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How can I find sponsors for an event?

On this page you'll find:
1. Advice from Rebecca Mojica, a former intern with the Nonprofit FAQ.
2. Some notes by Jayne Cravens, an expert on nonprofits, who also wrote for the Nonprofit FAQ (click here to jump down).

How to find, charm, and keep corporate sponsors

by Rebeca Mojica

Corporate sponsors seem to be everywhere in today's world. Take the Olympics, for example. Hard to imagine what the skating rink would look like without those ubiquitous banners touting fast-food restaurants and telephone companies. It's not just the big events that draw sponsors, either. Small, local events—10K runs, award dinners, neighborhood festivals—usually have a slew of corporate logos in the accompanying literature.

Why is corporate sponsorship so prevalent? Quite simply, it makes money. Done correctly, it can make a lot of money and build important relationships. Done poorly, it can cost money and waste many people's time.

I've put together a 9-step guide that offers tips on soliciting, acquiring and retaining corporate sponsors. It is by no means a "definitive" guide, but it is a good starting point. The guide was written with small- to mid-size events in mind, however most of the suggestions offered apply to larger groups as well.

Note: This article will NOT tell you what type of event you should do. That's another subject. There are many things to choose from, from dinners to auctions to golf tournaments to walk-a-thons. Before you proceed with the nine steps, though, make sure you have a good event. You should not be soliciting sponsors until you've planned the event. Once you've figured out what your event is going to be, where it's going to take place, etc., then you're ready to move to Step One...

The Steps

1. Determine who your audience is
2. Set sponsorship levels
3. Make lots of phone calls
4. Send proposal letters
5. Follow up
6. Cultivate your relationships with sponsors
7. Cultivate your relationships with non-sponsors
8. Give your sponsors plenty of publicity
9. Cultivate relationships with sponsors, Part II

1. Determine who your audience is

Sending "blind" proposals usually does not work well. Knowing your audience helps you figure out who to solicit.

Events that are successful in securing sponsors often 1) have a ton of people involved or 2) have a very specific focus. Sponsors like the former because they can reach a large audience in one shot. The latter works well for sponsors who are trying to reach a particular target market. Unless your nonprofit has the resources to handle an event with thousands of attendees, you should explore the "specific focus" route.

When you're planning your event, try to go beyond your organization. For instance, if your agency provides shelter to animals, think about hosting an event in which you can invite local veterinarians, pet store owners, zoo employees, etc. One reason to invite "professionals" is because it is lucrative from the sponsors' point of view. Sponsors may not be interested in your organization, but they may be interested in getting their product into the hands of these professionals. Another advantage to inviting a new pool of people is that more people will know about your organization and possibly volunteer or donate money.

Once you have established your audience, do some brainstorming. Think about which companies and local businesses are likely to be interested in reaching your audience.


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2. Set sponsorship levels

Make sure the benefits at each level are distinct and enticing enough to encourage previous sponsors to move up a level.

It's a good idea to have a wide range of levels so that smaller businesses as well as larger companies can find a level that suits their needs and budget. If your event is quite small, your entry-level sponsors might simply receive a small ad in an accompanying program or flyer for $50. For larger events, sponsor levels might begin at $200, $500 or even $1,000. Depending on audience size and publicity opportunities, cost of a "title" sponsorship could range from $750 to $10,000. Title sponsors receive maximum publicity, and their logo should appear in ALL publicity material.

You should base your sponsor levels on the benefits to the company. Put a price on each benefit you'll offer and add the prices in each level. This will give you an idea as to the cost of a sponsorship at each level.

Know in advance that you may have to be flexible and customize levels for some sponsors to meet their marketing needs. Some sponsors might be interested in a half cash, half in-kind (product donation) sponsorship. Food and beverage companies often would like to see their logo on T-shirts, hear their company name announced, etc. They may want to have a table or booth available to distribute their products.

Depending on your event, these are a few benefits you might want to consider offering (but proceed with caution to address the possibility that the revenue might be subject to Unrelated Business Income Tax — UBIT):

  • sponsor banner displayed at event;
  • sponsor name announced at event;
  • dinner table supported by sponsor (i.e., each person at the table receives a promotional item and literature from the sponsor and the sponsor's logo is displayed at the table);
  • small sponsor banner or logo displayed on podium;
  • sponsor name or logo in organization's newsletter;
  • sponsor name or logo in advertisements in newspapers and magazines;
  • sponsor ad in program or flyer (ad size can range from business-card size to full page);
  • sponsor logo on organization's website (can include a hotlink to their site);
  • sponsor logo on T-shirt; and
  • category exclusivity (a guarantee to sponsors that once they sign on, none of their competitors will be allowed to sponsor).


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3. Make lots of phone calls

The most time-consuming—but ultimately money-saving—step: Get on the phone and pitch your event as a great marketing opportunity.

