Organizational Self-Censorship: Corporate Sponsorship, Nonprofit Funding, and the Educational Experience

By Gray, Garry C.; Kendzia, Victoria Bishop | Canadian Review of Sociology, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Organizational Self-Censorship: Corporate Sponsorship, Nonprofit Funding, and the Educational Experience


Gray, Garry C., Kendzia, Victoria Bishop, Canadian Review of Sociology


WITH THE RISE OF NEOLIBERALISM, THE trend toward privatization, and the growing commercialization of society, we have entered into a new era of nonprofit organizational funding (Anheier and Toepler 1998; Campbell and Pedersen 2001; Johnson, Smith, and Codling 2000; Toepler 2001; Weisbrod 1997). While the welfare reform context of the 1970s was a period of greater involvement of government in funding cultural organizations, the 1990s onward constitutes a period of neoliberal strategies of governing where the state has increasingly reduced the level of support it provides for social and cultural institutions. This has necessarily forced, or in neoliberalism terms "responsibilized," many cultural organizations to independently seek out corporate sponsorship such that their reliance on private funding sources increases. In response to this trend, research on cultural organizations has begun to pay closer attention to the agency of institutions by mapping the strategic responses of institutions to their environmental funding pressures. This increased focus on agency represents both a departure from and an extension of earlier resource dependency theories and institutional theories, which supported the notion that dependent organizations will, over time, respond to both formal and informal external pressures in increasingly homogenized and dependent ways (DiMaggio and Powell 1983; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Pfeffer 1987; Pfeffer and Salancik 1978; Powell and DiMaggio 1991). However, this emerging literature primarily examines the ability of cultural organizations to resist resource dependency and, in so doing, has tended to focus on the positive aspects of resistance to external funding environments (Alexander 1998; Barman 2002; Oliver 1991). In contrast, there has been much less research conducted on the negative aspects of agency.

In this article, we contribute to the work on funding in nonprofit organizations by providing a more nuanced examination of agency in the organizational enactment of the environment. In particular, we focus on a negative form of agency known as organizational self-censorship. Organizational self-censorship is an internal pressure that stems from perceived pressures in external funding environments. While it may be "strategically practiced" in order to secure present or future funding, over time it may also start to become "passively followed" in a normative manner (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). As the Editorial (1996) in Museum Management and Curatorship warned, "self-censorship is even more insidious than that imposed from outside, and the increased reliance upon sponsorship funds cannot help but have an increasing impact on the subjects tackled and the conclusions presented" (p. 349). More specifically, Tudiver (1999) states the "chilling effect" of self-censorship is infectious. Often it stems from nothing more than ordinary polite reluctance to criticize a benefactor, especially if there is a continuing relationship and prospect of future support (Tudiver 1999:167). In this study, we present an exploratory qualitative case study of an interaction between a major Canadian public museum and a multinational mining company over support for an earth sciences gallery. In so doing, we highlight that the exercise of agency sometimes has potential negative consequences and that over time such creative actions thought to be creative and innovative can become normative and isomorphic.

While this article focuses on the role of organizational self-censorship within the continued rise of corporate sponsorship, it is important to recognize that there will always be some level of interaction and negotiation between a nonprofit organization and a potential funder. The process of organizational self-censorship takes place then, to varying levels and degrees, across different types of funder relationships (i.e., with government, insurance boards, foundations, and individuals). However, despite the potential for the use of organizational self-censorship with all potential funders, there is an important difference between private and public funding bodies, which will lead to higher/lower levels of the practice of organizational self-censorship.

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