There has been much controversy this past week on the appropriateness of corporate sponsorship to support the construction and operation of a Visitor Education Centre at Vimy Ridge in France.
First, some context with some help from Wikipedia: The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military engagement fought in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, during the First World War. The objective of the Canadian Corps was to take control of the German-held high ground along an escarpment at the northernmost end of the Arras Offensive. The Canadian Corps captured most of the ridge during the first day of the attack. The town of Thélus fell during the second day of the attack, as did the crest of the ridge once the Canadian Corps overcame odds from considerable German resistance.
The final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, fell to the Canadian Corps on April 12, 1917. Over the four days of bloody fighting, the Canadians had overrun Vimy Ridge at the cost of more than 10,600 killed and wounded. Historians attribute the success of the Canadian Corps in capturing the ridge to a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training.
The victory at Vimy was a defining event for Canada, considered by many contemporaries and later scholars to be a significant event in Canada’s progress to full independence from Britain. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. One of the ways it will be commemorated is the opening of a Visitor Education Centre at Vimy, made possible through the Government of Canada’s and the Vimy Foundation each contributing 5 million dollars, through generous donations from the private sector and individual Canadians.
Herein lies the issue regarding the opening of the Visitor Education Centre at Vimy: Critics say that Vimy Ridge was a defining moment in Canadian history and it’s the government’s responsibility to fund the project. They go on to say that corporations are everywhere today and they have no right to be involved in such a worthy cause. Supporters say “take the money and run” as long as it’s done tastefully.
Obviously, I’m a little biased on the issue because I make my living from sponsorship work, but here’s my take on it:
To begin with, it seems that this is a classic case of using inaccurate terminology. Are we really talking about sponsorship? My sense is that money given by corporations for this project is closer to a donation than a sponsorship. Sponsorship implies an exchange of commercial value and the notion of return-on-objectives or ROI. There is little commercial return for a Canadian company sponsoring an education centre in France; except to be able to demonstrate that they care about what’s important to their customers. And what’s wrong with that?
Also, you can be sure that there will be very few commercial overtones attached to the Vimy project. Between the Government of Canada, Vimy Foundation, Veterans Affairs and the Legion, among others; there will be many observers scrutinising the role and visibility of companies involved in the project. And let’s be frank, companies are not stupid – they know that if they were to take a commercial approach towards their sponsorship of Vimy Ridge, it would damage their reputation. I’m sure they just want to be viewed as supporting something that is very important to Canada and its Citizens.
The bottom line is that if companies want to support causes that are important to their customers, they should be allowed to. Furthermore, when they do, and I believe we should encourage this behaviour, everyone wins. Think about how many buildings and community assets are constructed using partial corporate dollars that would not have been possible without that support. I suspect in the case of Vimy Ridge, they were able to make it larger, more interesting and interactive as a result of corporate donations. At the end of the day, it’s also up to us (the rights holders) to differentiate between donations and sponsorships in order to manage and monitor corporate activities so that they work within the parameters we establish based on our values, not theirs.