How to Get AND Keep Sponsorships

Sponsorships can come in many forms.  But most often, it means that a company gives in-kind or in cash to offset an organization or event.  I’ve been on both sides of these partnership – asking for sponsorships and giving sponsorships.  This post a kind of a how to after being on both sides of a fence.  I started seeking sponsorships when I started producing dog sport events way back in the day.  I got a variety of in-kind sponsorships from canine preventative medication, dog foods, and branded toys.  When I started putting on food events, I started to get cash sponsorships as well as in-kind sponsorships.

Over the last few years, I’ve given quite a bit to many organizations and causes.  I’ve been asked to give my services or time to help execute events, which is conceptually the same as a sponsorship from the perspective of a small business.  I’m sponsoring in giving my time and services.  For some large events, I’ve spent as much as 60 hours for individual causes without pay, and I’ve worked with some brands testing many iterations of recipes out of my pocket.  Sometimes I get recognized as a sponsor, but most of the time, I don’t get anything at all.

Needless to say, my giving pool is currently dry, and I’ve been declining requests for pro-bono consulting or products.  I’ve found that increasingly, people and organizations have presented a self-entitled attitude.  Not only is that attitude a major turn off, it discourages me from ever working with that person or group.  I’m a person.  I do not have endless personal funds to give to non-profits.  I have a family and friends that I would like to see.  I am not obligated to give my time away.  Now don’t get me wrong.  There are many instances in which I am happy to help, and I volunteer my time and my services without being approached.  I do still enjoy helping causes and friends, but I’m much more selective in what I do these days.

Regardless of what kind of sponsorship you’re seeking or planning on giving, the following rules come in handy.

1. Keep your ego in check.  Don’t assume that everyone knows the mission of your organization or cares for that matter.  To be blunt, your organization may seem awesome in your eyes. However, others might not have such rosy feelings about it.   If you’re contacting someone you don’t know, be sure to introduce yourself and your organization.  Don’t make the person hunt on the Google machine for what your organization does.  Don’t also make the person expend time trying to decide if your organization fits their goals and philosophy.  The more time someone has to look up who you are, the higher the likelihood they’ll just chunk your email into spam.

2. Be nice.  I always try to start and end an email with a thanks.  You have no idea what other responsibilities the other person has.  Even responding to your email to say “no,” is still a few extra minutes that other person doesn’t have.  Just to give you an idea, to entertain a sponsorship proposal, I spend at least 15-20 minutes looking over the person’s online presence, relationships that person has, potential impact it has on my business, and thinking about the sponsorship arrangements.  Even if I do decline, that’s 15-20 minutes I’ve invested.  Your time is valuable, and so is mine.  Please respect it.

3. Bring something to the table.  This is a Randy Pausch line.  What do you or your organization bring to the table?  Make sure that you are explicit in what the sponsorship offers the other person.  I field sponsorship requests frequently, and a HUGE lacking in many of the proposals is what do I get out of it?  Many proposals have plenty of “this is what we need,” but rarely is there a strong case for “this what your sponsorship can do for you.”  And “your name will appear on the website” is not a great incentive for me.  I’ve had my name all over the place, and I can’t think of a single time where it got me anything.  I’m sorry, but altruism is out the window when you’re asking for a commitment.

4. Quit using the “we’re a non-profit” line.  This may seem offensive, but I’m tired of hearing that line when I’m being hit up for sponsorships.  There are hundreds of non-profits in Austin.  I could be giving my resources to any of the other non-profits.  Why is your non-profit more important than the others?  If you want my time and services, I need a compelling reason.  Additionally, I already have a list of non-profits that I personally support.  Unless you have a compelling case, that line doesn’t move the needle for me.  Also, just because I support some non-profits, it doesn’t mean I have to support them all.  When I hear that “But you helped *insert name of non-profit here,* you can help us” line, it makes me think that the non-profit is very self-entitled.  You can guarantee that’s going to be a “NO!”

5. Again, be nice to your sponsors.  Sponsors are the ones that fund many events, and it may seem obvious, but be NICE to your sponsors.  If someone asked me for product, services, or cash, and then treated me poorly, I would never work with them again.  I’m a person, and I try to be a nice person.  While I’m not surprised by the poor treatment people give to their sponsors, it is appalling every time.

6. Accept declines gracefully.  Please understand that not all organizations or businesses have the funds and effort to give.  Even if they say “no,” thank them and move on.  There’s nothing worse than a nasty email or phone calls.  Even worse are the threats about public guilt trips.  I’ve heard stories of groups pulling the “if you don’t sponsor us, I’ll tweet bad things about you” line.  That is disgusting behavior, and I’d call them out on it publicly.  Entitlement needs to be smashed with a giant hammer.

