HBR.org recently added a Social Responsibility topic to the website, and it’s a great resource. Especially when it’s conclusions are overly broad or completely wrong. For example, “When Corporate Philanthropy Makes the Recipient Look Bad“, by Yuliya Shymko and Thomas Roulet, concludes that corporate sponsorship can damage the reputation of the causes they support. But really,  can corporate philanthropy do harm?

Can corporate philanthropy do harm?

The authors cite an anecdote and a study to support their conclusion.

Oil and gas giant BP  (of Deepwater Horizon infamy) is a long-time sponsor of arts and culture in the UK. Recently, activists and artists have been targeting some of those sponsored arts institutions with protests, including  letters in newspapers signed by academics, artists, composers and musicians.

Specifically, the letter accuses BP of “[buying] social legitimacy that it does not deserve,” and the protesters request that the cultural institutions “[cut] their ties with the fossil fuel industry.”

The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, presents a much more narrow (and defensible) conclusion: for theater companies in Russia, having more corporate sponsors results in lower peer recognition (fewer Golden Mask awards).

Wrong conclusion

That’s a pretty big leap to “corporate sponsorship can damage the reputation of the causes they support.” A more accurate conclusion might be, “the artistic street-cred of an organization may be diminished in the eyes of some stakeholders by multiple corporate sponsorships.”

This seems to make intuitive sense. By definition, art is distinct from commerce. Closer alignment of art and commerce can only push art towards not-art.  And some folks prefer art to not-art.

But there’s an even better way to generalize both the BP and Russian theater examples…

Marketing 101

One of the reasons a corporation might wish to support a cultural institution is to shape their brand. For example, American Express sponsors historic preservation projects because it wants to align itself with the “world traveler” brand personality. Audi sponsors performing arts because it wants to align itself with “classy.” But it also sponsors the MLS Player Index (a sophisticated player ranking system for soccer) to align itself with “technologically advanced.”

While I can’t find any actual scholarly research on it (doctoral thesis idea alert!) I can’t think of any reason that brand personality effects wouldn’t flow both ways. In other words, does a sponsorship from American Express affect the brand personality of the National Trust for Historic Places?

Generally, nonprofits seem to think so, but only in limited terms. I remember having some really amusing internal conversations when a local strip club wanted to hold a canned food drive. We gave them permission, but we didn’t promote it at all. I can see other organizations refusing it completely on the grounds that they don’t want to be associated with a strip club.

One of the rules of thumb of using corporate societal marketing to modify your brand personality is that sometimes it’s too much of a stretch to have any effect. In other words,  nobody’s going to change their feelings about  a strip club (hedonism) because they did something for a food bank (wholesome). At best it’s ironic, but it’s more likely to be perceived as sneaky, pandering, false or disingenuous.¹

The nonprofit spin

Within nonprofits, it seems like conversations about whether or not a particular sponsorship is brand appropriate are pretty rare.  But again, this is a case of corporations just handing over their playbook for us to read. We can use this to identify corporations that might be interested in aligning with a particular nonprofit in order to borrow some of their brand personality.

Your homework:

  • Do you know your organization’s brand personality and attributes?
  • Can you identify corporations that would benefit from those attributes?
  • Do you have enough knowledge on the subject to craft a coherent proposal?

Further reading: Steve Hoeffler and Kevin Lane Keller. Building Brand Equity Through Corporate Societal Marketing. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

¹In this case it was definitely intended to be ironic. They called the food drive “Cans for Cans,” and it was driven by club employees who wanted to do something philanthropic for the holidays. They had no intention of attempting to modify their brand personality.

Listing image by Rich Hall [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons