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Selling Sponsorship is Different from Fundraising! (And Why That is Total Bunk.)

By Diane Knoepke Apr 15, 2010

I had always thought of fundraising and selling sponsorship as dramatically different disciplines. Even when my title included the word “Development” at one point in my career, and even when I ran a small annual giving campaign for an association, I never considered myself a fundraiser. Instead, I “sold corporate sponsorship and marketing relationships,” and I “marketed a [pin] campaign.” I never “asked;” I “sold.” It wasn’t a judgment on either profession; I just put myself in one bucket and stayed there. And I had a lot of company in seeing the nonprofit world as a bucketed, black-and-white place when it comes to corporate relationships.

Hang on to your gingham frock, Dorothy, it’s time we all switch from black and white to Technicolor. 

My experience at the Association of Fundraising Professionals International Conference made real my hunch about our merged and converged world. Corporate sponsorship and corporate philanthropy are very different, yes, in one important black-and-white way: value exchange. What the company is paying to accomplish, and what and how they pay to accomplish that goal, is very different in sponsorship and corporate philanthropy.

Yet the disciplines must not be confused for the professionals that make them happen. Fundraisers and sponsorship sellers need very similar— if not the same — skills to survive and thrive in our colorful and confusing marketplace. This is good news, since we know that many nonprofit organizations have these as overlapping functions. IEG’s research shows what the overwhelming number of audience members in my colleague Stacey Goldberg’s session indicated: many nonprofit professionals have responsibility for both corporate donations and corporate sponsorship.

A list of those fundamental shared roles (and corresponding skills) follows, with my thanks to the many AFP 2010 presenters who did the heavy lifting to describe them.

  1. Steward. Sponsorship sellers don’t generally do a great job on stewardship. Doesn’t matter what you call it—in sponsorship vernacular we typically call it “account management” or “servicing”—the activity is as important as anything else when building any sort of corporate alliance. Take care of your partners, acknowledge them, thank them, get curious about them. As Sherry Schiller, Ph.D., reminded her session attendees, “Interested ALWAYS trumps interesting. Use curiosity as a bridge to positive emotions.” To paraphrase, it’s all about them.
    Our consulting team conducts hundreds of sponsor interviews each year and the #1 complaint remains the same: “The organization doesn’t get what I’m trying to accomplish. And I don’t know how they would get it, since nobody ever asked.”
  1. Storyteller. This week, keynoters Lee Woodruff and Archbishop Desmond Tutu demonstrated the power a fantastic storyteller can wield. (Case in point: they got me to buy their books even though my bags were already too heavy.) While storytelling is important in securing donors and corporate sponsors, the area where the storyteller role is most crucial in corporate alliances is in talking to the stakeholders reached by that corporate alliance. It’s not manipulation; it’s illumination.

    Here’s an illustration. Transactional cause marketing campaigns are licensing deals, but “donation” has a very different connotation than “royalty.” And that comes down to the story behind it. With a royalty arrangement there is no story; it’s just a business transaction. But with a donation, the money can go somewhere, do good, mean something. No matter what the partnership looks like, don’t let the story get untold or mis-told; take responsibility for getting the real, authentic, best story out there.
  1. Auditor. Grantseeking organizations must properly reconcile each grant, or they get a bad reputation and lose funding. Sponsorship-seeking organizations must report on value delivered, expectations met, and plans for the future, or they get a bad reputation and lose partners.

    The Steward and the Auditor are yin and yang; emotional and rational, creative and measured. Don’t forget one while exercising the other.
  1. Standard Bearer. Compensation structures notwithstanding, fundraisers and sponsorship sellers again have the underlying responsibility to bring in funds and relationships that can advance the organization, its mission and its stakeholder relationships. Just as every fundraiser knows she should not accept a grant that will damage the organization, every sponsorship seller must be in the position to say no to a bad deal. As Phil McCarty said in his session, “it’s worth it to say no at times rather than accept an inauthentic partner and live through that misery.” Know thy partner, know thy audience, know thyself.

    Put every deal through a litmus test: If this corporate alliance went away, would anyone care? Or would they be happy about it? Would there be a negative or positive impact? Use that information to craft the relationship and bring up the Storyteller to communicate it.
  1. Tailor.  AFP Chair Robbe A. Healey, MBA, NHA, ACFRE, put it best when she implored all AFP attendees to “see each individual tree in the forest,” and forget about having a generic “forest-based” strategy as each donor and sponsor needs to feel that the solution is customized to them and them alone.

The following links are an assemblage of past blog posts from me and my colleagues that discuss topics related to the AFP Conference experience—from campaigns run by speakers to topics of great relevance to nonprofit stewards, storytellers, auditors, standard bearers and tailors.

This Little Partnership Went to Market. . .and Became a Really Big Deal

CSR And Sponsorships Should Be Source Of Innovation

IEG 2010: Key Takeaways for Nonprofit Partnerships

Three Ways to Devalue Your Corporate Sponsorships via Third-Party Fundraising Events

Geeked About Best Buy, Children’s of Minnesota

Is There A Cause Marketer Willing To Not Play It Safe?

ReMIND Campaign is a Sign of Tweets to Come



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Diane Knoepke

About the Author

Diane is managing director, client leadership for IEG Consulting, where she supports the team’s growth and innovation. Throughout her career, she has advised more than 50 property and brand clients on marketing and social value creation, sales, measurement and strategy. She delights in helping people change organizations more effectively. Follow Diane on Twitter!



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