Now, some words about our sponsors

Sponsors seem to be everywhere nowadays. During my student days at a private college with no lack of donor nameplates on various buildings, I used to muse whether I might someday be able to endow my alma mater with as much as, say, a pencil sharpener, or maybe even a drinking fountain.

That was a joke I made to myself. A few weeks ago, though, at one of the many fine museums in the Boston area, I noted that the ticket counter had a sponsor. It had a name – something like the Jack and Jill Bigbux Memorial Admissions Desk. Endowing a counter?

Sponsor in the sense of "the one who makes an event possible" goes back to the early days of commercial broadcasting. In public broadcasting, supporters are often genteelly known as "underwriters," which sounds a bit euphemistic and makes me cheer the straightforwardness of stations that call their major donors "sponsors."

The phrase, "And now a word from our sponsor" has burned its way into the language. It's even been used as the title of a YouTube video, posted as a humorous response to another man's sendup of corporate sponsorship in his pseudo-video blog.

Still another use of sponsor in the business world and in the parallel universe of nonprofits has caught my attention.

Here's part of the British Office of Government Commerce definition of sponsor in this sense: "The Project Sponsor/Project Director provides the interface between project ownership and delivery – The Project Sponsor/Project Director is the client side representative who acts as a single focal point of contact with the project manager for the day-to-day management of the interests of the client organization. The Project Sponsor is responsible for ongoing management on behalf of the project owner to ensure that the desired project objectives are delivered."

There. Was that perfectly clear?

This kind of sponsor is a senior executive who takes on the role of advocate or even organizational champion of a major project during all the attendant negotiations. If ABC Construction is building new headquarters for the XYZ Corp., there will be a top guy or gal who speaks for XYZ in dealings with the builders, and that person may well be called the sponsor.

The sponsor or sponsors aren't the ones who make it all happen, but the ones who secure resources (staffing, funding, conference rooms, dry-erase markers, as many doughnuts and/or pizzas as it takes to get the job done), approve the work of the team, and then bear responsibility for the project within the larger organization.

That such a role exists at all – as it often does even when the negotiations are between different parts of the same entity – is an implicit acknowledgment of the unwieldiness of institutional decisionmaking as well as the turf battles of corporate life. ("Not only did Kyle's working group erase our whiteboard when they used our conference room, but they finished off all our doughnuts, too!")

The original sponsor was a godfather – in the ecclesiastical, pre-Don Corleone sense, of one who pledges support of a child being baptized. Some projects needing sponsors in today's corporate world may be undertakings that only a godmother – or godfather – can love. This makes the underlying metaphor of a child in need of protection all the more apt.

A publication called Intelligent Enterprise ran a piece a few years ago about how effective "business sponsors" can make or break a project. An example was a "data warehouse," a common repository of information for a company, as opposed to a collection of informational fiefdoms within a firm.

"One of the most common causes of data warehouse stagnation" – a scary concept in itself – is the loss of a sponsor, according to the writer. "Unsponsored data warehouses simply don't survive."

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