Getting Started Building Sponsor Partnerships

This article was written by Joe Waters (Selfish Giving). Joe literally wrote the book (well actually two books) about cause marketing. In his most recent book, Fundraising With Businesses, Joe advises non-profits to stop limiting their thinking to “finding sponsors” but instead, start thinking in terms of developing partnerships with businesses.

But while Joe’s books focus on non-profits, we realized that much of his advice also applies to other member-based organizations, such as associations, clubs, chambers – any organization looking to raise funds or find sources of non-dues revenue to meet your mission. So we asked Joe to write an article for our Membership Knowledge Hub that would help non-profits as well as membership-based organizations get started building relationships with businesses.

 

I’ve been selling sponsorships - or helping others sell theirs - for longer than I care to admit. This is good news for you because just about every nonprofit sells - or should be selling - sponsorships.

Sponsorship is a great source of additional revenue and contacts. It can also be a driver of individual giving, the most lucrative piece of the philanthropic pie.

On top of selling sponsorships for nearly 20 years, I’ve only sold local sponsorships. I never worked for one of those big nonprofits (e. g. St. Jude, Feeding America) that have companies showering them with money. I wish. No, the last nonprofit I worked at was a safety-net hospital that no one wanted to sponsor. Still, we figured out how to sell millions of dollars in sponsorships.

Take a look at the map of Massachusetts, my home state, below. It shows just how “local” my work has been.

The red line is Route 128, a major state highway. About 95% of the sponsorships I've sold in my career have been within that red line. That's local sponsorship sales!

My goal here is to give you more than the sponsorship 101 stuff you find on most sites. This will be an advanced placement course in identifying, selling and closing sponsorships.

Don't worry, I'll go easy on you. I've never taken an AP course - much less passed one - in my life!

You’ll learn:

  • What exactly is sponsorship and how it differs from other kinds of giving.
  • How to look within your organization for opportunity and prospects - instead of blindly chasing random prospects.
  • How to identify, track and communicate with prospects by phone and email. I’ll also review the three types of decision makers and how best to pitch them.
  • Selling sponsorships sometimes involves public speaking or a presentation. I’ll show you how to speak effectively without letting your nerves get the best of you.
  • Lastly, I’ll give you some tips on closing the deal and landing that new sponsor! 

What is Sponsorship?

Sponsorship is when a company commits money or resources to a nonprofit event or program in exchange for specific promotional benefits.

At its core, sponsorship is an exchange of money for services.   

In exchange for supporting the nonprofit, the company gets their name and logo on a banner, t-shirt, poster, brochure or other kinds of marketing and communications related to the event or program.

The business objective of sponsorship is to reach a specific target audience and to earn a “halo” for supporting a good cause. The favorability sponsorship delivers can give a business a competitive edge that goes beyond product and price. Increasingly, businesses of all sizes are striving to balance profit with purpose through sponsorship and other socially responsible marketing.

Sponsorship is win-win and work-work. Both the nonprofit and for-profit benefit from the partnership, but success depends on them working together to ensure each other’s success.

Take the example of the Boston Marathon, which is run by a nonprofit organization, the Boston Athletic Association or BAA. Of course, the event has a number of longstanding corporate sponsors, including running shoe maker Adidas.

How does the BAA benefit? They raise millions of dollars from Adidas and other corporate sponsors. Adidas raises the profile of the event and enhances its reputation as a world-class marathon.

How does Adidas benefit from the sponsorship? Adidas gets access to avid runners who are the perfect customers for Adidas shoes and gear. Being associated with such an important and famous event gives Adidas a favorable connection with thousands of runners and millions of spectators - both along the course and watching at home on television.

Is the partnership win-win for both partners? Absolutely. Do the BAA and Adidas have to work hard ensure each other’s success? You bet.

One thing you don’t need to succeed with sponsorship is a large athletic event like the Boston Marathon or a global shoe company like Adidas. There are many sponsorship opportunities with organizations of all sizes and types.  

