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: 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.