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Alison Doherty - Organisational capacity

Alison Doherty

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Matt Smith
Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and my guest today is Alison Doherty, an Associate Professor in Sports Management from the University of Western Ontario, London.  She’s been researching non-profit sports and their organisational capacity, and she’s here to talk about how they are managed.
Alison Doherty
Organisational capacity is basically the organisation’s ability to achieve its goals and objectives, and it’s a term that’s been of increasing interest because researchers and practitioners have been looking at what is organisational capacity, what makes it up, and the focus has been on multi-dimensional elements of organisational capacity – so, looking at what are the assets, resources, what things does the organisation draw on to be able to achieve its goals and objectives, and looking at those all together, so that we can get a fuller sense of what organisations are able to do, and what things help them to do their work.
Matt Smith
Where does that apply for community sports organisations?
Alison Doherty
So with community sport, it’s important to understand all of the things that are both driving and constraining the ability of these sport clubs to offer their programs and services to be a meaningful outlet for competitive and recreational sport and physical activity in the community, for children, youth and older adults.  It’s particularly important to understand the capacity or the ability of these sport clubs to continue to offer these services and support to their members and also to address some of the pressures and expectations that they’re facing.  For example, people in communities in our societies have increasing expectations of organisations that we belong to.  Even if we pay a small fee to belong to them, we expect first rate service in a timely and professional manner, we see all around us the use of technology and we expect that, even in our sport clubs as well.  As well, there’s a growing movement from municipal up to federal government, to turn to community sport clubs as a means to get all of us, and particularly our children, more active, to build cohesion, social capital in the communities, and right now it’s generally sort of vague that, well, this can be done through a community sport clubs, or community sport clubs are busy offering their sport activities and programs and leagues and coaching and those sorts of things, and there’s these extra pressures on them, so it’s important to understand the capacity of clubs to continue to offer what they’re offering, what drives that, what constrains that, as well as these extra pressures that they’re going to be facing.
Matt Smith
What have you found in your research into the capacity of Canadian sport clubs?
Alison Doherty
Well, with the Australian colleague at Griffith University, we’ve been looking at organisational capacity in community sport clubs, with a particular focus on the Canadian setting, and we took a quite broad perspective, because we didn’t just want to look at, well, what is the capacity of their volunteers.  That’s been a particular focus.  The people who do the work – who are they?  How do they do the work?  What are their needs?  What are their strengths and challenges?  The model that we’ve used looks at human resources, it looks at financial capacity, infrastructure capacity, planning and development capacity, and also external relationships or external linkages.  And so, basically what we’ve done is, at the clubs, what are your strengths and challenges in these regards?  At a basic level, what we found was these clubs said that the people are the strength, the skills and the experience that they bring and the passion that they bring.  And so we found that was interesting, because it’s not just one body, it’s not just having enough people, but it’s having people that are really passionate about the sport and developing the sport and have the skills and experience to contribute something, and that have a common focus on doing that.  Other strengths are what we call their fiscal responsibility – basically their budgeting.  It’s felt that the clubs are doing a very good job with that – they’re managing their money very well, so that’s good to know.  And another strength has been their access to quality facilities, and that’s interesting because that’s sometimes considered a concern that there’s not enough facilities, but, what they’re saying, for the programs that we run, our facilities are good and we have access to them.On the flip side, what they’re saying are, some of the key challenges are having enough of those skilled and passionate volunteers, and also the continuity.  So, when there’s turnover, and we know there’s a lot of turnover with volunteers, then they lose that knowledge and that skill – it goes out the door.  Other challenges are having stable expenses – they find that very challenging.  They have stable revenues, because it’s mostly based on memberships and they know what their membership levels are going to be.  What is a challenge are the unstable expenses.  They don’t know what they’re going to be charged for facilities.  They don’t know what insurance fees are going to be, and often they’re dealing with a municipality, the invoice comes in quite late in the budgeting cycle, and that’s a real struggle for them. Another particularly weak aspect – having access to alternate sources.  And that’s interesting, because there has been focus for many years now on sponsorship, and fundraising, and those sorts of things, but what they’re saying is, we’ve got stable revenues from our membership, and that’s good, that’s a strength, but we don’t have access to alternate sources, or we don’t know of them, or we’re not accessing them.  Maybe they don’t have the volunteers to go out and do that.  So that’s a critical aspect.Another challenge for them is formalisation.  So, still running from the kitchen table – they don’t have the policies and the procedures and the constitution and the job descriptions and those sorts of things, which is interesting, because as I said, that’s one of the pressures, is to become more professionalised and accountable.  People know what they’re doing and they’re not doing so well with that.  And another challenge for them is with regard to planning.  The clubs are saying that they’re generally doing planning, they are thinking outside the box, they have some creative plans, but the plans are not getting implemented.  So that’s interesting and again this study lets us see, looking at capacity as a multi-dimensional model, it lets us look at all of these aspects. So, rather than just saying, we don’t have enough volunteers, and we’ve heard that cry for a long time.  Because they don’t have enough volunteers, they can’t implement these plans.  They can’t go after these alternate sources.  They’re just getting by day to day, so we’re seeing a number of these different dimensions.To continue on with that, what does that mean?  So, here’s some strengths, here’s some challenges.  And what we found, what’s most notable, was that many of these weaker elements, the things they’re not doing so well, are some of the most meaningful things to the provision of programs and services, and club operations, particularly having alternate sources, impacts on the quality and the breadth of the programs and services that they can provide, as is formalisation of the club, the infrastructure and being able to implement plans.  So those are the things that, if you will, are holding them back, much less extending those, so having these alternate sources, having this formalisation and being able to implement these plans, we’ve been able to pull those aspects out in particular.
