Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits: Closing the Deal

Before my sales people head out to close a potential sale I always give them the same piece of advice: Don't screw it up. But it's hard not to, and I still do it myself sometimes. Closing a sponsorship deal isn't easy, especially these days when companies are scrutinizing everything and watching every penny.

Here are three tips to make sure that you earn the title of salesperson, instead of that of glorified customer service rep who can talk all day but can never close a deal!

Don't give them an excuse to say no. I hear about this all the time from companies. The nonprofits that call on them are inflexible, selfish and unrealistic. This is how not to be one of them.

  • Build all your sponsorship packages a la carte. Don't walk in with one sponsorship option that they can only say yea or nay to. Follow my lead and build all our sponsorships from the ground-up, swapping things in and out based on the prospect's needs, interests and budget.
  • Offer to lend a hand whenever possible. Companies are busier than ever. And while a sponsorship with you is undoubtedly a great opportunity, their success does not depend on it. That's why you should offer to be as helpful as possible. For example, when sponsors of Halloween Town had difficulty staffing their areas on both days, we offered to mobilize our volunteers on their behalf.

The best things in life are free. I use to think that it was only nonprofits that liked everything free. But for-profits love free too. Who wouldn't take a free sponsorship? But to make it free you have to employ this little thing I call the cause marketing twist. It works like this. Say that you want a sponsorship at an event like Halloween Town, but you're short on cash. If you're a retailer you could raise the funds needed for the sponsorship by doing a pinup program in your stores. The money you raise underwrites your sponsorship.

Think about the potential this has if your nonprofit hosts an annual cause walk. Instead of soliciting businesses for support from their checkbooks-- where there is little allotted to cause sponsorships anyway--they instead ask their customers to support your cause with a small donation.

The business wins because they get their sponsorship. The cause wins because they raise more money than they would have ever gotten from a company check. And the consumer wins because the charity and business work together to reward the customer for supporting the endeavor (see the $175 coupons we offered for a $1 donation for our Halloween Town pinup).

Increase touch points. Whenever we're working with businesses on a sponsorship, we're always looking for ways to make it less transactional and more meaningful. For example, a big part of my team's work is selling sponsorships for our annual Gala and golf tournament to hospital vendors. Now, these asks are naturally transactional because we're soliciting support from businesses that have a vested interest in supporting us. Regardless, we still try to multiply the touch points so each business knows just how important their gift is to supporting the hospital's mission.

The result has been that some of these vendors make company AND personal gifts, and some even continued giving after their business relationship with the hospital had ended.

For companies that are not vendors we try to get them to tour the hospital, speak with one of our docs or trustees, or least visit our blog or fan page, so they can see firsthand the work we do and make the sponsorship feel less like a deal and more like a commitment.

This might sound like common sense to you, but we've trained ourselves to sell the benefits of sponsorship so much we sometimes forget our mission! It might be just the opposite for you.  Regardless, we all can't forget that a deal is not sealed with a one-finger shake. It takes all our fingers, a thumb and a palm before anyone will say "We have a deal."

Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits: Convincing Thinkers, Feelers & Deferrers


I've written four other posts to get you to this point: you're sitting across from a decision maker and you finally have a shot of actually selling a sponsorship. Of course, you may not be talking to just one person. You may be pitching to a whole group. If so, you should check out an earlier post I wrote: Analyze, Organize, Energize: Keys to a Powerful Presentation. Rather than focusing on analyzing your listener(s), or how best to organize your key points, or dealing with the butterflies that invariably come with public speaking, this post looks at the means of persuasion and what actually gets people to yes.

Since I started selling sponsorships I've concluded that decision makers can be lumped into one of three categories: thinkers, feelers and deferrers. No decision maker is ever just one. It's never that simple. Everyone is a combination of all three to some degree, but one dominates and that's where you need to focus your pitch.

Thinkers. Facts and figures are the mainstays of thinkers. These are the folks that pour over my sponsorship packets, look at the graphs, ask me how we collected our data and are most interested in the bottom-line return on their investment. A lot of marketing directors are thinkers, which isn't surprising. They constantly have to show their bosses how a campaign has achieved this goal or driven these sales or met its ROI. The biggest question you need to answer for them, although they may never tell you this directly, is "does this sponsorship make sense for my business?"

