Cleaning up your funding

Guidance on ethical fundraising and sponsorship

The breached planetary boundaries, particularly climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, are a direct result of human industrial activity. Companies have been given licence to extract resources, exploit people, pollute and destroy ecosystems in order to accumulate profit. This licence is obtained through finance, law, politics, military force and through social acceptance. Fossil fuel companies in particular have known that their activities were having catastrophic consequences for decades but they have concealed the science and sown doubt, in order to escalate their harm and profit. They use sponsorship of culture, sport or education as a way to obtain social licence to continue their operations, to expand into new territories and to be seen as benign innovators. 

The cultural sector has great power to disrupt this licence, to decouple social and cultural capital from destructive practices. This disruption can happen through direct creative activism, reimagining post-carbon and post-colonial models, and amplifying positive efforts at structural or systemic change. 

These are some steps you can take:

  • Make a pledge to be Oil Sponsorship Free. The pledge says: “We do not take any oil, coal, or gas corporate sponsorship for our cultural work. We call on our peers and institutional partners to refuse fossil fuel funding too.” Put the badge on your communications. 
  • Look at all your funds and financial partnerships with an eye to divest from fossil fuels. Set a date by when you will have no financial ties with ecocidal companies or funds. 
  • Look at exemplar ethical fundraising policies. See Artsadmin’s ethical fundraising policy
  • Hold training or discussions with staff and partners to define your boundaries of ethical sponsorship and explore ‘what if’ scenarios. Investigate how companies obtain social licence through sponsorship, and how they conceal their harm and manipulate public discourse to lobby for more freedoms. Use resources provided by Culture Unstained
  • If you are defining boundaries about which sponsors are unacceptable, consider which companies are the most destructive to the biosphere, and who show the least likelihood of positive change. Also, you can apply the Precautionary Principle: if you can’t be sure your project or its funder will not cause harm, don’t pursue it. 
  • Be democratic and transparent: invite views of your audiences on how you should be resourced. What ideas do they have for more ethical and beneficial ways to save money and generate revenue? If a project needs sponsorship, do your audiences think that its benefits will justify the commercial partnership?    
  • Explore alternative revenue models: proactively work with communities to shift towards a local, circular economy which benefits your organisation. For example, can you support participatory forms of entrepreneurship, such as plant-based food businesses, heritage crafts or planet-kind technologies? 
  • Please tell us about your good practice, so that we can amplify it. Rather than highlighting the worst examples (e.g. oil-sponsored culture), we want to celebrate and show what good looks like. Share it with #CultureTakesAction 

Here are some questions you can ask when discussing this with colleagues

  • Who holds power within our organisation to shift the ethical stance on funding, and what are the obstacles to creating shifts?
  • How can we work with other organisations? What are the strategies for building agency between ourselves to create change? 
  • How do we go through this process in a collaborative, affirmative way? Use the Collaborative Change Cycle as a guide
  • Where do we draw the line on the type of sponsor we will approach or philanthropists & foundations we will accept donations from? Which are unacceptable to each of us personally, and as a group? 
  • What kinds of arrangements would be unacceptable to us? For example, would we allow a sponsor to advertise products, or to influence a programme? Would some kinds of audiences be off limits? 
  • If we are already sponsored by a company known to harm environments or worsen climate change, or an individual known to have profited mainly from such a source, what should we do? 
  • If you are not in a position to contribute to these discussions, what action are you willing to take to raise your concerns? (Have you joined a union? Can you form a support group with colleagues?) 
  • If you are a senior manager or trustee, what more can you do to ensure that all staff and stakeholders are heard, and feel safe to express their views? 
  • Can we shift our revenue model to reduce the need for corporate sponsorship? 

Model text from Culture Unstained

This is an extract from the ethical policy of Culture Unstained, in a section ‘Who we accept funding from’. You might use this as an example for your own statement. 

Culture Unstained is a small organisation and we primarily seek funding from charitable foundations or similar bodies. We acknowledge that in a capitalist system many of the sources of funding available to us may be tainted by a degree of exploitation and environmental harm. Our responsibility is to exercise the agency we do have in order to avoid perpetuating or exacerbating any harm, and to put the money we do accept towards addressing the pressing problems we exist to challenge.

However we do have clear red lines around sources of funding we would never accept. We will not take money from funders who make their income from activities that abuse human rights, contribute to climate change, cause environmental destruction or depend on the depletion of finite resources. We recognise that endowments and funds will often have historical ties to unethical activities.

In these cases, we may accept funding from those that have taken comprehensive steps to confront, learn from and address the origins of their funds. We will not accept funding that could be used to “cleanse” the reputation of the funder where the original source of the funds goes against our core values. We make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, guided by our due diligence questions, below. We reserve the right to review and revise our approach, and reject or return funding, if new information about a source of funds comes to light.

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