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Paving the way for ethical sponsorship of cultural institutions

Credit: Photo by Daniel James on Unsplash

Veronica Ferrari on how museums and cultural institutions can navigate the complex path of finding partnerships which are ethically sound, financially viable, and fit for purpose

Controversies around museums’ corporate sponsorships are in the spotlight again after last month the British Museum announced its new ‘World of Stonehenge’ exhibition was being sponsored by BP.

This comes subsequent to an investigation by Channel 4 News in February 2022 which uncovered that the museum was being secretly advised by 30 business leaders from large corporations, including the oil giant. While it insisted the members, known as the Chairman’s Advisory Group (CAG) were attending in a personal capacity, the integrity and transparency of this practice was heavily criticised by campaign groups and activists. A few weeks ago National Portrait Gallery and Scottish Ballet confirmed they were no longer being sponsored by BP.

Historically it has been very common for major cultural institutions to receive funding from large corporates — the likes of Shell, Equinor, Adani as well as BP have been frequent headline sponsors of our much-loved cultural institutions. There have also been other controversial philanthropic partnerships — The Sackler Trust is just one example which springs to mind. We recently outlined the history and landscapes of these connections in our article ‘The ethics of sponsorship’.

As the public taste for these partnerships become less and less favourable, it’s worth considering how the world of art, culture and heritage can navigate this complex path of finding partnerships which are ethically sound, financially viable and fit for purpose.

Manifestos should not be considered a PR opportunity
Instead they should be robust and guide institutions in all aspects of their operations.

The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics defines ethical standards for cultural institutions and focuses on the need to make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain public trust. Principle three on institutional integrity invites institutions to “…seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum”. As attention focuses around the climate crisis, museums have been publishing environmental goals and net-zero pledges which would seemingly make any connections to the oil industry ethically questionable.

Institutions which have made the mistake of proclaiming green credentials, and then not necessarily committed to them, have come across fierce resistance – as those familiar with the ongoing Shell and the Science Centre debacle will attest.

Where institutions have conducted due diligence and arguably stood by their principles has resulted in a lot less backlash, as the National History Museum in London recently found out after it was quizzed by activists, declaring:

“We have done no consulting work for the oil and gas industry since 2017. We apply a code of ethics and undertake due diligence when making decisions on potential and existing relationships.”

What does the evidence tell us?
While finding a more ethical match might be everyone’s intention, the issue facing Development and Corporate Gifting teams is, who fits the profile of being ethical and has adequate funds?

Institutions have struggled to survive over the past two years and most are feeling pressured to find any support possible in order to carry on. Being selective of whose money they accept might feel like a luxury they can’t afford right now.

A recent study by Leeds University Business School surveyed tourists and found that they may be more willing to welcome corporate sponsorship in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic; an indicative litmus test which sponsorship professionals can take on board.

An interesting solution emerged from the research and from previous studies — smaller companies are considered the best fit for private funding for museums as they are seen as more authentic, supportive and actively involved in the partnerships.

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is an example of an institution taking this direction. While it still includes global media brands Bloomberg and Sky News among its corporate sponsors, it has also partnered with several eco and organic small businesses including chocolate company Montezuma, organic baby clothes brand Frugi and eco-heating technology, Daikin UK. Kew had at one point been sponsored by Tullow Oil.

Due diligence as a match making tool
The Code also instructs institutions to “exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity in all museum activities.”

An essential intelligence tool when considering partnerships – whether they be sponsorships or mergers and acquisitions — is due diligence. It’s used to assess the risks and possible reputational damage that could come from a potential deal. But in the world of arts and culture where most institutions are now publishing manifestos, declaring their values and making environmental and social pledges, due diligence can do more than give the ‘all clear’; it can confirm whether a prospective sponsor aligns with the museum’s ethical values.

What is it that makes a good relationship? Trust, accountability and common ground. With these things in mind — in addition to the learnings from high profile splits — maybe the way forward for professionals in this sector to find stable sponsorships with longevity, revenue and appeal, is to first take a step back.

Veronica Ferrari
Head of Insight at InsightX

Published 21 March 2022

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