people that do good, to do it better through sports.”
Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, including where the environment fits in the Beyond Sport/thinkBeyond “cause lineup” and how green can become a bigger factor going forward.
GreenSportsBlog: Lex, I’ve wanted to interview you for GreenSportsBlog for a long time so thank you! I can sometimes get very myopic about Green-Sports and so having the perspective of someone who looks at all aspects of Purpose & Sport, from gender to refugees to, well, green, is valuable indeed. How did you get into the sport-for-good niche?
Lex Chalat: I was a gymnast growing up in Colorado, so I got the power of sports early on. Went to UPenn in Philadelphia and became captain of the gymnastics team, which was just an incredible experience that has had a lasting influence on my life. Majored in journalism and art history.
After graduation, I became a journalist in Philly, working at a small local paper in the southwest section of the city. It was really a forgotten neighborhood of Philadelphia, not well connected to mass transit. The problems were many and serious but there also was a lot of good going on in the Southwest. We only wrote good news stories about the community — which meant most of them focused on arts, music and sports — hey, if you wanted to read about murders in the area, then you’d read The Inquirer!
From there I moved to being editor at South Philly Review, which covered similar topics. I also wrote about community development and art for Philadelphia Weekly, including a weekly column called The Edge that told stories about how arts and sports were both gentrifying but also supporting the development of the areas on the fringes of the city. I loved and became obsessed with not only the writing but also community development.
Lex Chalat (Photo credit: Beyond Sport)
GSB: Did you go into community development?
Lex: No. Instead I got my Masters at the London School of Economics, choosing that school because of its independent, open-ended approach. So I created my own path, studying about unique catalysts for change — like sports and arts — in urban areas. In fact, my dissertation was entitled, “Art Affects.”
GSB: Very cool. What did you do next?
Lex: So in 2008, I saw that an entrepreneur and ex-athlete, Nick Keller, was starting something called Beyond Sport. He had some very prominent early backers, with Tony Blair being the chairman of the Beyond Sport Ambassadors…
GSB: You can’t get more prominent in Great Britain than Tony Blair! He had just left the Prime Ministership at that time, right?
Lex: That’s right. He and Nick both saw the power of the connection between sport, the business world, and society. Not a lot of people were talking about it then, especially not in the private sector.
GSB: Having Tony Blair onboard was a huge coup!
Lex: Yes! He helped Beyond Sport get support from other elite athletes and celebrities of that time like David Beckham, Seb Coe…
GSB: Former world record holder of the mile and the head of the London 2012 Olympics…
Lex: …former NBA basketball star and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, legendary Olympic swimmer Donna De Varona and more.
GSB: That’s an impressive roster
Lex: I saw that Beyond Sport launched and said to myself, ‘Obviously I’m going to work for them.’ I found out they were looking for an intern and even though I had a Masters degree, I said ‘YES!’ right away. We were a true startup — there were eight of us at the time. Our approach was to connect governments and the private sector to help publicize and fund the most effective nonprofits in the burgeoning “sport for good” world. And we had early success, thanks in large part to signing Barclays as a lead sponsor.
By the summer of 2009, we were hosting the first Beyond Sport global summit in London. Desmond Tutu, Australian Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Ian Thorpe, and Marcus Agius, the CEO of Barclays at the time, headlined the speaker list. Sport-for-good organizations applied for Beyond Sport awards, which included a prize of funding and business support, in categories like Sport for Education, Sport for Health, and the Environment. We covered the cost of all short-listed organizations to get to London for the Summit. It was INCREDIBLE!!!
Adolf Ogi, UN Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace and former President of the Swiss Confederation, presents the 2009 Beyond Sport Humanitarian in Sport to Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Photo credit: Beyond Sport)
GSB: No kidding! So convening the private sector and governments to fund sport-for-good became Beyond Sport’s ‘special sauce’?
Lex: That’s right…And the Summits allowed us to educate, tell stories, and inspire. Since those early days, we’ve diversified and grown, with Beyond Sport United, which brings the major U.S. leagues together to explore how they can make a bigger social impact, Beyond Innovation — focused on Sport-for-STEM, Beyond Soccer, Beyond Rugby, Beyond Sport UK, Beyond Sport Mexico… the list goes on.
GSB: I’ve been to one global Summit and several Beyond Sport United events, although none in the last couple years. And, full disclosure, I was a judge for the environmental category shortlist a few years back. The events I attended were indeed inspiring — seeing the incredible Sport-for-Good nonprofits, like Skateistan, an organization that teaches kids in war torn Kabul, Afghanistan to skateboard, was, well…beyond. What’s been happening with Beyond Sport since 2015-2016?
Kids participate in 2013 ‘Sport For Education’ Beyond Sport Global Award winner Skateistan’s program in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Skateistan)
Lex: A lot has changed since we first started. First, the sport for good world has become far more sophisticated. Second, the corporate and government sectors are far more interested and committed to purpose than they were a decade ago. And finally, we have found people are interested in engaging in content in a different way. As a result of these three key components, we are constantly trying to revolutionize how we evolve and deliver our platforms so we can continue to benefit the sectors, but also push forward and grow. This year, we’re really changing it up with Beyond Sport United this September.
GSB: How so?
Lex: For the past few years, Beyond Sport United has expanded beyond a one-day conference to include peripheral events – from Community in Action to roundtable, senior leadership discussions. This year, we are creating something called Beyond Sport House, which will be one location that will host many small, vibrant sessions. Along with Beyond Sport United, which will still focus on teams and leagues, there will be pop-up talks here, workshops there, debates across the hall, networking in a corner over there.
