Corporate sponsorship of non-profits has been used as a shortcut to public favour, but new research shows there is a fine balance between success and cynicism in charitable business.

A three-year research project has found that public opinion rests not only on the “partnership fit” but also on the similarities between a company and the charity they sponsor.

The study was conducted by Dr Ravi Pappu on behalf of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, and has now been published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

“For example, if a company seen as providing fresh, healthy food sponsors the Australian Red Cross, people can readily see what the sponsor and non-profit have in common,” Dr Pappu said.

“Not only is there a similarity on ‘health’ grounds but it is also a high-fit relationship because people can see a clear benefit, of improving people’s health.

“By contrast, any fast-food chain viewed as a junk food producer would have less similarity with non-profit organisations promoting health, and this sponsorship would be a low-fit because of negative health benefit perceived.

“People should perceive a genuine effort from the corporate sponsor to benefit the cause. The partnership could arouse public suspicion if it is seen just as an attempt to build market share or meet shareholder expectations or, even worse, if it is viewed as an attempt to avoid tax or take advantage of the non-profit organisation,” Dr Pappu said.

While previous research had focused on the ‘fit’ of the partnership, this was the first study to consider the importance of similarity between the organisations as well.

Experts say the research is especially important at a time when corporate sponsorship is on the rise, and because the non-profit sector is a key contributor to the Australian economy.

“Dr Pappu’s research represents a major step forward in helping both non-profits and the private sector companies which support them to understand the factors involved in creating successful partnerships... [and] having his paper accepted for publication in one of the world’s leading academic journals further highlights the international significance of his work” said Professor Andrew Griffiths, Dean of UQ Business School.