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Xenia Taliotis 5 Dec 2017 01:08pm

A day in the life: Michael de Giorgio

After selling his consultancy, Michael de Giorgio established charity Greenhouse Sports to support disenfranchised youngsters. He tells Xenia Taliotis about using coaching and competition to build community champions

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Caption: Photography: David Harrison

How I changed career

I qualified with PwC in the early 1980s, but left soon after to start my own consultancy business. It afforded me a good lifestyle. I was travelling all over the world, dealing with wealthy clients but what I was missing was a sense of what these countries were like. It dawned on me that the whole world was right here on London’s diverse doorstep, and I wanted to become involved with people from other backgrounds and to find a way of helping those who were disadvantaged.

When I sold my business in 2001, I decided to follow through on three things I’ve always cared about – sport, social injustice and disenfranchised youngsters. I started the charity Greenhouse Sports to bring the three together. For our first project, we used the facilities at St Paul’s School to run a sports coaching pilot for young people from a local housing estate. Now we have 50 programmes in schools and community centres in the most deprived parts of London. More than 40,000 youngsters – 20% of whom have special needs – have been involved.

Sport is an immensely powerful tool. It’s not about teaching kids to compete with each other, but to compete and overcome the immense challenges life has presented them with. Our aim is to give our groups the life skills they need through quality, intensive sports programmes taught by inspirational, specially trained coaches who are mentors.

The purpose of Greenhouse Sports is not to create champion athletes – though that is sometimes the by-product – but adults who can overcome their disadvantages to succeed in life. Sport gives people confidence and resilience; it can level the playing field between those who are privileged and those who are not.

The challenges I’ve overcome

It took us a while to realise what we needed in a coach – someone who could mentor and who could relate to youngsters who come from very difficult backgrounds. Establishing sustainable funding is also a massive challenge. We receive generous donations, but what we most need is long-term commitment from our supporters. Achieving this can be difficult. Another difficulty is balancing our ideals with the practicalities needed to achieve our goals. Our Church Street community centre will attract Marylebone’s more privileged residents and we have to find a way of putting their participation to good use.

We want to break down barriers between those people and the ones we want to help, but we don’t want the centre to be used mainly by kids who already have access to great sports facilities.

My responsibilities

As anyone who’s ever set up a business will know, the founder does everything at the beginning – or at least tries to. I realised soon enough what I could and couldn’t do. I was CEO from 2002 to August 2016, but purely on a voluntary basis – so I didn’t draw a salary or expenses. After I stood down, my title became founder and trustee, and my duties shifted. As CEO, I managed the entire organisation, with overall responsibility for campaigning, fundraising, funding and delivering each project, and managing the senior leadership team. Now I oversee two of our three committees – fundraising, and finance and risk – manage the accounts, and look after health and safety.

My typical day

A typical day is… never typical! Right now, I’m renovating an old deconsecrated church in Marylebone, in the City of Westminster. It’s a very generous gift from a donor that we are turning into our first community sports centre. It’s in the Church Street ward, where life expectancy is 15 years lower than in the rest of the borough. It’s going to have one of the best table tennis facilities in London, and we hope it will prove a vehicle for breaking down barriers between rich and poor.

A huge aspect of my job is fundraising. This is on-going – we’ve covered the renovation costs, but need a constant revenue stream to operate.

Industry quirks

Greenhouse Sports is a business, but it’s one with a social purpose – which is to look after the kids. And for that, we need to fundraise. This is what our life depends on – day in day out, so much of our work revolves around finding the income to expand and bring our programmes to more people who need them.

In my former career, I worked with those who had so much, whose lives were filled with abundance and excess. Now I’m involved with people who have very little.

We are redefining success, trying to show that it isn’t measured in pounds, cars, houses. Even though we run sports programmes, our projects aren’t play-schemes or sports academies – they are a means to teach kids to respect themselves and others and give them a sense of achievement to carry through to other areas of life.

“In my former career, I worked with those whose lives were filled with excess. Now I’m involved with people who have very little”

How the ACA helped my career

The ACA has given me the discipline, the skills and the experience to do what I do. When we were setting up Greenhouse Sports, I knew how to sort out our system, admin and processes, how to manage money and, critically, how to use it to raise more funds. Not one penny is wasted. When you run a charity, your operations have to be completely transparent. My whole career has been about getting the most out of every pound.

What’s also invaluable is the network it has given me. So many doors open because of my qualification, and I am connected to many people who can help Greenhouse Sports fulfil its aims.

The habits of an accountant

Accountants are prudent, yet entrepreneurial. This combination, which ultimately equates to having the willingness to take risks and the ability to carefully calculate how far to go, is crucial in setting up and running sustainable businesses.

We’re extremely methodical and disciplined, with a forensic eye for detail. And we’re used to being completely accountable. I would say that many of these are character traits – but what our training does is hone and hardwire them.

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