The ethical minefield of arts sponsorship

The fuss over Fleadh Cheoil’s clumsy association with Shell highlights how tricky it can be to find ‘a good fit’ in difficult times

The Willis Clan from Nashville, Tennessee, performing in a previous year’s Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan. Photograph: Alan Betson

The Willis Clan from Nashville, Tennessee, performing in a previous year’s Fleadh Cheoil in Cavan. Photograph: Alan Betson

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 15:51

With “cuts” being the most uttered word in the arts sector, festivals have continued to look to private funders to make their events happen. But sponsorship too has become squeezed, with only a handful of festivals maintaining long-term partnership with brands or corporations. What does a “good fit” mean between brand and festival? And do ethics come into it when much-needed cash is available?  

Fleadh Cheoil surely asked itself those questions as a backlash brewed over the traditional music festival accepting financial support from Shell. The oil company has a controversial reputation in the State, and the decision to take sponsorship from Shell was bound to anger and confound many observers, attendees and performers at the Fleadh. But one would also have to have a certain amount of sympathy for any festival that wants to fulfil its ambitions but doesn’t have a large professional team behind it.

Fleadh Cheoil ultimately announced it had “respectfully decided to return the financial support received from Shell”. Micheál O’Domhnaill, public relations officer for the festival, talked about how sponsorship is “very difficult to get. Even for a brand as well-known as Fleadh Cheoil, we’ve had a very tough time to get sponsorship in.”

The Fleadh has several avenues of public and private funding: partners in Sligo in the business community, hotels, bars, Fáilte Ireland, cross-Border funding and the Sligo Leader, to name some. But it’s a huge event, and, as many fund-raising volunteers in any sector will be familiar with, the bucket-shaking is constant.

“We didn’t have the situation where we had to identify ourselves with one single brand, so that did bring up extra challenges,” says O’Domhnaill. “We had a budget that we had to reach in order to enable us to implement the Fleadh we wanted to implement. There was a bottom line that we needed to get from private and commercial sponsorship, and the finance team have had a difficult, thankless, and almost continuous task of knocking on doors and trying to assess whether there was interest in supporting the Fleadh.

“The buy-in for the Fleadh could start in hundreds of euro and go right up into the thousands. So we have to be very creative to make sure the finance package was put in place.”

Save for some loitering logos, people will probably forget Shell’s clumsy association with the Fleadh after the festival halted the backlash when it threatened to tip over. But conversations around sponsorship are lively again, as more brands ease themselves back into the process of aligning themselves with festivals. 

Business to Arts, an organisation that brokers partnerships between businesses and the arts or individual artists, also created a new strand of funding for Irish artistic projects through FundIt, a crowd-funding platform. Andrew Hetherington is the project director at Business to Arts.

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