Start By Looking Within

Your first step is to do an asset analysis of your organization, events and programs. Look for assets that would be valuable to a potential business partner. These may include:

  • A successful fundraiser (e.g., walk, run, gala, etc.).
  • A large donor [or membership] base.
  • A large, engaged following on social-media sites.
  • A targeted group of supporters [or members] that are women, Millennials, moms, parents, men, pet owners, and so forth.
  • A large employee base.
  • A visible, busy, or sought after building or location.
  • A strong, well-recognized brand that people know and respect.
  • Vendors that value their relationship with you.
  • A strong, emotional mission. Do you serve kids? Do you save puppies from the pound? Do you help wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan?

One of the most valuable assets you can have is an existing connection to a company. I like to say that a company in hand is worth two waiting in the bush!

Maybe you have a CEO that personally supports your cause, but hasn’t involved her company. Or perhaps your organization has a long-standing vendor relationship with a company that would be open to a fundraiser.

Nonprofits don’t usually know where to start when it comes to selling sponsorships to businesses. That’s because they have their sights set too high and miss the low-hanging fruit!


Have a Target, Aim for a Bull’s Eye

Nonprofits often ask me all the time what kind of companies they should target for sponsorship. “Oh, that’s easy,” I say. “The company that will say yes!”

Of course, some businesses are more likely to say yes than others.

The Bull’s-Eye: Supporters

The bull’s-eye is your sweet spot and where you should aim. The companies within the bull’s-eye are existing supporters of your organization. These companies already give you money. The CEO may be a major donor, or the company might be a sponsor or underwriter of a program or event. This company is a friend, supporter, and an ally with whom you can kick off a partnership. Companies that are supporters are already on your side and open to experimenting and taking risks because they know and trust you. You’ll need this. First tries are rarely perfect, and these partners will have the patience and forgiveness you’ll need to safely try, and try again.

During my 20 year career working in nonprofits, I always had one goal on my first day at a new job: to find out what companies my new employer already knew. These companies were the foundation for everything that followed. Always start with the people you know and you’ll never hear “No”!

The Inner Circle: Contacts

The first circle outside the bull’s-eye is populated with what I call contacts. You know these people and they know you. But they’re different from bull’s eye supporters for one key reason: they haven’t given you any money. However, they are familiar with your organization and are excellent secondary prospects.

Examples of good contacts are your organization’s vendors. If you work at a large nonprofit you probably spend a lot of money with several vendors that can either join you in a cause-marketing program or introduce you to a company that can. Another example of contacts is your board members’ contacts.

I once landed a meeting with a major convenience store chain because when I mentioned the owner’s name to a board member she exclaimed, “I live next door to him!” It’s best to work from the inside out. Begin with companies within the bull’s-eye, execute a program or two, and then shop your success and experience to the next circle of prospects that will need more convincing than your generous supporters did.

The Outer Circle: Suspects

The companies in the next circle aren’t even prospects. I call them suspects—that’s how weak their connection is to you.These companies have no connection with your organization. They don’t know you and you don’t know them.

This is the hardest circle to work, but it also has the most potential because 95 percent of companies are neither supporters nor contacts. If selling were as easy as pitching supporters and contacts, organizations wouldn’t need you! Remember, just as the second circle is harder to work than the bull’s-eye, the outer circle is the most difficult of all.

Work the inner circles first. You’ll gain valuable experience and references. You’ll need these when you approach suspects.

You might be thinking you can just start at the outer circle and make cold calls. Not only is this not very fun, it’s not very effective either. It sometimes works—like finding a needle in a haystack. But when you’re stuck at the outer ring where it’s cold and lonely, a better option is to revisit the basics (e.g., cultivating individual major donors, adding influential members to your board, building your brand, etc.) so one day you can score a sponsorship bull’s-eye.

Track Everything

Use a contact management software (CMS) to keep track of all your prospects and any interactions. If you’ve never used a CMS before, or are reluctant to use the one you have, let me be clear on the importance of having one. Your CMS can help you sell more sponsorships and raise more money for your organization. Period. The sooner you view your prospect management software as the valuable, money-making sidekick it is, the sooner you'll be embracing a valuable member of the team.

