Conjoined twins?


Sponsorship and philanthropy – conjoined twins?

There’s an industry mantra dating back to the 80s, that sponsorship is a commercial means to a commercial end.

In the 80s, of course, it was a useful line to avoid approaches being routed to ‘community giving’; nowadays, it’s the logical defence against accusations of profligacy. But like any mantra, it both empowers and limits.

I was struck by this recently; a client, looking for words to explain the rationale behind a significant spend, chose to do so on the grounds of pure commercial benefit. Now, for tens of thousands of employees, this explanation risks being every bit as alienating as it’s now politically correct for the industry.

The question of who benefits – and how – from sponsorship is fundamental. It plays across campaign strategy, activation mechanisms, and the whole field of brand-consumer relationship, as well as the relationship between sponsorship, CSR and philanthropy.

Sponsorship’s roots, as we all know, are in antiquity, not the 80s. And the wonderful thing about ancient Greece is: think of anything, and they’d already done it, classified it and given it a name.

Choregus is one such name, given to the upstanding citizen who funded the production of festival performances. This person could either be appointed by the state or volunteer, and was fêted on an equal footing with the performers. The precedent here is interesting, and the recognition of the sponsor’s generosity is formalised socially: the better the staging, the greater the recognition.

(Interestingly, by virtue of the legal process known as ‘antidosis’, if you felt you genuinely couldn’t afford the public fame and respect the sponsorship would bring you, you could plead relative poverty, and offload the cost burden, providing you could prove someone else was better placed to afford it. BA and London 2012 spring to mind.)

From scholarly discussions I’ve been dipping into (and although we’ve got a Classics scholar on the team here, I’m definitely a barbarian), it’s clear that the ancient Greeks were themselves fascinated by the distinction between the obligation – to fund liturgy, construction, welfare, imposed through taxation or social ritual; and the voluntary actions of the wealthy to go beyond any such legal requirement.

Academics, drawing on contemporary sources including Aristotle, have defined another, relevant concept. ‘Euergetism’ is a term coined to help explain the practice of wealthy citizens providing collective benefit to a community, in the shape of funding civic buildings, social provision or the building of warships. Although honour, an outmoded term, plays a great role, it is clearly and overtly linked to benefit. Euergetism is framed by scholars as ‘social exchange’ – of personal investment in public welfare, in return for recognition and esteem, to put it bluntly.

Honorary decrees, magnificent titles such as ‘saviour’ and ‘benefactor’, and other tangible honours could be expected: special seats at public games, golden crowns, public eulogies, honorary positions in temples – even for family members. And these honours themselves were of course a not-too-subtle reminder that reputations need to be maintained.

From today’s perspective, the distinctions we make between philanthropy, CR and sponsorship are hard to see. The main difference is in the agent, not the intention. Although ‘business’ was not a player in antiquity, there was very public acceptance of the need for the sponsor, or patron or benefactor, to benefit.

And notably, public appreciation was directly connected to the ability of the patron to add value – brand utility as it’s currently billed. Do a great job and everyone loves you. Do it badly or even averagely and, well, thanks.

The distinction we’ve created between sponsorship and philanthropy is helpful, but not quite as clear as perhaps we pretend. From a corporate point of view, to consider sponsorship and CSR as separate is likely to be less than helpful – because the reality of what happens at the level of social exchange has not changed since ancient Greece. In terms of content, theatre, civic buildings, festivals, sport, defence even, are all the same: in other words, the content distinction we make between Sport, the Arts, Entertainment and CSR, simply didn’t exist.

There are distinctly commercial benefits which accrue to the sponsor, but to conceive of sponsorship as something which is purely driven by commercialism is to misunderstand sponsorship. The ancient Greeks had no problem linking social and personal benefit and I can’t see any reason why sponsors shouldn’t now. Sponsorship rationale, vision and narrative have to embrace both.