The Sport Matters Group: “Un-organizing” the future of Canada’s not-for-profit sector

If you go looking for the corporate headquarters of the Sport Matters Group (SMG), you will search in vain. There is no office and no nameplate, yet almost anyone working in one of the 50-plus national sport organizations based in Ottawa could steer you to two desks deep within the Sport Information Resource Centre on Elgin Street. Likewise, if you ask for the CEO, you may receive a blank look: the title is “senior leader” and the chances are that Ian Bird, the man who wears that title, will not be there. He is usually convening a meeting of sport leaders or making a case for sport on Parliament Hill. In short, you’ll be standing in someone else’s office, looking at an empty desk. It’s unlikely you’ll be wondering if SMG is a model for Canada’s non-profit sector or a glimpse into its future.

Others are pondering that very question. “There’s a steady stream of requests for me to go to annual meetings and board meetings to explain how the SMG works,” says Bird, a former field hockey Olympian who took over as senior leader in 2005. Sport leaders, especially the engaged “contributors” who collectively make up SMG, have no doubt that it works very well indeed. As SMG celebrates its 10th anniversary, the word has spread to the greater non-profit sector, and the number of invitations is growing. Perhaps it’s the air of mystery: SMG has variously been described as an experiment, a meritocracy, a constellation model, a collective, a community of purpose, and an “un-organization.” Relevance and effectiveness do not seem to be hampered by lack of formal structure. On the contrary, they seem to flow from it. SMG embodies all the characteristics loved by business magazine writers: networked, nimble, low overhead, open-source.

What is the Sport Matters Group, anyway?

SMG began in 2000 as a round of informal discussions between sport leaders, virtually brown bag luncheons, and Friday afternoon meetings over pizza and beer. The popularity of the sessions and the ability to attract an expanding circle of participants stemmed from the realities of the time: the absence of a similar forum, the experience of participating in the Voluntary Sector Roundtable (VSR), the sense of disunity in the sector, the release of the 1999 Mills Report, and subsequent hosting of a series of sport conferences by Secretary of State Denis Coderre bringing the promise of input into government sport policy. Under the emerging leadership of Victor Lachance, then CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), discussions ranged across topics including structure of the sport system, how to enhance vertical and horizontal cooperation between organizations, and, inevitably, participation in government policy-making and advocacy for increased funding for sport. The term “Sport Matters” was originally coined by Scott Logan, then CEO of Sport Nova Scotia and a prominent early member of the group, for an advocacy campaign in his province.

By 2001, SMG had settled by consensus on its current structure: a “senior leader” instead of a CEO or executive director and collaborative support from its community in lieu of formal structure and membership fees. Grant funding was found from a few sources, including good-faith contributions from a limited number of leadership-oriented sport organizations and a timely, one-time capacity-building investment through the Voluntary Sector Initiative (SIDPID) in 2002, which was managed on behalf of SMG by one of its incorporated contributor organizations. While the focus of SMG slowly narrowed on providing sport and recreation input to government policy-making, that is, advocacy/lobbying, the organization continued to use its resources to pursue a broad range of research and partnership-building initiatives, led by individuals recruited on the basis of their expertise and ability who were termed “early leaders” in their areas. A primary role in the early years was a behind-the-scenes shaping of the 2002 Canadian Sport Policy, but other early tasks included strengthening linkages between the sport and recreation communities and building linkages with other non-sport voluntary sector organizations.

Today, SMG continues as an unincorporated “un-organization” with a staff of two (the senior leader and a community engagement manager) in rental space donated by a contributor. Business affairs (finances, contracts, etc.) are managed on behalf of SMG by another organization, while yet another provides website support and hosting. More than 40 contributors generate about $150,000 annually in donations to keep the organization going, and grants are occasionally and selectively obtained for sector development work (Sport Matters Group, 2007). There are also major contributions of time by senior sport leaders and numerous in-kind contributions, such as hotel room nights, travel credits, hosting opportunities, supplies, technology, and so on.

