top of page
  • Writer's picture

Looking into the funding abyss…What got us here won’t get us there.

Holly Woodford Co-Owner of Her Spirit shares her thoughts on the culture of the sport and leisure sector, funding, women's activity, Her Spirit and what the future holds.

It was 1995 and aged 17 I spoke at one of the very first Women in Sport

Conferences in Brighton. Full of youth, passion, hope and determination I shared the story of a small group I was leading called Coaching Active for Women in Sussex. Funded by the then English Sports Council and Women’s Sports Foundation.

Our hypothesis was simple “great coaching by women for women would lead to more women participating in a range of different sports.

Like all small projects with a lot of promise, it stopped as soon as the funding ran out. I have seen the same thing happen, year after year, with projects big and small and no matter how successful. So much great work poured down the drain as soon as the funding fountain runs dry.

There is no doubt we have come a long way, learned a lot, but if we are honest, as an industry we have failed to answer the central question: How do we get the whole nation active in a way that is affordable and sustainable?

Along comes, Covid and women’s participation has tanked. The gender gap is wider than ever and exponentially worse for women on a low income and those from black and ethnically diverse communities. A staggering 78% of women are not active enough for a health benefit. The stats are shocking, and it is going to take a titanic in the way our industry thinks and behaves to reverse this trend. What got us here literally won’t get us there. That’s why I started Her Spirit.

I met Her Spirit Co-Founder Mel Berry at an Active Partnerships Chairs Conference in 2017. It was a fairly typical, mostly male, pale and stale affair with well-meaning, passionate people discussing the theoretical barriers to participation and how to strategically overcome them. Easy discussions about how to create more projects, programmes and campaigns reverberated around the room and in our view spectacularly missed the point.

Mel and I had honestly heard it all before and over a conference prawn sandwich our frustration boiled over. We resolved to keep in contact and try and find a different, better way to solve these decade long problems. 12-months later Mel contacted me with an idea. It was called Her Spirit.

Mel had been working with Nottingham City Council on the very first This Girl Can campaign. This hugely successful campaign and body of work in Nottingham was about to end abruptly. Sound familiar? Yes, you guessed it. The funding fountain had been switched off again.

Our first meeting was rapid and excitable. We wanted to create a new more modern, more inclusive, and more flexible way to engage EVERY woman in physical activity. Our start point had to be more about the ‘person’ and not a short-term programme or a project.

Women’s lives are complex, experiences with sport and physical activity are often demotivating and the time to be physically active is squeezed between a myriad of daily tasks and stresses.

We need a different way. In a fast-paced digital world, we wanted to create a more vibrant and inclusive experience that had heart, soul and sustainability. We wanted Her Spirit to be for every woman no matter your ability, location, ethnicity, income level or stage in life. We intuitively felt that a more holistic approach to health and well-being would resonate and unlock new healthier long-term habits.

After 12-months of gathering deep insights from hundreds of different types of women, we launched our first version of the Her Spirit subscription app and web platform. 12-months later we started our in-person swim, bike and run coaching in Nottingham. 2 years on we have over 14,000 women across the UK walking, swimming, running, cycling, doing a triathlon, and taking on a myriad of monthly mind, body, and fuel challenges.

Her Spirit blends digital communities and in-person location-based coaching and event experiences. Through a team of brilliant online and in-person coaches, we help women discover what their bodies can do and give them the confidence to set goals they never thought possible.

Her Spirit also gifts a Premium (paid membership) to women that can afford it and we also receive member donations for women that can’t afford to access our in-person coaching.

This is what Community member Marie Moss has to say about Her Spirit experience..

"Her Spirit is a community of outstanding coaches and like-minded ladies that inspire, support and motivate me daily. I am achieving things I never dreamt I would. As I wandered into middle age I lost motivation, self-confidence and belief in my ability to achieve anything. Her Spirit has given me back my 40s. I’m not afraid to do anything because if not now then when? So with the support and encouragement of all the girls, I feel like I’m living."

Using the best of digital technology, we wanted to pioneer a behaviour/habit-forming model that increases the likelihood of women’s long-term adherence to physical activity. The early data is encouraging, bucking the national trend, with 93% of Her Spiriters maintaining or increasing their activity levels over the past 12-months.

But most of all we wanted to challenge and disrupt the outdated funding ideology that we believe is holding our industry back. How do we solve an ever-increasing problem of inactivity with a funding fountain that continually runs dry?

We passionately believe that our collective overreliance on grant funding will scupper our chances of reversing inactivity trends anytime soon. Naturally, fight or flight kicks in as we all scrap for too few funds. The result? We become self-protective, wary of collaborating and “partnership on my terms” becomes the norm.

In Her Spirits short time in existence, we have shown how you can attract all types of funding and deliver more sustainable results and get a better return on everyone’s investment. I won’t lie it has been a huge struggle and demoralising at times. We have had many doors shut in our face, mainly by the public sector and community organisations, including people I have in past roles, worked side by side with, that intensely dislike the “commercial” nature of Her Spirit.

The very fact that we ask those that can afford to pay £4.99 a month seems to raise hackles in some quarters. Why? Where is the logic that says people shouldn’t pay a small amount if they can afford it? Despite our gifted membership promise we are often met with suspicion and excluded from helping more women. The binary thinking of public or charitable funding as “good” and private funding as “bad” is just nonsensical and outdated. We have been told more than once to “focus on the white, middle class, menopausal women and leave the poor communities to us.”

Motivated by these judgmental and often demonising views our mission has never burned so bright. Her Spirit should and will always be accessible to EVERY woman.

We don’t have all the answers yet and I am sure we will make many mistakes along the way! Our mindset is more “ask for forgiveness than permission! It is only by pushing the limits will we know what is possible.

One last thought… As an industry can we disrupt from within? Or will we wait for external forces to do it for us? Look at Uber and Air B+B they changed the face of their industries in a few short years. Both led to changes in legislation, accessibility, and affordability for the consumer.

Mel and I will continue to passionately advocate for a funding model that is truly collaborative and blends public, private, and individual (pay + charitable giving). Her Spirit is just one emerging example of what is possible. We need thousands more like it if we are going to get the whole nation moving again.

How brave are you willing to be? What will your organisation give up for the greater mission? Will you help change the game or stand ideologically in the way of progress?

Agree or disagree I hope this blog gets you thinking. Both Mel and I will be speaking at the Why Sports Media Webinar on the 1st of September on The Physical Activity Women and Girls.

We would love to hear and debate your views on this topic. Have we headed in the right direction? Are we way off beam? Do you have a better idea?

We will also share more about Her Spirit and our planned rollout to 10 cities in the next 18-months.

Be part of the change and start the conversation. Join the webinar:


bottom of page