Liverpool football club is tackling local poverty through its Red Neighbours community campaign
Football has come far since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, turning from a sport of muddy pitches and local lads into a global business where the average top-flight player earns more than £2m per year.
This has led some to question whether football clubs have lost their connection with the cities that they represent.
The fans are as dedicated as ever, but the international brands they support seem distant.
According to Deloitte’s ‘Football Money League 2018’, half of the 20 richest clubs in Europe are English, with a combined annual income of around £3.5bn.
Liverpool FC sits ninth on the list, with revenue of £364.5m. Yet the Anfield stadium is in one of the UK’s most deprived residential areas. So, in January 2017, following consultation with the local community, the club took action; while Liverpool FC has undertaken community work in the UK and abroad through its registered foundation for more than 30 years, its impact needed to be seen locally. As a result, the Red Neighbours scheme was launched to work in the Anfield area of the city.
The corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme started with research. “We figured out that, if we put a small team of people into the Anfield area and looked at what the big issues that mattered were, then we could make some positive changes,” says Liverpool FC’s director of communications, Susan Black.
There are plenty of reports from charities on poverty in the area, but the team spoke directly to the communities living around the stadium.
“We spent six months asking everyone what they felt were the three most important issues in their community,” explains Forbes Duff, the club’s social responsibility manager. Discussions involved councillors, teachers, residents’ groups, a mums’ and tots’ group and a senior citizens’ walking group.
“A whole host of different concerns came up,” said Duff. “They all lived in the same community but saw it through different eyes.”
While this meant the team had to grapple with different concerns, four common themes emerged: food poverty and education; physical activity; support for the elderly; and creating memorable experiences for young people. The themes were set as ‘pillars’ of Red Neighbours to help structure its efforts.
One of the scheme’s initiatives has been to invite staff from Liverpool FC to assist at food banks. According to figures from the Trussell Trust, an NGO that coordinates food banks across the country, more than 1.3 million three-day emergency food parcels were delivered to people in the UK in the year up to March 2018. The North Liverpool Foodbank supports 13 distribution centres in the Anfield area, so Red Neighbours can have a visible impact.
“We talk about the ‘Liverpool family’ and we [express that value by] reaching out to staff to volunteer, or reaching out to fans to bring food on a match day to help with a huge food-poverty issue in north Liverpool,” says Black.
In contrast, some projects are deliberately low-key, receiving little promotion, such as those that ensure children get enough food during the holidays. Free breakfast clubs operate at Anfield outside of term time but, crucially, the comms team must be careful not to position this as a charitable move.
“A lot of people are very proud and don’t want to admit that they need help,” says Duff. “So we advertise [the scheme] through local schools, which identify the children who need help. But we don’t tell the children that they were picked. We present it as a free tour of Anfield – you come in the morning, have some food and then go on the tour. This way people can come in without being judged. We treat them as we would treat anyone – with dignity and respect.”
A large part of Red Neighbours’ success is due to its good relationship with local schools; 25 institutions now work with Liverpool FC, collaborating on projects such as official Christmas cards (bringing the young and elderly together) and careers events where club staff explain why a degree isn’t necessary for success.
THE CLUB’S VALUES
The willingness of local partners to support Red Neighbours reflects a shared sense of purpose.
A culture of ‘giving back’ has existed in Liverpool for a long time. The club’s values are grounded in so-called Shankly socialism, after former manager Bill Shankly, who once said: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”
“People talk about winning matches, but football clubs are more rounded than that – and always have been,” Black says. “When you speak to former players, whether it’s Kenny Dalglish or Ian Rush, they’ll tell you about the work they did when they were playing, going to local schools and kicking a ball around. The principles now are the same; it’s just more organised.”
This long-standing work makes measurement of the scheme’s success both complicated and easy. When asked about how Red Neighbours’ success is evaluated, both Duff and Black are clear: it’s not about numbers.
“We do collect stats,” says Black. “I can tell you how much food has been collected and how many volunteer days there have been, but it was never about that. For the club, the whole purpose was to make a difference.” That difference is powerfully illustrated when Duff recalls a recent email from a pupil who’d attended a Red Neighbours career day at Anfield. He said he was being bullied at school and hated being there. “But now he knows that both the school and the club care for him. He’s had this great experience and now he’s going to knuckle down and keep working hard. Little things like that – we’re just trying to encourage those pupils.
“We don’t know what goes on at home but, if when they’re with us we can give them a good experience, make them feel special and put a smile on their face, I feel Red Neighbours is contributing to a happier, healthier and more productive society.”
A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019.
Featured photo courtesy of flickr user md.faisalzaman via CC2.0.
Mo Salah at a Red Neighbours event copyright Liverpool FC.