Elizabeth Balgobin: The lessons we can gather from the Olympics triumph

The social return on the investment in the Olympic Games must be acknowledged, says our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

It has come to an end, the greatest show on earth, and I find myself reflecting that the Olympics and Paralympics have provided plenty of food for thought for the charity sector. There are lessons we can learn in terms of governance and good management.

First, there is the concept of the competitors being amateur, competing and excelling in the sports they love and not being paid for it. Naturally, they receive sponsorship and lottery money and are coached, mentored and developed, but when we use the term 'amateur' in modern parlance people hear a mild term of abuse. The games, however, have shown just how much love and dedication is needed to be an excellent amateur.

Volunteer success story

We can think of the amateur concept as being equivalent to the way we operate as not-for-profits, delivering a mission and trying to do this to the best of our ability. We might also need funding from a variety of sources, sponsorship, support and coaching to develop excellence.

Linked to that is the extensive use of volunteers throughout the games, whether they were helping people find their way around the transport system, helping to create the magic of the opening ceremonies or just smiling and saying hello. I know how much effort they put in and how proud I was watching those I know and those I have never met shining on a world stage.

There is the other side to that story, of course. Those volunteers needed to be managed, trained and encouraged to stick with it. It took money, time and expertise to get the people with the skills to manage that process and to pay for the materials they used.

After all, glow-in-the-dark dove wings and floating wheelchairs do not just arrive without someone arranging it. This was an investment that was made for both sets of games and one that we should not ignore in our own organisations.

The volunteers were not driven by a profit motive and the recruitment of them was significantly more successful than the private sector recruitment and training of paid security personnel.

This leads me to another important consideration for the sector - that of being able to adapt to changing circumstances and having a contingency plan.

During the games this was seen in the resort of using the armed forces following a last-minute shortfall in security staff. Security had been one of the biggest concerns before the games and budgets were adjusted to address those fears. The government and Locog recognised that their original plan, using private sector-recruited staff, was not going to deliver the solution and they took the decision to address the risk - a late decision, but not too late.

Legacy and the vision of a future for the young people of the world shaped the whole process, and there is no doubt that Lord Coe's leadership remained true to this central vision. Coe's drive and style of leading from the front will have inspired and motivated those working with him.

Analysis of value

The public scrutiny of the cost of the games will continue long after the flags come down. The budget has been analysed and reported on. It has been adjusted, both up and down, in order to deliver the end product. I hope there will also be some analysis of the value of the games - the social return on the investment must be acknowledged alongside the medal table.

The final lesson for the charity sector has been the sheer celebration of having achieved a difficult task. There is still work to do now the running and jumping stuff is over, but appropriately celebrating the progress has been part of this Olympic story.

And for those who remember me publicly declaring my lack of interest in the Olympics some years ago, I will now claim it was temporary. I have been dazzled, inspired and moved.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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