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How to Protect Yourself Against Sponsorship Scrutiny

by Emily Taylor
26 07 2010

I was recently interviewed by Nicole Wallace with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, specifically regarding my opinion of the partnership between BP and the Nature Conservancy – you do have to subscribe to the publication to read the article, but they’re a reputable publication and can keep you educated so you might consider it.  As you can imagine, both parties have undergone some serious scrutiny over the wisdom in that partnership – and it’s the charity receiving the funds who is receiving the most heat.  I found the topic to be quite interesting and it sparked some thoughts I thought I’d share on the topic with the purpose of advising on how to protect your sponsorship partnerships from the same scrutiny. 

Just for quick background, The Nature Conservancy and BP established a partnership quite some time ago; one article from the Washington Post says it well: “the giant oil company and the world’s largest environmental organization long ago forged a relationship that has lent BP an Earth-friendly image and helped the Conservancy pursue causes it holds dear.”  I think that makes it clear as to the purpose of the partnership.  Personally I have pretty mixed feelings about the relationship – I realize that charities and other cause related organizations have tremendous interest in being about to pursue the efforts that will do the most good for the cause, but you can’t sell your soul in exchange.  I maintain the perspective that long term loyalty and respect ultimately come out of consumers who respect corporations with integrity, and I think the average consumer would look at this partnership and scratch their heads.  Clearly it’s to BP’s interest to be perceived as an environmentally friendly organization, but some VERY careful boundaries really should be placed on activation of such a partnership in order for it not to receive backlash in the face of the crisis they’re in.  I like partnerships with diverse missions who act as a complement to one another’s efforts, but I just don’t see it with these two.  To draw from another relationship based parallel, when you consider a marriage of two people with opposite high priority values, you wonder how they make it work.  When you have different values that are minor focuses, that’s one thing, it can keep things interesting and exciting; but when your core values are opposing one another, you can’t honestly support the efforts that go into keeping that value alive.  I see no difference in the situation with BP and the Conservancy.  When an action clearly hurts the other partner or goes against their values, it is perceived as betrayal, and in the business world, accepting a check doesn’t “make it all better” when one organization’s values and image are bruised by a partner’s actions. 

Lesson#1:  Before entering a partnership, consider worst case scenerios.  Would you be able to stand by the vision/mission of your partner in the face of crisis without injuring your own organization?  Clearly there are some events you cannot predict – look at Tiger Woods; but withdrawing from a partnership can be pretty clearly explained without cancelling out the validity of previous efforts.  The partnership made sense and now it does not; if your visions and assets never aligned, your consumer’s eyebrows start raising.  You need to be able to verbally endorse one another’s efforts without fear of affiliating with them at any given time.  All it takes is one bad move to ruin the reputation of an organization which could have taken years to build; and it can take years to rebuild that trust.

Lesson #2: Respond with transparency and grace in the midst of crisis.  I also maintain the position that the average consumer is quick to forgive upon a gracious and honest response.  It’s wise to be loyal to your friends, so your response to a mistake made by your partner needs to validate the reason why you partnered with them in the first place.  This underscores both your intentions for the partnership, and it honors your partner.  However, you definitely should not excuse bad behavior – if something goes wrong, leaders need to own it, and be transparent about their response.  No one likes a leader that hides under their desk in the face of a crisis. 

Lesson #3: Ask yourself whether or not the action taken or the crisis at hand changes or disintegrates a mutually beneficial relationship.  If that’s the case and there’s no means to repair it, conversations and PR work needs to be done to redefine the relationship.  If it hurts your organization to maintain the partnership, you need to leave.  One thing to consider is timing – if you exit the scene without the proper explanation, or without perceived attempts to salvage what’s there, you validate any consumer suspicion that your partnership lacked integrity or was used for the wrong reasons.  People like loyalty, and brands / organizations are not favored when it is perceived that they are serving themselves.  Do what you can to make it work, but don’t kill your reputation.

I heard Jessica Jackley, the founder of Kiva.org, speak once; and she mentioned a tough decision she once had to make.  A company wanted to make a MAJOR donation to Kiva with some strings attached that would require Kiva to use the funds in a manner that did not align with their mission to have personalized micro loans.  In light of this requirement they refused the donation, unwilling to compromise their mission/vision; and thus maintain integrity in the way they do business.  Doing what you say you’re going to do despite dollar signs makes your consumer smile!  A great example of good business ethics in my opinion.

Any other tips?  How have you protected yourself or your partnerships or responded in crisis?


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