Matt Smith
What you’re saying here sounds rather familiar, and I imagine it would apply to clubs in many parts of the world, including Australia.  Have you found that?
Alison Doherty
I expect that they would be similar, because there’s many parallels between sport clubs in different countries.  We’re talking the grass roots, we’re talking the base level.  They all have the mandate to provide recreational and/or competitive opportunities.  We may find some variation in the strengths and challenges, but I expect that the dimensions are going to be the same.  That’s something that we’re thinking about doing – looking into partnering with the Centre for Sport and Social Impact, to look at some of these things in different countries and so, how we can learn.   So, for example, perhaps alternate sources and accessing alternate sources of revenue for clubs is a strength in Australia.  And so Canada can learn from that, what are they doing to access these other revenue sources?
Matt Smith
Have you found that there’s certain sports in Canada that seem to be more effective in this kind of organisational capacity?
Alison Doherty
That’s a good question.  We haven’t looked at it by sport.  We have tried to get a really cross-sectional sample to look at all the sports, so that is something that we need to do, is to break it down by sport.  Now we have accounted for the age of the club, and the size of the club membership and we’re not finding very much variation.  I think what that’s telling us is that when clubs start, they have some good models to work with, and so maybe some of their models are still at the kitchen table, but they can look to those and say, what is it that we need to start a club?  And they’re hitting the ground running.  A lot of cases, if we look at the sports that are starting clubs, things like ultimate Frisbee, maybe some of the extreme sports, if you look at the people that are starting those, they tend to be younger, 25 to 35, they have much more information technology skills and so they may actually jump ahead in some regards.  They have different connections than some of the older clubs.  We’re dealing with people that have different skills and experience.  But I expect that, just because of the nature that these are the grass roots clubs, they’re for the members to provide the programs and services and that is their first goal – to get people out on the field, to get people playing, to get whatever sorts of officials they need conscripted to run the activities, and then they start looking at, how are we going to pay for this?  And can we find some alternative sources of funding?   And I guess we should have a constitution and are we going to plan for the future?  So I think those things are going to come out across different sports and different ages of clubs.
Matt Smith
Do you think sport clubs are struggling to deliver their services to members?
Alison Doherty
Well, generally the sense that we got from the clubs that we talked to are that things are going well.  The sense we got is that their growth is limited.  They seem to be OK with that, and I think that is a bit of a circular argument and that’s something that maybe we need to be concerned with.  I know in Canada, the government is relying on sport clubs to develop participation and that means they need to grow.  They have their current members but are wanting to get more, kids in particular involved, and so they need to grow.  For example, we spoke with a few soccer clubs that said, we’ve got a big program, we’ve got several thousand members, we’ve got our fields in place, we have some sponsorship, our revenues from membership are stable, the expenses are not bad because we try to pin down the facility providers to tell us what the cost increase is going to be, but they can’t expand beyond that.  They believe, and I would agree, they’re doing a good job with what they have, but there are no more fields and they’re not sure they have the capacity, the human resource capacity, in terms of the volunteers, the financial capacity, the infrastructure capacity, to expand beyond that.  That’s going to be a struggle for them.  I think that we need to look into this a little bit further but I think that that is going to be function of having these alternative sources of funding available to them, who have the different rules for these sorts of things, and volunteers are known for wearing several hats and that needs to be portioned out, organised better and also to be able to implement the plans to grow.  So they really are operating day to day.
Matt Smith
What would you say governments can do better to support capacity building in sport clubs?
Alison Doherty
Well, I think policy, strategy and support, if we sort of work our way down, needs to be directed to building capacity in the key areas, and that’s what I’d wanted to identify in my research, are what are the key areas?  So, first of all, what does organisational capacity look like in community sport clubs, and then, what are the most meaningful elements, and with regard to offering programs and services, club operations, and we could look at other possible outcomes and see what impacts on that.  So, right now, policy is vague.  I can give an example, in Canada, there’s an increasing move recognising that community sport is really important for the health and wellbeing of Canadians, but the policy is vague – it’s … we need to support community sport development.  Well, what does that mean?  And so I hope my research is going to inform that.  Well, this is what it means, this is what is going on in community sport, this is what’s working well, and these are the challenges.  And provide strategies to do that and resources to do that, and so, the next phase of my research is to do a critical analysis of what is out there for community sport clubs in terms of information and resources, and does it align with what their challenges are?  I wouldn’t be surprised if there is not much, so perhaps the government really needs to direct to growth through planning and development of community sport clubs, and what ideas do they have, because they say we are strategising and we are trying to be creative.  We just can’t get it done.  Rather than imposing, this is what club sport should be, find out … this is what club sport wants to do and presumably it knows best, and then helping them to put those plans in place, whatever that might be.
Matt Smith
Associate Professor Alison Doherty there, and she was a guest at La Trobe University for the Centre of Sport and Social Impact.  That’s all the time we have today for the La Trobe University podcast.  If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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