Sponsors Want to Give you Money!

While it might not actually seem to be the case, companies do actually still want to sponsor organisations – they’re just a lot more choosy about how they do it and they really want to see the benefits pay off for them.  But that doesn’t mean you have to sell your soul to the devil while you bend over backwards to please the ever increasing demands of sponsors for ever diminishing pots of cash.  A bit of creativity and negotiating can still mean that successful sponsorships and corporate collaborations are possible.

The arts and sponsorship have gone hand in hand for decades and, although in the current climate, sponsorship has taken a bit of a bashing there are still some fantastic examples of sponsorships that have worked well for both sponsor and beneficiary.  No one is trying to pretend, however, that things haven’t become a lot tougher and even larger organisations are feeling the squeeze.  Barclays and Tesco both recently announced that they are stopping two major sponsorships that they’ve had for years: the Scottish Open and Cancer Research UK Race for Life.  They are citing a change of their brand needs but as budgets are squeezed companies need to get more ‘bang for their buck’ so will be looking to be increasingly innovative or cutting edge.

At the moment, I’m working for a small rural annual festival which takes place in a beautiful country estate (fortunately about half a mile from my front door).  This got me thinking particularly about the challenges faced by smaller, less well resourced organisations and how they could work to overcome them in this competitive market.  This particular festival has successfully raised sponsorship from year one.  It started out in 2009 as a pilot which really helped them to test the water with local audiences and with sponsors – so companies who supported the pilot were almost given a ‘try before you buy’ type experience or at least a ‘try for less than a full festival sponsorship’ experience.  All of those sponsors from the pilot have continued to support the festival in years two and three.  Being new and untested was a challenge but, by asking sponsors to come in at a lower level in year one and proving themselves, the organisation turned this challenge into a positive.  Regardless of whether you are in an urban or rural location or whether your organisation is large or small, now more than ever there needs to be a creative approach to sponsorship.  So how can you increase your creativity and attract sponsorship in an increasingly competitive market?

1. What does the sponsor need?  When researching potential sponsors, rather than starting from a ‘what can we offer’ position, turn this on its head and ask ‘what problem could we help a company solve?’  It may be a simple one – their target audience is your target audience and you’re providing an added value to their relationship with that audience.  Could you put them in front of an audience that might help their recruitment needs?  For example, perhaps you are based near a university or college and there are companies based locally that want to recruit part-time or seasonal staff in large numbers.  Or maybe you have a young audience and they need creative young graduates.

2. Think about what makes you so different.  Differences in art forms aren’t always the primary concern of a sponsor.  What is more likely to concern them is how they can get added value from their sponsorship.  Think about what you do and how your audience, marketing, image is different from others working in your area – and then, most importantly, think about why that difference will be of interest to the company your approaching and how it can help them to solve their problem.

3. Think locally.  While it’s tempting to go to the big players to get the big bucks (and I’m not suggesting that you completely rule them out) if you’re a small or regional organisation, your time may be better spent trying to catch a local fish who will better understand you; who may already know your work; and who may recruit from within your audience/area.  You also have a greater number of opportunities to build strong relationships with sponsors and potential sponsors who are based locally by inviting them to events and creating a greater understanding of who you are and what you do.  You’re also less likely to be competing with high profile national events than if you approach a bigger company.

4. Be creative and flexible.  It’s easy to think ‘corporate hospitality, tickets, logos, dinners etc.’ but, particularly as corporate hospitality budgets are being squeezed, it may actually hinder your sponsorship if the main benefits you’re offering are in an area that they don’t have budget to deliver.  What else can you offer that will help to solve their problem?

In a previous job, I signed a cashmere firm as headline sponsor for an exhibition from the Forbidden City in Beijing – the link that initially interested them being the fact that they sourced their raw materials from China.  Working together we brainstormed ideas and both company and charity were as flexible and creative as possible.  This resulted in a sponsorship ‘benefit’ in the form of a spin-off exhibition in which designers they worked with, including Scott Henshall and Matthew Williamson, designed one off pieces of cashmere inspired by the main exhibition.  The exhibition opening was launched by Jodie Kidd modelling Scott Henshall’s piece dripping in a few million quids worth of diamonds.  We received phenomenal press coverage, which mentioned the sponsor, and the sponsorship won an Arts & Business Award.  The point being that, while it’s tempting to go in to a sponsorship meeting with levels and benefits drawn up (and you should have a framework in mind) it’s far better to treat it as a two-way conversation if you want it to be as successful as possible.

5. Build relationships and network.  Make sure that you build relationships with your sponsors throughout your organisation.  Key relationships shouldn’t rest with one member of staff or the freelancer that you’ve engaged to help you raise sponsorship for your programme.  It’s vital that, in order to make the most of opportunities as and when they arise and to ensure that relationships are maintained a number of people hold relationships with your key sponsors.  The fundraising department are the brokers of the deal who facilitate the sponsor relationship but other individuals in your organisation should also have a relationship with sponsors.

Good networking, taking a creative approach and brainstorming ideas can help organisations to focus their fundraising and target potential sponsors effectively.  Last week, the news from the markets was again, pretty bleak with another crash like that of 2008 so the squeeze on corporate budgets – and philanthropic giving in general – isn’t likely to end soon.  Only time will tell how it will affect the sponsorship landscape in the long term but organisations need to make sure they’re in as strong a position as possible to compete in this tough market.


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