Using Sponsorship to Support DEI and ESG Initiatives (and Not Just Pay Lip Service)

DEI and ESG have been percolating away in the corporate world for a while, but in the past few years, have exploded. The profile of these priorities has increased exponentially. Corporate commitments to them have been expanded. And consumer expectations around them have gone from almost non-existent to, for many markets, a critical part of their purchase decisions.

Before I go any further, let’s get this out of the way…

ESG = Environment, Social, and Governance.

DEI = Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. DEI is often framed as a component of the “Social” aspect of ESG.

The issue I’m addressing in this blog is that the intersection of ESG/DEI and sponsorship is often inauthentic, underdone, or non-existent. It doesn’t have to be that way, and really, truly shouldn’t. So, this is a primer about how to use sponsorship to underpin your corporate commitment to making your company, communities, and the world a better place.

Don’t talk about values, demonstrate them

One of the most important aspects of sponsorship is that it provides sponsors with a platform to authentically demonstrate brand attributes and values. This extends to both what you sponsor and how you leverage it. You’re the most helpful grocery chain? Then leverage in a way that is helpful to a festival-goer’s fan experience. You’ve got the stock trading platform that does the best market analysis? You could sponsor a conference that allows you to provide meaningful forecasting, based on analysis of key conference takeaways.

But this demonstration goes beyond just sponsoring in a way that is consistent with your brand. Bigger picture, you can use sponsorship to demonstrate your corporate culture, your purpose, and your commitments to ESG and DEI.

The word “demonstrate” is key, here. This isn’t about just throwing money at environmental or disability or LGBTQ+ organisations, announcing you’re a “proud sponsor”, and leaving it at that. This isn’t about sponsoring a bunch of random stuff in the community where your factory is, and not leveraging it in a way that impacts your staff, or provides meaningful benefits to the community. Work with organisations to do meaningful things, not just write cheques.

One of my favourite recent examples of a company doing meaningful things in their community is Budweiser Brazil’s Unbreakable Courts project. Gotta say, Budweiser doing real social good was not on my bingo card, but they’ve now done several amazing projects in this space, so colour me impressed!

This video explains the project. I can’t embed it, because it’s age-limited (alcohol), but you definitely want to take a look.

Short version is that Brazil is losing basketball courts to property developers, particularly in lower income areas. This not only removes sports facilities, but critically important community hubs. Budweiser used a little-known Brazilian law prohibiting the removal of works of art to save the courts. They enlisted one of Brazil’s top rappers to spread the word in a hit song – in some inspired subterfuge – and created a matchmaking app, matching local artists to courts. Those artists then turned those courts into giant artworks, saving them from being ripped up.

This is the kind of impact your company could have, but does it?

Authenticity is non-negotiable

The above point assumes that, even if you’re not leveraging well – not demonstrating your values, not doing meaningful things – at least you’re sponsoring things that reflect your true organisational values. But so often, that isn’t the case.

Authenticity is critical to the success of using sponsorship to demonstrate your commitment to DEI and/or ESG. People are wise to performative activism, and it flatly won’t work. If your company has a terrible environmental track record, sponsoring environmental charities is just greenwashing, and today’s savvy consumers know better. Same goes for pinkwashing. If your company isn’t a safe place for LGBTQ+ staff and customers, no amount of money thrown at Pride events is going to convince them otherwise.

One big thing you can do to ensure authenticity is to scrub the phrase “seen to be” from your vocabulary.

One big thing you can do to ensure authenticity is to scrub the phrase “seen to be” from your vocabulary. There is no “seen to be”, either you are or you’re not. Either you’re legitimately inclusive or you’re not. Either you’re legitimately committed to climate initiatives or you’re not. If you’re not legitimately committed to an initiative, don’t sponsor something in that space. It won’t work, and could damage your reputation.

There is an exception, however. Let’s say that your environmental sustainability program is a work in progress. You could sponsor one or more environmental organisations, with the proviso that they are going to help you to accelerate your progress in that area, and commit to working with them in that regard. Rather than doing that in the background, and running the risk of it appearing inauthentic, be upfront about it. Talk about why you’re sponsoring that organisation, do regular updates on plans and implementation.

Authenticity goes both ways

While you shouldn’t sponsor something just to create an inauthentic appearance that your ESG or DEI credentials are better than they are, the reverse is also true.

If your ESG/DEI credentials are legitimately strong – if it’s part of your corporate DNA – don’t sponsor things in contravention of that. If you’ve got a huge commitment to sustainability, don’t sponsor a monster truck show, for instance. You also shouldn’t leverage in a way that contravenes your legitimate credentials. Again, if sustainability is important to you, think twice before you give away 60,000 plastic trinkets at a baseball game.

Do anything like that, and you risk your company looking like a hypocrite, and that’s clearly not good.

The upshot

Ask rightsholders how – besides just money – your company can help them solve real problems for the people and communities they serve.

You can, and absolutely should, look at sponsorship as a fantastic way to demonstrate your commitment to DEI and ESG, but if you focus on the money, and not the meaning – the perception, and not the authenticity – it’s a wasted effort. But if you do focus on the meaning and authenticity, the benefits within and outside of your company can be immense.

Ask the right questions of rightsholders. Ask them what problems they’re trying to solve. Ask them how – besides just money – your company can help them solve real problems for the people and communities they serve. Think laterally. Get creative. Use the smart, committed people in your company to tackle hard issues. When you do that, you’re doing it right.

Need more assistance?

You may also be interested in my white papers,  “Last Generation Sponsorship Redux” and “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“. I’ve also got a self-paced, online sponsorship training course for sponsors, covering the whole process of sponsorship strategy, selection, negotiation, leverage, measurement, and management, with lots of inclusions. Interested? Check out the Corporate Sponsorship Masterclass. I’ve also got Getting to “Yes” for rightsholders.

If you need additional assistance with your sponsorship portfolio, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer Sponsorship Systems Design for large and/or diverse organisations. Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. To enquire about republishing or distribution, please see the blog and white paper reprints page.

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