Whatever software you use, develop a system. For easy scanning and research, I used to segment prospects into two groups. I labeled current sponsors as “Prospect +” and unaffiliated companies as just “Prospects.”

As I worked in a hospital with a lot vendors, we segmented them differently. Vendors that were also sponsors we labeled “Vendor A.” Vendors that were good candidates for sponsorship we labeled “Vendor B.” Vendors that not good prospects were labeled “Vendor C.”

Having a system will allow you to identify your best prospects. If I had a new event with sponsorships, I’d start with supporters and work my way outward, as I suggested in the section above.

Record everything. Any communication with or intelligence collected about a prospect is promptly recorded. Left a voicemail? log it in. Saw a recent story online on a company’s new product line? Paste the link into the prospect’s note. Little bits of info may mean nothing at the time, but a string information viewed together may reveal a good approach, or may even point you to another prospect.

Let the software do the work. Leave reminders, calendar updates, to-dos and institutional memory to the software--backed up, of course! But the software is only as good as the person using it. Garbage in. Garbage out.

How to Get Through to Prospects

Thanks to email and social media, you have a lot of ways to contact prospects about a sponsorship opportunity. But more often than not your first connection with the prospect will be over the phone. I get a lot of questions about the best ways to get through to prospects. Here are my recommendations.

Should I leave a message? It depends on your own personal style and what works. One of my team members made a point never to leave a message. He’d call and call until someone picked up. His experience taught him that leaving a message would dissuade a prospect from picking up your call the next time.

I was just the opposite. I liked leaving a message. I’d leave a short message explaining why I was calling and share couple benefits of what I was offering. I’m convinced a message softens up a prospect so when you do get them on the phone it’s not a total cold call. When you do talk to them, they may be slightly inclined to your proposal. Sometimes people even called me back!

Again, the key here is to do what works for you.

How should I deal with gatekeepers? Make them your friends. They are valuable allies in getting to the prospect. Remember, it can be a long, hard slog to success without them. Remember, gatekeepers want something too. Sometimes a friendly voice is what’s saving them from boredom or an otherwise crappy job! Other times it’s talking to someone who has similar challenges in their life (juggling work and kids, a long commute, difficult roommates, etc.).

Remember these gatekeepers around the holidays. Sending over a branded half-zip sweatshirt to a gatekeeper has earned me an ally.

When should I stop calling? If they are bonafide prospect, never. This goes back to never giving a prospect a reason to say no. As long as you never drive the prospect to the point that they tell you to get lost, you should be able to call them occasionally to pitch them on new programs, to follow up on emails, to invite them to events, etc. It can take years to convert a prospect into a sponsor. But qualifying them as a real prospect and being persistent will pay off!

The phone is the most popular way to reach prospects. But email is another great communication tool and I have some suggestions for using that as well.

Keep it short. There's nothing worse than a long email. Keep it to a 150 words or less. Put yourself in their shoes. How do you feel when someone sends you an email that you have to keep scrolling through to finish. Did you want to get another email from that person?

Bullet everything. Attach nothing. To make it easier to scan your email for key info, bullet, bold, underline the things you want your prospect to read and remember. Also, everything you want your prospect to see should be in the email itself. Avoid attachments.

Use email to accelerate and entrap. Like you, I use email to get information to prospects quickly. Get rid of anything that has to be sent snail mail. Email can also entrap a prospect. When I call a prospect about sponsorship, they’ll say “I never got the info.” “Really?,” I’ll say. “I’m resending the info right now. Do you have it open so I can walk you through the sponsorship?”

Yep, I love email. It's like an electronic speed trap for prospects.

How to Choose the Right Pitch

To successfully pitch a sponsorship opportunity, you have know with whom you are dealing. I’ve found that decision makers can be lumped in one of these three groups: Thinkers, Feeler and Deferrers. Most people are a combination of all three, but one style usually dominates.

Thinkers

Thinkers are my favorites because they are most like me! They want to hear the rationale, the logic behind a sponsorship and why it makes sense for their business. They like facts, figures, research, statistics, data and any other analytical information to drive their decision.

If you’re pitching a Thinker on an event sponsorship: Talk about how many people attended the event, the split between men and women and their favorability toward sponsors.

