Welcome to The Bicultural Podcast.

I’m delighted to be joined by Chris Roberts, co-founder of the North Wales Dragons.

This episode will give insight into

  • Creating a social impact in communities
  • Expanding a not for profit social enterprise internationally

Janina Neumann (00:30):
Hi Chris, how are you?

Chris Roberts (00:34):
I’m good thanks, Janina. How are you doing?

Janina Neumann (00:37):
Yeah, very well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to have you on my podcast. I’m really excited to speak to you today.

Chris Roberts (00:44):
It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a nice sunny day outside, so we can’t complain. A bit of sunshine after a while has been really welcomed.

Janina Neumann (00:54):
Oh, definitely. It always lifts the spirits.

So would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Chris Roberts (01:01):
Sure. I’m the co-founder of North Wales Dragons, community football team, and we’ve been going since 2009. About me, when I was 10 years old my father worked in the washing machine factory and what they would do is they would have football matches and they would be played interdepartmental. So the guys who built the drums would play the guys who did the caps. The guys who did all the wiring inside the washing machines would play the staff. The tool room would play the machine shop and at the end of it, they would have a football final, like an FA cup final, and it would be a big community day where, you know, everybody’s families came and gathered and celebrated what was just like a big tournament. And back then the factory was heart as a community.

Janina Neumann (02:14):
Aww.

Chris Roberts (02:17):
And that’s where I kind of learned that community played a huge, a huge impact in a lot of people’s lives. And I took that with me when I left school and I started work, I was arranging football matches between other businesses and it was the community spirit. It was always the community spirit that was the heart of everything. One day in 2009, we were approached by the oldest football club in the world, because I was doing some work with them at the time. They asked if we had any idea of how we could raise money for a charity they were involved with called ‘Boots for Africa’. They said if you’ve got any ideas at all come back to us. We had a think about it.

Chris Roberts (03:18):
My oldest son phoned up one night. It was 31st of December, 2008. It was Hogmanay. And he said I know how we’re going to raise money for charity. He said, we’ll have a football match. He said you’ve been involved in football, in community group arranging, he said, all your life. He said you can put it together. I’ll get to team from here in Scotland, we’ll come down and we’ll raise money that way. We had this game June the 8th, 2009, the guys from Scotland came down and they beat us 10-0. It was a huge lesson in community football, but we went into the bar afterwards. We had an after-dinner speaker. We had a meal and we also raised two and a half thousand pounds for charity and that was our initiation. And we thought, we love this so much, do you know what? We’ll go on, and we’ll do this again. And we did it again. We got to February 2020, and we had to stop due to COVID. When we got to 2020, we actually played 108 games for charity.

Janina Neumann (04:44):
Oh wow.

Chris Roberts (04:44):
So we’ve kind of done our thing really, and you know, one thing I should have done back then, but I didn’t realise how big this would get, is exactly how much we have generated for good causes in community groups. But I would imagine we’ve made a difference in that time.

Janina Neumann (05:08):
Yeah, certainly. Wow. That’s really fantastic.

And just going back to, you know, the early days of, you know, watching your dad’s football matches, what do you think about football? What do you think it does to break down those barriers and invite everyone to the game?

Chris Roberts (05:28):
With football, if you’re interested in football, the power of a ball is fantastic because it’s one of the biggest watched sports in the world. But at grassroots level, it takes on a whole different meaning because nobody expects any skill at that kind of level. You play for participation rather than a play for any kind of competitiveness. We all want to win no matter what we do, we want to win. But if there’s a level that we play at which we know isn’t the best, we’ve still got an interest in it anyway, and those who played, even those who play now for our team, we play for inclusiveness rather than anything competitive. The idea is that we get a physical wellbeing from it. We also get a mental well-being from it. And we also know that we’re actually giving back to the community by doing it as well.

Janina Neumann (06:44):
Those are really important factors.

So how would a team be formed then in different parts of community?

Chris Roberts (06:54):
It’s really easy. Like whenever we play, we have 17 players. What we do is we say to any opposition, bring 17 players with you. The way that the money is raised is we say to get a sponsorship form and ask friends, family, and work colleagues to sponsor you. And you might find that you’ll have one player who hasn’t got that many circle of friends, hasn’t got much family and probably works in the shop on their own. And you’ll find someone else who works in a factory, has got a large family and has got a large circle of friends. So you have two ends of the spectrum. One might not be able to raise that much money, but then on the other end of the spectrum, you might have someone who is able to raise a large amount of money.