“If we need it, someone normally has it in surplus or makes it available,” says Bird. SMG continues to host regular members’ meetings, both live and web-enabled, to support its advocacy work, as well as a diverse range of initiatives that seed new ideas into the Canadian sport community. Some of the prominent successes (beyond the Canadian Sport Policy) include input into the Physical Activity and Sport Act, advantageous changes to federal policy regarding tax status, and a series of sport-positive federal budgets. In fact, federal sport funding has increased from $70 million to more than $200 million annually in the SMG decade, and sport and recreation facilities have finally been recognized as a priority in infrastructure funding programs. SMG has also been instrumental in the Working Together Initiative, in which nine federal departments collaborate in recognition of the diverse impacts and benefits of sport. However, as Bird points out, “Let’s not overplay the results. Some of the (successes) are internal: creating a place for open debate, a chance to connect with each other, and building a sense of purpose and autonomy.”

To leaders of Canadian non-profits, this may seem idyllic, not to say utopian. Sport organizations spontaneously agreed to work together? They donate their own money to support an organization that doesn’t exist on paper? Their senior staff and volunteers give up their time to contribute ideas and expertise? Where’s the turf-protecting, the rivalry, the in-fighting? To be sure, a series of previous attempts to create an organization representing sport interests met that fate: three different iterations of the “Sport Federation of Canada” formed and collapsed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Why then does SMG endure and succeed where a “real” organization failed? Is there something different about the times, about SMG, or both? Is it just a case of charismatic leadership, given that both Bird and his predecessor, Victor Lachance, are highly respected in the sport community? Most importantly from a non-profit point of view, is there something here we can borrow, steal, or adapt?

SMG: Success factors

What are the transferable success factors behind the decade-long SMG experiment? An asset-based approach would enumerate the unique features of SMG as the basis for the value it adds. For example, shoestring non-profits typically lack advocacy and government-relations capacity, so it makes sense to cooperate on forming an industry association; in sport, that function is managed by SMG on a “pay what you can” basis. As it transmits sport’s perspective outward, SMG also brings government and external news and views back to the sport community, making it a key strategic communication channel. Government, as a key non-profit funding partner, prefers to dialogue on policy matters with a single entity rather than dozens of discordant voices; SMG fulfills this role for sport. This ability to provide cost-effective leadership, issue analysis, and advocacy in the public policy space is itself sufficient to ensure the viability of SMG, but SMG does far more. There is a standing commitment to innovation: the use of web conferencing and social media to expand reach and access, for example. “Outside the box” thinking is prized and recognized. SMG-like initiatives at the provincial and municipal level are nurtured. Cross-sector partnerships, for example SMG participation on sport’s behalf in voluntary sector roundtables and initiatives, give sport a place in the broader non-profit/voluntary community. This is essential since sport and recreation is the largest single component of Canada’s voluntary sector, yet until recently, it rarely participated in such discussions. Finally, there is the “leadership space” in which SMG acts as convener, creating opportunities for knowledge transfer, peer-to-peer interaction, and network-building, while it simultaneously reinforces shared values and supports and celebrates individual contributions. SMG owns neither its property nor its successes; victories small and large belong to the community as a whole, and the values of shared leadership, engagement, collaboration, and open-source meritocratic contribution are constantly reinforced.

Arguably, the SMG model has a particular appeal to sport due to the already-mentioned history of failed attempts to organize a viable Sport Federation of Canada and a reticence to lobby government as individual organizations to avoid biting the hand that feeds them. In addition to lacking in-house advocacy capacity and the money to engage lobbyists, national sport organizations receive high levels of sustaining, as opposed to project-based, government funding, and they are sensitive to the notoriously risk- and criticism-averse ways of government agencies. The relatively commitment-phobic “Let’s just see how it goes” approach probably suited sport leaders just fine in the early days of SMG, and over time the mantra changed to “Why mess with success?” Yet the suitability of the SMG approach to the Canadian sport environment does not negate it as a model for the broader non-profit sector; progressive open-minded leaders in every sector collaborate in similar ways. Industry associations, communities of practice, and roundtables abound in both the public and private sectors, and companies sometimes create “skunk works” to take on projects better handled at arm’s length. While “Will the un-organization approach work for us?” is a valid question, there are bigger ones. First, does SMG work better because it is unstructured? Second, are self-organizing, low-structure “virtual” groups like SMG the killer-app in a world grown accustomed to virtual social networks?

