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Navigating Fundraising’s Moral Maze with a Robust Ethical Policy

These are testing times for capital ‘C’ Culture. As we move towards a more connected, more inclusive society, our cultural institutions are subject to increasing scrutiny. Museums and Art Galleries are held to highly visible account over how they operate – not just by the internet but by staff and stakeholders. The recent resignation of British Museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif over what she described as their “immovability” on critical issues – including repatriation, the BP sponsorship deal and the re-hiring of cleaning staff after the contractors who employ them went bust – has been publicly endorsed by museum staff and their union. This chimes with the recent Arts Professional Ethics survey which found that over 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.

Patronage has a long tradition in arts and culture. Many of the exhibits in today’s museums were commissioned, donated and/or paid for by the rich and powerful. Commissioning art, buildings and events brings kudos and immortality – plus the added benefit of a kind of ‘cultural carbon offsetting’ for some of the less ‘societally enriching’ aspects of how the donors arrived at this position of largesse in the first place. As patronage moves from kings, popes and landed gentry, on through Victorian industrialists and into multinational corporations, the relationship between institution and donor has changed and museums in 2019 are having to think very carefully about the full cost analysis of entering into those relationships.

To satisfy both an increasingly socially aware public and anxious stakeholders, sponsorship must be ‘defensible’ i.e. it must align with the values of an organisation and help them to further their aims. But it’s also crucial to support fundraisers so they can actively raise funds from as wide a variety of sources as possible. Fundraising is a difficult job at the best of times. Create too narrow a view of what makes an appropriate source of funding and you could severely limit an institution’s potential revenue.

Internal conversations about what constitutes a good sponsor can get emotive and are rarely straightforward. Establishing an Ethical Policy for your institution provides an agreed structure for having those conversations and outlining which associations are acceptable or not. It’s important that any discussion links to an agreed upon policy so that individuals charged with making donor choices can reference the organisation’s developed policy as the basis of their decisions. Conversations around ethics can potentially throw up idiosyncratic stances, so it’s a good idea to keep in mind, as far as possible, an organisational consensus as to what’s appropriate as opposed to an individual one.

This activity should be led by the Charity’s Trustees. The policy should be business critical and needs to be fully debated throughout the organisation. Decisions and policies should also be reviewed regularly. Opinions, reputations and cultural priorities change, so it’s important to stay on top of the current funding landscape.

Having an agreed ethical policy shouldn’t be prohibitive to creative programming – or be regarded as an organisation getting more risk-averse. If anything, an ethics policy could be viewed as an investment in the future – the last thing that an organisation needs is attention drawn to it over a funding controversy. 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 is a case in point. This decision put its ‘Hope to Nope’ exhibition in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, after thirty artists and designers demanded their work be removed from display, making a show that celebrated political protest look hypocritical at best and, to some, an example of exploiting the theme without respecting the message of the art itself.

It’s always worth bearing in mind that the sponsor reports to private interest and the museum, ultimately, answers to 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. The bottom line is that museum Trustees need to decide whether entering into a funding partnership will help further the work of their institution but also whether the association can genuinely align with core values.

In my work in fundraising as Programme Director of the Arts Council England-funded Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme, I work with Boards to develop ethical fundraising policies. The starting point has to be that each organisation feels comfortable with its decision-making. The 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 ‘where the lines are’, and to rely on their own instincts about whether a donor partnership is ethical or not.

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.

It matters how museums conduct themselves. They function as vital repositories for the stories we tell about ourselves – who we were, who are and who we want to be going forward. To build those new narratives, we owe it to ourselves to present as trusted narrators.

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About the author – Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4

Michelle Wright is the founder and CEO of fundraising and development enterprise Cause4 and is Programme Director of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme.

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