One of the most beautiful things that distinguishes the poker community is its generosity. Always quick to rally in support of an individual or cause in times of need, poker players know how to put their money where their mouths are whenever a helping hand is called for. But it’s not just the players; it’s companies, too. Long an industry leader in this regard has been PokerStars, namely due to its Department of Corporate Giving. For close to eight years now, that department has been led by Sue Hammett.
This marks the launch of a new limited series of articles here at Cardplayer Lifestyle entitled Meet the (Poker)Stars, and I’m glad to have Sue join us as the first interviewee. Beyond wanting to learn more about Sue’s professional career, we asked her to give us an inside look at the world of corporate giving. Frankly, the fact that such a department even exists at all at PokerStars is just plain wonderful and serves as an example for all poker companies to follow.
Thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us, Sue. From scouring your LinkedIn profile, I see that you used to work as a debt recovery officer, customer service agent, community affairs assistant, corporate responsibility manager, and finally as a community relations manager before moving on to begin working at PokerStars. At what point in your career did your attention and focus turn towards being involved in charitable endeavors? What was it that drew you to that type of work?
Weirdly, when I was a child, I wanted to be a journalist, but when I first left school at 17 I went into a career in banking. It was commonplace then and was seen as a good ‘steady job’ back in the 80s! I left to have my daughter and then a random job advert appeared in the local paper for a ‘Community Affairs’ assistant for a bank. I applied and was lucky enough to get the role. I think even back then my passion for helping people was strong and much to my astonishment that was 20 years ago this year.
I was so lucky to find that role and it has enabled me to take on a wide variety of jobs within community relations and corporate giving. I feel humble and proud every day I get to make a difference in my job. Interestingly, I feel like I did come full circle. I ended up doing a PR and Marketing diploma and a media course as part of my involvement in community investment, so my journalistic ambitions were almost fulfilled.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no division or arm of PokerStars specifically dedicated towards charitable endeavors prior to your arrival in 2012. How did the opportunity come about for you to first join the company in the capacity of Head of Corporate Giving and what were your initial thoughts about taking on such a role specifically within a company in the gaming sector?
You are absolutely right. There wasn’t a corporate giving department until I joined in 2012, but PokerStars already had a long history of giving back to its communities and there was a lot of local activity throughout our office locations. It just needed bringing together in a more structured way, with key areas of support that align with what we are about as a business. After some consideration, I decided we would work with charities working in sport, education, health, and international disasters while supporting our people with causes they are passionate about.
When I first spotted the profile online, I knew it was exactly my kind of role and the thought of being able to build a whole program was exciting. I had limited knowledge of PokerStars at the time, but I saw it as a great challenge, so I packed up everything I owned in Cheshire and relocated to the Isle of Man to take that on. Seven years later I’m still here, and proud to say we’ve contributed more than $9 million to a wide range of charities, big and small, all over the world.
One of the most notable initiatives you’ve spearheaded is the company’s partnership with Right to Play, to which PokerStars has donated close to £2 million since 2014. There are of course a vast number of non-profit organizations out there as well as worthy causes. What is it that speaks to you about Right To Play in particular that makes you feel it’s such a great match for the company as their main charity partner?
As a company, PokerStars didn’t have any long-term charity partners. Historically it was a challenge getting charities to engage with the industry, so I was keen to break down the stigma attached to gaming companies and set out to forge strong relationships. We approached CARE International as our Disaster Relief Partner. Three weeks after we had finalized the relationship, Typhoon Haiyan happened, and we launched our first appeal. Thanks to the generosity of our staff and players, we raised more than $500,000. I then approached Right To Play to discuss the options for a partnership with them because their goals, ethos and their ambassadors seemed like a great fit for us.
Initially, this was because they aligned to our key global theme of sport and education. Right To Play use the power of sport and play to educate more than two million children around the world in some of the world’s most impoverished countries. Their methodology is proven to make a difference around a lot of key issues children in developing countries face. For example, one of their games, called ‘Mosquito Tag’, helps children recognise the importance of using mosquito nets. Families have historically used them as fishing nets rather than as for protection against malaria. By playing this game, the children take that knowledge back home. As a consequence, there has been a substantial decrease in cases of malaria where Right To Play have a presence.
I can honestly say they openly embraced a partnership with us. What we have created is a partnership that encompasses all parts of our business. We are one of their biggest global supporters and what we have achieved and continue to achieve has been incredible and inspiring.
Part of your department’s role is to get employees actively involved in the charitable giving as well. As such, you organized a trip to Ghana in 2016 for Right to Play that was memorably chronicled by Brad Willis for the PokerStars Blog. It was also a topic he spoke about at length in the 2016 interview I conducted with him. What was it like to plan a trip like that? Can you reflect on some of the more memorable experiences you had with the children in Ghana that still resonate with you today?
