Ethical fundraising is possible, despite what the RSC may claim

Today we are launching a new web resource on Ethical Sponsorship. Here’s why.

When unveiling the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer 2018 season recently, its Artistic Director Greg Doran seized the opportunity to defend the theatre company’s sponsorship deal with BP. According to iNews, Doran said that he ‘would not bow to Art Not Oil activists who are urging arts organisations to end their BP sponsorship’, because ‘without the patronage of BP, a “loyal supporter”, the RSC could not afford to distribute 62,500 £5 tickets to young theatregoers aged 16-25.’

The Guardian also relayed Doran’s view that BP’s money ‘was needed’. He added, ‘In the economy we are in it is very difficult to unpick what is “good” money… if you can answer me that question I’d be delighted.’ But it is precisely because arts organisations are under pressure that having clarity around ethics is essential, allowing the organisation to be confident about what it stands for.

In the RSC’s case, we have already highlighted how the claim that it ‘could not afford’ the £5 ticket scheme without oil money is disingenuous. The theatre company is receiving around £375,000 a year from BP, whilst making an annual surplus of around £4 million, largely thanks to the extraordinary success of Matilda the Musical. So it is misleading to imply that the financial pressures facing the RSC make ethical judgements impossible, or to suggest the £5 ticket scheme couldn’t exist without a sponsor, when in fact it was funded in-house prior to 2013.

As the RSC holds its Annual General Meeting tomorrow, we’re calling on the company’s management and trustees to consider the following:

  1. It’s both possible – and good practice – to apply ethics to fundraising

Doran may be correct that it’s difficult to identify ‘good’ money, but it’s not so hard to identify really ‘bad’ money. Would the RSC allow a tobacco, arms or pornography company to prominently sponsor its work? If not, then clearly an ethical line can be drawn, and fossil fuel companies are now widely viewed as being on the wrong side of that line.


In fact, several theatre companies and many other arts organisations, including the Royal Court, Arcola, ArtsAdmin and Red Ladder Theatre, have either explicitly incorporated ethics into their fundraising policies, or signed up to the Oil Sponsorship Free commitment never to take funding from fossil fuel companies.

2.  It’s clear what policies and processes need to look like

Funding and corporate sponsorship will always be a complex area for any arts organisation to navigate, but it is widely accepted that organisations should undertake a process of due diligence to research any major corporate partners they are considering, in order to weigh up any potential ethical conflicts or reputational risks.

By clarifying and recording its principles and values in advance, an organisation can then be equipped for when tricky situations arise, and have a clear process to work through, allowing staff to make decisions with confidence and in a way that is transparent, accountable and clear on where the ethical red lines lie. This is what is clearly laid out in guidance provided by the Charities Commission, the Institute of Fundraising and others.

For example, the RSC’s environmental policy contains a laudable commitment to ‘Maintaining a forward thinking, environmentally aware organisation that fulfils our social responsibility’. But these good intentions have not been incorporated into the RSC’s Donation and Sponsorship Acceptance Policy. This leaves a lack of clarity on how meaningful this commitment really is that has allowed the BP sponsorship deal to continue regardless. See our blog on this for a more detailed analysis.

So today we are launching a new web-based resource on ethical sponsorship. It aims to support arts organisations who are thinking about ethics, sponsorship and fundraising by signposting the most relevant advice, guides and examples of best practice. We hope it is useful, and encourage the RSC to look at how other organisations are addressing the urgent challenge of climate change in more comprehensive and consistent ways.

3. The movement against oil sponsorship is not a niche concern

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance has said that he won’t work with the RSC until it ends its relationship with BP.

Greg Doran’s suggestion that oil sponsorship is only the concern of the Art Not Oil coalition ignores the fact that many theatre professionals are deeply uncomfortable with BP sponsorship. Supporters of the recently-launched Fossil Free £5 Tickets scheme, which provides an ethical alternative to RSC’s BP-sponsored scheme, include RSC Associate Artists Mark Rylance and Jasper Britton, and many other theatre stars including Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Tamsin Greig, Phyllida Lloyd, Caryl Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker and many more.

As the world has watched the terrible damage wreaked by successive record-breaking hurricanes in recent weeks, it’s clear that climate change is no longer a ‘niche’ concern that high-profile organisations can choose to disregard. If you are moved by the suffering you see, you then must look to your own organisation and ensure it is doing all it can to be part of the solution. Continuing to promote BP and associate it with your highly-respected brand puts the RSC firmly in the ‘part of the problem’ camp.

WeHelp us pull the plug hope that BP sponsorship is on the agenda at the RSC tomorrow, and that the trustees and management accept that complexity is no excuse for not getting to grips with the ethical dimensions of fundraising. Indeed, given our now rapidly warming climate, ending the relationship with BP is more urgent than ever.

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