Purpose: Why businesses need to look at the company they keep

“A man is judged by the company he keeps, and a company is judged by the men it keeps…” William J.H. Boetcker

Never has the above been truer.

Evidence is growing that companies are now being held to account for their own actions, but also for those of the organisations they associate with.

Tesco became the latest, unfortunate example of this, hitting the headlines when a child found a note from a Shanghai Quingpu prisoner in one of its Christmas cards. This alleged human rights infringement, as prisoners were being forced to work at a factory packing charity Christmas cards for the international retailer.

Tesco was quick to suspend production at the factory and withdraw the Christmas cards from sale, but by then the story had snowballed in international media and the damage already been done.

While scrutiny on supply chains has been steadily building for the last decade, in 2019 sponsorship too came under the spotlight. Previously a tactic for getting organisations out of the proverbial, those found accepting handouts from the wrong hands now find themselves definitively in it.

Earlier this month it was announced that The British Museum had bypassed BP as a sponsor for its biggest exhibition addressing climate change. This follows increasing pressure on the institution to cease its relationship with the company, shown to make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The move follows that made by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and National Galleries Scotland earlier this year, both of whom severed ties with BP for the same ethical reasons.

But BP isn’t the only pariah. The start of 2019 saw countless art institutions, Including the National Portrait and Tate art galleries, decline donations from long-term funder, The Sackler Trust, as the family faced legal action over its production of opioid drugs. The Louvre in Paris went one steps further and removed the Sackler name from its walls.

The above is representative of a significant change in attitude. Money is no longer enough when the reputational damage caused by associating with its source could be catastrophic. And it is an issue of reputation.

While, with the benefit of hindsight, these institutions can see that accepting money from these organisations goes against everything they stand for, saying ‘no’ was a business imperative rather than a proactive choice. They were compelled by their members and customers to consider how choice of partners reflected their purpose.

And organisational purpose – its reason for being and contribution to society – is important to us now. Around the world people are trying to become better global citizens. And as we strive to remember our water bottles and work out which plastics we can recycle, we’re becoming less tolerant of organisations and institutions that don’t do their bit. Especially when their bit is so closely linked to preserving what is beautiful and human.

But what is the alternative?

Many of our art institutions depend on individual donations, sponsorship and public funding for survival. With national government and EU funding hanging in the balance and individual donations unpredictable, placing a stopper on lucrative sponsors could seriously limit their viability.

Whilst 2019 saw some organisations take a decisive approach to disassociation, it remains to be seen whether this trend accelerates into the new year. After all, if we look deep enough into any organisation, we’re likely to find something that we or one of our peers disagrees with.

Moving forward, organisations are going to have to think very carefully about how they assess potential sponsors and partners, and how they communicate these criteria to staff and external stakeholders. There’s no pleasing everybody – so will some degree of compromise have to be found?

In 2020, our pursuit of purpose may well see some business casualties, but it also provides a huge opportunity for those forward thinking enough to turn their eyes inwards and consider their own associates, before they come under external scrutiny.

If you would like to discuss defining and communicating your organisation’s purpose, please get in touch with our specialist purpose team.

Written by Polly Robinson, Senior Account Director, Corporate & Business Communications

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