Feelers

Feelers are moved more by narrative and emotional appeals and will respond better to appeals centered around your mission of your organization, how the consumer experience will be enhanced and how employees will derive more meaning and fulfillment from their jobs.

If you’re pitching a Feeler on an event sponsorship: Talk about the emotional connection people have to the event and how it will tangibly impact your mission.

Deferrers

Deferrers follow the lead of others.  Show them what the companies they admire or compete with are doing and how you they can join the “cool kids.” Credibility and reputation are important to a lot of people. But for these prospects, it means a whole lot more.

If you’re pitching a Deferrer on an event sponsorship: Talk about the other companies that are sponsoring the event and the high profile leaders that will be attending.

Regardless of whether you are dealing with a Thinker, Feeler or Deferrer, keep the following in mind.

Your #1 goal is to be prospect-centric. Always be prepared to adjust your messaging with prospects to meet their needs, interests and goals. You may have just spoken to three prospects this morning that were happy to talk solely about event sponsorship, but can you make the shift when the next prospect wants to talk about your nonprofit's mission? Not all sponsors commit because of the marketing benefits. Stay focused but flexible.

Stand out from your competition. Let’s be honest: most business people have pretty low expectations of nonprofit types. They expect you to ask for money, and to bring little else to the table beyond your empty, cupped hands. Imagine if you were a business owner and that’s all you ever heard from nonprofits!

You’re goal is to be different. Ask your prospect about his business. Instead of asking for something, offer something. Enlighten them on how supporting a cause can deliver a competitive edge and boost employee morale, among other things. Impress them by knowing something about their industry and competitors.

Don’t be like every other fundraiser out there. Step out from that dated model and you'll get the attention you want and deserve.

Don't give them an excuse to say no. This is my pet peeve. Mailing prospects reams of information. Not calling people back when you’re supposed to. Designing sponsorship packages with little creativity and even less flexibility. These are all excuses - and great reasons - for prospects to say no. You never want a prospect to give you a flat-out “no.” Psychologically it's a big threshold for a decision maker to cross and when they do, well, they generally mean it (My mom use to say: "No means no!"). So don’t give prospects a reason to utter that final, irrevocable word.

Persuasion is incremental. Things take time. It won’t happen with one call, or one email, or one meeting. You need to plan for sponsorship success and how each interaction will bring you a closer to your goal. So if the objective of that first call isn't to close the sale, what is it? It's a question you should know the answer to before you pick up the phone. Then get busy with steps 2 through 22.

How to Face Down Your Fear of Public Speaking

Through the years, I’ve delivered hundreds of presentations. As a former public speaking teacher, I enjoy speaking and being in front of an audience.

I realize not everyone feels the same way. Public speaking is the number one fear - ahead heights, insects and even death! But given the opportunity, you cannot turn down a chance to deliver a presentation on your sponsorship proposal. Being asked to present is a good sign that your prospect is interested in your opportunity. There’s also a good chance other key decision makers will be on hand for your talk. In short, if your presentation is good, you’ll have a new sponsor.

Here some of  the key things I learned during my career of speaking to potential corporate partners.

In battle the eyes are defeated first. I hate to admit it, because I like my comfy jeans and tees as much as anyone, but clothes do matter. A professional appearance sets the right tone for business presentations. Most companies expect nonprofit types to show up in a hemp shirt and sandals. Show them that you're more like them than their stereotype and you'll have a better chance of earning their trust and business.

Start with the unexpected. Don't--I repeat, DON'T--start by talking about your nonprofit (a.k.a. The egocentric, bloodsucking charity that everyone expects.). It's a big turn-off. Start by talking about your prospect, the proposal, their competitors and how you plan to help them accomplish their goals. By the time you get around to talking about yourself, you’ll have their attention and interest.

Easy on the slides. PowerPoint has spread like a disease over the past decade. Speakers think they need a million-slide deck, but what they really want is something to hide behind. PowerPoint is the digital podium that everyone likes to hide behind. My simple rule: only use a slide when what you can’t say it with words. This will limit your slides to pictures, video and the occasional graph. That's it. Remember, YOU are your best visual aid.

