Can making a bad gift hurt your company? 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?

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

The anecdote

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

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).

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 firm 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. While I can’t find any actual scholarly research on it, 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. A gift from a well-known company goes a long way toward conferring legitimacy on a nonprofit. 

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.

We can use this to identify charities that support or subtly modify existing brand personalities. Is your company known for it’s creativity? Perhaps a visual arts organization would be a good fit.

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