The Case of the disappearing sponsor

Posted: April 27, 2014 by Ian Gee in Human Resources, Leadership, OD, Organization


Firstly thank you all so much for your great comments and reflection on my last blog post! Matthew and I would also like to thank you for your kind words about the book and suggestions regarding the title. After a lot of thought and discussion we have now agreed with the publisher the following title:

The Workplace Community

A guide to releasing human potential and engaging employees

What do you think?

Since my last post the publishers have come back to us and said they would like to publish the book in November this year, rather than January 2015, so its been all go to get it ready for their first edit in May. We will keep you posted as to how things develop and move forward. Now onto this months blog poast….

In the last week or so I have been mulling on the nature of sponsorship and what it means in todays organisations. This all started when a good friend of mine took on the challenge of walking 26 miles for a UK breast cancer charity and was seeking sponsorship. My friend’s family has encountered breast cancer more than once and so this is a cause close to her heart. Over the years she has raised a fair amount of money for charity by running or walking or some such other activity. Of course I will be sponsoring her. I am very happy to support her and applaud the energy and effort she is putting into this. Walks like this don’t just happen; they require a lot of training and preparation.

All of this got me mulling on the nature of sponsorship and the link between sponsorship and the actions they support. As I mulled, I started to wonder what if my friend had just asked me for money for breast cancer, without the need for her to train and then walk 26 miles? Would I have given it to her? My answer was yes, of course I would. She is a good friend and I would help her and support causes that matter to her, no matter what.

I am sure there are a number of academic studies that explore what we get out of doing things for charity, including sponsorship. I can guess that these include feeling close to a cause or issue that is important to us, a sense of doing good, being part of a group that is doing something about something or engaging in what Richard Titmus called a ‘Gift Relationship”

This then led me onto thinking about the role of sponsorship in OD.   Many years ago when I did my first OD training I remember my teachers and mentors talking about the need for proactive sponsorship in any change or OD initiative. Making sure you have sponsors aligned and fully on-board. They also explained how more OD initiatives fail because of a lack of effective sponsorship, with one of the worst examples of being ‘The case of the Disappearing Sponsor’. This always sounded like the title of an Agatha Christie novel to me! It happens where you have, most usually, a senior leader who is sponsoring your change. They are all enthusiastic and excited but what you don’t know is they suffer from some form of OD ADD. This means that at some point they get bored with your initiative and move on to the next juicy item on their agenda. In doing so, they take the wind out of the sales of the project and though things may stumble on for a while they usually grind to a halt.

I decided to have a look at the dictionary definition of sponsorship. All the definitions said that sponsorship is about money being paid for an event in return for advertising., for example, BP sponsoring the annual portrait competition at the National Gallery in London and Royal Dutch Shell sponsoring Ferrari worldwide.

This made me wonder if this is where we are going wrong in OD, not clearly linking the sponsorship of OD, change and transformation initiatives, tightly enough to executive reward? The executive reward could be directly linked to their tasks and targets and performance appraisal. Or it could be more psychological based? But whatever it is, it needs to be something that ties the reward element in as clearly, visibly and publically a way as the sponsors supporting large-scale events. The kind of events where individuals and corporations fight to have their names associated with them, because they know it is good for them and their company. Perhaps we need sponsors of OD projects who fight to be seen as an active sponsor in the same way?

Maybe its time for folks like us to explore and open up the debate about the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of OD sponsorship and develop ways of including this more explicitly as part of our consultancy conversations? This would need to be both at the start of any OD project as well as at critical times during the transformation or change process. Mind you, I am not advocating that as OD consultants we suddenly start dressing like the man in the picture at the top of this blog! Can you imagine it? Lots of personal logos and badges with the CEO, CFO, EVP of HR and this and that on our jump suits! But may be if that helps…..! Perhaps its our new uniform. I have often wondered if OD had a uniform what would it look like?!

So what do you think? Have you ever found yourself having an Agatha Christie moment hunting for the disappearing sponsor? What have you done to get them back or stop this happening in the first place? Be good to hear.

  1. Kate says:

    This has made me think this morning Ian. I’ve been talking over fundraising and sponsorship with someone I met at a wedding who is a charity fundraiser, and we were discussing group values and identity and the impact (personal and organisational of giving).
    But I like the idea of sponsorship and the link to leadership and positive change somehow…rather than using words like accountability or performance related targets which always seem loaded to me.
    Any road, made me think as I brewed my coffee.

  2. Ian, I like this connection very much. You have identified something very dear to my heart, that of ‘sponsors’ defecting to more important things once they get bored.

    Before I take on work I do my best to reduce this risk and yet the change of a senior manager or even ownership of the organisation can sabotage this upfront effort. Thankfully it does not happen to me very often.

    As I read the idea of a consultant onesie with a logo on it I just burst into laughter with my imagination running riot as to the logo and colour of the onesie.

