Is your sponsor toxic?

May 2016

I was running a workshop on Friday and we played a game to see the impact of putting brand logos next to each other. How did that change our perception of both ‘sponsor’ and ‘sponsee’? It’s a simple test but surprisingly powerful – after all, we are the company we keep, an old Egyptian adage that is even truer in the digital age.

This weekend 1,000 health experts signed an open letter to London’s leading cultural bodies over ‘morally unacceptable’ financial support (its not sponsorship) from cigarette manufacturers JTI and British American Tobacco. BP’s relationships with Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival are over; those with other arts bodies are being questioned; Shell is reducing its commitments in science education, and the branding of those it retains. The group Fossil Funds Free pledges not to take oil sponsorship and includes the Royal Court Theatre.

Twenty years ago when I was a fundraiser, we said if the company was legal, and they wanted to use their profits to support the good work we were doing then that was fine. These days that doesn’t wash so well.

I’m in no doubt that our new world of citizen activists is changing the way cultural sponsorship works. Thinking around trust and business responsibility has risen high up the agenda. The general public feels it owns our cultural and educational institutions and is very vocal about who it’s prepared to share with. Its not called passion-marketing for nothing.

At the same time, our major institutions should not allow themselves to be held hostage. And we are in a challenging fundraising environment. A difficult balance.

This week, we are helping an institutional client draft a policy to decide whose money it will accept. The impetus is an external approach that they have a ‘gut feel’ they should turn down.

Here are five things we will be discussing:

  • Consultation – Ultimately this is a board decision. Should we consult deeper within the organisation? Employees? Other stakeholders? Our public?
  • Where do we draw the line? Who would we not take money from under any circumstance? Tobacco? Certain countries? Alcohol? Oil? Nuclear?
  • Is there a grey area? Do we need to make an absolute decision now? Should we have a broad policy and then consider on a case-by-case basis? Is that weak? Or flexible?
  • Impact – What will our stance mean to the organisation and our responsibility and ability to carry out our mission? Is the amount of money relevant?
  • Communication – Should we share our position? Is it safer to keep below the parapet or does our conclusion reinforce our brand and values? Could it attract other support?

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue. The outcome I am hoping for is a robust debate, a proper consideration of funding sustainability, ownership of values and an agreed position that strengthens the organisation as a whole.


Rachel Clarke