Onward and Outward with Glenn Cummings of Alive and Kicking

Sumeet Sandhu and Akash Ghai

Alive and Kicking was founded in 2004 by the late Jim Cogan. A London-based school teacher, Jim was also a serial social entrepreneur and avid traveler. The inspiration for Alive and Kicking came to him during a trip to Kenya , when he noticed children playing football using plastic bags tied together, a rather common site in Africa. He also saw an older man repairing a football by the side of the road. Jim saw an opportunity to create jobs in Africa providing proper sports balls to young people, promoting the health benefits of sports in the process. These are the three social aims of Alive and Kicking: ethical jobs, access to affordable sports balls and health promotion.

Glenn Cummings joined Alive and Kicking as CEO in 2013 and has brought over 15 years of experience to the role as an international and domestic development practitioner. Reflecting on Jim’s vision, Glenn considers the organization’s model to be an integral part of its success.

“The model established 12 years ago was revolutionary, social enterprise was a phrase barely used let alone a sector.  So in many ways it has not been difficult to build on Jim’s vision, the model has stood the test of time.”

Alive and Kicking works by establishing and running social enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa that make sports balls from local leather which would otherwise be exported unprocessed. The organization creates fairly paid for local people and increases access to sports equipment by making affordable balls locally. The profits are reinvested in sports based health programmes which use the convening power of sport to talk to young people about HIV and malaria.

The organization currently has three operations: Kenya, Zambia and Ghana; and employs 155 people, each of whom supports on average 5 others, often paying school fees for children and medical expenses for parents and extended family, as well as establishing small businesses. Alive and Kicking have trained over 950 local coaches, reaching thousands of young people each week with health focused football training. They have donated over 150,000 footballs since they started.

Their London-based head office provides technical and strategic support to operations, raises funds for new programmes and expansion, provides a global sales function and manages Alive and Kicking’s marketing activities and online presence.

CHALLENGES

We asked Glenn what he has learned from being in the role. As a CEO for any organization, it’s to no surprise that you require a wide range of skills, but it’s the breadth of skills that Glenn sees as the most challenging –

“You have to be able to talk to people at all levels, one minute you are presenting to a potential corporate backer and the next you are donating balls at an orphanage in Kenya.”

And as expected, the issue of finances comes up. For Glenn the scariest part is constantly running operations on a shoe string, raising funds just to survive is an ever-present test. Persuading investors and donors that a social return is far more important than significant financial returns remains challenging.

But the key to successfully overcoming most challenges has been prioritization. Allowing enough time and attention to all opportunities can be rewarding – learning to say no to some is also important.

THE FUTURE

Going forward, the major aim of Alive and Kicking is to expand the organization and increase its overall impact. The need to grow is matched by a demand for jobs in Africa, where a major youth bulge is about to hit the jobs market. The social implications across the continent are massive.

“Alive and Kicking isn’t going to employ millions of people in the next 5 years, but if we can make a contribution and other social enterprises and small businesses can too, then we can make a difference. The more people we employ, the more we can donate and the larger our health programmes will become.”

3 LESSONS FROM GLENN

1. PEOPLE ARE KEY: Regardless of what stage of the operation you’re at, get the right people in the right places and you’ll be OK.

2. KEEP YOUR “WHY” AT THE FOREFRONT: Never forget why you started the thing in the first place.  It is ok to be flexible and opportunistic, but only if it contributes to your core reasons for being.

3. CHECK TO SEE IF ANYONE ELSE IS DOING WHAT YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT: And if there is, support them.  There has been a major proliferation of non-profit organisations in the last 15 -20 years.  The duplication and competition is amazing.  It’s not about ego, it’s about helping.  Once you’ve done your research then decide whether setting your own thing up is the best way you can help.


Find out more about Alive and Kicking.

Connect with Glenn on LinkedIn.

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Akash Written by:

Akash has worked with small and mid-sized NGOs and social enterprises from around the world and specializes in assessing operations and management alongside creating growth opportunities for such organizations. He established Development Three (D3) a firm that delivers on this premise. Based on his experiences with NGO/NPO founders, he conceptualized and established the Founding Stories project.

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