17 May 2016

Fiji won the cup at this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens, which took place on April 8 to 10 at the Hong Kong Stadium. But all kinds of other exciting events played out behind the scenes.

On the Friday evening, there were stadium visits for around 6,000 local schoolchildren, who were invited to see the action and share in the fun. As part of their wide-ranging commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) also made sure free passes were available for hundreds more youngsters to enjoy the show.

Some are from underprivileged backgrounds, while others are overcoming disadvantages, or are young offenders. Through their involvement in rugby-based training programmes, all are being given the chance to discover untapped skills, make new friends, develop self-confidence and find a sense of purpose in life.

“I’m a firm believer that sport can be used as a medium to tackle any number of social issues,” says Robbie McRobbie, the HKRU’s general manager of rugby operations and commercial. “It’s a great way to engage people, break down barriers, change impressions and have a life-changing impact.”

Current initiatives run by the HKRU Community Foundation were inspired by Operation Breakthrough, a charity dedicated to enhancing trust between the police and youths who seem destined for trouble. The initiative began by using boxing lessons as a way to improve understanding on both sides. Now, 11 different sports are involved, and hundreds of young people are reaping the benefits.

“Involvement with Breakthrough showed me what could be done in terms of effecting social change,” says McRobbie, a former inspector with the Hong Kong Police, who moved to the HKRU in 2003. “We want as many kids as possible to take part, but these projects are about more than simple participation. We are giving everyone the opportunity to play sport, including kids who are at risk and those with special needs. But it is also important for us to promote values and build self-esteem.”

When planning new rugby programmes, the first step is to identify a sector of the community that has an issue and can benefit from them. This has meant directing attention to the needs of hearing-impaired children, teenagers in the Tuen Mun Boys Home, and young offenders in the Cape Collinson Correctional Institution.

The initial contact is made through Asian Charity Services, an NGO. When assessing the options, “sometimes it clicks”, says McRobbie. This happened last year when McRobbie visited a children’s residential care home, and saw that a sports programme could spark interest and excitement. After contact has been made, the hard work really begins. “The crucial thing is to have well-trained staff,” he says. “To be effective in social change, they need to understand how sports coaching, youth coaching and education intersect.”

It’s not simply a matter of asking for volunteers. Fortunately, Monaco-based Laureus Sport for Good Foundation has provided introductions and financial support to arrange tailor-made training courses. These deal with the key aspects of youth development and explain how drills on the rugby field can be used to make a point, or drive home a message in tackling issues such as juvenile crime. “We are using the context of sport to get across important lessons and reinforce them creatively,” McRobbie says. “If there is no conversation in those areas, then there is no real point to what we do.”

In one exercise, the group are told to pass the ball to each other. But they have secretly been told to deliberately exclude one player. When the game stops after five or 10 minutes, the excluded individual is asked to explain what it felt like. The resulting comments can then be spun into a lesson about discrimination, inclusion, and teamwork.

Alternatively, in a move adopted from similar schemes in divided communities like the West Bank, Cyprus and Northern Ireland, teams are selected with a view to breaking down cultural barriers. If the players don’t co-operate and communicate, they will have less chance of scoring, or beating that day’s opposition.

“Exercises like these can be very simple, but they are still very powerful,” McRobbie says. “They teach kids to think about each other as individuals, not as objects of mistrust, and they show the advantages of breaking down prejudice and misunderstanding.”

Most of the programmes are geared to teenagers aged 13 and over. They are open to boys and girls, depending on the situation. To make it easy to get involved, each initiative is run on the basis of “zero cost” for the participants and their parents.

The HKRU, in tandem with various donors, provides a sports kit, boots, balls, transport, and whatever else might be needed. In certain cases, only the generosity of corporate sponsors makes the initiative possible.

Companies with an interest in CSR are usually linked to a specific programme. This can be ongoing, or it can last around eight weeks.

For example, HSBC is backing a long-term scheme run for the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Société Générale is paired with the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children, and Standard Chartered is supporting a five-year programme for the Hong Kong Association of the Deaf.

“The kids want to win matches and medals and be recognised for achievements on the field,” McRobbie says. “Along the way, you might find the odd nuggets of rugby talent, and a few from Breakthrough have gone on to Hong Kong age-group teams. But that’s not why we are doing this. More important for us is to ensure that everyone gets a game and that their lives start to change.”

Even so, the goal-oriented mind-set of the business world means that corporate sponsors prefer to establish measures which show the results of their involvement. It’s not enough for the old hands, who have seen the changes with their own eyes, to just say it works.

“When we first started, people were not so worried about monitoring and the returns on investment,” McRobbie says. “But now everyone wants to see statistics about what is being delivered. We realise, though, that if you want the corporations to sponsor you, it is important to demonstrate the money is being put to good use.”

With this in mind, the HKRU is working with the department of social work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to design ways to monitor, evaluate, and “upscale” staff skills, especially for initiatives working with children with special needs.

In the absence of past data, valid comparisons and control groups, establishing such measures is not easy. But some schools do have records relating to late attendance and absenteeism, and some note demerit points for indiscipline. Students taking part in rugby programmes show great signs of improvement in these areas.

The HKRU also plans to share the cost of employing a qualified social worker on a full-time basis with an NGO. The aim is to offer a more scientific assessment of the results, and to validate methodologies and progress for the benefit of the companies’ CSR experts. But one of the best proofs of success is that the HKRU currently employs eight full-time staff, who came through the Breakthrough programme, and then trained as coaches to remain part of the project.

“They are the best possible role models,” says McRobbie. “But anybody can do it. You don’t have to be an international-level rugby coach, a qualified social worker, or a great teacher. You just have to be prepared to learn essential skills in the three key areas.”

Future plans include teaming up with more corporate sponsors and translating the training course materials into Chinese. Some of Hong Kong’s new generation of professional rugby players may take the chance to get involved, although they are under no obligation to do so.

“I don’t want to put people in an environment where they are not comfortable,” McRobbie says. “It ends up being detrimental if you force someone to do something which is not their cup of tea.”

It helps that events such as the ever-popular Sevens keep rugby in the public eye, and that business is increasingly waking up to the whole area of sport for development. But in a city with a limited sporting culture, persuading kids to come forward can be a struggle.

“To be brutally honest, convincing kids to get involved is still a challenging and difficult part of the process,” McRobbie says. “But events like the Sevens are very helpful. The kids come and see this whole world, and we hope they will be inspired by it.”

There is a desire to reach out and touch more people, and everyone wants the programmes to expand. But growth cannot be at the expense of quality. “The key is to make sure all the programmes are top quality and can last ‘forever’,” McRobbie says.