Big Hearts: The power of football and people

Craig Wilson

Craig Wilson

Craig Wilson
Guest Author
Craig Wilson is the General Manager at Big Hearts Community Trust, the official charity of Scottish Premiership Club Heart of Midlothian. Craig joined the organisation in 2015 and helped build...
arrow-down

Earlier this year we spent some time with Big Hearts Community Trust, helping them in their efforts to better understand the needs and priorities of the local community to inform their strategic development. Here we invite Craig Wilson, General Manager at Big Hearts, to explain why a participatory process was the right choice to shape the future of the charity. 


Big Hearts Community Trust is the charity of Heart of Midlothian Football Club. Throughout its 147-year history they have built strong relationships with the communities surrounding the stadium in South West Edinburgh.

Since 2015 Big Hearts have further developed this connection, taking it to a new level by working closely with football supporters and local organisations to deliver a range of programmes addressing the main areas of need in the local community. At the top of the list: the rate of child poverty – the highest in the capital city.

At Big Hearts, we use the power of football to change the lives of the most vulnerable. In 2020 alone, we engaged with over 8,000 adults and children, with the help from over 230 volunteers. Community resilience has been at the heart of our activity with a focus on supporting struggling households, isolated older people and disadvantaged school pupils.

The Impact of Covid-19

Covid-19 had a significant impact on Big Hearts. Like many other organisations, we had to re-think our delivery model. The pandemic initiated new ways to work as a team, to deliver our vital support and to collaborate with volunteers and partners.

We decided to focus on what we do well to reach families most in need. Our unique position as a football charity, associated with a high-profile Club established locally for over a century, quickly helped build trusted relationships.

More individuals came forward to help, resulting in a 30% rise in volunteering. Third sector organisations reached out to see how we could join forces, and we’re proud to have contributed to 138,000 packed meals for a nation-wide homeless charity. Big Hearts’ capacity to build bridges between football fans and Edinburgh residents had never been so palpable. So much so that the Scottish Government nominated Big Hearts as one of Scotland’s ‘Community Anchor Organisations’.

As we swiftly adapted our delivery model, we partnered with Nesta, the UK Innovation Agency for Social Good and their People Powered Results (PPR) Team. Together, we used their ‘Listen and Learn’ approach to shape the future of our charity: by gathering insights and learning from people we support, those we work with – including partner charities, Hearts’ fans and the Club, and local organisations in Edinburgh. You can read the report here.

What we learnt

Working with the PPR team felt like a natural continuation for us, as we did an external review of our work five years ago. We get inspired from the people we meet and the experiences they share. Our decision-making process is largely evidence-based. Teaming up with an external agency seemed the right way to build our future ambitions towards 2024. Last December, we launched a wide survey inviting stakeholders, volunteers and members of the community we work in to share their thoughts. This led to a series of workshops: the outcomes were overwhelmingly positive.

There was a strong sense of appreciation from all sides that pleasantly surprised us, including from local agencies who valued the positive impact Big Hearts had on people’s lives during the pandemic. Many stakeholders recognised that our position at the heart of the local community meant we were able to respond to people’s rapidly changing needs and to direct resources where it would make a difference. It confirmed that putting people at the centre of our work, by working on a one-to-one basis, was a priority shared across the community.

“Your ability to adapt your services, working with partners to channel support where it was needed the most and distribute crisis funds to help deliver crucial support to those who need it most during lockdown was really valued.” Stakeholders Survey – Jan 2021

Increased network and opportunities

We are now weeks from publicly revealing our strategic plans for 2021-2024 and have already put in practice what we learnt. We’re extending our commitment to help our diverse community thrive, including recently arrived groups in Edinburgh. In line with the Scottish Government’s New Scots programme, we recently launched a social inclusion project for young refugees and asylum seekers – becoming the first football charity in Scotland to run this European- wide programme. This work has opened valuable conversations with key -actors in the sector, growing our own understanding of people’s needs along the way.

Our staff are developing a ‘Youth Guarantee’ which will see young people aged 16-24 who are involved in our projects continue their journey with us through valuable volunteering experience, leading to increased employability and education prospects. This opens a new chapter for us and we are linking with football organisations like the Scottish Professional Football League Trust to identify the best approach to implement. It’s a very exciting time for Big Hearts and we look forward to building our future together with an extended network of partners, supporters and projects participants.

Taking a people powered approach

Working with the People Powered Results Team at Nesta enabled our staff to better understand how to reach people closest to local issues in an increasingly complex environment. What we came out with are genuine insights – ‘real data’ – that is now used for developing our future strategy and planning tangible actions by 2024.

It’s not the end. The participatory process initiated 6 months ago is now embedded in our organisation. Moving forward we will carry on listening and learning from partners in the community, local authorities and those who receive our support. Two elements from the PPR approach resonate particularly with us: shifting perceptions of what is possible – taking risks and challenging assumptions of what we think is right; and the power of the collective – prioritising collaborative work to grow together around common goals.

We are now equipped with the skills to continue building on the trust and these newly formed relationships to increase participation in shaping our organisation. We also want our new strategy to be responsive and we will regularly check if our plans are aligned with what matters the most. Our football and charity supporters will continue to play a huge role and we look forward to revealing more very soon.

“Good questions posed. You challenged us to contribute ideas and thoughts that needed to be aired.” –  Staff Workshop, Jan 2021

© 2019 Nesta Nesta is a registered charity in England and Wales 1144091 and Scotland SC042833. Our main address is 58 Victoria Embankment, London, EC4Y 0DS. You can reach us by phone on 020 7438 2500 or drop us a line at [email protected]
All our work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, unless it says otherwise. We hope you find it useful.