Charities in Crisis: What does it mean for Sponsors?

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Charity Crisis PRCharities often rely on the fame and image of their prime spokespeople to garner donations and corporate sponsorship’s. This makes practical sense. When the spokesperson has a sterling reputation and endorses a particular charity, individuals and businesses alike support the cause. Often, corporations use this connection as part of their marketing campaign, to show they are more than a money-hungry business.

All may be well until secrets surface (think Lance Armstrong).  Then, a PR explosion damages the reputation of the charity, the sponsor, and any corporate sponsors who were ‘foolish’ enough to be taken in.

So, how does a business manage its charitable support without risking a PR meltdown? The first is to carefully and honestly evaluate itself and its motivations. One vital thing to remember: endorsement is not the same as sponsorship.

Corporate paid sponsorship is hiring or giving money to a celebrity to endorse your product, and you endorse theirs. When the spokesperson ends up in some major scandal, then businesses have a legal right to chop the strings as fast as their lawyers can allow.

But, sponsoring a charity is trickier, and the difference is in motivation. Paid sponsorship’s are a marketing decision. Charitable causes should go beyond a marketing decision. If a business is using support of a charity only as a marketing ploy, sooner or later it will come back to haunt them. It may even be that the company itself commits some action which conflicts with the public aims of the charity, and savvy supporters immediately suspect it didn’t really mean anything it said about believing in the ideals of the charity.

So, when you are thinking about supporting a charitable organization, don’t do it for branding. You may reap that benefit, but it’s a bonus. Do it for the reason that you should: because you want to support something in the future of your immediate community.  Admittedly a lot of corporate giving is not altruistic, but it shouldn’t be completely based on hooking the brand to the hottest trending charity.

So, what happens when a good charity ends up in scandal? Ironically, results depend on the PR of the charity itself. Donors tend to be forgiving of good charities who have a spokesperson who went bad. Get rid of that one, and the general belief is that the charity itself still stands for good things. In that sense, corporations aligned with challenged charities escape negative connections. Despite Lance Armstrong’s disgrace, Livestrong still receives solid support because it has become its own entity for good. Even though the Susan B. Koman foundation went through a political PR crisis, it survived, and the myriad of corporate sponsors stayed.

There is no foolproof way to defend against a potential future scandal when a business chooses to support a charitable institution. But, if the support aligns with an institution that publicly supports the same things, and, after research, there is no reason to suspect something is amiss, then it is worth the risk. Even if disaster does happen, a company’s well planned PR and reputation management strategy as a whole, will more than likely outweigh the temporary storm.

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