Special Report: The Roger Federer Foundation
Wednesday, 24 October 2012
As the CEO of the Roger Federer Foundation, Janine Handel gets to see Roger Federer the businessman, rather than the tennis player. More importantly, she works with the Federer family to build a strategy that improves the life of children in Africa who are living in poverty, giving them an education from an early age. In 2012, their charitable donations will be around 3 million Swiss Francs (£2 million).
Handel, who will be speaking at the inaugural London Tennis Debate at Canary Wharf in November, tells The Tennis Space why Federer is so keen to give back.
Roger is a phenomenon – a global brand and globally recognised. That must help?
Yes, first of all, Roger is very well recognised in public and this gives him also a certain obligation, to be professional in what he does. He has one of the highest reputations around the world, of prominent people, so you need to do everything to not put that reputation at risk. This is very much his character. If he does something, he tries always to do it right. And this is also in the world of philanthropy, where he realised after a certain while, if we don’t do everything to reach the best possible impact with our money – we invest in social activities – this is not reflecting my character or my behaviour in the rest of my life. Sure, we are followed by the press and by his fans so he is a role model. We receive many reactions, emails, on Facebook, personal emails here to his Foundation, where people say: ‘you are inspiring us with your engagement in Africa’.
I think he’s motivating others to do so as well. This is why it is important that the Foundation has his name as well. But it is linked with a burden that what you are doing is really visible and controllable and you need to be accountable for it. If you take other prominent people who are an ambassador for one UN organisation, they will never be accountable for this organisation. But Roger is 100 percent accountable for everything the organisation does. This is an obligation but this was also the wish of Roger that he can control what he is doing. And the commitment, therefore, is bigger because we really designed a Foundation which reflects Roger’s and his family’s wish and will and emotional world.
It is clearly a family organisation – is that a big factor in its success?
It is. It is a family, professionally-managed, ground-making organisation. But it is a family and for me it is a crucial point that it remains a family organisation because that’s its strength. There’s always a risk when professional management comes in, that the family retires, steps back, loses ownership of the whole thing. For me, this is crucial because people believe Roger, people very much trust him, in his credibility and his approach. They trust that he is professional. He is somehow a guarantee but I would refuse to be the CEO of a Foundation where this is just in the front like that. For me there must be 100 percent ownership of the family in the Foundation, otherwise it would be a farce and I would not give my reputation to a farce.
What percentage of funding comes from Roger himself?
Let’s say 80 percent or 90 percent because if Roger was not involved, it would not be his Foundation and people would not give the money to us. It’s a combination of indirect donations from Roger, money that would normally be income of Roger and he says instead of paying that money to me, please pay it directly to the Foundation. These are different kinds of resources. All his sponsors are donating to the Foundation – I don’t believe that they would donate to the “Thomas Mueller” Foundation so this is all very strongly linked to Roger. But also since we became professional, since we can really show that we are getting results with our work, more and more little professional donors are joining us, little Foundations which have no staff – they say, OK we don’t have to reinvent the wheel ourselves, let’s donate to the Roger Federer Foundation, so donors which are not linked to Roger – they are few, but they are very welcome. But there again, without the public image of Roger, they would never find us. We are not doing pro-active fund-raising, that’s very important to know.
If you take other foundations like Agassi, Tiger Woods, they have huge teams, I think in Tiger Woods’ Foundation there are 30 people just caring about the fund raising. Our fund-raising costs are zero.
All we do is inform about our work, we communicate about our work, that’s it. People are joining us because they are inspired by us or because they are convinced that we are doing a good job, or because they love Roger. We are receiving many signals of solidarity from fans or friends or people around the world who admire Roger but also trust him in his professionalism, and also all the sponsors of Roger.
Do tennis players have an obligation to help others who less well off?
