Located: Boston, MA (national office), Oakland, CA (largest US program) plus cities throughout the United States and overseas
Ben Gucciardi was earning his M.A. in global educational leadership, working in youth development for underserved families and playing a lot of soccer when he had an idea. The California native realized soccer could be a tool to help struggling kids learn to better communicate, connect and collaborate with their peers, parents and teachers. Could he build a program around his favorite sport (at one point, Ben played soccer semi-pro) to help disadvantaged youth?
Over the next year, Ben kept thinking and writing about his idea. Then his partner (who is now his wife) pointed out there were almost no summer programs for refugee kids arriving in Oakland from places like Burma, Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe Ben could develop a soccer-based program designed specifically to help those students?
Ben could – and he did. In 2006, he launched Soccer Without Borders (SWB) as a volunteer-based after-school summer program for newly arrived refugee kids. A dozen years later, SWB is a global non-profit organization with 450 volunteers helping 2,000 students around the world become better adjusted culturally, socially and academically.
Ben, tell us about launching Soccer Without Borders back in 2006. What were you trying to achieve?
Our first program was a summer camp run entirely by volunteers. The camp was successful right away because there was such a gap in services available to newly arrived refugees.
Our kids are middle schoolers and high schoolers who arrive in Oakland after being granted refugee status. These kids come with their family or on their own to live with a relative. Many have spent time in refugee camps and have experienced gang violence, war and extreme neglect in their home country. Some are severely traumatized. Others are remarkably well adjusted.
These families often live in cramped quarters in tough neighborhoods in Oakland. The kids don’t have anything to do in the summer. I started SWB to help them integrate into their new community.
Once SWB got started, how quickly did the program grow?
The same year we ran the first summer camp, Oakland International High School opened. It’s a school for newcomer- and refugee students, and OIHS quickly became an important partner for us. The principal asked us to do some after-school programming, and, for the first four years, we were still a team of volunteers. We started with one soccer team and soon added another. Things kept growing from there.
Something that’s really helped our success is being able to show SWB was making an impact on local youth. Over the years we’ve tracked how kids from the program stay in school, are more engaged and have better relationships with teachers and other students. Proving the value of sports-based youth development (SBYD) has helped us win grants and get modest funding.
Today, SBYD is recognized by the United Nations as a viable model and a strategy for reaching developmental goals and teaching skill sets to help prepare kids not just for school but for life.
How big is SWB today?
Currently, we run SWB programs in five US cities, and we have camps and programs in six international locations including Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Uganda. We have 450 volunteers and more than 50 staff members across the entire organization. Our budget for 2019 is $1.8 million.
Our biggest program is here in Oakland, with six full-time program coordinators and seven staff members, most of whom are from AmeriCorps (a federally funded organization promoting public service). In Oakland alone, we have about 325 participants in the year-round program and 150 who just attend the summer camp.
Soccer Without Borders has come a long way from being a one-off summer camp. How have you learned how to run a successful and growing business?
I never anticipated I’d still be doing this 12 years later or that SWB would ever be this big! A lot of it happened organically – it wasn’t part of a business plan. Along the way, when we’ve needed something organizationally, it’s often felt serendipitous. If we’re looking for funding, someone will refer us to a foundation. If we need help with our budget or tax reporting, we’d get connected to someone who wants to help us out.
Probably the most important thing has been having a great business partner. The executive director, Mary, took the reins on running the business side of things. Now she has a very sophisticated understanding of managing money, understanding changes in government funding and so on. In addition, three of our board members sit on our finance committee, and a retired CFO does our bookkeeping, financial forecasting and more.
My strength is on the programmatic side. Thanks to Mary’s skills, I’ve been able to resist the pull of becoming a full-time administrator. I spend a lot of time focused on people management, coordinating staff and writing grants, but I still get to work directly with the kids. I love that, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of what makes the program so special.
You must have had some tough days along the way. What keeps you going?
It definitely hasn’t been all smiles and games. But every year at graduation, we see kids who we met in 9th grade walk across the stage to get their diploma. Someone I thought might never graduate has turned into an amazing leader and a role model for other students. Knowing that we’re making a concrete difference in someone’s life is inspiring.
Something else that’s really important has been the support I’ve had from my community. There’s a perception that entrepreneurs do everything on their own – they just persevere no matter what. For me, I couldn’t have done any of this without the real support of my family. Back when I was starting SWB, I lived at home. My family friends gave me the time and space and infrastructure to figure things out. I could never have built this program on my own.
QB Community members, you know running a business is hard work. Who or what keeps you going when things get tough?
Want to weigh in but not yet a QB Community member? Click HERE to sign up in a flash!
I’ve been self-employed for most of my career as content specialist, so I know how much discipline and determination it takes to run your own business. As QB Community Content Chief, I love sharing the stories of people committed to doing things their way. I hope you’ll join our community and share your inspiring story!