Setting a Sponsorship & Human Rights Strategy: Getting Started

May 19, 2023



By Keri Lloyd

Sponsorship & Human Rights Series Part I. Applying a Human Rights Commitment and Preparing for Due Diligence 

Corporate sponsorship plays a key role in making events both possible and accessible. Groundbreaking corporate support for women’s sport in the US and UK in the past decade has spurred increased viewership and enabled international expansion, demonstrating the potential for sponsorship to reduce inequality and support livelihoods.  

As with other business activities, however, sponsorship can be associated with adverse impacts on human rights. While the recent FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar brought the relationship between sponsorship and human rights to the attention of the mainstream media, human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations like the Institute for Human Rights and Business have long emphasized the key role that sponsors can play in ensuring respect for human rights in sports and large-scale events. 

It’s therefore imperative that companies understand how their responsibility to respect human rights applies to their role as a sponsor. To support companies seeking to establish a formal approach to sponsorship and human rights, this three-part series focuses on how to set up such a strategy aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs), starting by evaluating commitments to human rights in the sponsorship context and preparing for due diligence.    

Companies have a responsibility under the UNGPs to respect human rights across all their operations and business relationships and are expected to express that commitment through a statement of policy. Going further, the UNGPs expect companies to embed the human rights policy throughout their practices, procedures, and all functions.  

Sponsorship and human rights strategies should therefore seek to establish whether the company’s commitment to respect human rights encompasses sponsorship activities and relationships, starting with two key areas: 

  1. Policy Commitment: Human rights policies or commitments function as the foundation for governance and ongoing management. Therefore, evaluate your policy to ensure that the commitment to respect human rights extends to sponsorships. For example, this could be by clearly establishing that the  commitment is ‘value chain-wide’, or by specifically calling out how the approaches their commitment to respect human rights in their role as a sponsor 
  2. Due Diligence: Building on their policy commitment, companies are expected to ‘know and show’ respect for human rights by acting with due diligence. Therefore, human rights strategies should ensure that sponsorship is in scope of human rights due diligence (HRDD), starting by evaluating previous HRDD to understand if potential and actual impacts related to sponsorship were considered. Corporate-wide human rights impact assessments (HRIAs), in particular, are useful starting points to understand where risks associated with sponsorships fall in the broader universe of risks salient to the company. Companies who have identified sponsorship as a salient risk area have integrated it into their human rights commitments and acknowledged practice, like Adidas. 

Mapping the sponsorship landscape unique to your company can help ensure that due diligence processes are both more efficient and comprehensive. Therefore, internal engagement focused on the company’s current landscape of potential and actual sponsorships are a key step for sponsorship and human rights strategies. Whether this takes the form of informal engagement or interviews as part of an independent HRIA, engagement should consider the types of sponsorships the company engages in, where those are taking place or are planned, and whether teams in sponsorship activities are integrated into human rights governance existing within the company.  

This engagement, and the resulting landscape mapping, will enable you to target where to prioritize action by identifying activities and relationships associated with a higher risk of adverse human rights impacts. That due diligence will look different for each company depending on their portfolio of activities.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll dive into best practices for establishing ongoing due diligence processes and engaging with stakeholders.  

With questions, comments, or to learn more about how your organization can integrate human rights due diligence into your sponsorship strategy, you can reach us at hello@articleoneadvisors.com.