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Interview: Lisa Wainwright

In her first major interview as CEO of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, Lisa Wainwright talks to Sports Management about her career journey and her plans for the representative body

Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 3
Lisa Wainwright
Lisa Wainwright

Lisa Wainwright was appointed CEO of the Sport and Recreation Alliance (SRA) earlier this year. It is the culmination of a nearly four-decade-long career in sport, which has taken her from athlete and PE teacher graduate to the very top of sports governance.

Born and bred in Yorkshire, Wainwright has been sports-mad for"as long as she can remember".

"As a child, I used to spend a lot of time with my older brother and his friends," she says."Our house backed onto playing fields, so a large part of my early childhood was spent playing sports. The habit stuck and I went on to study to become a PE teacher at the University of Warwick."

Rather than becoming an educator, though, Wainwright soon found herself attracted to the development side of sport – an emerging field."At the time (late 1980s) sports development was only just becoming a ‘thing’," she recalls.

"That’s partly why I studied what I did. Back then, if you wanted a job in sport, you became a PE teacher first.

"So after graduating, I did a sabbatical year as a sports officer. That’s when I decided that I definitely wanted to have a larger impact – and to do more than simply teach sport in just one school."

After a stint as netball development officer for the eastern England region, Wainwright was appointed national youth officer and later returned to Netball after a few years at Sport England, taking up the role of membership services director. It was in those roles that she first began to make the larger impact she had dreamed of.

"I was tasked with putting in place standards to ensure that players – children in particular – would have a safe environment in which to enjoy netball," she says."So I wrote something called The Club Action Planning Scheme (CAPS). It’s still in use across the England Netball membership to this day."

CAPS was also the forerunner to Clubmark, the cross-sport accreditation scheme for community sports clubs overseen by Sport England, which seeks to ensure higher standards of welfare and coaching in clubs.

After making her mark at England Netball, Wainwright joined Sport England as senior development manager. The role offered her the opportunity to continue her work to create safer environments for sport.

"I was part of the team that completed the first piece of research that looked at safeguarding in NGBs, working with Dr Cecilia Brackenbridge," she says."Our research made it clear that there were very few safeguarding policies and processes in place.

"The CEO at the time, Derek Casey, was very supportive of our work and listened to all of the concerns we raised. Thanks to him, funding was put in place, the Child Protection in Sport Unit was created and an entire set of safeguarding standards were set up. Looking back, it’s phenomenal how much things have changed for the better."

Following the success of the safeguarding initiative, Wainwright was promoted to the role of head of sport.

"When I first joined, Sport England had two separate teams – the national governing team and the sports development team," she says."As head of sport, I was tasked with bringing those teams together.

"As well as doing that, I created something called the group of National Partners – which I’m very proud of.

"At that time we realised that sport existed, in the main, only for a certain group of people. We were missing a massive cohort – such as women, people with disabilities and those from BAME backgrounds. We didn’t really have a framework to support them and there was no specific funding ringfenced for those groups, so I took the lead in developing the National Partners programme, for Sporting Equals, Women In Sport and EFDS (Activity Alliance)."

Wainwright left Sport England in 2008 after being headhunted to become CEO of Volleyball England. She spent more than eight years (from 2008 to 2016) at the NGB and was credited with transforming the organisation. Under her leadership, turnover increased from £800,000 to £2.1m and a strategic plan was devised to drive a new direction for the sport.

She then swapped sports and in 2016 took on the role of CEO of GB Basketball. During a challenging two years, Wainwright led the sport through significant political change and financial challenges. It was a tenure which, among other trials and tribulations, saw her work under seven different chairs.

Shortly after leaving GB Basketball in October 2018, Wainwright then bagged what she describes as"her dream job" – that of CEO at SRA.

"If you’d given me the option of any job in the sports industry, I genuinely would have gone for this one," she says."While elite sport is great, I never aspired to spend my career in it. I’ve always been much more interested in the development side of things – and especially the development of people.

"So I’m tickled pink that I managed to get through the recruitment process and sit here today."

Wainwright is taking the helm of SRA at a time when the UK sports and physical activity sector finds itself sailing into new waters. While the success of the nation’s elite teams remain a priority for performance agency UK Sport, at grassroots level public funding for sport is steadily moving away from merely focusing on participation numbers. Instead, sport is seen as a vehicle to get people more physically active and is central to plans to create a preventative healthcare system based on behaviour change.

This shift in focus is best seen in the government’s latest sports strategy and the way Sport England is focusing more money and resources on tackling inactivity. As the voice of the sector within government and policymakers, SRA looks to be in a position to influence this changing landscape.

Wainwright adds that while physical activity’s emergence as a"miracle cure" for a range of long-term health concerns presents the sports sector with plenty of opportunities, it also underlines the huge challenge it has on its hands.

"17 million people aren’t currently active enough," she says."And that’s tough to take.

"We know that physical inactivity costs the country around £7.4bn a year. To change that and to really tackle inactivity, we need to look across government – especially when we try and access more funding.

"For me, the key to getting the nation more active is to ensure we work collaboratively at the top level, in order to make it happen at local level.

"Traditionally, everyone has been working in silos. The new strategy that sports minister Tracey Crouch brought forward in 2016 was the first time that the government really looked at the value of sport in delivering a number of benefits – from improving physical and mental wellbeing and building communities to supporting economic development.

"The conundrum is that at grassroots level we have better access to sport than ever before – yet we have 17 million people inactive. So in my view, we haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to providing better access to physical activity to those who would benefit the most. That’s where the change of funding direction at Sport England will assist. But it won’t happen overnight, it will take quite a long time."

Wainwright says that while the current political climate presents plenty of challenges, there is also"strong support" for using sport in getting the nation more healthy.

"I had a one-on-one meeting with health secretary Matt Hancock just four days into my new role," she says."He understood the preventative side of things and was absolutely willing to help us move forward on that.

"Helpfully, he has also been involved in other departments – including the DCMS – so he ‘gets it’. What we need to do is be consistent with our message when talking to different government departments over the role sport can play in driving social and economic development."

So where and how does Wainwright plan to steer the SRA? Will there be major changes immediately?

"I’m very clear about what our role is and that is to absolutely be the sector’s independent voice to government," she says."We want to be able to challenge the government and to advise, influence and support it in its policymaking.

"Also, the organisation is now in the second year into its current strategy – and we’ll soon move into year three. It would be unwise to come in as a new CEO and just suddenly rip everything up and change direction.

"Having said that, we are slowly starting to look at what our future strategy will look like. The main focus of that will be to deliver to our 300-plus members, who work in all areas of sports and recreation.

"Now that we’ve got the government’s Sporting Future strategy, which defines clearly what it aims are, I think it will be easier to work across – and with – the government.

"As for changes, I’d possibly look at us becoming a bit ‘edgier’. Those who know me would probably say that I will sometimes push boundaries. But I always look to do it for the right reasons.

"For me, in terms of the ability to change people’s lives through sport, there’s no better job than this."

An enduring alliance

Established in 1935 as the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) and rebranded in 2010, the SRA is a membership association for sport and recreation. Its members are national governing bodies of sport, county sports partnerships and the wider sector.

SRA’s mission is to support members with advice, support and guidance. It’s also the voice of the sector with government, policy makers and the media.

The alliance is halfway through its five-year strategy, The Heart of an Active Nation, which has four main objectives:

1. Demonstrate the economic and social value of sport and recreation

2. Make sport and recreation volunteering more representative and accessible

3. Improving the availability and accessibility of sport for children and young people

4. Being fit for the future

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