Call local business to find out if they're interested in reaching your market. When you begin your conversation, focus on how the company will benefit: "This is Such And Such from My Organization. I thought you might be interested in marketing your company's products/services at an upcoming event we're hosting...do you have a few seconds?" Come up with a pitch that in 20 seconds OR LESS explains the event, audience and some benefits to the company. If they are interested, you can always go into more detail or send more information.

Your calls will vary with the type and size of company you contact. You'll probably speak directly to owners at small local businesses. Medium-size companies may have marketing departments or human resource departments that take care of sponsorships. Large companies receive countless requests for sponsorship, and they may have a sponsorship recording that gives you their guidelines for requests. These companies usually put together their budgets once a year, often October, so you may have to send your proposal months ahead of time. Be sure to pay attention to corporate areas of focus: Some companies make commitments to only sponsor certain groups such as children or environmental organizations.

For potential sponsor ideas, talk to your board, staff and volunteers. Investigate their ideas and connections. Try contacting advertising and public relations agencies to see if they think any of their clients might be interested in your event. See if any events similar to yours-or events with similar audiences-already exist, and review their sponsor lists.

Once you've made all these calls, review your notes and prepare a list of companies you will solicit. Yes, this takes a lot of time, but it can save your organization money. Instead of blindly sending out proposals to hundreds of businesses, ignoring their guidelines and focus areas, you can send dozens of proposals to companies who have already expressed interest in your event.


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4. Send proposal letters

It's important that sponsors feel you are asking money specifically from their company, and they're not just part of a massive group.

Keep your letters short. As in your phone calls, concentrate on the exposure the company will receive for their money, not on how the money will help you. With large corporations, it's especially true that their marketing budgets are usually much larger than their charitable donations budget. You may come across a few companies that aren't as interested in the publicity; they want to sponsor your event because they truly believe in your organization's mission. They're a very rare—but much appreciated—bunch.

Whenever possible, customize the letter. A good attention-getter is attaching a post-it that says, "Thanks for speaking with me. Here's the information on our event." With the size and type of company in mind, request a particular level from each potential sponsor. Tell them the anticipated impressions such a sponsorship will yield. Impressions are calculated by finding the total number of times a sponsor's name will be seen or heard. For instance, say your event is expected to draw 100 people. Your entrant-level sponsors might receive: space to display a banner (100 impressions), their name announced twice (200 impressions), and their name in your organization's newsletter (350 impressions) and annual report (475 impressions), for a total of 1,125 impressions.

Make sure sponsor benefits are easily found in your letter and they're easy to understand. Consider using bullet points to make the benefits stand out. Make sure your letters include your name, address and phone number, the date and location of the event and the address(es) to send checks and in-kind donations. If you have 501(c)(3) status, be sure to say so, as some companies will only sponsor those agencies. If your letter doesn't include a short description (two paragraphs, or a few bullet points), on what your organization does, then include a one-page fact sheet or a tri-fold brochure on your organization. Hand sign each letter.

Finally, include a chart or brochure that details sponsor benefits at each level. If this is the second time your organization is hosting the event, include a flyer that lists the sponsors and describes the audience from the previous time.


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5. Follow up

Don't be afraid to call potential sponsors to find out their thoughts on sponsorship.

After receiving your letter, some companies will call you to say they're interested in sponsoring. Most will not. It's up to you to follow up with them about two to three weeks after sending your proposal. Some people hesitate to follow up, thinking it will bother the company. Generally most large companies do not accept follow-up calls, so note that when you're making your initial call. But for those that do not mention "no follow-up," it is perfectly OK to do so. In fact, it's the best way to find out that an interested company did not receive your letter.

Some interested companies may request face-to-face meetings, but most sponsor communication will be done via phone, fax and e-mail. One possible way to begin your follow-up call: "This is Such And Such from My Organization. I just wanted to follow up on the sponsorship request I sent. Do you have a few seconds?" If they don't, ask when would be a better time to call back. Then be sure to call back at the requested time. If they say yes, your response might be: "Do you have any questions? Does it look like something you might be interested in for this year?" If they aren't interested, find out why not. Keep good notes so you remember next year not to re-call people who said they definitely would not be interested. If they say yes, congratulations! You're on your way to building a strong list of sponsors.


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6. Cultivate your relationships with sponsors

Don't drop your sponsors once they've agreed to send you money.

One of the worst messages to send to a sponsor is: "I just cared about getting your money. Now that I've got it, I'm going to disappear." Make sure sponsors see that you value their support. Once a company has agreed to sponsor, send them a thank-you letter that recaps the benefits at the level they've chosen. After you receive their check, send another thank-you. If your organization has a newsletter, begin sending it to them. If you don't have a newsletter, send them periodical updates on your organization and/or the event. Any time you think a sponsor has a concern about something, give them a call. If a sponsor calls you, make it a point to return their call as soon as possible, and absolutely within 24 hours. If you'll be out of the office for a few days, make sure your voice message directs sponsors to a live person.