To demonstrate how you might mix and match appeals for feelers and deferrers with thinkers you can present the facts and figures they love with creativity and passion. Another strategy is to use evidence from sources the prospect knows and respect. For example, pick a well known and respected business that invests in cause sponsorships and use them as a case study.

Feelers. Emotions drive the decisions of feelers. Going back to the sponsorship packet, they don't fixate on the graphs and charts and numbers. They look at the pictures from the event, listen to the anecdotes I tell them as they insert themselves into the narrative of the opportunity. It's not about the sponsorship making sense, it's about it feeling right for their business. Do they emotionally connect with you as a person? Is your cause right for their business?

Because most nonprofit professionals are well versed in emotional appeals, we tend to do well with this type of decision maker. But there are hazards. We tend to overdo the emotional appeals and desensitize the prospect. Instead of saving them for the knock-out punch, we flail our arms until the prospect surrenders--or leaves the ring. Your uppercut may be your signature punch, but you won't last long if that's all you've got. Mix it up with appeals that speak to the heart and the head and you'll increase your chances for a knock-out.

Deferrers. Of the three types of decision makers, deferrers fascinate me the most because they are men and women of deference and faith. When the sponsorship packet is opened in front of them they don't look at the pictures like a feeler or pour over the stats like a thinker. Nope, they linger over the page where all the sponsors are listed. They make their decisions based on what others have already decided, even if they don't know them! If ABC company is involved, they want to be involved. If you can get Mr. Smith to tell them it's a good idea to buy a sponsorship, well, that can seal the deal. They're not patsies, mind you, but credibility and reputation mean a lot a to them--certainly more than it does to thinkers and feelers.

But here's the rub when it comes to deferrers. Sometimes the person they're deferring to is YOU. Deferrers want to work with people they admire, respect and trust. And it's not enough that you as a nonprofit professional bring good tidings from others. You must be that man or woman. Just as they are trustworthy, you must be trustworthy. Just as they are competent, you must be competent. And just as they are professional, articulate and polished, you must be those things too.

You are a surrogate for the great men and women deferrers to for their decisions. The king's messenger just doesn't carry his seal, he too is finely dressed and well spoken. Be the king's man.

In the next part of series on Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits we'll look at ways to close the deal.

Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits: Reaching Out to Prospects

suit_executive_head_237912_lNow that you have some strategies for finding qualified prospects, let's look at making some progress at getting some extended face time with new prospects that are neither current sponsors nor aware of your organization. Yep, I'm talking about prospects in that outer ring and making cold calls. Regardless of the channel of communication (e.g. phone, email, in person at say a networking event), the following rules apply:

Your #1 goal is to stay prospect-centric. Always be prepared to adjust your messaging with prospects to meet their needs, interests and goals. You may have just spoken to three prospects this morning that were happy to talk solely about event sponsorship, but can you make the shift when the next prospect wants to talk about your nonprofit's mission? Not all sponsors commit because of the marketing benefits. You have to adjust your pitch accordingly if you plan to keep their interest and preserve their potential as a prospect for sponsorship.

Stand out from your competition. Let's face it: most business people have pretty low expectations of nonprofit types. They expect you to ask for money, and to bring little else to the table except your empty, cupped hands . But if that's all you hear from every fundraiser that passes through your office day in and day out, that gets old. Be different. Ask them about their business. Start by offering them something. Enlighten them on how supporting a cause can deliver a competitive edge and boost employee morale, among other things. Show them you know a little about their industry and competitors. You know what the average fundraiser does (that person may even be you!), step out from that mold and you'll get the attention you want and deserve.

Don't give them an excuse to say no. This is my pet peeve. Mailing prospects reams of information. Not calling people back when they ask you to. Designing sponsorship packages with little creativity and even less flexibility. These are all excuses (no, good reasons) for prospects to say no. You never want to get to a point with a prospect that she gives you a flat-out "no." Psychologically it's a big threshold for a decision maker to cross and when they do, well, they generally mean it (Think of mom: "No means no!"). So why would you want to do something stupid that will hasten a a negative, perhaps fatal response? Think about it.

