Last night I got to do what every tennis fan dreams of: play on the same side of the court as the greatest tennis player of all time. Roger Federer and I teamed up at the Match for Africa in San Jose. We managed to defend our title from last year, although TODAY Show host Savannah Guthrie and top ranked American player Jack Sock were tough opponents (especially late in the set).
The Match for Africa raises money for the Roger Federer Foundation, an organization that helps improve education for low-income kids. I asked Roger to write about his journey from tennis player to philanthropist. I hope you enjoy what he has to say. – Bill
At the age of 22, I was an established tennis player with a first Grand Slam title in my pocket and on the way to becoming number 1 in the world. But just having professional success wasn’t enough. This was the moment I asked myself: how do I want to develop on a personal level?
I knew I wanted to support children living in poverty by starting my own foundation. From a very young age, I had the deep wish to give back to people who are less privileged than I am. My mother comes from South Africa, and I grew up seeing extreme poverty firsthand. During holidays spent in that region visiting family, I became aware at an early age that not all children enjoyed the same privileges I had growing up in a rich country like Switzerland. That’s why I founded the Roger Federer Foundation in 2003, beginning an exciting and educational journey.
I quickly realized that becoming a good philanthropist isn’t easy. The will to give back is not enough on its own. In the foundation’s early years, we were less rigorous about what we funded, and we quickly realized that we couldn’t measure whether we were having an impact or not. If we really wanted to change children’s lives in a tangible and sustainable way, we needed to go about it in a much more professional and strategic manner.
We had to assess how we could most effectively help children break the cycle of poverty as well as nurture their potential. One of the best ways to achieve this is by focusing on education. The Roger Federer Foundation has therefore concentrated its investments on improving the quality of education in existing educational institutions for children aged 3 to 12 in Southern Africa and Switzerland.
It’s been nearly 15 years since I created my foundation, and I’ve learned a lot about philanthropy since then. The first lesson I learned was that empowerment is crucial if you want to change things in a sustainable manner.
When I visit our programs in rural Africa, I am always inspired to see how incredibly strong and committed the local population is. In the middle of one of the poorest regions in the world, mothers do everything to provide school meals for the children every day, and fathers build new classrooms where their children can learn and perform better. Beneficiaries must always be in the driver’s seat to take responsibility in every initiative. My foundation concentrates on mobilizing and empowering local communities to initiate a process that increases the quality of education. Through mentorship, they can start to understand that a better future lies in their own hands and that through a joint effort they can achieve sustainable change.
I’ve also learned that there is no simple recipe for success in philanthropy and that success does not come automatically. Achieving sustainable change is complex and depends on many external factors, challenges, and risks. It demands time, flexibility, and expertise. You need to understand dynamics on the ground and react to threats and opportunities. This is why we closely collaborate with local partner organizations and why we established a regional office in South Africa. We are constantly learning and doing our best to adapt our programs accordingly.
Philanthropy, like tennis, demands time and discipline. We follow a strict system of checks and balances and an effective project management cycle. Transparency, measurability, and evaluation of our engagement are also fundamental. And we try to achieve all this in the most cost-efficient manner. More than 92 percent of the Foundation’s expenditures flow into the countries and programs, and this is a metric that we are extremely proud of.
Sooner or later, the moment will come when my tennis career is done and I have more time to spend with my foundation. I definitely look forward to being able to travel more often to Africa, visit our programs, and raise more money for our cause. Of course, there will be challenges along the way—but I hope to grow in my knowledge and experience every day. Becoming a good philanthropist is a never-ending journey.