Sponsorship of `worthy causes’ is gathering pace, with firms viewing funding of areas like education and health as good commercial opportunities. However, there are fears that core services will lose Government funding and become reliant on bu

SBHD: Sponsorship of `worthy causes’ is gathering pace, with firms viewing funding of areas like education and health as good commercial opportunities. However, there are fears that core services will lose Government funding and become reliant on business backing.

Sponsored nurses’ uniforms, sponsored school textbooks and even sponsored police truncheons may be the fundraisers of the future for the hard-pressed public sector, with a growing number of marketers investigating how they can associate their brand names with “worthy causes”.

The Department of the Environment is looking for sponsors for a campaign to raise awareness about endangered species. Private sector firms will be offered the chance to participate – contributing to the cost of publicity and extending “the communication”. It is the latest example of the growing sponsorship opportunities to be found in the public sector.

Eighteen months ago, the Central Office of Information set up an in-house sponsorship unit to service government departments keen to attract private sector support for public sector campaigns. Since then, companies such as BT and DHL have sponsored campaigns for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Tesco, WH Smith, Budgens and Argos have assisted the Department of Education’s distribution of the Parent’s Charter “flyer”.

COI head of sponsorship Samantha Mercer says: “The department was set up to meet increasing demand from government departments. Our remit is to secure private sector support and to add value, either by supplementing a budget or extending the message.”

The COI’s sponsorship unit offers government departments a two-tier service. It can audit a department’s sponsorship needs, assessing its political and commercial viability, and match sponsor to campaign.

Mercer says: “That government departments need to get across a certain message is paramount – sponsorship cannot be allowed to dilute that.”

The sponsor, meanwhile, benefits from branding on all campaign literature and the added credibility which association with the Government can convey.

To date, such deals have been small-scale – none have involved a major TV campaign. But Mercer does not rule out sponsors becoming involved in higher profile tasks. She says: “It is a sensitive area. Certain things would not be right for sponsorship, such as campaigns involving the benefits agency, or those relating to statutory rights.”

To clarify its stance, the COI has produced draft guidelines which cover who should, and should not, sponsor a government campaign and how any involvement must be presented, such as the positioning of logos.

The COI’s strategy is cautious. Yet public sector sponsorship is widely seen as an under-developed area, ripe for exploitation. There is not just government departmental campaign literature to consider – local authorities, schools and hospitals are all crying out for extra funds.

The growth of sponsorship has heightened fears that central Government is withdrawing from full funding of services – implying that core operational services will become dependent upon sponsorship. Last year, the Police and Magistrates Act opened the way for police forces to seek as much as ú55m a year in sponsorship. It formalised what was previously a ad hoc system and outlined some sponsorship “no-go areas”. It met resistance from some quarters.

Richard Busby, chief executive of BDS Sponsorship, has worked with the Citizen’s Charter Unit, the Land Registry, Historic Royal Palaces and the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. He says: “Public sector sponsorship has increased quite dramatically.” As mainstream arts and sports sponsorship becomes saturated, businesses are seeking something new. Public sector activities have a halo effect, boosting the sponsor’s appeal to the Nineties ethical consumer.

But the COI is not the only public sector body which is cautious about who it wants to associate with. Tobacco and alcohol firms are effectively ruled out because both sides know the sponsorship could backfire. Busby says: “There is huge sensitivity to public opinion, and rightly so. But what’s interesting is how things are changing. A few years ago the concept would have been anathema to many, now it is openly discussed.”

At its least controversial, public sector sponsorship can involve local businesses sponsoring public amenities, such as leisure centres, local arts projects or school holiday activities. Busby says: “I have not met a local authority that, regardless of its political stance, would refuse a sponsor. In the US, the city of Atlanta recently considered branding of local streets and parks.”

Then there is education. There have always been local businesses willing to fund a school’s new science block, but attitudes are changing. Companies now consider the public sector as a commercial opportunity with tangible marketing benefits. Make the right investment in the community infrastructure and the branded product or service could be used by many people for many years. Catch them young, and they could be yours for life.

Tony Attwood, chairman of Hamilton House Mailings, which manages lists of UK schools and teachers, says: “Direct mail into schools has become big business.” Hamilton House Mailings’ sister company First & Best publishes educational books, and sponsors are increasingly offering teachers discounted courseware.

Attwood, a former teacher, says Thatcherism gave birth to the “education market”. The present funding arrangements for schools have caused many to take more direct control of their budgets. The majority are under local authority control, but with “local management”, meaning they handle their own budgets. Attwood says: “Schools are learning fast, although they are unused to handling money and sometimes do not know what [private sector] money is actually available.”

The earliest examples of educational sponsorship were sponsored teachers’ courses. Exhibitions to showcase new teaching materials are another. However, since the introduction of the City Technical Colleges, based on a funding partnership between business and education, commercialism has entered the classroom, with institutions such as the Dixons CTC in Bradford, sponsored by the eponymous electrical retail chain since 1987.

