The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Should science centers and museums adopt ethical guidelines regarding corporate sponsorships? If so, what should these guidelines be?

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the January/February 2012 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Science centers and museums should adopt overarching gift acceptance and ethical fundraising policies that should be approved by their governing boards.  In addition, in order to ensure accountability and informed decision-making regarding corporate sponsorships, institutions should develop written and board-approved policies and procedures to protect their assets and reputation and to guide institutional actions consistent with their mission. The American Association of Museums (AAM) has developed a document on this topic: Guidelines for Museums on Developing and Managing Business Support, which is available on the AAM website; the Association of Fundraising Professionals provides additional resources, including the Donor Bill of Rights; and Board Source provides sample policies and a variety of white papers related to this topic.

Erik G. Pihl, vice president for development, Pacific Science Center, Seattle

Unlike philanthropic donors, corporate sponsors exchange funds for benefits that advance their marketing objectives. Inherently, the goals of the sponsor and the institution will be different, but they don’t have to be in opposition. From my experience, there are countless ways to fulfill sponsor benefits without surrendering a museum’s integrity or control over its content.

Experienced sponsors respect a “content firewall” that prevents even the appearance of their intrusion into the substance of museum exhibitions or programs. Indeed, most sponsors acknowledge the “value” of working with a museum is maximized when such a barrier is discussed, understood, and carefully expressed in a sponsor agreement. This does not require the creation of new ethical guidelines for sponsorships, especially as most museums already have an ethics statement guiding employee behavior and all its programs.

Charles L. Katzenmeyer, senior vice president for external affairs, Adler Planetarium, Chicago

At Sciencenter, we recognize that corporate relationships and sponsorships serve as an important source of support for our mission-based educational activities.  We also feel strongly that our sponsor relationships must support the core values of our organization.  Thus, we have in place a board-adopted policy that establishes guidelines for such relationships to ensure that Sciencenter maintains independence, acts with ethical integrity, and avoids actions that could compromise its relationships with members, donors, the media, and the public.  Our policy not only includes a description of our process for entering into a sponsorship arrangement, but also specifically spells out how we manage potential conflicts of interest, priorities and exclusions, sponsor recognition, documentation procedures, public accountability and legal, tax, and accounting issues.

Lara Litchfield-Kimber, deputy director, Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York

Many years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published a white paper accusing science centers of being little more than shills for corporate marketing interests.  It caused quite a stir!  The next ASTC annual conference was devoted to discussing the subject, and the CSPI author came to debate the issue.  After the conference, many ASTC members created or revised guidelines for sponsorship in order to create more distance between exhibit content and the sponsor’s interests.

Science centers need corporate partners, for intellectual as well as financial support.  Many of these companies believe strongly in our mission, and many are doing important work that can form the basis for great exhibits.  Precisely because that is true, we need to make sure that we have clear and unambiguous guidelines in place, and that we know how far we are willing to go to adjust content in response to donor concerns.

Chuck Howarth, vice president, Gyroscope, Inc., Oakland, California

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their institutions or of ASTC.

Scroll to Top