Janina Neumann (07:56):
Yeah.

Chris Roberts (07:56):
And what we say is never disclosed how much you’re raising individually. We put it as a team so that the team discloses how much they’ve raised, because again, we want to take the competition out of it. There’s no such thing as they’re the best fundraiser or they’re the worst fundraiser. The idea is that the team raises the funds.

Janina Neumann (08:21):
That’s a really good way of, you know, encouraging that team spirit as well. So I’m just thinking about some of the impacts that you’ve had, you know, creating these football matches.

Would you like to share any stories around that?

Chris Roberts (08:40):
Yeah. Speaking of business, there was a car parts company in Manchester and the guys that worked for the car parts company have a colleague called Bob. Bob developed pulmonary fibrosis. He needed the lung transplant, unfortunately, that lung transplant didn’t come. The inevitable happened and he passed away. So their colleague, his wife, set up a foundation called ‘Breathe for Bob’. Breathe for Bob, it was obviously set up in his name and the idea was to raise some money that could be put towards the British Lung Foundation.

Chris Roberts (09:41):
The guys who worked with him approached us and said, we’d like to have a football match in honour of Bob. We’d like to call it the ‘Fat Friday Trophy’, and would we be interested in playing. Well, of course, we’d be interested in playing. And we did. We set the day up. We had, you know, the game, we had sandwiches afterwards and we had an auction and we had a raffle and we raised the money for the British Lung Foundation through Bob’s memory. The thing with that is that the players who came to play, they all had the physical wellbeing from being involved, they had the mental wellbeing from being involved. And they were also doing something for their colleagues as well. But also with that, they had put their focus on the company that they worked for as well, because the company, their corporate social responsibility policy was kicked into action because they were seen to be doing something within the community as well. And again, no matter what you do with football, whether you’re at grassroots level or whether you’re at the highest level of say, like the Premier League, no matter what you do, there is community that is always involved in it at any level at all.

Janina Neumann (11:22):
That’s really important and what a story in someone’s memory as well. And just thinking about like the corporate social responsibility, I think quite often, you know, employers struggle with actually making that happen, and demonstrating that they’re doing that rather than it just being a statement on someone’s website. I think that’s really important.

So when you developed the North Wales Dragons, did you have a certain vision for how it would all come together?

Chris Roberts (11:59):
No, not at all. When we first put this together, we actually thought that it would be a one-off football match. But we loved the day so much, even though that we’d got a terrible hiding, shall we say, 10-0, to start your charity football off wasn’t that good. But like I say, we loved the day so much and you know, two and a half thousand pounds was a lot to raise, but that then gave us an ambition that we either wanted to get more charities involved or we wanted to raise more money or both. So we decided to do it the next year. And then what happened then was the higher we were raising the bar, the more and more we were thinking, we can beat this or we can develop this in a different way. I’m asked to speak at schools and colleges and universities, and they asked the very same question as to why, or how did I see this all panning out. And the only way that I can describe it is that if you have a 5,000 piece jigsaw and you lay it face down on the table, then what we’ve done is we’ve put all the edges together and then we’re filling it in slowly but surely. And then one day, whenever that one day comes, we’ll flip it over and we’ll see this amazing picture that we’ve created, and we’ll say, that was the plan, that’s what it was all about.

Janina Neumann (13:47):
That’s brilliant. And what a lovely analogy.

So tell us a little bit more about the meaning behind, you know, using dragons in your name and obviously meeting other dragons around the world. What does it mean to you?

Chris Roberts (14:05):
The reason why we called ourselves North Wales Dragons is obviously we’re in Wales and the dragon is, you know, the emblem of Wales. So if you see our national flag, you see, as the red dragon. If you go to any souvenir shop in Wales, everything is all dragon-related. And of course it’s the Celtic history, you know, go back to our theory and legend and what have you and Wales is the land of myth and dragons. So we thought that we’re going to adopt that, and we think there’s a dragon’s attitude as well. You see us as fire breathing well, that doesn’t describe our competitive side. The fire-breathing describes our impact side because wherever we go, we want to make a difference. We want to be prominent. We want to be on the stage and show that we are here through activity.