Persuasion is incremental. Dude, these things take time. It's not going to happen with one call, or one email, or one meeting. You need to plan for sponsorship success and how each interaction will bring you a closer to your goal. So if the objective of that first call isn't to close the sale, what is it? It's a question you should know the answer to before you pick up the phone. Then get busy with steps 2 through 22.

With all the uses of technology these days, the phone is still probably the first thing you pick up to contact prospects. Here are some of the most common questions I get about working the phones.

Should I leave a message? Depends on who on my team you talk to. @holtmurray very rarely leaves a message. He'll call and call until someone picks up. He thinks leaving a message just gives a prospect a reason not to pick up their phone the next time they see your number. I, on the other hand, like to leave a message. A quick one that includes info about why I'm calling and a couple benefits to him or her. I think a message softens up the prospect so when you do get them on the phone it's not a total "cold call." They know why you're calling and, if you've left a good message, may be neutral or mildly inclined to your proposal.

How should I deal with gatekeepers? Make them your friends. They are valuable allies in getting to the prospect. It can be a long, hard slog to success without them. Another tip: they want something too. Sometimes it's something that will save them from the boredom of their jobs. Other times it's talking to someone who has similar challenges in their life (juggling work and kids, a long commute, difficult roommates, etc.). Yet another is for someone from all the organizations they work with to remember them--and not just the boss--around the holidays! Sending over a half-zip sweatshirt with our logo on it to a prospect's assistant has gone a long way in securing a new friend and ally. As Malcolm X said, "By any means necessary!"

When should I stop calling? If they are bonafide prospects, never. This goes back to never giving a prospect a reason to say no. As long as you never drive the prospect to the point that they tell you to get lost, you should be able to call from time to time to pitch them on new programs, to follow up on emails, to invite them to events, etc. We just recruited a prospect that we had been calling for five years! Qualifying them as a real prospect and being persistent paid off!

The phone is the most popular way to reach prospects. But email is another great communication tool and  I have some suggestions for using that as well:

Keep it short. There's nothing worse than a long email. Keep it to a 150 words or less. Think about it: how did you feel the last time you opened an email and had to scroll down to finish reading it? Did you want to get another email from that person?

Bullet everything. Attach nothing. To make it easier to scan your email for key info, bullet, bold, underline the things you want your prospect to read and remember. Also, everything you want your prospect to see should be in the email itself, rather than risking putting anything vital in an attachment. That doesn't mean you can't use attachments, just make sure what's in them is not vital to the goal of your email (FYI: I attach things all the time, but it's additional, not important, information).

Use email to accelerate and entrap. Like you, I use email to get information to people quickly. For our annual dinner gala that I'm selling sponsorships for right now, I threw away the sponsorship letters years ago and rely on emails and the phone to recruit sponsors. In addition to accelerating the process, email also entraps when prospective sponsors tell me on the phone they haven't received the info. "Really? Well, I'm sending it to you right now. Is it in your inbox so you can open it and I can walk you through the sponsorship?" Yep, I love email. It's like an electronic speed trap for prospects. And like we use to say when we were teens, "You can beat the cop car, but you can't beat their radio!"

The next stop in our sponsorship series will look at how to craft winning presentation for prospects. Faceless phone calls and emails are history. It's show time.

Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits: Prospecting Circles, Part II

magnifying_glassPart two of Prospecting Circles will focus on three areas: where to search for prospects, using social media for prospecting and better results with prospect management software. Top ways Joanna, Holt and Ashley find prospects. Let's go back to the circle strategy I discussed in part one. Just as some prospects are better than others, some prospecting strategies are better than others and should be used first. This is according to my three sales people on the team: Joanna, Holt and Ashley.

In the bullseye, not surprisingly, is prospecting among current sponsors and donors. The latter has proven especially useful to me lately as we just landed a company we've been chasing for four years--but only after I found out one of our key donors lived next to the company's president. It was amazing how much progress we made after she interceded on our behalf. It was so much easier to deal with the president, instead of with his gatekeepers at corporate.