    How about the change managers in the BBC (there seems to be a lot of them, given all the changes) wearing Mr Blobby onesies with a special Blue Peter logo consisting of a dustbin?

    What other ideas do the readers have?…….

  3. Ian, I am so happy with the book news, congrats to both of you.
    I like the connection you make, and I love the “disappearing sponsor” persona.
    Yeah, I have chased a couple of them too. Got me thinking, why do they disappear? Yes, novelty wears off, other sexier initiatives come up. But, I would also like to think that sometimes this disappearing may be as a result of not having clear TORs for sponsors, what does a sponsor have to do, for how long, when is mission completed?

    Your blog also got me thinking about the other end of the spectrum” the omni present sponsor” ( can we call him that?), who wants to “make the initiative, pilot, experiment, work” , which at times has lead to putting more resources into, rather than abandoning it.

    So, what makes a good sponsor in the OD context? You mentioned the belief in the cause, initiative is very important. I would like to add having the right mindset to sponsor initiatives, open to others’ points of view and encouraging creativity and risk taking at pilot stages are also important. So, how about having the initiative group recruit the Sponsor?

  4. The consultants first task is to leverage sponsorship. One can only sponsor one’s direct reports. The CEO can sponsor his/her directs. Beyond that she can champion/inspire, etc. The shift supervisor sponsors the hourlies-nobody else. Leverage them and mid-managers, etc. or fail!

  5. akginty says:

    In many of the large organisations I deal with, there’s a grade of executive, around the equivalent of “Partner” in an accounting firm, below whom, everyone is expected to put the needs of the company first, but above which, they are expected to put their own self-interest first. This has become endemic in some corporations, and has led to a growing number of rather narcissistic individuals holding power always with an eye to the next career move and less often for the best long-term interests of the company. Perhaps it’s a symptom of corporate aging, or some kind of entropy. But – back to the topic of sponsorship – I too have seen many a change programme die from lack of sponsorship.

    Where sponsorship has worked, was when a very senior executive has been forced by the board to put a sizeable proportion of their annual salary at risk – only to be paid when a particular programme delivered successfully (it took 3 years to do so). Perhaps sponsors would be much more careful if a slice of their executive pension was put at risk against the change programme failing to deliver promised benefits over a decade.

  6. Lesley Clarke says:

    Yes, recognise the issue Ian. Interestingly this came up recently in a debate at a Board meeting. The issue here was of enthusiastic senior managers wanting to deliver an ongoing manager development programme. I advised against this for 2 reasons – they may be very good senior managers but that does not mean they are necessarily very good developers of people they don’t line manage; and experience told me they would, after 2-3 sessions get bored and distracted by major change programmes they are responsible for delivering. Trying then to organise sessions thereafter would be difficult and the sustainability of the programme would be at risk.

    A difficult one. Achieving enthusiastic buy-in to the programme was great but how build in realism at the same time?

    In this scenario, I don’t think this is about reward. An understanding of where their time may be better spent (or required) – promotion of the programme, releasing managers to attend sessions or for coaching and coaching their direct reports to the objectives of the programme would be my aim.

    Agree with the comment about clarity on how long sponsorship is required, on TOR and keeping to both is required.

  7. Yes! I have a disappearing sponsor and this is more about a lack of understanding what sponsorship entails. By taking the role of sponsor, this prevents others from doing so. In reading this post I realise that because the meaning of sponsorship is held as a cash donation, to those who don’t know better, just agreeing to put their name and title behind something – providing endorsement – may seem generous enough. We need to define and discuss expectations and opportunities for sponsorship to turn into real ongoing support .

  8. Rashmi says:

    Sponsorship on an individual level works on relationship and emotional connect. On an organizational level it has to match with the value systems and the culture that a particular leader believes in and is ready to take it up. Here i say leader and not organization as mostly all OD led culture changes only happen at the top and if the leader believes in it and is ready to spend money on the same, then its sponsorship.

  9. caroleclghr says:

    In the organisation where I was working a few years ago we made successful use of ‘Champions’ for transformation and change. For us these were key people at all levels in the organisation who came with a positive approach to change, strong communication skills and the trust of their colleagues. They worked with the Board Sponsor and not only provided distributed leadership for the OD programme but also kept the Sponsor engaged and enthused. I think there is some learning here about how to stop the Sponsor disappearing. It was a highly successful approach. Interestingly I believe that we overused both the idea and the individuals, so it became a little tired – more learning here about the need to keep things fresh to maintain engagement.

    Your blog also reminded me of the work that we do with Sponsors about identifying the return on investment that they are looking for when we contract with them at the start of an OD intervention. You are right I think that as well as the organisational gain, we need to really tie down with them what they need to achieve at a personal level. Most of my work has been in the public sector where I find this is something that senior leaders are not comfortable admitting to. Having the role embedded in the performance management process can be helpful. Often it is through identifying career development opportunities, or personal legacy, where there is the greatest success.