Chris Roberts (15:18):
What we then did was we went on a campaign to try and connect to other prominent dragons around the world. One of them was HMS Dragon, which is like one of the state of the art Naval ships that we’ve got in the UK. I approached the Secretary of State for Wales at the time and said to him that, you know, we’d like some kind of a relationship with HMS Dragon. I don’t know where to start and I don’t know how to go about it. So he said, I’ll tell you what, I’ll get in touch with the Ministry of Defence, he said, and we’ll see what happens. So the Ministry of Defense came back and they said, here’s an email address. He’s the captain of HMS Dragon, he’s expecting your email, send him an email.

Chris Roberts (16:14):
So, sent him an email and out of the blue, this came back. He said, I can’t tell you where we are in the world at the moment, he said, but it’s great to meet you. And he said, we would love the opportunity of becoming global ambassadors with the North Wales Dragons.

Janina Neumann (16:35):
Oh wow.

Chris Roberts (16:35):
And that was it. That was set up. We’ve actually been down to HMS Dragon onboard ship twice, and we’ve had an invite to go down the third time as well when lockdown lifts. So that should be really interesting. Another story that we have is that there’s a Grammy award-winning band called ‘Imagine Dragons’. The Imagine Dragons have a dedicated charity that they formed called the ‘Tyler Robinson Foundation‘. It’s a bit of a long-winded story to go into, but if anyone wants to have a look at Tyler Robinson Foundation, it’s a fascinating story about how the Imagine Dragons actually set that up and how all that happened. It’s a pure story in itself.

Janina Neumann (17:28):
Oh wow.

Chris Roberts (17:28):
But what happened with us is I came across a lady through networking and she is the Executive of Tyler Robinson Foundation. And I contacted her and said, you know, a partnership would be lovely if we could arrange it between ourselves and Imagine Dragons and, you know, the TRF. And that’s what happened. We arranged this partnership and now, you know, we’re talking together about future events. They deal with pediatric cancer and, you know, we’ve now created the hashtag, #slaycancerwithdragons, so we’ve jumped aboard that.

Janina Neumann (18:27):
Aww.

Chris Roberts (18:27):
And if anybody out there is into community groups, fundraising kind of thing, it’s a play on words. If you’ve got words that are close to your heart, if you can connect to other people who are also using that word who are in a position where you can go onboard with them, you can connect with them, you can partner with them. If you utilise that kind of vision, it does bring back special things.

Janina Neumann (19:04):
Oh, wow. What great stories, and I love how the dragons are all connecting and working together. That’s really positive to see also in the social space as well.

So how do you see your organisation kind of perhaps go into other countries as well and make an impact there?

Chris Roberts (19:30):
We would obviously like to take this model abroad. Whether it’ll happen or not, I don’t know. But what we’re looking into at the moment is we’re looking into taking on volunteers. The volunteers could either work for us or they could play with us. And ultimately they would see how this model works, so they would learn about it and see how it works. They would be involved in the whole of the mechanism. We want to put them on a couple of social impact courses, so that at the end of it, at the end of 12 months, shall we say, or 18 months, they feel confident enough that they would go abroad so they could go to anywhere in the world, and they could say, we’ve worked for North Wales Dragons. We want to take what we’ve learned, and we want to put it into your community, or we want to put it into your community group, and we want to help make a difference.

Janina Neumann (20:40):
Aww.

Chris Roberts (20:40):
With that, with the education that they’ve learned from us, with the education that they’ve picked up from our projects, we would hope then that would give them the confidence and the skills to actually go and create their own community groups or their own initiatives anywhere in the world. And that would be our plan, our goal. I think there’ll be a few jigsaw puzzle pieces filled in if that was to happen.

Janina Neumann (21:16):
Yeah, that sounds brilliant. And I’m a huge advocate of, you know, growth through social enterprise projects and it’ll be fascinating to see you on that journey. I’m just also thinking about, you know, some of the social issues that you help people perhaps to overcome by being a part of a team.

Would you like to tell us some stories or tell us a little bit more about that?

Chris Roberts (21:42):
We did a survey of players, and it was an anonymous survey, and we asked various questions about what would you do if there wasn’t any Dragons, or if there wasn’t a team. And we were quite astonished at some of the responses. One that we got back was saying that “If there isn’t a Dragons, I wouldn’t have a social life”.

