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The Eternal Non-Profit Dilemma: How Much Corporate Sponsorship?

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The announcement of the resignation of Adrian Benepe, New York City's long-serving Parks commissioner, got me thinking about the often uneasy relationship between nonprofits and corporations. Ten days ago, the Parks Department announced that it was launching a corporate sponsorship program to name some of its assets. The program will start with dog runs and basketball courts. The department hopes to raise $5 million a year through this activity. If it is successful, the department says it will expand to tennis courts and swimming pools.

In an era of rapidly shrinking government budgets, nonprofits and public institutions need corporations more than ever. Our city, state and federal governments keep cutting essentials like healthcare, education, and recreation, sectors traditionally associated with some nonprofit activity. In fact, our tradition of philanthropy in this country stems in part from a conscious decision by our forefathers not to provide all services from a public source.

Where to get the money? We keep hearing about the cash that corporations have amassed during the recession. They might as well do something productive with it, like help keep our parks clean and litter free. You might ask, "What's the problem? It sounds like a match made in heaven."

One issue is how much control the corporations will want to exert over the parks. How large will they want their signs to be? How much preference will they want their employees to get when it comes to reserving space on the already crowded tennis and basketball courts? Will they want to reserve the courts for days at a time for corporate events? Another is the relative inconstancy of corporate sponsorship. We know of some longstanding corporate sponsorships, like the Intel Science Talent Search (but wasn't that once Westinghouse?), and the ING New York City Marathon. But those of us who work in the sector know that the slightest change in corporate strategy or the economy can mean the end of a corporate sponsorship, no matter how well we have tended it.

Perhaps the thorniest issue is which corporations to accept as sponsors and which to politely decline. I have been part of many conversations at board meetings about whether the organization should accept sponsorships from makers of wine and spirits but not from tobacco manufacturers. And what if a firearms manufacturer wants to give us money? These kinds of companies are often the ones that most need their images burnished and are actively looking for sponsorships. There is no easy answer, and organizations make decisions based on their own tastes and tolerances.

It is important to understand that these decisions can never be completely rational. But we must make them anyway.