Be yourself at your best. Not all of us are marked to be great speakers, but as communicators we all do something well. Maybe you explain things well, or you’re organized. Maybe you’re inspiring, concise or a great storyteller. Build your presentation around your strengths and what you do best.

Tap the power of team speaking. Just as everyone does something well, team speaking aggregates those talents into one fabulous presentation. You might be the right person to kick-off the presentation, but maybe another member of your team is better suited to explain the specifics or to talk about your organization. A mix of speakers works well, shares the chore of speaking and gives listeners some much needed variety.

Follow the 50/50 rule. Speaking is different from other forms of communication. That's why your speech should be balanced between new material and (pre)review of what you've already said. (Pre)review can take many forms. "This point is important..." "The three areas we'll cover..." “Now that we’ve talked about our spring events, I’ll move to our fall events.”

Channel your inner Jimmy Fallon. People really don’t look up to statesmen and politicians as examples of greater speakers. They think of Conan and Jon Stewart and Oprah and other celebs. All of these stars are engaging, funny, conversational, empathetic and clever. In short, think of your presentation as a sort of a mini-talk show. You're the host. You have an audience that you need to woo, move, impress and, yes, entertain. You'll do that through laughter, compelling dialogue, technology and guests.

We know you can read. But can you speak? Good public speaking is not about reading your notes. Listeners expect eye contact, impromptu speaking and, if the setting permits, conversation. That doesn’t mean you can’t have notes. I like when speakers have notes. It shows that you’ve put some preparation into your speech. Now, show me that you know the difference between reading and speaking.

Put a sock in it. Mark Twain said "Few sinners are saved after the first twenty-minutes of a sermon." Speakers tend to blather on and on with no purpose but to hear their own voice and to diminish their chances for success. You should do the unexpected. Respect your prospect’s time and deliver a compressed, relevant, powerful pitch. Then shut up and sit down.

Closing the Deal

Closing a sponsorship deal isn’t easy, especially these days when companies are scrutinizing everything and watching every penny. So you could give a great presentation and still lose the deal, if you’re not careful.

Here are a few tips on how to close the deal. Remember, if you can’t close you’re in customer service, not sales!

Build all your sponsorship packages a la carte. Don’t walk in with one sponsorship option for them to approve or deny. Build all your sponsorship packages from the ground-up, swapping things in and out based on the prospect’s needs, interests and budget.

Offer to lend a hand whenever possible. Companies are busier than ever. And while a sponsorship with you is a great opportunity, their success doesn’t depend on it. That's why you should offer to be as helpful as possible. For example, when companies buy a sponsorship for a dinner gala they worry they won’t be able to fill the table with senior people from the company. Offer to have your gala chairperson call key members of the senior team with a personal invite.

The best things in life are free. I use to think that it was only nonprofits that liked everything free. But for-profits love free too. Who wouldn't take a free sponsorship? But to make it free you have to employ this little thing I call the cause marketing twist. This is when a company shares the opportunity to support your nonprofit with its employees and customers and you raise more money than you ever could from the company checkbook (which is where sponsorship dollars come from).

Increase the touch points. Whenever you’re working with a business on a sponsorship, look for ways to make it less transactional and more meaningful. Invite the business owner to visit your nonprofit or to attend a special event as your guest. Have board members or existing partners call them to explain the value of partnership and how positive the experience has been for them.

Finally, don’t forget the mission of your organization. I say this because I used to get so caught up in the marketing I would forget to stress the amazing work my organization was doing!

Maybe this sounds like you. We’ve trained ourselves to sell the benefits of sponsorship so much we sometimes forget our mission! In the world of nonprofit sponsorship that’s one benefit we can’t forget to feature.

_____

This article was written by Joe Waters (Selfish Giving), Cause Marketing expert and speaker, writer, consultant and online trainer. Joe has raised millions of dollars from local, regional and national corporate partners. He’s also the author of three books: Fundraising with Businesses, Cause Marketing for Dummies and QR Codes for Dummies.

 

Image sources: Sponsors Welcome and Crowdsourcing and Funding – courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

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