One World Futbol is Reinventing Community Development with a Ball
SVN interviews One World Futbol Project co-founders Tim Jahnigen & Lisa Tarver
"We see the ball as social nutrition – a vital social nutrient that is in its own way as important as food, or medicine or shelter."
One World Futbol is a nearly indestructible soccer ball designed for youth to play with in areas of the world where traditional soccer balls easily become too damaged to play with or are quickly destroyed. One World Futbol Project was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2010 to manufacture, sell and distribute these innovative and ultra-durable balls. The mission-driven company operates a Buy One Give One program – for each ball purchased another ball is given directly to an organization working with disadvantaged communities where play and sport are used to foster social change.
So far, One World Futbol Project has distributed more than 800,000 One World Futbols to more than 165 different countries.
In 2012, Chevrolet pledged to donate and support the distribution of one and a half million balls over three years to organizations working in developing communities around the world. So what led to this innovative project?
People often say you don't need to reinvent the wheel, but it looks like you have reinvented the ball…
Tim Jahnigen: Yes, ball technology essentially hasn’t changed in almost a thousand years. It has been traditionally a bladder of some kind wrapped in some protective coating – and that essential configuration is just being endlessly repeated. I didn’t know that was I re-inventing the ball. My idea was to make a super durable, long-lasting soccer ball – but it was never our aim to replace the inflated ball, ideal for grass and turf, or challenge its dominance. Our ball is designed for a completely different environment.
The One World Futbol is designed for children and youth living in harsh and challenging environments where inflated balls sometimes don’t last more than an hour and rarely last longer than a few days or weeks. The number of children 12 years of age and under who live in abject poverty around the world is estimated to be 1.3 billion today.
For these children, being able to play with a soccer ball is one of the only outlets they may have for a moment of joy and hope to imagine something better for themselves. We see the ball as social nutrition – a vital social nutrient that is in its own way as important as food, or medicine or shelter.
How challenging has it been to get a radical idea like this off the ground?
Tim: I had the idea about eight years ago when I saw a documentary about youth playing soccer in Darfur with balls made out of rubbish. But it has taken some time to reach the point we have today. The idea remained in concept stage until I had a conversation with Sting, who I am honored to call my friend. He said he would be willing to support this idea at the earliest stage and provide the initial funding to do the research and development of the One World Futbol prototype – which was crucial – hence the name One World Futbol.
But like any new idea, it takes a long time for people to understand what you are trying to do. We’re currently phasing in generation seven of refinement and improvement of the original prototype.
How did you keep going despite people doubting the efficacy of what you do?
Tim: If you have a vision that is genuinely transformational, you have to be willing to hear “no” a thousand times before you hear one “yes.” And, for every thousand times, be prepared for another thousand. At the beginning, for example, I was told that it wasn’t possible to use ethylene-vinyl acetate (a similar material to that used in Crocs) to make the ball and again and again people said no.
There was lack of faith – or maybe imagination – in my idea for this ball.
Each time I met with negative responses, I simply went back to the original inspiration – who it was for and what it was for. My view is that I just needed to do a better job of explaining the purpose of the ball. So by doing this we have had to focus on the core of what we do: giving it to children and youth in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and other impoverished parts of the world.
Lisa Tarver: Over time, we learned that we had to find a way of getting to the heart of what the One World Futbol is really about – it is about play more than sports itself. Yes, it’s a ball. The technology is unique and it’s special, but you need to see it as a tool that unlocks the human potential; the real magic is not in the ball, it is what happens to us when children are allowed to play. And that is worth fighting for.
It’s been a real learning curve.
What we have seen is that as long as we learn to tell the story properly – all these challenges go away. We have learned patience and compassion for the people that didn’t understand what we wanted to do. The answer was not to argue with people: you are not going to win anyone over by yelling at them. You have to step back and bring them back to what’s essential – this has also helped us uncover a deeper truth about play that maybe we hadn’t expected either.
How do you get the balls to the children?
Lisa: We’re in the business of play and change and above all collaboration. We don’t give balls to individual children; we give balls to organizations that are working with communities at risk. In any given country, we might work with 30 different organizations and we expect them to collaborate together to distribute these balls. We expect them to coordinate and plan together how they are going to distribute this ball and use it in their programs. They need to decide who is doing what, who has programs in what parts of the country, which sectors each covers.
Coordination around a very concrete logistical task of distributing the balls is bringing together organizations that either have never have heard of each other before or might not trust each other, for example, in countries recently emerging from conflict. Organizations are coming together and building trust through a very specific task and all of a sudden they realize they can work together and they are coming up with all other ideas of things they can do together and have nothing to do directly with the balls at all.
Why did you decide to set up as a for-profit company rather than a non-profit?
Tim: A lot of people think that we’re a non-profit because we are a mission-driven organization and our mission is at the core of everything we do. In fact, at the beginning we assumed we would setup a non-profit but we were advised that as we had a great product – one that could sell well – we should set up a business and sell our product to help fund our mission, rather than depending on outside funders.
We were a B Corporation the day we launched, which we’re very proud of, and we are members of SVN, an inspiring community of like-minded businesses committed to doing well and good at the same time. Our involvement with organizations such as SVN is invaluable to us – they play a crucial role in promoting and providing legitimacy to the idea that business has a bigger purpose than just making money.
It’s very important for us to be able to come together and share ideas and to promote what we’re doing and give visibility to the fact that there is a different way of doing business. We’re still in the early days and it’s rapidly growing. The discussion is evolving and we’re learning so much more: this is the future.
SVN is now accepting application for their 2014 Innovation Awards.
About the Author:
Fergal Byrne is a freelance journalist who has written for The Financial Times and The Economist Intelligence Unit. You can hear Fergal’s interviews with inspiring social entrepreneurs and change makers at www.inspiringsocialentrepreneurs.com.