    I was looking through some old photos a couple of weeks ago and came across some snaps of a fancy dress party attended by more than few OD colleagues almost all of whom had chosen to dress up as clowns, magicians or circus performers. I’m not sure whether this tells us something about the psyche of the OD Consultant – or whether it’s a hint at the uniform. I jest of course!

  10. Val gates says:

    Sponsorship is either and altruistic activity or one that can lead to a quantifiable result. Sponsorship for money is looking for results – a cure for breast cancer, a new church roof, a change to the way a town looks or functions. Sponsorship in a commercial organisation does not need the commitment of money but a commitment of time from the sponsor…..BUT that sponsor is still looking for a result. Success in his/her career is usually based on the delivery of a myriad of things – good delivery of a project, the positive development of an individual or team, a positive effect on the bottom line.
    An altruistic sponsor is a rarer body – the belief in something good – not for money, not for public acclaim but a belief in the positive change it can make in a person, a town, a society. Giving of yourself and your time with no material or emotional payback is the one that has a longer term, more sustainable end result. But then we come to belief — ooh! that is a big one.

  11. mrhibbert says:

    I’m not a fan of pegging a needed strategic development to one or three visible personalities. While it might seem to cut with the grain of organisational life, it can deeply compromise projects of any duration (which would do well to avoid the local political issues concerning any given sponsor, and which need to survive successions at the top). And then there’s the whole mess we’ve made of motivations through %s of extrinsic reward … don’t get me started.

    I prefer a sponsor to be focused on removing blockages above the project leaders’ head – the project leader needs a wide coalition of active management supporters, with the air cover to call on when absolutely necessary, but that sponsor’s role needs to be very focused on resolving differences up top. Motivating them should be a matter of thanking them for each blockage unblocked, in writing. It’s really the management teams within the business lines who need to ‘sponsor’ the change, ie, motivate the wider movement, and implicate themselves in its success.

  12. Bethany Davis Swanson says:

    Hi, Ian, good to read your post and to hear about the book. I have to say, those jumpsuits remind me a lot of the university students at Vappu in Helsinki…

    I am always challenged by the idea of an executive sponsor (though I do prefer champion or advocate or even evangelist!), because the nature of leadership in some organizations can be so transient! I have had more than one initiative pinned to a particular leader and then when the leader moved on, a vacuum was left behind and in some cases it was seen as his or her “thing” and hence people felt that they did not need to support it in the same way anymore. It seems to me that sponsorship is only so good as it allows building momentum beneath the sponsor, creating a web of support that can be resilient beyond that individual person. A tall order, but that’s why a good sponsor is also a social netwrok hub who knows what it will take to get the idea past some of her/his colleagues and peers. The challenge is that there are people who see themselves as the real sponsor of an initiative but the people who really need to engage are often those without formal authority.

    But what fun would it be without a challenge??

  13. Kais Uddin says:

    I once read a letter from a a lay preacher, let’s call him Bufin Tuftin from the shires. He was miffed at the idea that organisations have ” Human Resource Directors”. From his perspective there is only one. Putting aside references to omniscient ones, we are all sponsors and the best of that needs no rewards. It is what binds us. In the context of work, the sponsorships that matter…. the work placement, the internship, the nod and wink , the charity balls and entitlements, that comes from privilege … no thanks.

    OD types that need Santa Clauses are living in Alice in Wonderland. Forget the sugar daddy, do your job.

  14. Hi Ian. I think linking sponsorship to tangible reward probably changes the nature of the sponsorship. Having said that, it might work in organisations where there is a direct link between effort and reward (e.g., banks and bonuses) but what about organisations like those in the public sector where there are different motivators at work? It occurs to me that sponsors have a duty to infuse the group or team or organisation with the same zeal that they have for the change so that, if they move on or shift their attention, the initiative carries on without them. Easier said than done of course. By the way your readers might like to know that I’m the one who is walking 26 miles for breast cancer charities on 10th May. If like me you feel passionate about supporting breast cancer charities but would rather not walk 26 miles, I’ll do the walking for you if you go to and sponsor me! Thanks for the free publicity!

  15. Jo Beech says:

    Hi Ian, this is food for thought as I’m involved in fundraising for two events – one for my son’s school trip, one for a community event. I have a vested interest in both being successful. As I am putting in a lot of time and energy to ensure their success, does that make me omnipresent? I’ve always had a negative view on someone with that title. I must admit, keeping the momentum up is hard even with such a vested interest. It seems to be a natural human emotion to get all excited about a new idea, then wane off quickly when commitment of time and energy is needed. For me it’s fear of failure, I don’t want to let people down by not putting the required effort in to make it a success. What keeps the same core of people together, through thick and thin, to the end result of a successful project? We find the same people turn up for meetings whilst the others make their excuses and don’t turn up. It’s much easier to just “sponsor” a project with money / a logo, than offer time and energy.

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