Inside the un-organization

To the first question, there is a long list of advantages enjoyed by the un-organization that enhance trust and facilitate agility and innovation. There is no turf and no assets to protect other than reputation. SMG cannot lose a million dollars on a poor decision simply because it doesn’t have a million dollars. There are no stultifying corporate hierarchies or policies; no need to worry what the boss, or external funding partner, will think when an idea is put forward. There are few layers of decision-making. Moreover, SMG relies completely on donations from its community and grants; it is not beholden to government nor bound by government policies. SMG is clearly in business for its community, not for itself. Within the community, this has a powerful liberating effect that attracts contribution since good ideas are both valued and acted upon. At the same time these assets are valuable only because they serve the needs of structured sport organizations; without them, SMG could and would not exist. SMG needs a telephone, a desk, an internet address, and a bank account, and it cannot apply independently for or receive grants and financial contributions. All this must be provided by “real” organizations on SMG’s behalf. While SMG can do its work more effectively because it is unstructured, there is no reason to expect that un-organizations will replace “real” incorporated organizations. Rather, progressive non-profits will likely collaborate more frequently in the future to create SMG-like un-organizations that meet strategic needs.

Such a strategy makes good sense. The un-organization structure is extremely flexible. According to Bird, one of the greatest strengths of SMG has been its ability to act as a conduit for latent capacity already within the sport community. SMG is “scaleable” – it can grow or shrink its activity level depending on funding, opportunity, and need, without the inherent delays due to planning, decision-making, hiring, and training a traditional organization would face, and without the pain of layoffs at the end. One year the SMG budget might be $250,000, and double that a year later. Says Bird: “If a social investor wanted to put $100,000 to good use tomorrow because they wanted sport to engage in what they were doing, anywhere else you would have to ramp up. But in SMG we have that capacity already in the community. You can identify who within the sector has the skills and the ability, and you can bring them onboard and you can move really quickly. I think of it as mobilizing the ready capacity in our sector.”

Not that the un-organization approach does not take getting used to on the part of funders. The SMG approach of “I’m going to put the opportunity out there and see what happens” isn’t necessarily what foundations, for example, want to hear. Nonetheless, results speak for themselves, and SMG’s decade-long track record is lengthier than that of many conventional nonprofits.

The evolution of SMG has not been without snags. Bird points to lows as well as highs in the ongoing SMG experiment. Tellingly, the lows and learning occurred when SMG strayed too close to the functions of a traditional organization.

“When we’ve tried to operationalize things, we’ve failed,” he says. “Around 2006, I thought we could make public opinion research into sport a profitable activity that produced an ongoing stream of valuable information. We tried this with a research company and a set of investors, and we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t deliver on time, and the information was proprietary so we couldn’t share it with our own sector. The opportunity cost was huge. I was spending too much time trying to make this venture work at the expense of other priorities. It’s just not something a skeleton staff can do. Now we focus on the handoff right up front; if we see an opportunity we look at it as incubation, not as something we will take in-house. It’s best if we focus on the ‘what’ and let the sector look after the ‘how.’”

