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 get sponsorships using internal and external leads.
  • 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 for Sponsorships

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 Sponsorship 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 from Sponsors

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 were 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. Sent a sponsorship letter? 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.

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