Janina Neumann (22:15):
Aww.

Chris Roberts (22:15):
“The Dragons is the only ways that we can get out and socialise”. There were so many different aspects that surprised us, and it was so surprising that it did make us take a view on what we were doing and how are we inclusive we were being. We thought about this a lot.

Chris Roberts (22:47):
It moved me, I must say, because, you know, you try and picture in your mind’s eye, what team player would have said that and you can’t look at someone’s face and look at what’s going on inside their head because mental health, and I know we talk about it a lot, and thankfully, we’re talking about it a lot as well, but we still hide, you know, us as individuals, we still hide a lot. And we gave these guys a platform to tell us exactly what it was that they were feeling. It made me think a lot differently about how we treat players, how we interact with them, how we nurture them, and how we want them to be going forward as well. Yeah, that was an eye-opener for me that one.

Janina Neumann (24:02):
Oh wow, that’s really good as well that you’re seeking that feedback, because then it just helps, you know, strengthen the vision and what you’re doing.

And you’ve mentioned, you know, about how you treat players and your approach to things. Would you like to tell us a little bit more about that? For example, if someone turned up one day to the match, but didn’t feel like playing, tell our listeners a little bit more about how you approach those kinds of scenarios.

Chris Roberts (24:31):
Yeah. So, like I was saying before we have 17 players and, you know, some will come on and want to run around for 90 minutes. Some will just want to come on and, you know, walk around for nine minutes. It’s entirely up to them. But we’ve had players in the past who have turned up and say, “I know I said, I’d played today, but I really don’t feel like playing”. We admire that honesty because, you know, rather than someone just not turn up, at least someone will come along and just wants to get dressed up in the kit and come and sit on the bench. And that is absolutely fine. We’d love that in as much as they have come there to be a part of it. And even though they don’t feel like playing, or they’ve lost the confidence in wanting to play that day, at least they can go away and be involved and say that they did their bit for the community because just their support alone is something huge. And they can walk away and feel part of the group that they were there on that day.

Chris Roberts (25:49):
And, you know, just their presence makes a difference. And with some guys it was difficult to get that over because some were staying away and we say, “Well, don’t stay away. Just turn up. Even if you come to watch the game, you don’t even have to get dressed up in the kit or anything, just stand there and watch the game and then come to the clubhouse afterwards. And just feel a part of being involved”.

Janina Neumann (26:24):
Yeah. It’s strength in numbers, but also, like you say, feeling part of something, being part of a community.

Chris Roberts (26:32):
Yeah.

Janina Neumann (26:32):
And I think that’s been really missing, especially over the past year. I think that’s really highlighted to people about the importance of having people around you. So if people would like to find out more about the North Wales Dragons, or even perhaps play against them, how would they best do that, Chris?

Chris Roberts (26:52):
They can contact me. I’m contactable by email. So it’s chris@northwalesdragons.co.uk. We’re on social media. I think we’re on all kinds of social media. I know we’re on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. If you type in ‘North Wales Dragons’, we’re easy to track down if you do a Google search on us. And just drop us a line or just send a comment or do anything, just engage in conversation because we love speaking to people. We love to share the story, but we also want to do more in our community. You know, we always think that we never do enough. We always think that we want to do more and we always want to achieve more as well. So yeah, by all means, please do get into it.

Janina Neumann (27:51):
Ah, that’s brilliant, and people will hopefully get in touch and hopefully, maybe some of our listeners will actually play against you, which would be fantastic.

Chris Roberts (28:02):
That would be awesome. Yeah, we’d love that.

Janina Neumann (28:06):
That sounds brilliant. Well, Chris, it’s been fantastic talking to you, and congratulations and all the social impact to date. And I look forward to hearing about the other stories that will come in the future months and future years. It’s fantastic how you’ve created a model that’s applicable nationwide, but also international. I hope that all that all goes well for you and as brilliant to hear about all the players and people that are involved how they’re benefiting from the initiative as well.

Chris Roberts (28:42):
Thank you. It’s been good to share with you today and thanks for having me along.

Janina Neumann (28:49):
Oh my pleasure. Thank you very much, Chris.

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