For Former England Rugby Union international and World Cup winner Jason Leonard, rugby is so much more than a game. It’s an international family that teaches important life skills and values: Education, teamwork, discipline and camaraderie to name a few. So, when Leonard decided to channel his charitable activities into a new vehicle, he turned to the power of rugby and set up the Atlas Foundation in 2014.
The organisation aims to improve the lives of the poorest people on earth through teaching rugby, primarily focusing on children in underprivileged areas. For instance, the Atlas All Schools project focuses on education, employment and crime reduction through teaching rugby to children at schools in deprived areas around the world, including in South Africa, Argentina, India, Cambodia and Israel. The project has delivered excellent results in each location, helping to improve the prospects of thousands of students.
Today, Atlas is engaged on over 20 projects in 16 countries around the world, helping around 24,000 children on a weekly basis. The work of the foundation is supported by a full annual calendar of fundraising events, which include rugby legend dinners, cycle and golf events and one-off fundraisers such as Leonard’s recent trek through the Himalayas. Atlas’ founder talks to RGN’s managing director Simon Curran about the journey the foundation has been on since its creation.
Simon Curran: Can you describe the journey the Atlas Foundation has been on since you founded the charity in 2014?
Jason Leonard: We started with a small, trusted team of ex-international rugby players, added in a CEO (Sally Pettipher) who had done great work with me at the RFU, and we benefited from a large annual fundraiser that I had been running for 10 years by then. That gave us a strong financial foundation and from there we have doubled in size every year and raised our first £1 million in our third year. We’re now in our fourth year and we will raise £1 million per year from 2020. We currently help 24,000 children on a weekly basis in 16 countries around the world, and that will double in the next three years.
SC: What motivated you to set up the foundation and what made you believe that the game of rugby could make a difference to the lives of deprived and vulnerable children around the world?
JL: I have done a lot of charity work over the years and I saw a lot of my rugby mates doing charitable things around the world. I wanted a platform for us all to get together – a kind of virtual scrum – where the strength of working together makes more of a difference than doing smaller things on our own.
I know rugby helps kids because I was that kid. It helped me, not just through the values and the discipline it imparts, but through the friendships and the contact network. I’d never be in the position I am now without a heap of people from all walks of life giving me a leg up. That’s what our people do for the kids we work with, its so much more than just the rugby.
SC: How do you continue to leverage off legends of the rugby world in order to improve lives in some of the poorest regions around the world?
JL: Firstly, Atlas’ global network of Rugby Champions are our eyes and ears, our police force and our marketing team. They make sure our work is delivered as it should be, and all our donors’ money is spent properly. Secondly, they help with fundraising and looking after donors, and with media work around the world. Thirdly, our corporate friends cover much of our operating costs, help with fundraising and provide work placements for kids coming out of the top of our programmes.
SC: Tell me about some of the foundation’s recent work in Africa? Atlas has a presence in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Lesotho to name a few.
JL: Atlas is rolling out a global programme called ‘All Schools’ that makes sure that kids in school, and those that can’t attend school, get a basic education and access to the teamwork and discipline of rugby. By combining rugby values with basic education, we create strong, honest, hardworking young people who are a pleasure to have in your company. In Africa, we work with Rugby Champions and trusted NGO partners to deliver this programme in urban and rural locations from Morocco right down to South Africa.
SC: In 2018, Atlas established an office in South Africa, which was formally launched earlier this year when you visited Cape Town. What did you get up to during your time there?
JL: We’ve created a couple more projects with some schools in and around Cape Town. One being Atlantis, which is in a very poor area, and another one being Ocean View. Like many parts of Africa, kids of a young age are being dragged into gangs and find themselves in perilous situations. For the children, being part of a gang is about belonging to something, but they are part of the wrong crowd. Rugby is another gang, another team. We just want to get them out of the wrong gang and put them in the right gang through rugby.
The great work that Atlas SA has initiated in Cape Town extends to the Gauteng region where we now have 123 township schools in the Atlas project, where 87 of those schools teach girls rugby. Our focus on girls rugby in the township development started four years ago with only 12 schools and has now expanded to a massive project with over 2,000 girls playing rugby in this region. Support in South Africa has been exceptional since the Atlas SA launch earlier this year, with buy in from government officials, consulates, corporates and sporting legends alike – a powerful alignment of stakeholders.
SC: How successful have previous fundraising events been and how excited are you for the 2019 & 2020 events?
JL: As I said before, our fundraising is growing rapidly. We stick to four main events in the UK, with our annual dinner on September 11th this year being our largest of the year, and we had our cycle ride on June 2nd and a golf day on June 28th. See our events page for more details and do please come and meet us and have some fun with it.
Our Atlas branches in France and South Africa are also now starting to raise money and oversee our charity programme, and we have a regular US fundraiser, along with one in Singapore. These teams help with raising money but also in investigating where we can start programmes to most benefit kids in their regions.
SC: What does the future hold for the Atlas Foundation? How will you continue to grow the charity in order to help transform more lives?
JL: We have just launched our ‘Front Row Club’ which is a way of lots of people being able to support Atlas, while receiving a host of benefits that are only usually available to our very wealthy supporters.
Membership with the Front Row Club provides the opportunity to enter our ballot for international tickets, get free places at our events, and even a free trip to Japan for the Rugby World Cup final, and dinner with me while you’re there. By building a large membership of rugby people across the world, we protect Atlas, and the kids we help, against the possibility of a big event being cancelled. It also means we can meet supporters across the world and get involved with them face–to–face if we’re in that country visiting the kids in our projects.