In the second circle, Joanna, Holt and Ashley include vendors and past business relationships. The former is not applicable to every nonprofit, but if you work for a large institution business partners can be powerful (although sometimes conflicting) assets for sponsorship. It's a minefield, but one worth crossing in our opinion.

In the last outer circle the gang put business journals, competing fundraising events, networking events, Google and the advertisers they see and hear on radio, TV and print.

Prospecting using social media. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin are increasingly useful tools for some members of the team.

Blogging at has given me a cause marketing platform to share with prospects. I can educate them about past programs, discuss trends in the industry and present myself as a credible thought leader on cause marketing. In short, blogging has been a great way to start, to continue and to steer cause marketing conversations with prospects.

After blogging comes microblogging using Twitter. Warning: I'm a Twitterholic so you can't really take my word for it's usefulness. You'll need to try it out for yourself. And while there aren't a lot of CEO's twittering their days away on Twitter, there are a lot of marketing, branding and PR people to connect with (and, yes, the ranks of CEO's and other senior execs twittering is growing!). I've nurtured some good relationships on Twitter and it's been a good networking tool.

I'm not as active on Facebook and Linkedin as I am on my blog and Twitter, although this has improved since both platforms came to Tweetdeck where I can manage everything in one place. What I really like is how everything can be updated at once! It makes being on multiple social media sites a lot easier.

Meet your new sales assistant: prospect management software. You probably feel like you "tolerate" your prospect management software more than you use it. You certainly don't feel like it's working for you and that it's there to help you raise more money. This may be a function of the crappy software you use, or, maybe, with the crappy way you're using it. But recognize this: your prospect management software can help you sell more sponsorships and raise more money for your organizations. Period. The sooner you view your prospect management software as the valuable, money-making sidekick it is, the sooner you'll be embracing a valuable member of the team.

Here's your new employee orientation.

  • Whatever you use, develop a system. We currently use Raiser's Edge, but I developed my system in Outlook. Current sponsors are designated a "Prospect +". Companies that aren't sponsors are "Prospects". Hospital business partners that are sponsors are "Vendor A". Partners that are good candidates for sponsorship are "Vendor B". Former vendors that are neither are archived under "Vendor C".
  • Record everything. Any communication with or intelligence regarding prospects is recorded. Left a voicemail? log it in. Saw a recent story online on a company's new product line. Paste the link into a note. Little bits of info may mean nothing, but a string information viewed together may reveal a useful direction or may point you to a more fruitful prospect.
  • Let the software do the work. Leave reminders, calendar updates, to-dos and institutional memory to the software--backed up, of course! But the software can only do these things if you enable the system to do this work for you in the first place!
  • Track your team's progress. Raiser's Edge has a dashboard that track's the progress of each of my sales people, chronicles their activities, tells me how they're progressing toward goal, both in activity and revenue. Your software should allow you to track your team's progress in some meaningful way.

The next post in our series on Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits moves from finding prospects to pitching them.

Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits: Prospecting Circles, Part I

bullseyePart two in our series on Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits is identifying prospects for sponsorship. This section will have you going in circles! But I promise you won't feel like a hamster!

Going in circles is actually a good thing when you see them as rings in a target.

From a prospecting perspective, my target bullseye has always been my current sponsors. These are my closest supporters and excellent prospects for additional sponsorships. But that's not all. They provide important outreach to new prospects and sponsors.

For example, when I started at my hospital, I had three companies in my bullseye: iParty, Ocean State Job Lots--two longstanding hospital supporters and sponsors--and the  numerous businesses we collectively called "business partners" that sold products and services to my hospital.

When I started the cause marketing/sponsorship program five years ago I began with these relationships. And whenever I created another sponsorship opportunity through the years, I visited this group first. Sometimes I sold them another sponsorship, but more often I got their help to bridge the gap to a new sponsor. This worked, and thanks to their help and example we brought, among others, Staples, Papa Gino's and Citizens Bank into the fold.

I would have been happy to spend all my time prospecting within my bullseye (Being somewhat lazy I subscribe to a modified KISES principle I learned from essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Only in our Simple, Easy and Spontaneous actions are we strong.") but I ran out of easy targets within my bullseye and had to move to the second outer ring to companies that knew of the hospital but weren't current sponsors.