Deals have also been done to sponsor books. The Royal Bank of Scotland was among the first, sponsoring exercise books in a deal with Strathclyde’s regional education authority. The move was not without its critics. The bank says the sponsorship only ran for a year because of complaints that other companies might follow the bank’s lead and result in “undesirable advertising” in the classroom.

Attwood says: “The most obvious untapped opportunity so far is sponsored textbooks.” But it is an area growing in popularity. Educational Project Resources is leading the way, providing sponsored printed materials, videos and computer software to schools. EPR managing director Barry Lewis says: “We provide a means to ensure that what sponsors supply is what teachers want.” Teachers are mailed details of material which is only accessible on request. Lewis adds: “We are not trying to replace textbooks, but to add something extra.”

While certain products are not appropriate to the classroom, Lewis believes that even controversial areas of business can have a role. One of EPR’s clients is UK Nirex. Lewis says: “Because the public is bombarded with so many messages from environmentalists, the nuclear industry believes there is a role for redressing the balance. Lively debate lets pupils see both sides and judge for themselves.”

Other companies are creating educational events and tailored activities for sponsorship. EPR’s former managing director, Nick Fuller, who now heads Educational Communications, says: “The most imaginative education sponsorships are created.” One such example is the TSB’s Artsbound initiative, which launches this month. It is a project that Fuller was involved with while at EPR. Artsbound is an umbrella initiative for schools. It includes First Visit (a secondary school scheme to encourage visits to the National Gallery) and a youth programme with the London Symphony Orchestra. The scheme covers visits, learning materials and teachers’ courseware, an awards scheme and assistance with fares.

Sally Tibbs, public relations manager for the TSB Group, says: “As with all banks, secondary school children are a prime target for the TSB. Schools are an obvious way to reach them.”

Some companies have turned to the health sector, with mixed success. Research conducted for BDS Sponsorship in 1993 showed that employees believe the areas most applicable for sponsorship are (in order of preference): education, the environment, crime prevention, healthcare, care for the elderly and the homeless.

As with education, where companies once donated funds or equipment to local hospitals, they now look for marketing benefits. The Department of Health says: “Since the 1988 Health and Medicines Act, health authorities have been allowed to generate their own income, and have done so through shopping malls in hospital concourses and car parking charges. Sponsorship is very much encouraged.”

Individual deals are also being done on a local basis. But sensitivities are fragile, even more so within the education sector. Although no one has sanctioned a tobacco company to sponsor a hospital’s lung machine (and probably never will), even relatively innocuous deals can cause discomfort.

Some years ago, Cheltenham General Hospital secured sponsorship from a local engineering company, Spirax Sarco, which produces steam trap valves for sterilisation equipment. In return for a cash donation, the firm received branding on hospital trolleys. The hospital’s associate general manager, Mike Sutcliffe, says the deal ran for two years, and then lapsed. No similar agreements have been struck since.

Busby says: “A lot comes down to presentation and perception. Should ambulances be sponsored? No, I believe not. Should a community bus taking pensioners to the hospital be sponsored? Yes.”

Busby also says preventative healthcare, such as drug abuse or fire prevention, is ripe for development.

Richard Davies, managing director of sponsorship agency Davies Day, says health awareness campaigns are naturally appealing, not least because they tend to be national. He is working for the Department of Health, securing sponsors for the Government’s Health of the Nation initiative. Companies already involved include Sainsbury’s and SmithKline Beecham. An ad last month which invited others to become “commercial partners” had responses from 60 companies.

Davies says: “Healthcare is a developing area for sponsorship because other sources of money are just not there. Government consistently lacks marketing skills and distribution networks, something the private sector can offer, so long as they are careful.”

But care must be taken when selecting sponsors, he adds. For example, Allied Dunbar might express an interest, but it is owned by British American Tobacco. Flora might want to get involved, but the Government must not be seen to favour one product over another (such as margarine over butter) where no evidence exists to prove one has greater health benefits.

Busby says: “The Government could, and should, get a lot more money through sponsorship, but at the moment there is little incentive to do so.” One reason for this is the Treasury. If publicly-funded bodies are able to generate additional money through sponsorship, the Treasury is likely to reduce future funding. It’s a Catch 22 situation. With no incentive, few within the public sector are actively pushing sponsorship forward.

Another reason is ethical concerns, such as the fear of children being bombarded with commercial rather than educational messages in the classroom, or that hospital patients will be vulnerable to bedside salesmen.

However, research has shown that those working in the public sector are often surprisingly receptive to sponsorship. A study conducted by Marketlink Research for EPR shows teachers’ tolerance to educational sponsorship as 91 per cent in 1993 and 92 per cent in 1994. Given time, many believe resistance in other public sector areas will decline. Such sponsorship is set to grow as public funding comes under ever increasing pressure.

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