7. Even if you are unhappy, approach the problem diplomatically and offer a solution.  I did pro-bono work (upwards of 60 hours) for an organization that had numerous major issues.  One of the biggest ones was how they treated pro-bono providers and volunteers.  Even though this organization was wrought with falling membership over the last five years and loss of brand sponsorships, they had the nerve to yell at me for their own shortcomings.  Their conference attendance had fallen by more than half since 2005.  I won’t name that group, but if you ask me specific questions about the experience, I am completely transparent.  Treating people who give you their services with rudeness is a surefire way to ruin your reputation.  Unfortunately, the members of the organization were an absolute delight.  It was the administration that needed a severe reality check.  This was a particularly emotionally draining experience for me as the lovely members kept asking me why I did not officially join the organization.  I couldn’t bear to say that their administrators were completely jerks running the organization into the ground.

8. Don’t be squirrelly.  I’ve brought cupcakes to events before, and people would literally steal them.  People would walk behind me, grab them, and run off.  A certain person in particular would do it repeatedly at events.  He would make a big effort to NOT make eye contact with me.  Creepy.  If you can’t look me in the eye, you probably shouldn’t be taking my things.  I’d confront him in person, but he keeps running away from me.

9. Think about the demographics.  Does your event or cause fit into the sponsors’ demographics?  If you’re making high end custom decor products for bridal showers, you probably don’t want to sponsor decor for an elementary school graduation.  Those elementary school kids don’t care about your products.  Their parents probably don’t care about the decor, and those elementary school kids aren’t going to be purchasing your products anytime soon.  Make sure your demographics fits the demographics of the sponsors.  No one wants to spend time and effort on non-target audiences.

10. Make sure you truly thank your sponsors.  I’m not talking about just giving them recognition.  I’m talking about thanking them with a hand-written note or a phone call.  When it comes down to it, we’re all people.  We want to feel appreciated and valued.  If you don’t value your sponsors, don’t ask for their resources.  If you can’t thank them, then you don’t deserve them.

11. Give more than you can receive.  This is a personal philosophy of mine.  I try to give to my sponsors more than I can receive.  If that means I give them more media coverage than agree upon, so be it.  I often spend months developing a relationship with a sponsor before I approach them with a sponsorship opportunity.  In many cases, that translates into people looking to sponsor or give to me before I ever approach them.  Relationships are the foundation of all business.  Don’t neglect to give to those before you start receiving.

12. Show gratitude for even the smallest gesture. Today, Sept. 16th, I met a little girl who could teach us all a lesson.  I was shopping, and a little girl (about 7 years old) and her mother were in front of me in the checkout line.  Her mother didn’t have enough money to afford their purchases by eight cents.  I was zoning out until I heard the mother tell the little girl that the had to put their things back.  I don’t even know what they were buying, but I gave the cashier the eight cents.  The little girl and mother were so ecstatic and overwhelmed with joy, that they kept thanking me.  To me, eight cents was just a tiny gesture.  Eight cents to teach a child caring for others is such an inexpensive investment that I didn’t even blink.  But what struck me was the amount of gratitude for such a tiny gesture.  People and organizations should learn a lesson from that little girl.  Showing gratitude for even small acts of kindness goes a long way.  I should start practicing random acts of gratitude.

I could tell you sponsorship and pro-bono horror stories all day long.  I worked over 100 hours raising money for an organizations in the past, and today, they pretend not to know me.  You can probably guess how that makes me feel.  You can probably also guess why I have stopped conversing with them, and I don’t attend their events.  For another group, I invested $400 out of my pocket to keep their club afloat.  When I was a teaching assistant in grad school, $400 was almost half of my monthly stipend.  The response I got was “we didn’t care about you anyways.”  I don’t even pay dues to them anymore, and I’ve been approached numerous times about why I left the group.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to guess how I feel about them now.  I have no sympathy for groups who behave in such rude ways.

I’ve had many sponsorships, and I truly thank them for their support.  If I’ve ever made any of them feel unappreciated, I should be given a swift kick. On the other hand, when organizations and people make me feel unappreciated, they are added to my blacklist of organizations to never support.   I hope that my transparent and unfiltered views helps others when navigating sponsorships.  As someone on both sides of the table, I’m pretty sensitive to the needs of both sides.  I did not sugar coat this blog post.  You might be offended, and that’s okay.  You might realize that your behavior isn’t very nice.

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