Although a growing number of associations and professional membership organizations are generating sponsorship revenue in the six to seven figures, many organizations continue to see flat or declining sales.  

The primary reason: An unwillingness to move beyond off-the-shelf sponsorship packages that center on signage and other basic benefits.

That reluctance has kept a lid on overall spending in the association category. Sponsorship spending on associations and membership organizations is expected to total $548 million in 2012, up 3 percent from $532 million 2011. The projection lags the projected increase for sports (4.6%), entertainment (4%) and causes (3.1%) and barely exceeds the arts (2.6%) and festivals and fairs (2.4%).

Associations that have moved beyond signage and other passive benefits in favor of marketing-driven programs have seen success gaining the interest of new sponsors and taking existing partnerships to the next level.

And those deals can be sizeable. Case in point: The National Electrical Contractors Assn. this year secured a two-year partnership worth more than $200,000 with Thomas & Betts Corp., a manufacturer of transmission towers and other products for the electrical construction industry.

All told, NECA will generate more than $2 million from seven corporate partners over the next three years, up from roughly $1 million over the previous three-year term.

Below, IEG SR shares tips and tactics on how NECA and other associations are taking sponsorship to the next level.

Repackage à la carte inventory. Sponsorship success starts with repackaging piecemeal inventory (conferences, ads in publications, online exposure, etc.) into integrated packages that offer year-round benefits.  

Properties can then sell the packages to a select group of partners, each of which gains more touchpoints in an uncluttered environment.

Case in point: The Int’l Society of Automation in 2010 moved from roughly 25 sponsors with deals ranging from $200 to $13,000 to 13 companies with $25,000 to $150,000 packages following the rollout of a new sponsorship program.

The association has more than doubled total sponsorship revenue from $215,000 to $456,000.

“We saw a dramatic increase in not just revenue, but in the quality of the relationships,” said Jennifer Infantino, ISA’s manager of marketing communications and corporate partnerships.  


Now and Then: The Evolution of Association Sponsorships
Days of the Past Partnerships of Today
Focus on association need/gratitude Focus on corporate business objectives
Transactional, a la carte relationships Delivery of organization-wide solutions
Off-the-shelf (gold, silver, bronze opportunities) Customized, flexible approach based on partner needs
Price based on need Price based on value of marketing rights and benefits
Partner is responsible for activation Association is responsible for helping partners resonate with their audience
Many contacts for many opportunities Dedicated team with one point person
Measurement: sponsor is accountable Measurement: meaningful, pre-determined metrics delivered by nonprofit

Other properties have also seen success from repacking individual assets into integrated programs. The Assn. of National Advertisers in 2010 generated a 50 percent increase in revenue after repackaging exposure at conferences and other  inventory into a handful of high-level sponsorship packages.


The packages offer year-round access and exposure to ANA members through conferences, newsletters and exclusive networking opportunities.

Sell access, not signage. When packaging and selling sponsorship, associations should play up one of the most desired benefits: access.

“It’s not about selling signage and casual exposure, it’s about facilitating relationships,” said Mel Poole, president of SponsorLogic, a consultancy that works with NECA, the Construction Financial Management Assn. and other associations.

“No one can track a sale back to a sign. The value of sponsorship comes from relationships.”

Offer custom packages. Many associations have found success by moving away from gold, silver and bronze packages in favor of tailored packages.

That was the case with the Emergency Nurses Assn., which several years ago replaced predefined packages with tailored inventory.

“There was not a lot of room to select options. It was either ‘buy the package or not.” Our partners wanted the option to buy packages that fit their needs,” said Pierre Desey, ENA’s chief development officer.

Provide tangible value to members. To ensure success, sponsorship programs need to offer tangible value back to members.

That is a key driver behind NECA’s program. The program downplays direct sales opportunities in favor of platforms that sponsors can use to demonstrate their support of the electrical construction industry.

“Our program is designed not to have partners sell our members. It’s designed to help our members do better business,” said Daniel Walter, NECA vice president and chief operating officer.

For example, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. activates its partnership by soliciting product feedback from NECA members, while Westex, Inc. sponsors a member safety forum, around which it offers advice on the use of its products.

“It’s not about the latest products they have, but how they service the industry.”

Establish pricing benchmarks. Like other types of properties, associations can speed up the sales process by having packages valued by a third-party firm.

Some sellers have found success using pricing benchmarks. For example, SponsorLogic hired IEG Research to analyze the fees paid for partnerships at other associations and membership organizations when selling the NECA program. 

“The first thing an association needs is an objective idea of their assets and their value. There is no substitute for that,” said Poole.

Adjust program to sales environment. Associations need to monitor programs and make adjustments where needed.

For example, NECA dropped lower-level packages from its sponsorship program after receiving limited interest from sponsors.

“One of the things we learned is that companies of a certain size are not interested in having second-tier positioning. They weren’t going to buy into anything other than that top level,” said Walter.

Help service existing partners. Associations should make sure they commit the time and resources to properly service and manage relationships.

For example, the American Quarter Horse Assn. this year has taken a deeper dive on measuring sponsor exposure in social media. That includes tracking sponsor messaging associated with archived content.

“We know something hits when we put it out in the social media world, but what is the long-term exposure? Some people find that information months later. We’re taking a deeper dive into the shelf life of social media,” said Leman Wall, AQHA’s director of corporate and affiliate partnerships.

The Int’l Society of Automation uses an online dashboard to keep sponsors up-to-date on their partnerships. The password-protected site includes information on contract terms, deliverables and action items.

Help measure success. Like every other type of property, associations should take a proactive role in helping partners measure return on investment.  

“Associations have to steadily and robustly help sponsors measure as much as possible,” said Poole. “At the end of the year you need to say ‘You shook this many hands, got this many business cards, entered this number of people into a database and converted that to X-amount of business.’”

The Int’l Society of Automation demonstrates those efforts in a bound fulfillment report. The association designed the document as a coffee table book to appeal to C-level executives. 

“It’s not a huge binder with pages and pages of print outs, but rather a concise write up that shows gross impressions, click rates and other metrics that allow them to see where their investment went,” said Infantino.