Arts charities and fundraising ethics

Fundraising is hard enough without having to turn down sponsors who want to give charities money. Yet, according to the recent Arts Professional Ethics survey, more than 70% of arts organisation employees feel that their employer is at reputational risk through association with a sponsor or major donor whose own reputation is subject to criticism.

They’re not exaggerating. This year, we’ve seen several high profile cases such as the sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North which was brought to a rapid close and the furore in relation to Sackler Trust’s funding of several major arts organisations due to its wealth being created by Purdue Pharm.

Unfortunate spotlight

Even more recently, the outrage surrounding the Design Museum’s decision to host a private event for the defence contractor Leonardo as part of the Farnborough International arms fair put its temporary exhibition “Hope to Nope” in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

When thirty artists and designers demanded their work be removed from display, the sentiment behind Design Museum’s exhibition, which celebrates political protest, seemed hypocritical at best and, to some, an example of exploiting the political spirit without respecting the art itself.

Unsurprisingly, there is a high degree of nervousness from arts charities about what’s appropriate when soliciting funding. Sponsorship must be “defensible”, i.e. it must align with the values of a charity and help them to further their aims. But we also need to support our fundraisers to be able to actively raise funds from as wide a variety of sources as possible.

Fundraising is a difficult job at the best of the times and if we create too narrow a view of what makes an appropriate source of funding then we are putting potential sponsors in an impossible situation. We mustn’t make art too difficult to fund.

Avoiding backlash

So what is a “defensible” policy and how can an arts charity avoid backlash, without ignoring vital fundraising opportunities? Is it possible for organisations to be sensitive to their stakeholders’ views without impacting the commercial success of the organisation? And does due diligence require a thorough review of a potential sponsors’ own stakeholders? If a brand that is funding a charity has links through a parent company or subsidiary to an unfavourable business, does this disqualify it as a sponsor?

Conversations about what constitutes a good sponsor aren’t straight forward and it’s important that there is a structure to any discussion, linking to an agreed upon policy so that individuals who are making decisions can reference the charity’s developed policy and justify their decisions. Opinions run high from a personal perspective when we talk about ethics, and it’s important to remember that as far as possible we should come to an organisational consensus as to what’s appropriate as opposed to an individual one.

Trustee leadership

A charity needs to invest time to consider their position. The first step could be to develop an ethical policy that outlines which associations are acceptable or not. This activity should be led by the charity’s trustees. It’s disappointing to learn that only a little over a quarter of respondents to the Arts Professional survey said that their organisation has a policy in place to help them make ethical decisions.

The policy shouldn’t be a “nice to have” and needs to be fully debated throughout the organisation. Decisions and policies need to be reviewed regularly. Opinions change, reputations change, and we need to make sure that our views are up to date.

The policy is there to help charities make ethical decisions and shouldn’t be prohibitive. Against a backdrop of the continued threat of more public funding cuts, it seems that trustees and leaders of arts organisations are getting more risk-averse. Amidst a range of worries, the last thing that an organisation needs is attention drawn to it through controversy. There is also an underlying fear that taking the wrong sort of private money could impact funding agreements with public bodies such as Arts Council England.

Audiences can be cynical. Many believe that sponsorship of the arts is just an excuse for major corporations to cleanse their reputations. And with this in mind, we absolutely need to understand the position that an organisation represents. The sponsor reports to private interest, and the charitable arts organisation to the interests of the public. Sponsorship isn’t philanthropy, it’s a business exchange, and in this context, if a sponsorship can’t work for both parties then it shouldn’t be entered into.

Ethical sponsorship

London 2012 gave us much to think about in relation to ethical sponsorship. Sainsburys received mostly good press for their sponsorship of the Paralympics which played to their core values and gave them the chance to build on existing programmes such as Active Kids. In contrast, critics saw Atos sponsorship as lacking on moral grounds due to the view that they had treated disabled people unfairly in delivering the “fit to work” programme.

And this is key when we debate the ethics of sponsorship. We have to focus on values. The bottom line is that the trustees of arts organisations need to decide whether taking on a sponsorship will help further the artistic or charitable cause, but also whether the association can genuinely align with core values.

The starting point with developing ethical fundraising has to be that each organisation feels comfortable with its decision-making. An arts organisation needs to have a clear line and understand its core principles long before negotiations with a sponsor start. The buck stops with the charity’s trustees and leadership. It is their job to talk to donors and the public to gather opinions about what’s right, and to rely on their own instincts about whether a practice is ethical or not.

Ethical debate

A well run board will actively engage in the ethical debate and will continue to return to the issue even after a set of ethical guidelines has been agreed upon. Raising money at any cost is not acceptable and waiting to see whether the sponsorship will be noticed outside the organisation, and if so what the public reaction could be, is a risky business.

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