What are the parallels? Examination of communities of practice, now widely adopted as best-practice examples of intra-organizational cooperation and innovation, may add to our understanding of groups like SMG. The term “community of practice” was coined by Wenger (2004) and others about 20 years ago to describe “groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do, and who interact regularly in order to learn how to do it better.” A key insight has been that communities of practice are really about building social capital and that much knowledge is tacit, or unwritten, so it is energizing and productive for experts to meet face-to-face (or virtually) to share this knowledge and build upon it. In other words, keeping people in silos, including within their own independent organizations, constrains knowledge transfer while letting experts with “a passion for something they know how to do” get together to talk stimulates knowledge transfer and growth. Yet while SMG has many characteristics of a community of practice, it is perhaps something different: a “community of purpose” (COP) (Mourkogiannis, 2007). When community in a community of practice is defined by expertise or interest (for example, expertise in designing complex keyboards), a community of purpose is defined by intent. A community of purpose wants to see something specific happen and meets to determine how best to do it. A community of practice is knowledge-oriented – “How do we solve this problem, how do we improve this thing” – while a community of purpose is change-oriented – “How do we create the difference we want to see?”

Bird affirms that social capital fostered through relationship-building is just as critical as having a “mission of the moment” in creating agility and responsiveness and sustaining momentum for change. “We can put an idea or an opportunity to the group, and before you know it a sport leader hops on an airplane to attend a meeting on sport’s behalf,” he says. At the same time, there is a tricky balancing act at work and experience and leadership is needed to pull it off. The dive-in-and-volunteer approach can be a mixed blessing: how do you know that the person who wants to jet off to a meeting to represent SMG, or the keener who happens to hail from a supportive organization, is the right person? “I guess that’s part of the leadership aspect,” says Bird. And leadership in a COP is quite different than the much-celebrated corporate model. The Jack Welch, damn-the-torpedoes corporate-style leader would founder at SMG, where the requirement is not for a high-powered high-profile CEO but instead for careful listening, ability to match people to tasks, and cultivation and seed-funding of “early leaders” with an affinity for nascent projects and the desire to get them off the ground. The culture encourages creative one-off contributions. Yet while Victor Lachance says that “the best contribution is the one you want to make,” channelling participation demands good judgment from the senior leader as well as a high degree of trust within the group, something that can be built only through dialogue and commitment to a shared set of values – the polar opposite of the “command and control” style of management. Sometimes you have to let it flow.

Building the trust-based network

Not surprisingly, the recent rise of the un-organization has attracted attention from a number of writers and academics. Tonya Surman (2008) has outlined a “constellation model” of collaboration as a governance model for multi-organization partnership. Essentially, a common need or goal (a “magnetic attractor” in Surman’s terms) mobilizes a number of organizations to set up a group with a shared vision under a flexible partnership agreement. Surman lists a number of key conditions for constellation success, all of which SMG shares. A constellation is “permeable,” meaning organizations can participate freely, taking and giving according to need, interest, and capacity, and entering and leaving as it suits them. Secretariat leadership is vested in “a highly skilled and discriminating person who embodies collaborative leadership”; in other words, a “senior leader.” Constellations endure as long as they are relevant; when the collective goal is achieved, Surman argues for creative destruction in favour of new constellations. In brief, constellations are like SWAT teams formed as a flexible, temporary means of achieving a mutual goal. But while Surman sees collaboratively formed and consensually disbanded constellations, a different analogy also fits: the social network. Here is anarchic but creative open-source contribution, unregulated yet all the richer for it. The potential for these even looser collaborations is revolutionary; in the words of social media theorist Clay Shirkey (2005), loosely coordinated groups are going to be given increasingly high leverage, and the more those groups forgo traditional institutional imperatives like deciding in advance what’s going to happen … the more leverage they will get.

So far, SMG is a little less structured than a constellation but more structured than, say, Flickr or Craigslist.

While each writer has a different name for the phenomenon, all are united on one point: trust is the sine qua non for an effective, enduring collaboration. Lacking the institutional solidity found in structure, property, and policy, SMG has no foundation for trust but its own reputation for effective action. This must be continuously built and maintained both within and outside the sport community, and has elements of altruism (being in business for others, rather than to profit for oneself ), of reliability (walking the talk, meeting objectives), and of familiarity and popularity (because we trust people we know and like and are more likely to mistrust people we don’t know or dislike). The success of a COP depends on all these elements of trust, which is parallel to the social capital built within the community. Without hierarchy, the organization depends on consensus and adherence to values for its cohesion. The leader has a critical role in growing trust by guiding, connecting, and presenting new ideas while simultaneously avoiding rigid positions and excessive conflict.

There is one other key element in trust-building: intellectual capital, the degree to which the COP can be trusted to have good ideas. Ideas are freely exchanged and constantly tested, and the best, or at least the most topical and relevant, rise to the top. This creates another distinction from the typical organization, which envisions itself as a distinct entity and works to protect its own interests. Intellectual capital is seen as proprietary. External partnerships must be protected, lest a competitor steal them. Corporate policies and leadership hierarchies impose internal barriers. All these factors are inimical to trust. Compared to an open-source COP, a corporation may have superior leadership and capacity but will almost inevitably be lower on the diversity/democracy and trust scales. Diversity of ideas, broad-based trust, and lack of protectionism permit the COP to deploy its ideas quicker and to create change sooner than traditional organizations. Moreover, the change catalyzed by COPs works both ways. Un-organizations can powerfully influence organizations within their own reference community. Pursuit of the greater purpose is inspirational. In the words of long-time contributor and Cycling CEO Greg Mathieu, “One of the things SMG has provided is a place where others can find us.” As diversity and democracy build social and intellectual capital and as trust in the greater good is generated, organizations conceive of themselves differently and develop that sense of “us.” What was impossible becomes do-able.

No matter what it is called – constellation, un-organization, or COP – the power of self-organizing collaborative teams is there to be harnessed by Canada’s non-profit sector. By emulating the SMG example, relationships can be leveraged and progress made toward goals too difficult for any single organization to tackle. The rules are relatively simple: agree on a purpose; find one or more patrons within the group willing to provide secretariat support and services; and beg, borrow, or steal resources to engage a senior leader. Keep it flexible: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Don’t incorporate. Share leadership (and credit for successes) around the circle. Strong relationships, or social capital, and creative ideas, or intellectual capital, are the currency. Reputation is trust, and trust is everything.

Looking ahead

What will the next decade hold for SMG? Over the past year the work of self-renewal has been added to an already-full plate, prompted in part by Ian Bird’s decision to move on to new challenges late in 2010. “What began as a conversation about transition for SMG became one of succession, but now that’s been replaced with a conversation about renewal. It’s the right time for a renewed vision and sense of purpose,” Bird says.

Its tradition of self-examination and a determination to keep the sport community engaged in periodic crystal-ball gazing have kept SMG pointed the right way so far, but a new senior leader will clearly have big shoes to fill. The coming year will be pivotal, but SMG has a war chest of social and intellectual capital, and the community desire to work within the collaborative SMG framework remains strong. Most important, the need for an un-organization to address policy issues, act as a convener for community discussion, and promote shared leadership for sport is as strong as ever. So long as the need is there, SMG will endure.


By Ian Bird

As with most matters pertaining to the SMG, this paper has itself provoked an insightful set of reflections from leaders in our sector.

Soon after Paul had completed a draft, we did what we always do: shopped it around to leaders in the sector to get their views, fill some gaps, and enrich the final product. As you would expect, the paper benefits from a number of the suggested changes that came forward. Still, on the whole, the paper remains in its original form because it really does capture the SMG experiment in a way that resonates with those who have lived it. For the vast majority, the feedback was an expression of gratitude for (finally) pulling our story together.

But two other things happened as the paper circulated amongst SMG leaders and contributors.

First, people remarked over and over about how interesting it was to see SMG through another person’s eyes. “I had never thought of it in that way,” said one person about the concept of a community of purpose. A new contributor to the group said, “I didn’t experience any of those formative discussions, but now I understand why we spend so much time talking without a particular end in mind.”

One of the original SMG leaders summed up this line of thinking best: “It’s as if SMG is so grounded in our experience of it that it’s actually many different things to all of us.”

