“It’s about mutual understanding, gender equality and inclusion”

We interviewed Can Saat – Business Development at Right To Play Germany – about his work for the international children’s aid organization.

A past work placement student with us at hartmann consulting, Can Saat chose to pursue a very special career. After graduating in Intercultural Management, he joined the prestigious international NGO “Right To Play” and is now responsible for events and fundraising at its German office. “Right To Play” was founded in 2000 by the Norwegian speed skater and four-times Olympic gold medalist Johann Olav Koss. The organization uses sports, play, and games to help children in 15 countries throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East acquire vital knowledge and skills. Play boosts self-esteem, ensures equal opportunities for girls and boys, and builds bridges across previously insurmountable differences.


Simone Hartmann, Managing Partner at hartmann consultants, spoke with Can Saat about his exceptional work, the current impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and the motivation that drives him.


Simone Hartmann: What is the impact of the current coronavirus situation on the work of Right To Play?

Can Saat: Well, the situation is certainly challenging, as it probably is for everyone. To fill in some background about our organization, our focus in Germany is to generate awareness and funding for the important work our colleagues are doing on our programs in the field. This means the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis is directly affecting our fundraising activities; we’re unable to plan any events at present and contacting companies has become far more difficult in the crisis. We’re forced to target our activities more precisely in order to safeguard the continuation of our programs, both during the crisis and in the long-term post-crisis future. As well as this, we naturally have to align our programs to the new circumstances; school closures and social distancing are ruling out large parts of our regular program activities. We’re therefore very happy that our institutional partners—which include governments and major charitable foundations—are being particularly flexible in supporting these program changes.

SH: Tell us more about the government partnerships you engage in.

CS: Financial support by institutional funders—in other words, the public sector and charitable foundations—is generally earmarked for a specific purpose. In addition, the funding usually does not cover the full costs of the program. For example, if the German Foreign Office decides to support an educational program, we are only permitted to use those funds for programs that are directly related to it. But this gives rise to some interesting possibilities; for instance, the Canadian government has promised us 20 million dollars for a project in Mozambique, Rwanda, and Ghana, on condition that we raise an additional 4 million dollars ourselves. This enables us to approach a prospective private donor and say, “Every dollar you donate will be increased fivefold!” We used this method in Germany to bring a large-scale donor on board, who gave us an enormous contribution. Large-scale donors view their funds not so much as a donation, but more as an investment in society. That’s what makes it so interesting.

SH: What do you mean by “investment” in this context?

CS: They’re investing in resources. You see, we don’t build schools or dig wells; instead, we train teachers and coaches who pass their knowledge on to children. We’ve developed a results-oriented, innovative, play-based approach to learning that we share with our local partners. The paramount goal is to provide knowledge and skills to children, teachers, and coaches, and equip them with the tools to create change themselves at their own location. In other words, we help them to help themselves.

SH: The whole world has turned its attention to coronavirus and possible vaccines. What kind of problems does that cause for you? How is the dip in public visibility impeding your activities?

CS: We can’t yet say for certain how much it will impair our activities over the medium term. We work in five key areas—Health & Wellbeing, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Child Protection, and Peaceful Communities—and provide psychosocial support. Our main focus right now is to make sure children get through the crisis safe and healthy. This involves some very concrete actions. First, battling local misinformation about Covid-19 and highlighting the importance of hygiene and social distancing; second, ensuring children continue to have access to education and can return to school after the crisis, for example by combating child labor and child marriage; and third, offering children psychosocial support.

SH: So if schools are now closed in Africa, how do you carry out your programs? Virtually, online?

CS: No, the vast majority of places lack the right infrastructure for us to do that; many of our activities are based in extremely rural areas. But these days pretty much everyone has a cellphone or knows someone who does, so we can reach the children that way and text them play instructions. Teaching takes place using radio and TV. In fact, our main challenge isn’t the technology—it’s getting the community to engage with our educational programs in the first place. Children’s time is often taken up with household and family work.

SH: So how do you go about getting them involved?

CS: By identifying the true decision-makers and talking to them. In many places they’re the local chiefs. In Karachi in Pakistan we managed to set up a girls’ football league, which would never have been possible without the imams. It’s not enough to whip up the kids’ enthusiasm; nothing happens without their parents’ permission. And if they can see a respected opinion-leader giving us his support, it has a hugely important influence on their attitude towards us.

SH: So lobbying and networking have to be your first move?

CS: Absolutely. The education ministries are at the top of the hierarchy and they’re what we’re aiming for, they’re where we can achieve the biggest impact. We’re already working with the education ministries in Thailand, Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania; we train the teachers’ trainers at the same time, and this ensures that the play-based learning methods we’ve developed at Right to Play are integrated into official curricula.

SH: Your founder, Johann Olav Koss, must have had a very powerful influence on the quality standards in place at Right to Play.

CS: Yes, he certainly did. Johann was a top athlete, and he powerfully leveraged his popularity and public status as a four-time Olympic winner to achieve real change through sport. We are pioneers in the field of developmental sport and play, so sport is a core aspect of our DNA and a major part of our local activities. With 20 years of experience in development cooperation behind us, we know our approach works and how we can maximize the effect of the various types of sport and play in different contexts—for example, when football will be most effective as a learning resource.

