Think Partnerships, Not Just Sponsorships

Now more than ever, nonprofits are reaching out to the private sector to sponsor programs and events. Summer is often a time when executive directors, senior staff, and board members are anxious about bringing in sponsorships to finish the year or make an event break even. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

First, a definition of terms.

— A sponsorship is simply a transaction–a company writes you a check to underwrite an event or support a program, and receives certain promotion/access in return. There’s nothing wrong with this transaction except that the benefit is so short-term, and next time you’re scrambling to line up sponsors all over again. Companies don’t often see value at this stage, either, and may not be eager to repeat the transaction the next time they’re asked.

— A relationship is a connection between two people or a small group of people, i.e., someone on your board is closely linked to a decision-maker at a company. Sponsorships come more easily, and more creative or lasting joint projects might evolve, although the connection may be seen as someone’s “pet project” and the relationship will likely end if that key connecting person moves away, retires, leaves the firm, leaves your board, etc.

— A partnership is the gold standard: this is a strong, mutually beneficial connection between two organizations who share common values, and a number of people on both sides are strongly invested in the benefits of maintaining the partnership over time. This is much more than simply money or recognition changing hands. There is buy-in from your board and the management of the firm, employees are involved as volunteers, and the partnership can grow and evolve as the marketplace (and your programs) change. Co-branding reinforces the bond.

Clearly, the most valuable connections are the most difficult and time-consuming to make. Keeping ethics uppermost in your heart and mind as you determine the best with which to partner, here are some things to consider when you begin delving into the world of corporate partnerships.

1. Think long-term. Nonprofits often make the mistake of offering the company a sponsorship for only one event, while the company would prefer value to last for months or even years. It’s better to approach companies with a “partnership package” that includes special event sponsorship as well as advertisements on your web page and marketing materials, meetings with your leadership, and co-branding.

2.  Define your gift acceptance policy. A gift acceptance policy is the ethical screen that outlines the conditions under which you’ll accept corporate dollars. There may be certain companies that are simply not appropriate for you to take dollars from. (If you haven’t faced this ethical dilemma yet, you will–it abounds in our sector, and is more common than ever in this challenging economy.) This is an excellent exercise for your board, and must occur before you embark on an ambitious campaign to raise money from corporations or even local business owners.

3.  Consider a sponsorship guideline. Make sure you have a written agreement on how and when your nonprofit’s name/logo should be used by the company. For your part, if you have more than one corporate partner, design a tiered approach so that you know that certain firms receive certain prized recognition-and you don’t end up with “dueling logos” on your website. Limit your sponsors to one per industry (one bank, one health care provider, one print or electronic media outlet, and so on.)

4.  Match your constituency with the company’s market. Do your homework to research companies that market their image, products, and services to the demographics of your constituency–or employ the people you serve. Rather than just picking out the companies you think have money to give, think about how a nonprofit/private partnership can meet the marketing or outreach goals of both organizations.

5.  Talk to the marketing director whenever possible. When approaching the company, try to meet with the marketing director rather than the “community relations” or philanthropy staff. The marketing staff will understand that you’re interested in a business partnership rather than just a philanthropic gift.

6.  Keep your proposal short. Try to keep your request to two pages and make sure it includes a description of your organization, previous history of similar events, an overview of the events/sponsorship (including number and demographics of attendees), past sponsors and participants, the media plan for the event, and a list of what the sponsor is required to provide. Tell the story quickly and with concise data. And speaking of time, lead time is important.  Allow several months for the company to make a decision.  Corporations generally develop their budgets in the fall, so approach corporations this summer for your special events next year.

7.  Look for in-kind contributions. Ask small businesses and local retail stores to donate the flowers, meeting rooms, catering, door prizes, etc. Be sure to give them generous recognition. The tax laws may be advantageous to donated products rather than cash for many businesses, although over time, you can nurture an in-kind sponsor into a larger cash sponsor or even serving as a board member.

8.  Involve employees. Companies want their employees to get involved in nonprofits, so look for company volunteers to serve on your board of directors and advisory committees. If your budget permits, provide T-shirts or water bottles with your logo, and have the company do the same for your team. Perhaps you could combine employee teams for a “day of service” summer outing or holiday celebration. Again, the goal is to be that company’s nonprofit of choice in a lasting way.

9.  Tie in cause-related marketing once partnerships are established. After you already have a relationship with a company and they have sponsored one of your events, you may want to see if you can work out a partnership where a percentage of their sales during a certain promotion or campaign go to your organization. This type of cause-related marketing makes them look good, and it may well generate substantial money for you.

10.  Maintain the connection. You’ll want to nurture the partnership so that next year the company will become the primary sponsor of your event. Your post-event thank-you should be a portfolio with including photos from the event, print materials showing the company’s logo, and media clips. From there, make sure you have contact with the company at least on a quarterly basis; send newsy updates to the communications department or to their professional association’s newsletter. Small and midsized firms will often proudly display framed photos, particularly if they showcase your graduates or clients, and plaques. You may even want to invite the executives to meet with your board and tour your facility later in the year. Always “increase the value proposition” every year so the company receives greater exposure and recognition for its dollars in new and innovative ways.

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