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7. Cultivate your relationships with non-sponsors

Perhaps people who weren't able to sponsor may be interested in attending your event.

As your event draws near, send invitations to some of the companies that did not sponsor. You might want to say something like, "Even though you weren't able to sponsor us this year, we hope you'll consider attending or volunteering during the event." Sometimes, an employee from the company will attend, see what a great event it is, and make sure money is budgeted next year for sponsorship.


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8. Give your sponsors plenty of publicity

Publicity is why your sponsors signed on...so make sure they get it!

This sounds obvious, but make sure your sponsors receive everything promised. If you can give them added publicity, by way of name announcement, etc., do so. You don't want to put all the work into acquiring sponsors and then not deliver results.


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9. Cultivate relationships with sponsors, Part II

Don't drop your sponsors after the event.

Send thank-you letters to sponsors after the event. Let them know how successful the event was, how much money was raised, the final attendance count, etc. For sponsors at high levels (or, if your event was very small, for all sponsors), put together packets that showcase their publicity. Include copies of all the ads they appeared in, photos of their banners at the event, photos of people using their products at the event, etc. If some sponsors had any concerns at any point, give them a call to see how they think things worked out. Even after the final tasks of the event have been taken care of, and that last thank-you has been sent, keep in touch with your sponsors! Continue sending them your newsletter or updates on your group. Send them your annual report. Invite them to other events at your organization. Send them quick notes if you see their company given a positive mention in the newspaper. You don't want to only contact them once sponsorship solicitation starts up again. On the other hand, don't go overboard. For example, some sponsors prefer not to receive holiday cards from nonprofits, because they feel as though their money isn't being spent in the best way. It can be a fine line, so use your judgement. The bottom line is recognizing that each sponsor has unique needs and concerns. Do what you can to accommodate your sponsors while striving to make your event a successful continuation of your organization's mission.

When the event is over, debrief (with yourself, if you did this alone; with your team if you had help). Make notes on what went well, and what didn't. Think about refining your presentations and your event planning to build on what went well and avoid the bad bits.

Then, of course, do it all again for the next event.


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Additional advice on finding sponsors

By Jayne Cravens (8/25/03):

I feel like a lot of people are looking for The Magic Database of Grants and Corporate Sponsorships... and it doesn't exist.

Finding funding and sponsorships is about building relationships and presenting opportunities.

I start with asking my volunteers (including board members) what companies they work for, and if they would be comfortable approaching the company, with our organization's support, about corporate sponsorships (going and knocking on the HR director or Marketing director's door, for instance, sitting down face-to-face, telling the person about his or her volunteering experience at the organization, asking if volunteer opportunities could be communicated to other employees, and asking if the company has a corporate giving program, etc.)

I also suggest walking around the block, then walking around a two block radius, and so forth, and writing down the names and addresses of every for-profit business nearby. Then prepare a flyer or letter that specifically introduces those neighborhood companies to your organization. Invite them to visit your web site, invite them to volunteer, and talk about the difference your organization makes. Once you have established relationships with these companies, then think about how best to approach them for sponsorships/donations. You may get a response, "Oh, our corporate office in (insert different city and state) handles all donations." Fine — when you write that corporate office, mention the local affiliated in your neighborhood.

As for what I look for in a corporate partner to fund a project, I look for companies that:

  • demonstrate a genuine interest in a cause or the community (they show up for community events or cause-related events, for instance; or they respond to an email or phone call inviting the company to volunteer or learn more about the organization; or they seek out a nonprofit for advice about volunteering)
  • understand "partnership", and who won't try to "own" a project or event (as in, the company would not say, "you have to use our company's software at your company if we give you this financial donation)
  • have some kind of connection to the project or organization or community I'm a part of (for instance, if the company is a large employer, it means their children go to local schools, and that means they are should probably be interested in programs benefitting local school systems; or, if the company produces communications equipment, they might be interested in being affiliated with a program that stresses meaningful communications, which can be anything from a theater to a library to a telecenter)

And when I go for the "big ask", I make sure I know exactly what it is that I am asking for. I want to be able to say, clearly and with assuredness, why I think the organization or project is worth supporting, and all of the various ways the company could support it (from simply mentioning it to their staff to in-kind-donations to financial donations and everything in between).

I also go with the attitude of "I have an opportunity for you to make a difference" rather than "please, we need money."

I should add that I'm basing this all on previous experience — I don't fund raise in my current position.

Jayne Cravens writes and speaks frequently about success for nonprofits. More of her writing and other resources are on her website.