Posted: October 30th 2013

The human spirit

Inclusion, Special Olympics, human spirit
Athletes compete at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens.

Athletes compete at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens.


As leader of the world’s largest sports organisation for people with intellectual disabilities, Tim Shriver no longer talks about Corporate Social Responsibility – only Corporate Social Opportunity. The Chairman of Special Olympics International explains why businesses that don’t forge long-term partnerships with charities are missing out.

“This is the best thing my company has ever done,” is one of the most common things I hear from volunteers in the corporate sector who support  Special Olympics. Much of this has to do with the enormous amount of fun we have in our Movement; something that may seem like a trivial point but is also an essential one.

Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International

Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International

Our athletes bring energy, joy, laughter and a contagious excitement to everyone around them, serving as beacons of all that’s great about the human spirit. When you consider the very tall odds they face, and the exclusion and unjust stigma that are sadly all too prevalent in their lives, this is a stunning achievement.

So much of what we do is about overturning the false assumption that people with intellectual disabilities can’t do anything. It’s not the only misconception we’re working hard to correct though. Many people think  Special Olympics is simply about organising sports events, when in fact our mission is much deeper and broader.

We help deliver health services, fitness volunteering, neurological and socialisation programmes all year round for children as young as two. Our Unified Sports® initiative is the latest example: putting those with and without disabilities on the same team as a way of encouraging better understanding and empathy.

We need to be better at communicating what we do, which is why partnerships with organisations like National Grid are so important. Of course we need financial resources, but what we need above all is people, what I like to call a ‘human capital army’. I’ve heard stories of National Grid employees who become enthused by the Special Olympics and go on to coach at local sports clubs and become agents of inclusion in their community, which is in essence our core mission.

In the past, corporations saw such work as charitable gifts and ‘a good thing to do’. But it’s an investment rather than a gift, a partnership rather than a sponsorship, not just a ‘good thing’ but a sensible, sustainable, strategic business move. I don’t even like to use the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility anymore. Instead, I talk about Corporate Social Opportunity, because at its heart lies the concept that everyone wins. Companies need a sustainable business model, but this model is about more than long-term profit and should encompass things like community, purpose and value.

Put simply, if business leaders aren’t thinking about such partnerships in new and creative ways they’re missing out, professionally and personally. It’s an experience that can become truly life-changing. I continue to be astounded by what people with disabilities are capable of and the attitude they bring to what they do. It’s a privilege to listen to people like Hannah Westerman, a visually-impaired athlete with learning difficulties who competed at this year’s Special Olympics GB National Summer Games in Bath.

She told me the story of how she sprained her ankle with a minute of her gymnastic routine left. Her sense of conviction – “I came here for a gold medal, I will not be denied” – is what brought her to her feet. Seeing this grit and bravery is the best thing about leading this organisation, because it makes me think that one day I could be like that. What more can you ask for from your work? What more can you ask for from life?

Special Olympics has opened my eyes to a deeper sense of the human spirit, an experience shared by so many others. Ultimately, our movement teaches that there should be inclusion without exception and that there is no limit to what constitutes a community. I passionately believe that in future, the legacy of our movement will rank alongside those who campaigned against the slave trade and secured the vote for women: people who came together in a defining moment to change the world.

Tim Shriver biography:

  • Tim is the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics Movement in 1968
  • Before joining Special Olympics in 1995, Tim was and remains a leading educator in the field of social and emotional development in learning
  • He co-founded and currently chairs the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the leading research organisation in the U.S. in the area of social and emotional learning
  • Tim has an undergraduate degree from Yale University, a Master’s degree from Catholic University, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Connecticut.

To find out more:

  • Click here for more information about the Special Olympics.
  • Caroline Hooley’s thoughts about the positive impact of National Grid’s partnership with Special Olympics Great Britain.
  • Kate Van der Plank explains why volunteering partnerships with organisations like Special Olympics Great Britain are a great way to nurture personal development.
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If business leaders aren’t thinking about such partnerships in new and creative ways they’re missing out, professionally and personally.

Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics International