Selling the Public Square

Government institutions and public-minded nonprofits are increasingly accepting corporate money to make ends meet. While most of these partnerships are touted as win-win deals, many also blur an important line between private and public interests.

Everywhere a sign

Just last week, the Snapple beverage company gave New York City $166 million in return for designation as the Big Apple's official drink. Snapple also will have exclusive rights to put vending machines in public schools and government buildings - even police stations.

And in an apparent "anything-but-raise-taxes" move, the State of Illinois is considering corporate sponsorship of state programs and events to help offset its deficit.

Over the past several years, the Smithsonian Institution has sought corporate money to supplement its budget. In return, donors get their names on facilities: the Lockheed Martin IMAX theater at the National Air and Space Museum, for instance, and the Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat at the National Zoo.

Municipal sports stadiums named after corporations, such as Coors Field in Denver, create the impression that the sponsor paid for the facility, when, in fact, the bulk of the costs are commonly paid by taxes and users.

Today, corporate sponsorship in public schools is all but routine, whether it's Channel One, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or the America's Schools program - which works as a kind of go-between for schools and would-be corporate sponsors.

The National Parent Teacher Association's website displays logos of corporate sponsors such as Disney Interactive, AT&T - and Coca-Cola. In June, a Coke executive was given a seat on the national PTA board.

At universities, corporations increasingly are sponsoring research in return for the right to license the resulting discoveries. The situation has caused a rift in academe; some feel private money has no place in public education; others feel that without the money, the research wouldn't get done. Gary Ruskin, executive director of the watchdog group Commercial Alert, puts the problem succinctly: "The purpose of education is to teach reason; the purpose of advertising or marketing, in many instances, is to subvert reason to promote the sale of a product."

The days when corporate philanthropy entailed simply handing over a check with no strings attached are disappearing. Corporations seeking markets, image, or access are dangling money in front of institutions that need it.

Drawing a fine line

Protecting a public institution's integrity from commercial interests requires great discretion. Finding overlapping interests that leave public interests intact calls for strong oversight and accountability, along with strict sponsorship guidelines. Sensible approaches include ensuring that acceptance of corporate sponsorship is as transparent as possible and entails no conflicts of interest in decisionmaking. Disclosing contracts made between public entities and businesses can help keep deals on the up and up. Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have created account managers, for instance, to negotiate branding and promotions with business partners. That organization has strict rules limiting commercialization - such as not naming a club after a sponsor.

Institutions must work hard not to give the appearance they teeter between their public mission and helping to improve a sponsor's bottom line.

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