AOL, Goldman Sachs & More: Let’s Give Corporate Sponsors a Break

Posted on LinkedIn Influencers, February 14, 2014

Yesterday, I traveled home from the first ever Makers Conference, where corporate, nonprofit, and civic leaders (predominately women) spent two-days envisioning a new agenda for women in the 21st century. As I was pouring through the hundreds of emails that backed up over the past couple of days, I came across one from a friend with the title “What do you think about this?” and a link. The link was to this article about two swag items, a branded cosmetic mirror and a nail file, given to attendees of the recent WECode Conference at Harvard by Goldman Sachs. In fact that was the headline for the article. Apparently one person shared a photo of the items on Instagram, stating “Not sure if this is #sexyfeminism or gender stereotyping.”

I thought to myself, “are you kidding me?” and was ready to quickly move on to the next email. Not a subject worth thinking about, let alone writing about. As I thought about it for another second it got me annoyed. Annoyed at the author (sorry William) of the article for trying to make a big deal out of what was just one person’s comment. And I have to be honest, I was a tad annoyed about the Instagram post even though I am sure it was not meant to be negative, which is what the article turned it in to. I felt the better story, the worthy story, was about the event itself and how awesome it was that Goldman and others sponsored it. I had just heard from many speakers at the conference how women are dramatically underrepresented in STEM, and what was being talked about regarding a conference with this theme was the swag items?

We live in a world where everything, and I mean everything, can be shared and made visible. So what are the implications for companies, such as Goldman, who sponsor great initiatives like WECode? On the one hand we are asking, occasionally begging, these companies to support worthy efforts to advance women in business, women in STEM careers, and women in general (and of course countless other charities and causes). And it is my opinion that when companies sponsor wonderful events like WECode, they should of course be acknowledged and thanked. In fact, I feel we owe them a lot more. Personally, I am trying to make it a habit to send out positive social media messages to the sponsors who are backing the causes I am passionate about, such as encouraging women to enter STEM careers. I also make a huge effort to purchase products and services from companies that I know are aligned with my values.

A quick peak at WECOde’s Twitter feed after the conference showed few such responses, and I think that is a shame. Same is true for many other events I have gone to. Given how much non-profits depend on this type of support, I believe we need to do a lot more to show some love. I don’t think I have ever been asked at an event to give a Twitter shout out to the sponsors and that should be common practice. Worse yet when not only do the sponsors not get positive shout outs, but they get negative ones, and that is what gets picked up in the media. I can just imagine someone at Goldman saying “What the heck? You can’t win for trying.” Personally I have no issue at all with a compact and a nail file, but even if you do, please don’t “lose the forest through the trees”. They made possible an event you attended and benefited from.

On the other hand, just because a company sponsors something you care about or benefit from, does that mean you have to agree with everything they do, go out of your way to buy their products, and promise allegiance forever? No, of course not. Should you think better of them for doing it? I hope so. I encourage everyone to use their voice and the power of social media to let companies know that we are grateful for their financial support to the causes we hold most dear. The more we reach out, the more gratitude we show, the more likely they are to do it again and that is a very good thing!

But here is our true power. When you don’t like something a corporation does, you now have the power to let them know it in ways unprecedented a mere decade ago. Our ability to share our opinions and to enact economic consequences when we disagree with a company’s stance or action is the newest and most powerful tool we have to create the change we want to see in the world. This is so huge, so powerful and should be used, but be thoughtful of unintended consequences. If negative tweeting around the swag bag meant that sponsor was not coming back next year, would that be a good thing? Perhaps if extreme enough, but know that might be the consequence. This theme of using our economic power in alignment with our values was a big part of the TEDxWomen talk I did last year. You can check out #notbuyingit as an example of this type of activism and its power for change.

Furthermore, when companies do sponsor events and they are being visible, they should also know that they can and should be held accountable for what they do and what they stand for. I say this hoping it is a good thing. This is where my experience at this week’s Makers Conference comes in. It just so happens that the BIG sponsor of Makers, an absolutely amazing platform that showcases ‘Women Who Made America”, is AOL. Well, I’m sure you’ve all heard by now the uproar at AOL last week over comments made by its CEO Tim Armstrong that “distressed babies” were the cause of the company’s decision to change their 401(k) retirement policies. Needless to say, these comments were widely derided, prompting a reversal of the policy change and an apology from Tim Armstrong.

However, he chose not to address the controversy in front of the hundreds of women who had gathered for this event, and this was noticed and hotly debated by some attendees in the hallways. What was interesting is that during his brief talk, no one from the audience chose to shout out anything at him. Had there been a Q and A I am sure it would have come up, but it was not offered. So why did the audience choose silence? It clearly was a hot button issue for many people, but in that moment did they understand and respect that Makers exists in large part because of AOL, and therefore were willing to cut the CEO some slack? I think so. Again I would love your thoughts on this. What should Tim have done? What might you have done if you were in the audience? Had there not been a retraction I think the outcome would have been different.

For me, I am beyond grateful to AOL (and the other sponsors) for their support of Makers, because I know that this is not just a ‘check the box’ diversity thing for them, but rather it is a true commitment from AOL to sharing the stories of amazing women who have changed our world. This initiative is big, huge, visionary, and I wish more companies would take note. I think there was enough respect and goodwill in the room at that moment that the audience, collectively, was willing to give Tim Armstrong, and AOL, the benefit of the doubt. I further believe that consistent and authentic support for events and organizations that promote women’s advancement grants you not only good will, but the benefit of the doubt when you do make a mistake. Is it of course better not to make such mistakes and always do the right thing? Yes, but I live in the real world.

Now a deeper question. Does that mean I am for sale? That we were for sale? Of course not. Do I think NGOs should refuse money from certain corporations? Yes, I do. Do I also know that it is a slippery slope when you start to differentiate between ‘good money’ and ‘bad money’ rather that money that ‘does good’? Yup. And please do share your thoughts on this below. I am a CEO of a non-profit organization that has received money from corporate sponsors, and in approaching those sponsors I think long and hard about whom we are approaching and with whom we are affiliating ourselves. I hope that they are thinking the same way about us. However, when we do take that money, when we do invite them in to the room, I feel that we have to treat them with appreciation and respect.

So back to Goldman. Thank you Goldman Sachs for sponsoring WECode and for everything you do to support the advancement of women and girls. Thank you AOL and especially Tim Armstrong for your unbelievable and authentic support of the Makers platform and the Makers conference. It was amazing. As for the mirror and nail file in the swag bag? I am back to my original observation. Who cares? “Let’s not lose the forest for the trees.”

One thought on “AOL, Goldman Sachs & More: Let’s Give Corporate Sponsors a Break

  1. Thank you, Jacki, for making this very important point. Corporate support and sponsorship is a much needed component in making social impact and should be recognized. And I agree, it is not about selling out…it is about recognition when such support is given. How often we get lost in the forest!

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