More sporting and arts bodies are thinking hard about whom they’re willing to accept funding or sponsorship deals from. But how are they to weigh the competing interests of their organisations, players and artists, and the general public?

When First Nations netballer Donnell Wallam spoke out to seek an exemption from wearing the logo of major sponsor, Hancock Prospecting, she sparked a national conversation around the role of sponsorship in sport, and what voice players ought to have in choosing which sponsors they accept and which logos they wear on their jerseys.

In the case of Wallam, Netball Australia had just signed at $15 million sponsorship deal with Hancock Prospecting, run by Gina Reinhart, the daughter of the founder, Lang Hancock. This was seen by Netball Australia as a much-needed injection of funding to compensate for the multi-million dollar debt the sport’s governing body had accrued during years of COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

But Wallam saw something else. Front of mind for her were comments made by Lang Hancock in a 1984 documentary where he advocated that any Indigenous peoples who had not been assimilated ought to be rounded up and sterilised.  

After a weeks of debate and negotiation, Hancock Prospecting withdrew from the sponsorship deal, offering short-term funding until the sporting body could find a new sponsor. In a parting shot, the company released a statement saying “it is unnecessary for sports organisations to be used as the vehicle for social or political causes” and that “there are more targeted and genuine ways to progress social or political causes without virtue signalling or for self-publicity”. 

However, there is good reason to believe that Wallam and Netball Australia’s actions were more than a ‘virtue signalling’ exercise, but rather part of an increasing trend of sporting bodies and other organisations thinking carefully about whom they accept funding from and which industries they are willing to be associated with.

In recent times, a group of high-profile Freemantle Dockers players and supporters have called for the club to drop oil and gas company Woodside Energy over concerns about climate change. Australian test cricket captain, Pat Cummins, has also declined to appear in any promotional material for Cricket Australia sponsor Alinta Energy, a move backed by former Wallabies captain, and ACT senator, David Pockock. 

Arts organisations have been wrestling with similar questions for some years, prompted by incidents such as the Sydney Biennale in 2014 severing its relationship with Transfield, which operated immigration detention centres, after an artist boycott, and the Sydney Festival in 2022 deciding to suspend all funding agreements with foreign governments after an artist boycott due to a sponsorship agreement with the Israeli embassy. 

So how should businesses and other organisations, including sporting and arts bodies, decide whom to accept money from? How should they weigh the interests of players, artists, supporters and the wider public with their financial needs and their organisational values? How do they avoid making rash decisions that themselves trigger a backlash? 

How to decide

These are difficult questions to answer, which is why The Ethics Centre has developed a specialised decision-making approach, Decision Lab, to help businesses and other organisations navigate difficult ethical terrain and make better decisions. 

The Decision Lab process is designed to bring implicit thinking and buried assumptions to the surface so they can be discussed and debated in the open, providing tools to evaluate decisions before they are committed to so that key considerations are not overlooked. 

The foundation of the Decision Lab is gaining a deeper understanding of the organisation’s foundational purpose for being, its values and the principles that guide it. These ought to be the starting point of any big decision, but published mission statements and codes of ethics are often overwhelmed in practice by the organisation’s Shadow Values, which are woven into the unspoken culture. The Decision Lab seeks to bring these values to the surface so they can scrutinised, revised and applied as needed. 

The Decision Lab also employs a decision-making model that follows a step-by-step process that covers all the elements necessary to make a comprehensive and defendable decision. This includes factoring in what is known, unknown and assumed, such as how the funding might positively or negatively impact the community, or how it might help to promote a cause that the organisation doesn’t believe in.  

It also considers the impacts of a decision on all stakeholders, including the wider community and future generations, and not just those who are closely connected to the decision.  

The process also teases out the specific clash of values and principles around a particular decision, which is useful because many dilemmas follow a similar form. So if an organisation has an existing solution to one problem, it might find it already has the necessary reasoning and jusification to respond to another situation that follows the same pattern. 

Finally, the Decision Lab applies a ‘no regrets’ test to ensure that nothing has been overlooked. This helps avoid situations where a decision is made yet it runs into problems that could have been forseen if the organisation had applied a more rigorous decision making process, such as a counter-backlash by other segments of their community. 

The Decision Lab supports the executive team to align their decisions with the organisation’s ethics framework and helps to communicate with all the key stakeholders the rationale for decisions. By applying a more rigorous decision-making process, an organisation is better able to balance competing interests, resulting in more ethical decisions aligned to its purpose, values and principles that will hold up in the face of scrutiny.  

The Ethics Centre is a thought leader in assessing organisational cultural health and building leadership capability to make good ethical decisions.
To find our more about Decision Lab, or arrange a confidential conversation contact the team at Visit our consulting page to learn more. 

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