SH: Football seems to be fairly straightforward: it’s about team spirit, about acknowledging other people’s contributions, about realizing that individuals can’t make it alone. Are those your messages?

CS: Yes, team spirit is certainly one of them. But depending on the program focus, we could target messages about topics like gender equality, inclusion, or peace.

SH: Can you tell us about another example of how you use sport and play in your work?

CS: Sure! We have a really impressive project in Uganda. Aid organizations have been distributing mosquito nets over there as protection against malaria. However, we have statistics that show people are mostly using the nets for other purposes, like wrapping food. So our focus has been on getting children to learn that the nets are designed to protect people from mosquito bites while they are asleep. Games of catch are a really effective method of doing that. The games are followed by discussions with Right to Play-trained teachers or coaches. This ensures that children can understand these important topics and—most important of all—carry the information back to their families and communities.

“I learn a whole lot of things here that I would never learn in business”

SH: What motivated you to join Right to Play instead of entering the world of business? I’m guessing it wasn’t the money…

CS: You’re right, it certainly wasn’t about financial incentives! Well, I’m an Intercultural Management graduate, I’m half Turkish, half German and had a bilingual and bicultural upbringing, so I’ve always been engaged with cultural issues at a subconscious level. I learnt so many interesting things during my studies and I’m still fascinated by questions of how and why individuals and groups treat each other the way they do. Of course, all that’s been a great fit for my work at Right to Play, where well-developed soft skills and empathy are essential.

SH: Can you give us a short summary of your career to date?

CS: I worked here at hartmann consultants during my studies, and loved it. But after listening to the experiences and stories of two close friends, I longed to gain my own experiences in development cooperation, and Right to Play was where I ended up.

SH: What do you like most about working at Right To Play?

CS: Apart from the stories I heard from my two friends, I’d never explored development cooperation in any depth before. I thought NGOs were fusty, opaque outfits. But my internship at Right To Play quickly showed me that it was a really young and dynamic place, where people had the opportunity to put their own ideas into practice instead of being tiny cogs in a big machine—as can often be the case in big companies in the business world.

SH: Sounds like the noble ideal of “purpose”…

CS: Yes, that’s exactly what it was. The work we do has a very tangible impact. After my internship finished I stayed on and oversaw two or three projects on a pro bono basis. At the same time, one insight I’d gained from my internship was that I would also be able to help even if I was working in the free market. So after graduation I devoted my energies to getting a regular job in business, and immersed myself in job applications. But something clicked after my first spell “in the field” with Right to Play…

SH: “In the field”?

CS: Yes, visiting a project location—mine was in Ghana. Seeing the impact of our work with my own eyes had a huge effect on me. As soon as the budget for a new position was freed up, I realized it felt right.

SH: What did you see in Ghana?

CS: I had the opportunity of visiting two of our programs. The first supports street kids in Accra; we work with a local partner organization, Street Children Empowerment Foundation, to encourage street kids to go to school, and as a reward they can attend our programs in the afternoons. The children often have nobody to pay them any attention, but in our program they have people to play with and can learn things at the same time, like how to write their names and how to eat healthily.

The second project in Ghana is a mixed football team of boys and girls, all taking place right at the heart of West Africa’s biggest Muslim slum area! There are football pitches next door to a huge mosque. The girls have told us how their status, their position in the family and the community has improved, which made a great impression on me.

SH: What do you learn at Right To Play that you wouldn’t—or couldn’t—learn in the world of business?

CS: Lots of things! First and foremost, how to stay focused on topics that go beyond mere economics. Ultimately, the business world measures you simply and solely on how much revenue you can generate. In the nonprofit sector the impact’s the thing—the benefit to society.

SH: But impact isn’t as easy to showcase as return on investment is.

CS: Absolutely. And as our donors often come from the business world, we have to speak their language. That means writing reports and providing facts and figures about how many children we can reach, how many countries and projects we are active in.

SH: At hartmann consultants we spend a lot of time dealing with executives and decision-makers. What can executives and managers learn from Right To Play?

CS: For us, it’s essential to keep the added value for our partners in mind at all times. When we launch a project, we need to create a win-win situation for everyone involved. Asking for donations or sponsoring just doesn’t work. The main focus is on values, for which our charitable activities can provide a bedrock of credibility and support.

SH: What does that involve in concrete terms?

CS: Here’s an example. We’ve taken our play concepts as a basis to develop a workshop format, and we present it at our supporting companies once or twice a year to show the employees what Right to Play is about. The work we do takes a lot of explaining, but people usually experience a lightbulb moment fairly quickly. After all, the idea of play is a very positive one, and something that many companies like to identify with.

SH: And it can have an economic impact too, in terms of achieving business success. What would an employer have to offer to tempt you into the business world? Or isn’t that an option for you?

CS: An employer would have to give me the feeling, and the certainty, that the company is engaged in its own social commitments in an authentic way. From a personal viewpoint, playing an active role in shaping progress is important to me. I’m convinced that personal success can only come from doing work you enjoy.

SH: One last question for you, Can. Looking ten years into the future, to 2030, how would you like to see Right To Play reported in the media?

CS: In Germany, Right to Play should definitely be an organization that everyone has heard of. I hope that by 2030 the press will be reporting on our activities in South America, that we’ve succeeded in involving the highest level of hierarchy—the education ministries—on the African continent, and that we’re growing.