I think it’s not about tennis players but about people in public. In my eyes, they have huge potential to become role models and they should also use this potential. I would even go so far as to say it’s an obligation that they are sensitive in this fact that they are role models. People are watching them, they are inspiring people so they should absolutely use it. How they do it is a personal decision. Roger is very consequent how he uses it. He took actually the most consequent path in philanthropy and this is creating his own Foundation. So not only is he donating, he is taking the responsibility of all actions of an organisation, the Roger Federer Foundation. This is visible, this is accountable, and this is the most extreme way you could go in philanthropy, as a prominent person.
What makes him so keen to do it?
This is very natural. He comes from a family with a strong social background. When I was a kid, if I spent my holidays in Italy, that was already an exception. Roger was spending his holidays in South Africa, in the bush, camping. So this African way of life, African reality and also the poverty, this is something he lived. It’s not something in theory for him, from books, so it was very natural that he felt responsible to give back to people who are less privileged than he was. It’s very much the education from his family to do so. This was very much an idea from within the family from the beginning, that you give back, when you are a little bit luckier than the rest.
How is Roger physically involved?
He’s president of the Foundation so the day to day work is not his business. As the president of the Foundation, it is the strategic level which he is incisively involved. That means, if we are taking new partners on board, this is very much the decision of the board. If our financial planning, for the next five years, is very much a decision of the board and also depending on him, how much income will the Foundation have very much depends on him. The visits on the ground, this is more to come down to earth again because this is all about the children. You need to connect with reality again to know why we are sitting around the table in Switzerland for a Board meeting.
Roger always plans ahead in his tennis career. Is he the same in business?
Absolutely. The commitment to have his own Foundation was a commitment for a long-term charitable engagement. The Foundation was not established for his tennis career, it was established for the period after his career. But as the big majority of players were only founding their Foundations at the end of the career, there was once an exchange with Andre Agassi where he said: ‘if I could do it differently, I would have started the Foundation earlier’. Roger took notice of that. But the golden age of his Foundation will be after his career so we are, let’s say, in the preparation phase. We are very much in an increasing phase, a learning phase, an establishment phase, so finally when Roger has more time to become an even more important actor in the Foundation, on a strategic level, we are ready.
How much has the charity given away so far?
It started very small, just one project, I think around 100,000 Swiss francs. Then 150,000. In 2010, when the decision was taken for a professional management and to become promoting ground-making charity, the expenditures were 650,000 Swiss Francs. This year, we will have expenditures of around 3 million. They did the first donation in 2004 but (what’s important) is the trend and last year we were 2.4 million, this year it’s 2.9 or something like that and next year it will be increasing, with two other new partners on board. It’s really the vision behind it.
What’s the biggest challenge?
The big challenge is our daily work; how can we have real impact on the ground with the children. It’s a challenge to find the best partners – we only work together with local organisations – to find these partners; how can we strengthen these partners so that we can really make a positive difference on the ground. The challenge is not that we invest $1 into the ground and have an outcome of $1; the ambition is that $1 will have an outcome of $100. We always have external factors that influence the situation and sometimes you need luck but that’s the ambition and that’s the challenge. And that’s all that counts.
And you must be thankful that someone like Roger is the boss and figurehead?
Every day, I am extremely happy that I can contribute something to make the world better for children. That’s the only thing that counts for me. Sure it’s fascinating to be part of Roger’s world because he’s a unique personality but for me (in the final analysis), it doesn’t make a difference. I worked eight years for the Swiss government and that was a fascinating employer as well but for me, it is the outcome, the impact I can achieve with my work which is motivating on a daily basis, not who is paying my salary. I see a huge potential in our president which is still building and will be even better used in the future, which I think is a nice future, a nice vision as well. That’s motivating as well, where we are heading to. For me as CEO of a Foundation it’s less important if he wins a match or not; as a private person, sure I follow (the results). And he is just the nicest boss I have ever had.
Janine Handel will be speaking at the inaugural London Tennis Debate, which will be held at Canary Wharf on Wednesday November 7, featuring Ion Tiriac, Pat Cash and Justin Gilelstob https://twitter.com/LDNTennisDebate