Revealed: the RSC’s new sponsorship rules

As Hurricane Harvey’s trail of destruction dominates the media, the urgent need to reduce global fossil fuel emissions has, once again, been made tragically and terrifyingly clear. It’s our responsibility to look to our own organisations – whatever their purpose – and ask: ‘Are we doing what we can to tackle climate change?’

In the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Since 2012 it has been working in partnership with the 11th biggest corporate contributor to climate change the world has ever seen: BP. It is a company whose dogged commitment to extracting massive new sources of fossil fuels decades into the future is a serious stumbling block to curbing the climate crisis. The RSC has been accepting the oil giant’s money in return for profile and branding since 2012, first by sponsoring the World Shakespeare Festival, and now marketing ‘BP £5 tickets’ to 16-25 year-olds.

Then last Friday, as Harvey was gathering its terrible strength over the Gulf of Mexico, and the worst flooding in years was hitting India, Bangladesh and Nepal, killing over 1,200 people and leaving millions homeless, a new Donation and Sponsorship Acceptance Policy appeared for the first time on the RSC’s website.

Culture Unstained approached the RSC several weeks ago and asked if the theatre company would share their policies in this area with us, so were really pleased to see this shared publicly. However, it makes for a disappointing read, especially against the current backdrop of climate disaster around the world.


Raising real-life tempests: the RSC allows climate polluter BP to sponsor its work, such as this recent hi-tech production of the Tempest starring Simon Russell-Beale

Forward thinking

Several weeks ago the RSC shared with us their environmental policy, which sets out their commitments on pollution mitigation, energy consumption, waste management and transport. It also contains a very positive commitment to ‘Maintaining a forward thinking, environmentally aware organisation that fulfils our social responsibility’. But sadly, these good intentions do not seem to have been incorporated into the RSC’s sponsorship policy in any visible way.

The newly public sponsorship policy starts by reminding us that ‘Each year, we have to raise an increasing amount of our income from donations and sponsorship to support our work and to fund major capital projects.’ Of course, this is true for arts organisations across the UK. But reading this you could be forgiven for assuming that donations and sponsorship make up a major part of the RSC’s income. They don’t.

In fact, fundraising brings in only 3.7% of the RSC’s annual income – and almost half of that money is spent on the costs of raising it. Meanwhile, over 70% of the RSC’s income of £81.3 million last year came from ticket sales and other trading, and since 2014 the company has been making a more-than-healthy surplus of £4 million per year, in part from the incredible ongoing success of Matilda the Musical. They are certainly not in a position where to refuse a donation on ethical grounds would put the future of the company in jeopardy.

Considering that BP’s contribution to the RSC has been estimated (based on BP’s own figures) at around £375,000 per year – less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and less than a tenth of its annual surplus in recent years, the ‘we need the money’ argument comes across as a little disingenuous.

Credibility and integrity

The policy then sets out the three principles by which all potential donations and sponsorship arrangements are assessed. Do they:

  1. support the charitable objectives of the RSC
  2. reflect the integrity of the RSC
  3. not influence the RSC’s artistic decisions

These are all important but the second one is perhaps most pertinent here. If the RSC says it is committed to being forward-thinking, environmentally aware and sustainable, but then takes money from BP, it surely makes a nonsense of this commitment and damages the RSC’s credibility in the process.

The policy then goes into great detail about the process of how decisions are made. But it has nothing at all to say about ethics. How are controversial sponsors investigated? Against which standards or values are they weighed? All the policy states is that where there is ‘concern’ they will ‘undertake due diligence to establish the legitimacy of the donation or sponsorship…’  But does that due diligence process include investigating a company like BP’s environmental and human rights impacts? There is nothing in the policy to suggest that it should. It is loopholes and woolly definitions like these which left the RSC with the wiggle room to renew its sponsorship deal with the oil company last year. If you are an organisation that is confident in its ethical standards, then you don’t need to give yourself a ‘get out clause’ like this.

Cherri quote

The Gulf Coast, battered by Hurricane Harvey, is still recovering from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill whose impacts on health, livelihoods and wildlife are still being felt today.

Compare this to the Royal Court’s environmental policy, which explicitly states that its scope includes fundraising, and that the theatre ‘will aspire to take an ethical approach to fundraising whenever possible and appropriate, working with those who share our environmental and ethical values.’ Unlike the RSC, these values are stated explicitly on the theatre’s website.

Why can’t the RSC take a similarly transparent approach? The ethics of fundraising will always be complex and require deliberation and value judgements, but it is the responsibility of every high-profile, well-respected organisation – especially those in receipt of significant amounts of public funding – to avoid associating themselves with companies that are doing great damage in the world. If they don’t, they become complicit in that damage, and taxpayers’ funding also becomes tarnished by the promotion of these damaging activities. So having clear ethical guidance with which to exercise judgement about any potential donor is an absolute necessity.

The tide is turning

The RSC’s donations policy goes on to state that ‘The Board takes ultimate responsibility for accepting or refusing a donation or sponsorship. It is their responsibility to act in the best interest of the Charity when accepting gifts.’ That’s where the buck stops. We would argue that the Board are failing to act in the best interest of the RSC by continuing to accept funds from BP. And we are not alone.

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance has said that he won’t work with the RSC until it ends its relationship with BP, despite being an RSC Associate Artist

Many well-respected theatre professionals have leant their support to an alternative, ethical crowdfunded ticket scheme to support young people’s access to the RSC: Fossil Free £5 Tickets. The list includes Mark Rylance (who is an RSC Associate Artist and has regularly spoken out against oil sponsorship of the RSC), Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Tamsin Greig, Caryl Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker, Phyllida Lloyd, Vivienne Westwood, Jasper Britton (also an Associate Artist), Margot Leicester, Moira Buffini, Timberlake Wertenbaker, April de Angelis, Sam Pritchard and Anders Lustgarten.

Theatre critic Lyn Gardner has also argued persuasively that ‘when theatres and arts organisations sacrifice principles for pragmatism and short-term gain, they risk much longer-lasting damage, including compromising artists and leading audiences to question the discrepancy between the work they see on an organisation’s stages and the sponsorship deals it is willing to make.’

The tide is clearly turning against oil sponsorship. Both Tate and Edinburgh International Festival parted company with BP last year, after decades-long relationships, following pressure from the internationally-growing movement for Fossil Free Culture.

Which brings us to the final section of the RSC’s donations policy: refusal. There are no stated circumstances under which a donation could be refused. But such a circumstance is allowed for. And if sufficiently concerned, the Board can seek the support of the Charity Commission. If a donation or sponsorship is refused, a careful record must be kept. So the RSC has decided that it should be possible to say no. But without its ethical principles clearly laid out, how does the RSC expect its staff or Board to make such a judgment?

All in all, it’s a disappointingly vague document. But it’s a start, a first step on the road to transparency and accountability on an issue that has the potential to do the RSC’s reputation significant damage. Now we would like to see the RSC flesh out this policy, align it with its environmental policy and take proper note of the context in which it is making these decisions. After all, no money is given in an ethical vacuum.

Then we urge the Board to fully review the RSC’s relationship with BP, which cannot be allowed to continue much further into a future where the shocking scenes from Houston to Mumbai risk becoming tragically commonplace.


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