Social mobility charity defends BP partnership after mentors resign in protest

08 Jan 2024 News

A social mobility charity has defended its partnership with fossil fuel giant BP after three voluntary mentors stepped down from their roles in protest.

The three mentors worked on the Social Mobility Foundation’s (SMF) BP-sponsored Aspiring Professional Programme and first raised concerns in March 2023.

One told Civil Society it was hypocritical of SMF, which works with young people from low-income backgrounds, to take money from a company working in an industry that is “harming children”.

A letter expressing concerns over the BP partnership signed by 40 engineers and scientists was also sent to SMF last June, but Civil Society understands the charity did not respond. 

“SMF stands for equality and the empowerment of young people, therefore, working with BP is strongly at odds with SMF’s values, the letter read.

“Giving opportunities to young people in the UK is counterproductive if it runs the risk of leading them into companies that perpetuate the injustices in the world we live in.”

SMF said in response that it recruits and trains over 2,100 volunteer mentors each year to support its students. 

Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of SMF, said: “We are sorry that our work with BP means three of our previous mentors won’t be volunteering again with SMF, but of course we respect their decision and we appreciate their previous support for SMF students.”

It comes after other major charities such as Wellcome, Royal Opera House (ROH) and the Church of England have cut ties with BP in recent years and membership body NCVO launched a campaign encouraging charities to divest from fossil fuels last July. 

Partnership with BP

When a mentor first raised climate concerns to SMF in March 2023, the charity responded by saying that students on the Aspiring Professionals Programme are offered a residential with BP for one week. 

“It is not mandatory and student interest is strong enough for us to continue offering the placement”, SMF said in an email seen by Civil Society. 

SMF’s income from BP almost trebled in the year to September 2023 to £53,766, the charity told Civil Society. 

The increase was due to BP funding a residential engineering work experience for students, which included accommodation, travel costs and student allowances. 

According to SMF’s accounts for the year ending September 2022, the £18,100 it received that year was to “fund various activities for engineering students on the engineering Aspiring Professionals Programme.”

SMF also received £15,000 from BP in 2020-21, all of which was spent by the year-end. 

‘Fossil fuel companies are using tactics that are harming children’

One former SMF mentor told Civil Society: “They are a children’s charity ultimately, and their aim is to improve the lives and prospects of children around the world, in the UK, and internationally as well. And if they are taking sponsorship from a fossil fuel company, fossil fuel companies are using tactics that are harming children directly and indirectly all around the world, because of the climate crisis. 

“What it does is allow companies like BP to greenwash and it allows them to ethical wash. 

“So, it allows them to basically say: ‘Oh, we‘re a good company and we’re ethical because we work with charities like SMF,’ and that allows them to have a social licence, and we shouldn’t be doing that.

“And that’s why so many other companies now have actually stopped taking sponsorships from BP, such as ROH. 

“We’ve seen an increasing number of organisations now who are shunning the fossil fuel industry because of their really nasty tactics in lobbying for increased fuel use.

“So, it is hypocritical for a children’s charity to work with the industry and also by allowing them to mentor children and allowing them to encourage us to take jobs in the fossil fuel industry when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels. I find that really worrying.”

SMF said this quote describes the charity’s mission inaccurately. It told Civil Society: “It says our aim ‘is to improve the lives and prospects of children around the world, in the UK, and internationally as well’. Our charitable purpose is education and training, and our area of benefit is the UK only.”

‘We are sorry that our work with BP caused mentors to step down’

Atkinson told Civil Society: “At the SMF, our mission is to secure opportunities for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue higher education and highly skilled careers, supporting them to fulfil their potential. This mission comes first and is at the forefront of everything that we do as a charity. 

“Many of our students aspire to careers in engineering. We work with BP to secure valuable work experience and career opportunities in engineering for our students that would not otherwise be available.

“We are sorry that our work with BP means three of our previous mentors won’t be volunteering again with SMF, but of course we respect their decision and we appreciate their previous support for SMF students. 

“Securing opportunities for our students in the engineering sector has often been challenging. We would welcome more employers in the engineering sector to work with us to create life-changing opportunities for young people.”

BP: ‘We are proud of our work with Social Mobility Foundation’

David Nicholas, head of press at BP, said: “BP has been investing in education for more than 50 years, working to promote STEM education, provide access to educational resources, enhance teaching quality, and help to build the pipeline of skills the energy industry needs.

“In 2022 we expanded our social mobility framework for action to improve the representation, inclusion, retention and advancement of employees from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. 

“Collaboration and partnerships across the public and private sector are vital to create a more equitable society and we are proud to work with Social Mobility Foundation and other education and employability partners to support social mobility in disadvantaged communities. 

“BP is transforming into an integrated energy company and, while today we are still focused mainly in oil and gas, we are increasing our investment in low carbon energy, including here in the UK where we are developing projects in offshore wind, hydrogen and CCS, solar and expanding our bp Pulse EV charging network.

“We are committed to investing in the education, skills and training that are needed to support a diverse UK energy system today and in the future.”

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