Roger Federer’s Devotion To His Charitable Foundation “The Fabric of Who He Is”

“What can tennis do to improve lives in Africa” was the subject of the “Credit Suisse Tennis Debate” held in New York City in advance of the 2013 U.S. Open as panelist Stacey Allaster, the CEO of the WTA, joined Janine Handel, the CEO of the Roger Federer Foundation, as well as former pro and ATP Board Member Justin Gimelstob and Lorne Abony, the Chairman and CEO of Mood Media, to discuss not only player efforts in Africa, but player philanthropy.

After moderator Bill Macatee of CBS Sports and Tennis Channel introduced all of the panelists, media and attendees were shown a video highlighting Roger Federer’s most recent visit to the African nation of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world,

“This is a very big project for us because we are going to be supporting the Malawi project for 10 years thanks to the great support of Credit Suisse,” says Federer in the opening of the video. ”We are going to be helping child care centers, probably 80 of them, probably 50,000 kids between the ages 4 to 6 will benefit for that support. We’ll help build better structures, educating the teachers more, getting kids to go to school….”

Macatee commented on the video and Federer’s involvement stating, “You can see that this goes beyond a photo opportunity. You can see that on his face, how strongly he feels about what he is doing. This is kind of the fabric of who he is. If you are ever in a position where you can give back, you should do that. Roger started the Foundation, not late in his career, he started it at the age of 22 when most of us are trying to figure things out. Most athletes are getting used to the rarified air. Roger had the vision to see that he could make a difference.”

Federer decided to start his foundation based on a conversation with his mother, Lynette, who is South African. The foundation was founded 10 years ago in 2003 with an initial contribution of 15,000 Swiss Francs. Since 2009, the Foundation receives $1 million a year alone from Credit Suisse alone in a commitment to extends to at least 2019.

“The conversation with his mother is an ongoing inspiring moment,” said Handel of Federer’s initial conversation with his mother that inspired him to start the foundation. “There wasn’t a certain day in his life when he woke up and said, ‘Oh, I need to give back.’ It was a consequence of education, and of a childhood when he was confronted with poverty, and that there are children in need in Africa. He went with his family to South Africa where he saw poverty. He was touched as a child. Without that family background, you don’t create that will to give back. He’s very involved, not just with his time but also with his heart. It’s so credible what he’s doing, because it’s not an image thing. It’s something that is part of his personality and part of his character.”

Allaster spoke of the commitment of both Venus and Serena Williams and their efforts to improve the lives of people in Africa, particularly women.

“I’m very proud of the work that Venus and Serena are doing in Africa,” she said. “I spoke to Serena the other day, and she’s already built two schools, and like Roger she has been inspired by those experiences of seeing the impact on the children. Right now, she’s working on her third school, which is great. Venus and Serena went to Africa on their ‘Breaking the Mold’ tour. That was about showing and educating women that they can break the mold.”

Allaster pointed out that the specific work of Venus Williams, the first-ever black male or female to rank No. 1 in the world, who has worked under the radar to help with water-filtration systems for Africa that do more than just provide for clean water.

“Venus is such a smart young woman,” said Allaster. “By grade three, these young girls have to drop out of school as they have to help their mothers to get clean water. So Venus thought, ‘Well, if we help with the clean water, then the young girls can stay in school.’ In addition, she’s creating scholarship programs. She will be able to help those kids who want more education.”

In 1998, the year that he won both the Australian and French Open mixed doubles titles with Venus Williams, Gimelstob on starting his own foundation – the Justin Gimelstob Children’s Foundation – and as an ATP World Tour board member, commentator and mentor to younger players, encourages young players with their philanthropy.

“At the ATP World Tour, we support players’ initiatives, as then it’s organic,” said Gimelstob. “It’s best if that passion comes from an organic place, whether that’s Roger with his Foundation, or Novak Djokovic or Rafa Nadal, or others. We supplement them and give them grants so they can continue their momentum, and to help them with what is important to them. And we try to get to players early, to educate them about the roles they can play, and the positive influence they can have. It’s important to get them at a young age, as it’s great to have a big platform and you have the biggest platform while you’re still playing.”

On the general topic of philanthropy, Allaster said that, like Federer, the motivation has to come from the heart, as well as from creating the proper education and from leadership. She told of the WTA’s annual “Power Hour” sessions they conduct with Billie Jean King with teenagers.

“Billie Jean speaks to those juniors transitioning from junior tennis to WTA pro tennis, and really has a very simple message for them: ‘It’s not what you get, it’s what you give,’” said Allaster. “And so right as players are coming on to the WTA Tour, we talk to them about the importance of giving back. We talk about financial planning and legacy, and how they might want to plan about giving back to their communities. So we put that right into context. Not everyone can have a foundation like Roger or Maria, and that’s okay. If you have a foundation, that’s a lifelong commitment. There are many charities that players can get involved with and make a significant difference.’