I think she’s right. If SMG is about our contributions – what we make of it, so to speak – then it is inevitably going to be something different for everyone. Rather than seeing that as a breakdown in communication or organizational mission drift, we embrace it, for it is us. In that sense, and as Paul reminds me, SMG is more like Facebook or Craiglist, both of which are praised for allowing (and encouraging) people to make of them what suits their interests.

Secondly, the paper generated polarizing responses (in a positive sense) from leaders who had deep experiences in SMG’s development or activism.

Those most closely connected to the development of SMG thought the depiction in the paper was “a bit antiseptic,” “stripped bare,” and “suggesting a linearity that doesn’t (and never will) exist.” These leaders, and I’m generalizing to be sure, connect to the soul of the SMG and know that it has always held an intuitive, messy, chaotic, discordant view of how the world works; more like an “underground New York artists’ collective” willing to look outward through a different set of eyes and less like a community of purpose with a destination in mind. By celebrating that state of affairs, in a sector full of rule-books and game-plans, we found (and continue to find again) a different way together. That togetherness, what community organizer Michael Gecan describes best as a “relational culture,” is what matters, not how the mechanism works – the trust, the good feeling of communing with people who share your passion, the food that is always close at hand, the real desire to be there with each other. It’s hard to write these feelings down, but Scott Logan captured it just right, I think, in this reflection: “What was so inspiring and motivating was to talk solutions with common souls and collectively sense a ray of light by approaching things differently (meritocracy and big brains). This kept me coming back.”

There was another kind of response from a different group of SMG contributors, those most engaged in SMG activism. For these leaders, the paper missed what was most important – how we actually go about working on the policy goals we set out together. One veteran of three election campaigns commented, “I can’t help but ask why you didn’t include the SMG process for ‘unorganized’ campaigns. Isn’t that what we are all about?”

Another activist put it this way: “Without the new and different call to action that Sport Matters puts out there, SMG only matters in Ottawa, and people like me couldn’t be part of the group. It’s in doing things together that we are a group at all.”

So true. When we are done talking and decide to get active on a particular file, it is a charged-up, go-for-it, risk-friendly, fun experience of testing, connecting, communicating, and laughing. It is busy everywhere all the time and not too contemplative at all. I cannot help but think there is a generational dynamic at work here, too, with younger leaders ever ready to plug in to our social media platform to add their voice or action or idea or whatever to the mix. For them, it is about light touches across the SMG network and an understanding of how those seemingly small contributions add up to something more significant. If your SMG is conceived as a flash mob for sport policy-making, then the “un-organization” is less about a place for deep connections and more about a loose commitment to respond when pinged (or at least to share the word by tweet, text, or FB).

I think this developmental and activist dynamic – now that we have observed it – will be a useful guide for future SMG leaders. It seems to me that it’s in the interplay between the two that we are at our best. And if SMG is what we make of it, then what we can also expect is that this dynamic will necessarily produce more changes and an impetus for renewal. In fact, we might hope that this paper will soon be dated, a simple reminder of how we thought about SMG at a particular moment in time.


Mourkogiannis, N. (2007). Using purpose to drive innovation.

URL: [June 18, 2010].

Shirkey, C. (2005). TEDGlobal: Clay Shirky on institutions vs. collaboration. URL: http:// [July 21, 2010].

Sport Matters Group. (2007). Making it happen together. URL: Images/2 Support Documents/2007/About us/Making it happen together.pdf [July 21, 2010].

Surman, T., & Surman, M. (2008). Open sourcing social change: Inside the constellation model. URL: [June 10, 2010].

Wenger, E. (2004). Knowledge management as a doughnut: Shaping your knowledge strategy through communities of practice. URL: view_ article.asp?intArticle_ID=465 [July 21, 2010].

Paul Jurbala is an author and independent consultant specializing in sport and recreation. He has been a contributor to Sport Matters Group since its earliest meetings in 2000. Email:

Ian Bird is the senior leader of the Sport Matters Group. After 10 years of contributions to public policy development, he will soon begin a year of work and study on innovation through the support of the fellowship program of the True Sport Foundation. Email: 


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