These companies are the ones that know you exist, and are probably even supportive of your organization in some way, but they are not current sponsors.

For example, the Boston Bruins and their foundation knew of my hospital and its great work, but it wasn't until last year that they finally sponsored an event. But their familiarity with the hospital always made them a good prospect for sponsorship and a regular second stop if iParty and Ocean State Job Lots took a pass. It just took time to get them to yes. [Note: just because a sponsor doesn't say yes right away doesn't mean they're not interested or shouldn't be pursued. A good prospect is a good prospect, forever.]

Another was Zipcar, a Boston-based car sharing company that is a hospital partner (being a large urban hospital with 5,500 employees, a million visitors and a tight parking situation, we need transportation options!). Zipcar knew the hospital well, and finally became a sponsor of Halloween Town.

The last and outermost ring is where I spend most of my time prospecting for sponsorships. These are companies that don't know the hospital and aren't current sponsors. Most of my sponsors over the past five years have fallen within this circle: Shaw's Supermarkets, Finagle Bakery & CafeBorders Books, Bugaboo Creek, Valvoline Instant Oil Change, Tedeschi Food Shops and the list goes on and on. My team recruited them the old-fashioned way: cold calling. But that doesn't mean the sponsors in my two inner circles didn't play a role. They did. They provided me with the contacts and/or credibility I needed to make a compelling case to a company that had probably never heard of me or my organization.

More than circles or rings, prospecting for sponsorships creates ripples of opportunity. At the center are your core supporters and sponsors from which you draw funding, strength and leads. They in turn create opportunities and leverage at the second ring with companies that are supportive but not sponsors. The disruption there creates even more activity and success at the outer ring, which ultimately feeds the center and starts the process anew.

I could continue, but there's too much juicy material for me to share! Part two of my series will have to have a part two.

In the second part of Prospecting Circles, we'll look at some of the places to find and cultivate great prospects, including using social media. Be sure to tune in next week.

New Series (kind of): Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits

johnhancockNote: While cause marketing can seem out of reach for many nonprofits, selling sponsorships for events and programs is a necessity for almost every size organization. That's why I'm reposting my Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits series from last year with expanded and updated content. When it comes to selling sponsorships, here's how I think I can help.

AP course in sponsorship sales. This isn't Sponsorships 101 where I define terms like "in-kind" and presenting textbook case studies. With over 15 years of experience of selling sponsorships for nonprofits, this will be an advanced placement course in identifying, selling and closing sponsorships. Don't worry, I'll go easy on you. I've never taken an AP course in my life!

Delivering a pitch that sticks. I'm fortunate that I've always been fascinated with two things that I'm also really good at: presenting and selling. I gave up teaching public speaking and working on a doctorate in rhetorical criticism and theory at Penn State so I could put all the great things I had taught and learned to work in the real world. I've developed my public speaking and sales skills a lot since I left the classroom, and am eager to share with you what really works with prospects.

The cause marketing twist. A real shocker, huh? Since 2004, I've been director of cause marketing for a Boston hospital and have developed initiatives that have taken traditional sponsorships to new levels. This has made sponsorships easier to close and renew, more lucrative and better event drivers. Whenever I deliver Selling Local Sponsorships for Nonprofits, my section on the cause marketing twist is always the most popular and generates the most questions.

But before we get started on these three tracts, I want to briefly mention just how "local" my career selling local sponsorships has been and just how sponsor-centric my current work is.


In this map of Massachusetts the red line is Route 128, a major state highway. About 90% of the sponsorships I've sold over the past 15 years have been within that red line. That's local sponsorship sales!

In addition to being very local, my current position is incredibly sponsor-centric. And with good reason. At the safety-net hospital where I work 50% of the people we care for make less than $20,000 year, which means that unlike most hospitals we have no affluent patient "alumni" to target for fundraising. Consequently, the recipe I've followed for fundraising has been a pound of self-interest and a teaspoon of idealism that suits the taste buds of company sponsors.

Last year my team sold well over 200 corporate sponsorships for athletic events, golf outings, dinners and attractions.

In the next post we'll look at some of the advanced strategies for selling sponsorships, and how every effort really must begin by Working Inside Out.