Other quotes from the Tennis Debate are follows:

Allaster on the role models on the WTA Tour: “We have Serena, Maria, Vika, who are strong, young, confident businesswomen who are successful in life. They are great role models for young women and also for young boys.”

Gimelstob on his philanthropy talk with Larry Ellison: “I had a conversation with Larry Ellison about philanthropy, and I asked him whether he felt social responsibility. And he looked at me and said: ‘Actually, I don’t feel compelled at all. I don’t feel responsible and I don’t feel guilty. If I did, it wouldn’t be organic and it wouldn’t be coming from a place of purity.’ If you put things in place with where your passions lie, that allows you to continue to have momentum.’”

Lorne Abony on how everyone connected to tennis can make a contribution: “You can make a difference in tennis whether you have a huge foundation like Roger’s, or whether you’re someone who wants to give 40 or 60 or 80 hours a month.”

Janine Handel on how having a foundation is a long journey: “It’s important to know that it’s a long journey. With Roger, it started small. But from the beginning it was important that it started on the right course, and that he was passionate about it. Just giving back because that’s part of your sports career, that will not be sustainable. The first step is to find something that you’re emotionally linked to, that you have a passion about. But if you do something, you have to do it right, and that can be complex. It’s not just about raising money and spending money, it’s about having an impact with what you’re doing. At the Roger Federer Foundation, we’re learning every day, and we’re failing every day. We learn from our mistakes, and try to get better. Journalists want to know how much money we raised and how much money we spent, but actually that’s not the point. What’s more important is that we have an impact. How many children are now having better performances in the schools and kindergartens we’re supporting? How many children now have a better future? It’s not about how much money you spend. I can spend 10 million dollars without any problem and have no real impact. Young players need help and they need support, otherwise you might jump into bad initiatives and then you might have a reputational risk.”

Lorne Abony on why charity work should not be mandatory for tennis players: “I personally don’t think that charitable giving should be mandatory. I think that’s tantamount to a tax. It has to come from the heart. If shouldn’t be mandated.”

Stacey Allaster on whether players should give time to charity: “That is happening. We have an Aces programme, and every week at tournaments athletes have to give so much of their time, with sponsors visits, with the media, and with charity. These things are happening under the radar. Hospital visits, for example. Our athletes are giving back, each and every day.”

Janine Handel on the importance of Credit Suisse to the Roger Federer Foundation: “It’s a win-win situation. It’s very special. It’s a firm commitment, every year for 10 years, they make a commitment of one million dollars a year. We took that long-term commitment of money to start an initiative in Malawi. If you become a sponsor of an individual sportsman, and not of a team, you’re not just sponsoring the sportsman, you’re financing the personality. In the case of Roger, it’s accepted everywhere that he has more to give than just sports. So I think it’s normal for a sponsor to also support the private part, the charitable part of a player. But I also think there is an obligation on the part of the sports manager, when negotiating with potential sponsors, to bring in the idea of a combination of sponsoring the athlete and the charitable side.”

Justin Gimelstob on his pride at what the ATP and WTA have done: “I’m incredibly proud of what the ATP and the WTA have done, mobilising so quickly after international disasters, because our sport is so international. Look at Novak Djokovic, who, just a day after a heart-breaking defeat at this summer’s Wimbledon final was on the red carpet raising money for his foundation. By starting late with his foundation, Andre Agassi has raised the consciousness of current players to start early.”

Janine Handel on Federer’s visits to Africa: “He’s famous in that village in that moment, as normally that village doesn’t have visitors. They could never imagine that you could earn money by having a racket in your hands, and making some moves. No, the kids don’t know Roger but that’s exactly why he feels at home. He felt that he wanted to bring his kids to see those kids, as he felt so real there. And alive. It’s about the emotions. The emotions first, and the quality second.”

Stacey Allaster on efforts to grow the sport in Africa: “We’re working to find a date in the calendar to possibly have a tournament in Africa. That’s not easy. It comes down to resources. But we should do more.

Justin Gimelstob on whether tennis players have an obligation to give back: “I believe that tennis players have an obligation to give back to those who haven’t had opportunities.”

Janine Handel on whether tennis players have an obligation to give back: “Every human being has an obligation to give back, whether to their family, to their children, to their neighbours or to their community. And if you have a worldwide platform, you have a worldwide opportunity.”

Lorne Abony on whether tennis players have an obligation to give back: “Everyone has an obligation to give back and it’s proportionate to what society has given to you. If you’re a global tennis star, society has given you more than others, so I think your moral obligation is greater.”

Stacey Allaster on whether tennis players have an obligation to give back: “We all have a responsibility, and it should be an opportunity for us.”

Roger Federer working with his Foundation

Roger Federer working with his Foundation

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