A dash of vodka meets a mixed reception
Vodka-brand Smirnoff dipped into Northern Irish politics and social issues last month during Belfast Pride.
Their #Lovewins campaign was a highly-visible parallel to Pride and shared the festival’s themes of inclusivity, openness and tolerance.
It featured poster vignettes about LGBT life, as well as its crowning feature – a huge mural on Hill Street from artist Joe Caslin.
However, it was not greeted with universal acclaim from within the gay-rights sector; there are, in fact, many people with misgivings about this campaign itself and also the general circumstances and consequences of similar arrangements.
These reservations are not specific to the Smirnoff brand itself and moreover get to the heart of wider concerns about the entire third sector.
Ruth McCarthy, the Artistic Director of Outburst Arts, says there is a significant swell of opinion within LGBT groups that this sort of working can hamper some of the most important, and difficult, aspects of the sector’s work.
She says that Pride – like the related surge promoting marriage equality – is a positive event and Smirnoff’s message (which was not borne out of direct involvement with the event but as a parallel and mutually beneficial form of raising awareness and showing support) is a good one.
However, her concern is that these issues are the low-hanging fruit for an underfunded sector, and that working with sponsors can mean the pursuit of less difficult issues at the expense of helping more stubborn problems.
“It’s not about being against sponsorship – I work for a festival and we have sponsorship. Corporate sponsorship should be taken very seriously and if people want to support a great cause, that is brilliant.
“However, this is a question of sustainability for the third sector. Relationships with business, or with the public sector if they are awarding contracts to NGOs, inevitably mean any funding is spent on terms dictated by those providing the sponsorship – rather than coming from the grassroots or within the appropriate community, no matter the sector.”
Ms McCarthy has been involved in activism for over 25 years and says, for understandable reasons, the tone of organisations has changed, moving away from a primary focus on how to solve the problems they are trying to tackle and more towards securing their ability to try and tackle problems. Chasing financial support, in other words.
“We are told more and more that it’s all about generating income. We don’t call it fundraising any more, we call it generating income.”
Another of her concerns, which again cuts across the difficulties third-sector organisations face, is the lack of a sexual orientation strategy from the Northern Ireland Executive.
She said this has meant no central money has been put aside for groups, has affected the overall planning situation, and left “incredibly underresourced” organisations “fighting fires” as the struggle to deal with the problems they face.
The absence of a Stormont sexual orientation strategy – which is now about a decade overdue - probably reflects the inability of the politicians in charge (now Sinn Fein and the DUP; previously the DUP and everyone else) to find any common ground whatsoever on which to base such a strategy (Sinn Fein have been broadly and comprehensively sensitive to LGBT issues, whereas the DUP flits between opposing reforms and not engaging at all).
But of course central funding comes with the same caveats as those previously discussed – it leads to provision set by the terms of the funders, rather than the community organisations, or the people they provide with services.
Scope has written about this issue before, where third-sector organisations can feel like they are caught between accepting funding on certain terms, thereby undermining independence, or not receiving the funding and crippling their ability to provide services – most recently here.
This is not quite the same as the situation with Smirnoff – which acted on its own to promote equality – but the vodka brand’s intervention is part of the wider picture if it adds to the unbalancing of funding.
Marriage equality is probably the LGBT issue with the highest rate of public awareness in Northern Ireland. Its main rival is the Asher’s Bakery “gay cake” row, with perhaps the ban on blood donations from gay people in third place.
Ms McCarthy does not seek to dismiss these as issues but says there are many more complicated issues, that are much less PR-friendly, that do not have a big enough share either of funding or public discourse. Neither of these things are a zero sum game but nor are either in inexhaustible supply.
She says some matters that affect individuals in the most difficult ways are not as well known in Northern Ireland. For instance, while local problems with mental health issues enjoy a high level of public awareness, the fact that these disproportionately effect people in the LGBT community is less well known (this BBC piece outlines some of the challenges facing gay people in Northern Ireland).
Alcohol problems are another matter that has high publicity locally – but, again, the fact that this is particularly true among gay people is less well known.
Best of both
This is another reason why some in the LGBT sector have concerns about the involvement of Smirnoff – although Ms McCarthy also says that alcohol companies have long been major advertisers and sponsors of events, in general.
She says there is clearly a mutual interest when a brand like Smirnoff puts its weight behind an issues-based campaign, such as #Lovewins – and “understandably so” rather than this being a cynical observation – but this comes at a price for related activism.
“Ultimately they are a company that wants to sell something so we would be incredibly naïve to think there’s no exchange involved, but their intentions can still be great.”
She says the solution is clearly not to abandon these relationships but, one way or another, there has to be both the space for other aspects of third-sector to also flourish.
The least publicly-palatable issues are often the most chronic, on an individual level, dealing with people in the most difficult circumstances and who are most in need of help.
Whatever the future of the third sector, it cannot become beholden to funding streams that come with their own baggage, and cannot be a matter of the most marketable causes receiving support at the expense of all else.
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