I’ve had the absolute privilege to go on three field trips with Right To Play now. Our first was to Uganda with some of our Ambassadors at the time, Fatima De Melo, Jake Cody and Leo Margets. As you mentioned, we also went to Ghana with Brad and ex-England rugby international player Mike Tindall. We also took with us employees who had been recognized for their own work in their local communities and we repeated that in 2017 when we went to Tanzania.
Looking back to Ghana, that really was a special trip. We visited a wide range of community projects that Right To Play supports and one of those was a Street Kids programme. It was there that we met the formidable and extraordinary Bernard. He was around 10 years old and at an early age had contracted polio. He was abandoned by his parents and the founder of the programme took him in and adopted him. Despite all he had to endure as a young child, Bernard’s zest for life and infectious smile shone through and I think every single one of us who went on that trip was touched by his story.
Of course, your department’s work doesn’t just end with Right to Play. For example, you’ve gotten behind a number of other charitable initiatives over the years, including my own Running Well campaign to benefit Save a Child’s Heart (thank you!). What governs your decision making when deciding how to allocate resources in support of various charitable causes and philanthropic endeavors?
We support a wide range of projects around the world. Our global support and major partnerships fall under the key themes I mentioned above, but we also have local committees across all our office locations. These are run by staff on a voluntary basis and they get an annual budget from my department to work with projects that are relevant locally. This may be through direct contact from charities or NGOs, or it may be a charity that a staff member is passionate about.
Of course, we would love to support every charity in need but that isn’t possible, so we try to give maximum impact to our support. For example, last year we supported an event in the UK for Prostate Cancer UK. This fitted well for us because we were able to effectively help to raise awareness amongst a predominantly male audience. It was linked to sport and our brand Sky Bet, and because of that we were able to do more.
⚽ 500 fans
🏟️ 16 clubs
👣 Four marathons
📍 Four nations
📆 Four days
☝️ One cause pic.twitter.com/9m6YSsAfjW
— Prostate Cancer UK (@ProstateUK) September 6, 2019
What does a typical day’s work look like in your department?
There is no typical day if I’m honest. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year planning activity for our bigger partnerships. For example, the charity poker tournaments and other events we’ll run with Right To Play.
I also look at countries where we want to create new partnerships and explore options there. Some days I will work with other departments on proposals they may have, or I respond to staff requests for matched funding, which is a great initiative that we run at Stars. I work on communications plans for events, liaise with internal and external PR, and generally seem to be the go-to person for anything charity-related.
Are there any specific goals you have set for yourself personally and/or for the department for 2020?
My goal is always to remain passionate and committed to my job. Every year we look at new ways to give back both as a company and for our staff, which provides a lot of inspiration. In 2019 we launched our first Global Play Day where our staff took time to incorporate games and challenges into their days throughout a week in November, all to raise money for Right To Play.
Today’s the first day of ‘Global Play Day’. This week our partner the Stars Group (@PokerStarsUK) are taking part in fun, active challenges and games based around the theory of play to raise money for Right To Play. We wish them all the best with their fundraising and challenges! pic.twitter.com/SyFCal8YtB
— Right To Play UK (@RightToPlay_UK) November 25, 2019
Our offices really came to life with play during that week. There was a real buzz everywhere as people released their inner child. We had ball pits and dodgeball, bike challenges, crazy golf, basketball challenges. You name it, we did it and across all our offices around the world. The feedback was amazing. Play really does make a difference in bringing people together. One of the quotes we used during what turned out to be a whole week of activities was by George Bernard Shaw and is so true: ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’
Over 700 staff ‘pledged to play’, which was a fantastic response, so one of my goals this year is definitely to make Global Play Day bigger and better.
There’s a deep quote from Erich Fromm that you have as part of your Facebook profile: “Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.” In closing, please tell us why that quote in particular speaks to you.
For me it says be grateful for the small things in life. Appreciate what you have because so many others have far less. I have a favourite analogy that always resonates with me. Fittingly, it’s The Star Fish Story, which seems a good way to finish.
An old man was on his daily walk along the beach one morning when he spotted a young boy crouched by the water scooping something up from the sand and throwing it into the sea. The beach was normally empty at this time of day, and so the old man stopped to watch for a while.
He noticed that the boy kept on shuffling a little further down the beach, then repeating this same action again and again – stopping, scooping, throwing, moving. “What are you doing there, boy?” the old man asked, walking closer.
“I’m saving these starfish that are stranded” replied the boy, “if they stay on the beach they will dry out and die, so I’m putting them back into the ocean so they can live.”
The old man was silent for a few seconds.
“Young man” he said, “on this stretch of beach alone, there must be more than one hundred stranded starfish. Around the next corner, there must be at least one thousand more. This goes on for miles and miles and miles – I’ve done this walk every day for 10 years, and it’s always the same. There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replied, “well I just made a difference for that one” and continued with his work.
— PokerStars LIVE (@PokerStarsLIVE) May 1, 2016