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ICF 101: Coaching with Sponsors

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Tackling the Topic of Sponsors

Businessmen shaking hands
Sponsors: Sound business decision or a deal with the devil?

This week, CLCI Live begins to dive into questions and concerns surrounding the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as we start a four part series on ICF related topics. Keep an eye out and catch one live!

To start this journey off, the team turned their attention to sponsors and stakeholders. What does it mean to have a sponsor? How does a coach balance the agenda of the sponsor with the goals of the client? What ethical complications can arise for a coach balancing a sponsor and a client? How important is confidentiality once a stakeholder is involved? What does the ICF say?

Third Party Agendas

Hidden agenda word or phrase in a dictionary.
Always read the fine print when working with sponsors. And if you can't, get some glasses.

First of all, what are sponsors and stakeholders? These would be third parties with a ‘stake’ in the client and coach reaching a goal. These third parties are the ones paying the coach, as opposed to the client. They expect a result or return on investment (ROI) and the money they pay goes towards that expectation.

Sponsors often (if not always) come with agendas.

Which can make things rather tricky. You can’t force results. Most coaches aren’t consultants. Some things are beyond our scope of practice. It can get messy.

How Complicated Can It Get?

Consider this scenario: the sponsor is an employer, paying for their employee to meet with you. The employee has fallen far behind on their sales recently for unknown reasons. The employer needs this employee to return to their previous work ethic and sales or else they will have to let this employee go.

The client shouldn’t learn in the session that their job is at stake; on top of that, the sponsor cannot hear details about the session that break client-coach confidentiality.

What problems might arise with this? Many, you’re probably already guessing.

And we can complicate the scenario even more. Maybe the client tells you that they actually are planning to leave the job for a better one within the month. Maybe the employer wants you to tell them what is going on in the employee’s life. Maybe the client has shared with you a concern about workplace harassment that should be referred instead to HR.

And what about the very nature of this scenario? Unlike with many other coaching situations, the sponsor is going into this with an agenda. Find the root of the issue. Get the sales up. Get the client to keep their job and the sponsor to be happy with the sales. What about the client’s agenda?

Consider now this commonly asked question on the ICF’s Ethics FAQs page:

Q: "May I coach a business client who has some personal outcomes that are not shared with the sponsor?
A: “Whatever is stated in the contract or agreement will govern what can be shared."

But what of the sponsor’s agenda?

Q: "The supervisor of my new client has a coaching outcome that he does not want the client to know about. I am being paid out of the supervisor’s budget. May I keep this information from my client?
A: “This sets up an ethical conflict.” [They go on to highlight the starting contract] “Whatever you put in your agreement that all three [coach, client, sponsor] sign is what is acceptable.”

Sounds like the initial establishment of the contract between all involved parties is going to be our clearest starting point.

The Coaching Contract

Group of diverse people signing a contract
Be sure to huddle around the contract in person for that extra sense of collaboration.

While partnering with sponsors can be a lucrative and rewarding experience for coaches, it is important to approach all coaching situations ethically. Consider what the very first line underneath Core Competency 1, Foundation, is: the coach “Demonstrates personal integrity and honesty in interactions with clients, sponsors and relevant stakeholders.”

Take this integrity and honesty with you into the contract. Be open and honest from the very start. Before any sessions begin, establish understanding, limits, boundaries, and confidentiality with all involved parties. Under Core Competency B, the ICF says a coach “Explains what coaching is and is not and describes the process to the client and relevant stakeholders.” This is followed by the contract. The coach “Reaches agreement about what is and is not appropriate in the relationship, what is and is not being offered, and the responsibilities of the client and relevant stakeholders.”

According to the Core Competencies, the only thing that changes when establishing an overall coaching plan and goals if a sponsor is involved is that the coach partners with both the client and sponsor.

Core of Confidentiality

As with a client, sponsor, or a whole team coaching situation, confidentiality has to be respected. When a sponsor is involved, there are two levels of confidentiality that have to be established and respected: confidentiality with the client and confidentiality with the sponsor.

The ICF has given examples of cases wherein an ethical boundary is breached; through some of these, the same questions have arisen. What lines are drawn with sponsors? What boundaries should be set to limit confidentiality? There’s no easy answer.

So it’s no surprise that many coaches have acknowledged these difficulties. “It is not always easy to engage the relevant stakeholders while managing the boundaries of such elements as confidentiality with their coachee,” coach Alison Hodge writes in a guest article for the ICF. Hodge recommends being “very clear” to start with. The ICF’s Ethical FAQs page agrees, saying, “be sure all parties are privy to the agreement and aware of all the relationship dynamics to ensure transparency.”

Beyond the Corporate Sponsor

There’s more to coaching with sponsors than just the corporate world, that is just scratching the surface. Consider the following coach-client-sponsor relationships that you may encounter in your career:

  • A musician who is sponsored by a record label or music company

  • A military member who is sponsored by their command or officers

  • A student who is sponsored by a school or a concerned parent

  • A politician who is sponsored by a political party or interest group

  • A spouse who is sponsored by their partner

Every sponsored coaching relationship is a unique event that has its own particular considerations, but there is a common thread between all of them: the core competencies and code of ethics of the ICF should be considered in any coaching situation, including those with sponsors and without.


Thank you,

Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Jen Long (MCPC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) and Lisa Finck (PCC)!

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