Dealing with the devil? Sponsorship ethics for LivingCampus

Posted on September 16, 2008


Brian's jacket Our colleague Brian has a jacket for a favourite race-car team.   It has fascinated me since he got it.  What sort of negotiation went on that sees a smoking company and a quit-smoking company jostling for position on the same arm?

Brian’s jacket has been on my mind the last couple of days following a letter from the leader of one of Dunedin’s organic garden groups.  He gives a perspective that we are working hard to accommodate. 

The letter came about following a talk I gave to Sustainable Dunedin City where I mentioned that we were talking with several Dunedin businesses including Mitre 10 Mega about the possibility of sponsorship.  

This upset my correspondent: 

 I don’t know what kind of sponsorship they are talking about, i.e. if it is cash sponsorship or materials sponsorship, but either way I am pretty sure that accepting any kind of sponsorship from such a business is inherently unsustainable.
I understand that sometimes you have to take what you can get. And it depends on how fussy / holistic you want to be with the overall model of sustainability.
 I don’t know that much about economics, but I have a rough enough picture of it. The reason that taking sponsorship from mitre 10 mega is unsustainable, is that the particular form of capitalism that it is functioning within, has a slow but inevitable outcome: the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite of rich people, oligopolies in the market place, crushing of small independent businesses, etc etc.
 This may sound radical, but it would seem that this system is destined to collapse. Which means that it is not sustainable. Constant growth is not sustainable. Which is what capitalism requires. And even if it was sustainable, it’s just not nice! Hah.
 And what will they get from the sponsorship? Advertising. They aren’t even seeing it as sponsorship. They’re seeing it as marketing. If they can have their logo associated with an amazing, organic, wholesome community initiative toward sustainability, then people will assume that Mitre 10 mega supports and perhaps even abides  by those ideals itself. But alas, it does not. Mitre 10 mega and it’s big box buddies are symbols of one of the several significant problems facing western civilisation at this point in time.
 What is the funding for? Why is so much money needed? Gardening really isn’t that costly. I’m advocating a more DIY approach requiring minimal monetary input. Surely the polytech is contributing some funding itself, from student fees? Is this not enough?
 Anyway I’m not trying to sound like I’m getting on a high horse or anything because I don’t know much about the project and I realise that funding can be hard to come by. But I just thought I  would put up that angle of perspective for you to consider.

Here’s my reply:

Thank you for this…   

I understand your point of view here and agree with much of it.   There are clearly potentially strong feelings in the community, but yes, we do need to engage with Otago’s businesses. 

You are right that Otago Polytechnic should be investing in LivingCampus, and indeed it is.    We need to be careful though, while we see LivingCampus as being very beneficial for learning, it is not as obvious as say, employing a lecturer – in the short term at least investment in these initiatives could be seen to be taking money away from direct teaching and learning.  In this regard, it is important to remember that the LivingCampus is “more than a garden” – it is also a centre of engagement in learning around sustainability.  This is going to take effort and investment in integration into learning, development of teaching resources, and a heavy focus on interpretative and interactive resources.  

The LivingCampus is also a busy campus- something like 14,000 people come through the door each year (and that’s not counting the passing foot traffic, hockey players or skateboarders).  We do not have the luxury of a home garden – everything we do is scrutinized by health and safety, disability access, building consent requirements etc.  We are carefully treading a tightrope between an organic feeling and a high use outdoor museum. This is, unfortunately, not cheap.

So, yes, we do need the money.  Perhaps more important than this though, is we need the engagement of the whole community – including the businesses.  While we may not like some aspects of what they represent, the fact remains that they are here.  Most importantly, the big shed hardware/gardening stores are where most people are getting their materials, resources and knowledge.  To get the people, we need the big sheds to move to a sustainability message.  To misquote someone, we need them in the garden, not outside it.

Your email has prompted me to look for advice.  The best I can find is the Ethical Consumer website
This UK group recognises, as you do,that “Sponsorship is not philanthropy. It is a mutually beneficial business partnership”.   They suggest a code of ethics that is used to “share a common understanding of the charity’s ethical values”.

I think we need to write a set of guidelines for association with LivingCampus.  You are right, people will want to “associate with the amazing, organic, wholesome community initiative toward sustainability”.  And you are also right that other people will assume some sort of alignment of values.  

I’ve spoken about this with our business relationship manager.  He suggests a “softly softly” approach, the retail sector is not strong at the moment, too big a stick and we’ll lose both the opportunity to engage and the possibility of money.   We have quite a big stick in our procurement policy:

1.1.At Otago Polytechnic purchasing decisions, at whatever level these are made, are expected to take into account both financial and sustainability issues, and to contribute towards meeting the Polytechnics objectives in the area of sustainability.

1.2.A sustainable approach to purchasing means taking into account social, environmental and broad economic factors when meeting the Polytechnics needs for goods and/or services.

1.3.Otago Polytechnics objectives in the area of sustainability (green objectives)

  • Support suppliers who are socially responsible and have adopted ethical practices
  • Avoid unnecessary consumption
  • Select goods and/or services which have a lower environmental impact across their life cycle than competing goods and/or services
  • Support suppliers whose work practices demonstrate innovation in sustainability
  • We clearly need to build relationships with the businesses in our community as well as groups such as your own.  By working with the businesses we can contribute to their progress down this sustainability pathway.  

    Would you be able to help us with this, perhaps a short working party to write a LivingCampus Code of Ethics…?



    What such a document say?  What alternatives are there?  How can we make this ethical and practical issue a  win-win situation?   How do we reflect both points of view without burning bridges?