Sporting a new life

Sporting a new life

Through sports, Mathew Spacie found a means to reach and lift India’s poorest. In the next three years, his organisation, Magic Bus, aims to bring one million children out of poverty 



When Mathew Spacie first came to live in Mumbai, he played rugby at the Azad Maidan Gymkhana. He noticed the children living right outside the grounds on the streets and invited them to play. Soon, he realised that the rugby sessions changed their lives – they cleaned up their lives, started attending school and were even prepared to take up jobs. “That’s when I understood how powerful the medium of mentoring was and how it changes people’s lives – a medium that could work from childhood, all the way to dignified livelihoods as adults,” recalls Spacie, founder and CEO of Magic Bus, a non-profit organisation.  Personally, rugby was a major part of Spacie’s life – his character has been shaped on the pitch and he developed many good friends there.  “No game has the ability to bring so much out of you,” he states.

Spacie started Magic Bus as a volunteer-led initiative, in 1999, when he was the COO of Cox and Kings, a travel company. Within two years, Magic Bus had grown well and he then understood the possibility of its impact and scale. “The concept was so simple but I needed to really understand how to make a robust programme and that’s when I chose to get on board as a full time CEO,” he explains. He spent the initial period learning how to make the connection between mentoring via sport and some important development levers. He wanted to do this in such a way that it could reach the slums and villages across India. “My role specifically was to try and find the people who could do that – who could prove that the impact of what we were doing was important enough to move some of the big levers associated with poverty,” says Spacie.

In 2005, he co-founded the travel website, more as a means to pay his rent. Till then, he had been using savings and contributions from early investors.  “But it was tough working on an income that was just 20 per cent of what I had been paid in my previous for-profit role,” he admits. For two years, he worked half the week at Magic Bus and the rest at Cleartrip.  In 2006, he returned to Magic Bus in a full-time role and focused on growing it to quarter of a million young people enrolled in its programme each week in 10 states across India.

On the move

Magic Bus works to move some of India’s poorest children out of poverty. It focuses on the vital inputs of education, personal and community healthcare, gender equality and livelihood to ensure that young people make the right choices from childhood till they attain gainful employment. “Local community leaders are trained to deliver the curriculum that uses sport as a metaphor to address complex development issues through the formative years of a child’s life,” says Spacie. For example, a group of kids play the game of football with a specific purpose that is defined by the team leader. At the end of the game, they have a review session about the game and its objective.

Every participant is offered a livelihood programme which focuses on ensuring young people actually get a job.

“One big differentiator is that Magic Bus is not setting up new institutions or processes. We are here to make sure the facilities already in place are actually reaching those they are meant to reach,” states Spacie. The organisation leverages the work done by the existing non-profit organisations and the government infrastructure. “We know how to go into a village and ensure that a 14-year-old girl re-enrols in school. But we don’t want to replicate the infrastructure that is already there,” he adds. Magic Bus’s job is to ensure that young people know about their opportunities and the means of accessing them.

Currently, Magic Bus works in 10 states within India and plans to start exporting its programme to some Asian countries by 2014, using a franchise model.  The organisation has four overseas registered charities that help raise funds in U.K., U.S., Germany and Singapore. In India, it has around 10,000 community leaders delivering its programme in slum and village communities for six hours, every week. “These young people, who themselves live in poverty, do this as volunteers because they want to change the children’s lives in their community. Their daily stories are incredible – what they do and how they impact their communities inspires me to get through any day,” says Spacie.

The magical role

Spacie’s role encompasses three things at Magic bus –  strategic direction and accountability to the board, succession planning and the A+ senior executive team and to be an ambassador primarily to make sure there are right partnerships for growth.  In a month, he spends two weeks on the road which could be literally anywhere in the world. “And in my work, you go wherever you can generate new supporters for your work,” adds Spacie. He spends the rest of his time either with his top management or thinking about recruitment and communicating with and aligning the governing boards.  “As a charity, we have an incredibly archaic governance system where we need to create autonomous boards in every new country. We are about to open our sixth new geography that means a board with over 25 people,” he says.

Not all that different

Spacie says that there are more similarities between the for-profit and not-for-profit role than differences. Citing an example, he elaborates, “The success of Magic Bus pivots on our continual ability to attract the right people, the same as in any business. Our challenge is that we need to attract an A+ gene pool but without the war chest that my peers have in the profit world.” Magic Bus currently has over 800 people. Another similarity is innovation to stay ahead. At Magic Bus, developing a novel idea into a working model that is changing a quarter of a million lives every week was very challenging.

“The biggest differences I have found are in culture,” states Spacie.  Non-profit organisations tend to attract highly sensitive, highly motivated individuals who are rarely in the organisation for the monetary gain. “They demand flat structures and a highly democratic environment. When you harness this energy and create leadership structures that can transcend some of the democracy, then it’s the most powerful focus you can imagine,” he asserts.

As far as new ideas go, his foremost challenge is in ensuring people not just believe in their work but also help take results to the next level. “Lessons learnt from my experience at Cleartrip and Cox and Kings tell me that in order to make a real difference, you have to focus on scaling upwards,” he recalls.

Along with his colleagues, Spacie has built a solution that will strike at the heart of poverty. His challenge now is to make sure that each child living in poverty has access to the Magic Bus and ends up growing up poverty-free. “This means getting on board more supporters and my corporate experience helps me to talk in a language that corporate partners understand,” he shares. Magic Bus hopes to reach out to one million children over the next three year from the current 2,50,000. “But the big lever change comes from being able to create systemic changes through the integration of our programmes in to national and state government movements,” he concludes.


How do you unwind? 

I love the outdoors so a lot of my unwinding happens on mountains. I love mountain biking and snow-boarding and I just completed a course in kite surfing – my new mid life crisis adventure! My wife is a big part of these adventures. 

A Member of the British Empire medal was awarded by Queen Elizabeth II to you. How did that feel? 

It was a great honour to meet the Queen. I had previously met her sons in India and I asked her to send her two grandsons to volunteer with us at Magic Bus. 

You are a TED main stage speaker. What kind of talks have you given so far and what are the best sessions you have had with TED? 

I’ve spoken both at TED and a few of the X’s also. It was an immense inspiration and a humbling experience. It was a big experience to be surrounded by people who were literally changing the planet. Arunachal MM sticks out in my mind – the guy bringing sanitary towels to the poor in India. 

As a British citizen, share your experiences of living in India? 

Like every city, there are lot of ups and downs. I wish there were more parks, pavements and open space, but that’s compensated by some incredible friends and a great job.  My wife, from New Delhi, is my sanity. She is a photographer and our experiences are often shared on a motorbike. It’s fantastic to get out of the city – it’s so easy to forget how beautiful India is.

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