The discussions will be solutions-oriented, no matter the topic, from human rights to mental health to STEM to the environment. The content will be partner-led and attendees will be able to curate their own itinerary, as well as run their own sessions and side meetings.
There will also be a chance to attend affiliate UN week events after Beyond Sport House closes. It will be a very fluid way of serving content and a different way to engage people. Details will be coming out soon.
GSB: WOW! It sounds like you and your team have gone beyond shaking things up! Does this mean the Beyond Sport Awards are no longer?
Lex: Not at all! That’s one of the most exciting things we’re working on this year. The awards will still play a major role, although we are re-envisioning them. There will still be a number of categories, a short list for each and then a winner. What’s new is that we are looking to add two big awards to deal with two big UN Global Goals. One is likely to be gender or social-related and — you will like this — the other is likely to be climate action. We’re looking to get bigger funding and name multiple “sport for good” organizations — likely three to five — as winners of each prize. They will be tasked with teaming up to come up with big solutions to the defined mega-problem.
GSB: So it’s a matter of the whole being great than the sum of its parts
Lex: Exactly. We’re really excited about this.
GSB: I can see why. I’m looking forward to attending. Now, let’s pivot to thinkBeyond. What is it, how did it come about and how does it relate to Beyond Sport?
Lex: This goes back to 2013. Barclays announced they were ending their partnership but they gave us a three-year off-ramp, which was very generous of them. So we had some time to think about how to diversify our revenue generation because, since the Great Recession of 2008, the corporate sponsorship world was changing dramatically. Getting corporates to sponsor conferences and summits like ours became exponentially harder.
On the other hand, many corporations were becoming increasingly interested in ‘purpose’ —engaging their communities and stakeholders for good, enhancing their brands, attracting and retaining employees — but didn’t know how to do it! Through Beyond Sport, we had the expertise about how to use sport to develop and execute purpose-driven strategies. And we sat at the intersection of hundreds of governing bodies, incredible sport-for-good nonprofits — most of which many brands had never heard of — and government agencies that could help activate those strategies. thinkBeyond grew out of this, really taking off in 2014-15.
GSB: So thinkBeyond is a purpose-driven strategic agency that uses the deep experience developed through Beyond Sport. With whom have you worked and what kind of work have you done?
Lex: We work in three main buckets — 1. Helping corporations and sports governing bodies develop their ‘sport for good’ strategies; 2. Implementing and activating those strategies; and 3. Helpng to position and communicate those strategies.
ESPN is a great example of our work in all arenas. thinkBeyond developed and project manages their international purpose-driven initiative, “Built To Play,” in Latin America, India and Australia. It creates safe spaces to play as well as providing access to sport for women, employment training programs and more. Key to the program’s success was our ability to find the nonprofits on the ground in the local areas that made things happen.
In January we launched thinkBeyond Talent — we advise athletes on how to make the most of their purpose-driven efforts.
GSB: Who have you signed on so far?
Lex: We manage Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson’s foundation, work with Brian Dawkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, helping him develop his new foundation, and Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, British Olympic field hockey players and the first gay married couple on Team GB, developing their cause narrative.
GSB: Great work on two counts: 1. Coming up with a smart, sustainable response to the need for Beyond Sport to change its business model, and 2. Developing impactful thinkBeyond programs that benefit people on the ground and sponsor brands. Now let’s talk environment and climate. It’s always seemed to me that green has taken a bit of a back seat to the other areas of endeavor at Beyond Sport. What’s your take
Lex: To be totally honest, Beyond Sport has struggled in the green space. We’ve never gotten huge interest from our nonprofit and corporate networks on environment and climate. It’s been on the periphery.
Since we’re not “Sport for Climate” experts, judging Beyond Sport’s environmental awards and creating our green content have largely been outsourced to the Green Sports Alliance and other leaders. thinkBeyond changed all that, finding corporate clients interested in green, in climate. We helped BT in 2015-16 with their 100% Sport initiative in the UK that got athletes and teams to push for action on climate. We handled their online campaign and managed their activation at the COP21 climate conference in Paris…
GSB: …The conference where Paris Climate Accord was signed.
Lex: We’re also working with Lewis Pugh, the long-distance swimmer, to get corporate partnerships through thinkBeyond Talent. He swims in places like Antarctica to highlight the seriousness of climate change.
GSB: Pugh is an incredible eco-athlete and humanitarian…
Lewis Pugh trains for his 2018 across the English Channel which helped spur the UK government to take action to protect the world’s oceans (Photo credit: Kelvin Trautman)
Lex: Absolutely. We’ve done better, green-wise, with thinkBeyond which I think is a sign that people care about it they just don’t know how to activate that interest. But we’re not where we want to be yet. And we’re ramping up, green-wise, on Beyond Sport.
In fact, there will be a Global Goals workshop focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at Beyond Sport House in New York in September. So green will be featured — along with gender equity, refugees, safe play and more.
GSB: What can Beyond Sport, thinkBeyond, the Green Sports Alliance, the UN, and others do to accelerate sport’s involvement with the climate crisis? Because, per the UNFCC’s latest report, the world doesn’t have time to waste. And I ask this question knowing there are politics involved.
Lex: I think Beyond Sport can ensure there is always a platform for experts to share how they are tackling climate issues through sport; thinkBeyond can do its part by tooling up our strategic services to cater to those who want to develop sustainability strategies – so we can make sure we help them in a smart way.
I also think the GSA and other experts need to move forward, and go beyond sport (no pun intended) by that I mean: In addition to trying to fix the sports world, we need to work with sports to fix the world. And, as far as climate change is concerned, we need to go beyond greening the sports world, and find ways for sports to green the world.