In a tutorial delivered at IEG’s Making Sensory conference, Jane Hopgood, vice president, sponsorship projects for Arts & Communications, a Toronto-based agency, offered a series of helpful tips for nonprofit properties on how to approach and pitch prospective partners.

Below are excerpts from her discussion.

When looking to engage corporate prospects, the first consideration for a nonprofit organization is sourcing the right pot of money. It is important to determine if your opportunity is ripe for a marketing-driven partnership, as opposed to a purely philanthropic one, and whether there is the opportunity to leverage both of those budgets at the company.

Because marketing budgets are typically larger than philanthropic budgets, nonprofits should explore all avenues for offering a marketing-driven opportunity. Tactics that we have used to do that successfully include:

Securing media partners. This adds marketing value to your opportunities, whether broadcast media, print or online.

Creating hospitality experiences. Particularly experiences money can’t buy.

When I was with The National Ballet of Canada, we would organize special evenings where corporate partners could invite their senior people and key clients to watch the performance from the wings, followed by a private dinner on stage with the artistic director and the principle dancers of the company.

It is important for nonprofits to identify similar opportunities that only your organization can offer because of who you are and what you have access to.

Allowing a corporation to borrow from the organization’s pedigree. This can be for case studies, business-to-business marketing, client acquisition, etc.

Arts & Communications was able to secure a six-figure cash-and-in-kind commitment from Cisco Systems for Sherbourne Health Centre, an innovative healthcare facility in downtown Toronto that focuses on three distinct groups: the new Canadian population; the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities, and the homeless and under-housed.

Cisco saw the opportunity to use the relationship as a showcase of their technology because Sherbourne is doing really innovative things with electronic medical records. So in addition to a donation, Cisco added funding from their marketing budget to the mix, and Sherbourne benefits from the exposure it receives through Cisco’s marketing machine.

Cold Calls: Who To Pitch?
If there isn’t an existing relationship or contact person at a prospective partner, I always start with the vice president of marketing.

I find VPs of marketing have a bird’s-eye view of the organization’s marketing initiatives, its brand and where it is heading.

What if the vice president of marketing is unresponsive to the cold call? In that case, I call the president’s office. Most likely, I won’t get the president on the phone, but I will get an assistant.

I will tell the assistant that I have tried to contact the vice president of marketing but have not heard back, so I wanted to find out if I was reaching out to the right person and thought that the president’s office could point me in the right direction. In my experience, the president’s assistant most often will direct me to an appropriate person–often it is the VP of marketing–and then I can say to that person, “the president’s office told me to call you,” and 100 percent of the time that phone call is returned.

I find that it’s more likely to get somebody live on the phone if I call early or late in the day as opposed to between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when meetings are happening. However, if you are calling during those periods most people use as their quiet time to get their work done–and particularly if you are calling after hours–it’s important to acknowledge that you know they may be wrapping up their day, but that you were hoping they might have just a few minutes to talk.

I also alternate between calls and emails if a contact appears likely to be more responsive to one form of communication over the other.

Ad agencies also can be great advocates on your behalf if they believe in what you are doing. Through research, find out who they are and copy them on your communications with the client.

Most of the time the company will talk to their agency about the potential partnership anyway, so including them in the loop from the beginning is helpful.

Two caveats to that: I always make a phone call first to try to determine if the agency is likely to get behind the deal and if I get the feeling they won’t, then I won’t include them in the process. Also, don’t rely solely on an ad agency to take your proposal to a client and move it forward.

Getting Noticed And Getting A Meeting
Your first contact with a new prospect will typically allow only for your elevator pitch–a very succinct, quick verbal blurb or email teaser–that sums up the high points of the opportunity.

This is an email teaser that I sent to Home Depot concerning a project called Art Stage, a large-scale public art initiative along the 401 highway in Ontario, a stretch where there are no billboards (see box).

This was a completely cold introduction to Home Depot and it worked in securing a meeting, and the contact ended up buying the sponsorship.

The key to those initial communications and the subsequent meetings is to find a hook based on what you know about the company and how that can relate to the property. You want to be prepared for that meeting with an understanding of what’s happening in their industry, what their objectives are, who their competitors are and what they are doing, how the company is structured, what its corporate culture is, etc.

As for the meeting, even though you are going to go into it prepared with all of that research, and having an outline of a proposal in mind and activation ideas to suggest, you still want to spend 75 percent of the time listening and just 25 percent of the time talking.

You still want to start that meeting by asking questions about what they are looking for, what has worked in the past year and what hasn’t.

Sometimes what you will hear means that what is in your back pocket is not what they need. In that case, rather than waste their time, I will tell them that what I have is not going to hit their sweet spot, but knowing what that spot is, I hope that I will have something for them at another time.

By demonstrating that you respect what their needs are, you are able to keep them in your prospect pool and start to build a relationship with them

Stalled Dialogue: What To Do Next
Even when you are able to get a little traction with a company, everyone has experienced cases when discussions slow down or stall and your calls stop being returned. We have a few tactics that have helped us get things back on track.

One is to use a high profile board member or a celebrity or other prominent personality associated with your organization to help move things along.

We employed this idea on behalf of the Toronto Int’l Art Fair. We were in discussions with Pioneer Electronics, which was considering sponsoring the fair to promote high-end flat screen TVs to the upscale audience that attends.

Pioneer was very familiar with sports sponsorships, having a number of sports ties across Canada, but they weren’t as comfortable with an arts sponsorship. We had suggested that they showcase video art on flat screens placed in strategic spots on the fair floor, but they were concerned about their presence being accepted and deemed credible by the target audience.

Because they were uncomfortable, they started to chill out on the idea and stopped calling us back. Our response was to engage David Liss, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, who is somewhat of an art celebrity in Canada and a specialist in video art.

We got David, the Pioneer folks and our key staff on a conference call and we talked about activation ideas, the medium of video art, possible artists that would work really well with the screens and their size, and other issues. The conversation made Pioneer’s people much more comfortable with the project and the idea of moving ahead with it, and they subsequently bought the sponsorship and have renewed it for this year.

The use of influential people also can be used to secure initial meetings with prospects if your other cold-calling efforts aren’t paying off. We represent a charity called Silken’s Active Kids, which was founded by a Canadian icon, Olympic rowing medalist Silken Laumann to fight childhood obesity by ensuring kids have the opportunity for unrestricted play.

In certain situations, we have asked Silken to make calls to prospects and in some cases, she will suggest that she be part of a meeting to discuss a potential sponsorship. The opportunity to meet her, see her medals and be photographed with her has gotten us into the offices of very senior people at companies and has resulted in some big dollars for the organization.

Another tactic is to use a deadline to move the process along. This can be really successful, but I caution you that it is only effective when you know that they are close to a decision and that it may be something organizational on their end that is holding things up rather than a fundamental concern over the deal.