When it comes to planning, finding, connecting with, and keeping your ideal association sponsorship relationships, it is vital that you give yourself and your organisation the very best chance at success.
This stands even when you already have an advantage!
There are 6 sins of association sponsorship to be avoided at all costs to ensure your path to success is a smooth ride.
1. Not Dedicating Resources and Time to Seek and Engage Sponsors
If you are hoping that a volunteer, program manager, or membership officer (or even your CEO) can simply add ‘sponsorship procurement’ to their already overloaded list of things to do, then you are dooming your association sponsorship strategy to failure before it can even get off the ground. Sponsorship is not a quick fix where you send out a proposal and hope to secure great investment for your upcoming conference or event. Just like you would with a major gift donor, you need to build relationships and ask and understand what a potential partner is looking for from their sponsorships. This takes time. In fact, it can take 9-12 months to secure your first corporate partner!
If you already have a dedicated full-time business development resource, then you are one of the lucky ones. To be successful with association sponsorship opportunities, at the very least you need to free up time for a team member’s role. They will need the time and space to learn, create, and implement a strategy that will give you the untethered income you seek.
2. Not Understanding and supporting an Association Sponsorship Strategy at the Board Level
It takes a whole organization to deliver an association sponsorship strategy. That’s right, a whole organisation. Flowing down from your Board and out to your volunteers, everyone needs to know what your philosophy and policies are on corporate sponsorship opportunities. Of course, they must also know who your sponsors are so they can be made to feel welcome and valued.
Boards often see association sponsorship procurement as ‘ticking a checkbox’ on the list of things to do. The most successful income diversification strategies are understood and embraced by the Board and continue to be supported as the process flows from stage to stage (planning, finding, connecting with and keeping.) There are definite ways you want your Board to be involved and, of course, times when it is best for them to step back from the process. It is absolutely appropriate to ask your Board members to leverage their professional networks and facilitate introductions in the pursuit of association sponsorship opportunities. They should never however, be direct sponsors of your association.
Having a Board Director as a sponsor creates a substantial conflict of interest, and can ‘muddy the waters’ when dealing with other sponsors. This is especially true when a Board Director wears their ‘corporate sponsor’ hat to Board meetings rather than their ‘governance’ hat.
3. Approaching Companies that are Sponsoring ‘Everything’
There is a method to the madness that sponsorship experts and successful associations employ when it comes approaching great partners. When you are new to association sponsorship, it can be very tempting to look at the wider world and see all of the companies currently investing in sponsorships as good prospects to approach. After all, they clearly have a sponsorship budget and they are spending it! However, in order to do sponsorship well, the secret sauce lies within your membership.
- Who are they?
- What do they value?
- What is their age?
- Are they predominantly male or female?
- What do they care about in the world?
- What do they need (equipment, tools, products etc) to do their jobs well?
- What keeps them up at night?
- What are the commons threads and themes that run through your membership?
By asking questions like these, you are getting a very clear image of your membership. Companies spend considerable time, money, and effort understanding their ideal customer’s persona, in detail. The more deeply you know your members, the more easily you will find a brand that is trying to target them with their products or services. Remember, you are a gatekeeper to a membership that is the ideal target market for the right association sponsorship opportunities. You can give them direct and exclusive access to their customers — that’s a very compelling proposition!
4. Sending a Sponsorship Proposal First, No Matter How Good
You only get one chance to make a good impression as a prospective partner. Don’t waste it by sending out a proposal to a company you haven’t reached out to first! We all know that, at its core, sponsorship is about relationships. Why then, are so many organizations still stuck in the old paradigm of sending out cold generic proposals filled with precious metals? (More on that in a moment.) I know that it’s not due to laziness, or ignorance.
What I know to be true for many organizations is the crippling time, budget, and resource restrictions that can often preclude them from spending the time needed to make a proper association sponsorship approach. When I was employed by the peak professional body for midwifery here in Australia, that was my primary strategy too! I identified 172 prospects, created a gorgeous graphically designed proposal, and popped them all in the post! (Why didn’t I created PDFs and email them you ask? Ah, I could share some great lessons!) In hindsight, if I had picked the top 10 and built relationships with them first, I would have easily trebled my income. Why?
Because I would have discovered what they wanted, not told them what I could offer.
Not only that, but once the other companies assessed (or largely ignored) my proposal and said no, I could no longer make another approach to them for sponsorship. I’d done my dash! The key is to always approach a potential partner first to have a conversation. I know you may be uncomfortable about the thought of making a cold call, but it’s so worth it!
5. Including Precious Metals in your Sponsorship Approach
I’m sure you have heard this before, and you may be changing the way your organization has approached prospects or created sponsorship proposals in the past. But just in case, it is truly worth reinforcing: If you are still using Gold, Silver and Bronze (or any iteration of those precious metals) in your sponsorship approaches, it means you are selling your organization short, not commanding the income you are worth, and not engaging your partners as deeply as you could be.
Sponsorship levels are like a menu that does not allow brands the flexibility they seek to be seen as creative and interesting to their customers. Even if you write in your proposal “we want to tailor a solution to suit you,” it means very little if you are spelling it all out for them in lists of dot points outlining the benefits they can receive.
Think about this for a minute: Consumers are demanding companies get serious about creating shared value and positive impact by partnering with our sector. You have an incredible opportunity to leverage the right sponsor’s creativity, marketing expertise, and experience when you approach them to partner with you. And of course, the more creative they want to get, the bigger the activation they want implement, the more ways they want to connect with your members, the more money you can charge. Sending them a standard GSB proposal is like cutting your nose off to spite your face.
You are a thought leader in your field, allow your partners the space they need to step up to the plate so you can all look great!
6. Confusing Sponsorship with a Donation
This is a lesson for every association sponsorship seeker to heed! Generally speaking, sponsorship will come out of a company’s marketing budget. That means their investment will need to be given a chance to recoup some return on investment. This is done by providing opportunities to sell more products and services as a result of their alignment with you. You may have experienced this (I know I certainly have), but so often when you introduce yourself as being from a non-profit association, companies can assume you are seeking a handout. People tend to close down, and it can be difficult to get them to hear what you have to say.
Seeking association sponsorship means ensuring you make it clear from the outset that you are offering sponsors an opportunity to promote their brand –that you understand what sponsorship means. You will also need to be curious about their needs, as well as detail the ways you can help them access a target market they may not be fully doing business with.
Many corporate marketing managers have become jaded with non-profit sponsorship seekers and the perceived ‘lack of professionalism’ and ‘entitled’ behaviour in our sector. Whether or not this perception is correct is not the point. Every time you connect with a company, it is an opportunity to showcase the diversity and incredible richness of the association and not-for-profit sector and why your organization in partnership with their brand can do amazing things together. Make it more about creating a relationship (as you do so beautifully with your members) and less about why your programs need funding and give your organization the opportunity to thrive.