While the rebound in spending by automotive and financial services companies has gone a long way in helping to refill sponsorship coffers (see sidebar), most arts and cultural organizations still have a long way to go to fully maximize their sponsorship potential.

The major challenge according to many who work in the sector: Many rightsholders still position themselves as charitable opportunities, not marketing partners. As a result, their packages of tickets, program ads and other standard benefits don’t offer sponsors a legitimate shot at generating quantifiable return on investment.

IEG SR asked leading arts and cultural organizations about their approach to attracting marketing dollars and delivering for sponsors. Below is a summary of their insights.

Create new programming. Some properties are finding success by developing programming that draws new audiences and new sponsors.

That strategy has been embraced by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which has put more focus over the past several years on creating non-traditional programming.

“We maintained most of our sponsors during the economic downturn, but we didn’t bring on anyone new,” said Jennifer Polsi, the symphony’s director of corporate major gifts. “We wanted to do something different that will bring new audiences and sponsors into the fold.”

An example was the December 2010 performance of Play! A Video Game Symphony. The program featured music from Halo, Super Mario Bros. and other video games accompanied by graphics on large screens that highlighted memorable moments from each game.

The programming attracted a partnership with an unlikely supporter: online gambling company PlayNow.com.

Provide access to niche audiences. Some rightsholders have found success by creating platforms that provide access to small but influential audiences.

Carnegie Hall has placed more focus on packages that provide access to targeted donor groups. The nonprofit last year brought on Jaguar Cars North America as the sponsor of an annual dinner and performance for top donors. Jaguar used the tie to promote its redesigned XJ luxury sedan.

“Instead of tying a sponsor to a particular artist, we are aligning them with donor events,” said Dori Fisher, the venue’s director of corporate relations and sponsorship. “They are a targeted, captive group that is passionate about Carnegie Hall.”

Carnegie Hall can segment its donors depending on the audience a sponsor wants to reach, she added, pointing to the organization’s Notables membership group for patrons in their 20s and 30s as an example.

Other properties have found success offering access to specific ethnic groups. For example, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce will sponsor performances by Chinese pianist Lang Lang at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in part to reach out to Asians living in Canada.

The concerts take place in November in Toronto and Vancouver, and May 2012 in Montreal.

Offer starter packages. With many companies still hesitant to sign major deals as the economy recovers, some properties have focused on selling sponsorship to individual performances rather than larger season or series partnerships.

That is a tactic employed by the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas.

For example, it brought in Fiesta Mart, Inc.; Goya Foods, Inc; Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Tecate last year to sponsor a performance by Mariachi Vargas, while Kikkoman Corp. and real estate developer Harwood Int’l sponsored a performance by Kodo Drummers of Japan.

In addition, the venue recruited Guinness beer and Tourism Ireland as sponsors of a concert by Irish group The Chieftains.

The center began selling individual shows after finding reluctance among companies to sign larger deals, said Steven Lange, the venue’s sponsorship manager. “Dropping the investment threshold has allowed us to create relationships that have helped us get to our goal.”

Convert vendors into sponsors. Like their counterparts in pro sports, a growing number of arts organizations are upselling vendors on sponsorship packages.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has tasked its information technology and other internal departments with scouting sponsorship opportunities from product and service suppliers that call on the organization.

Those efforts have paid off: The nonprofit earlier this month announced a partnership with Logicworks, a technology company that now hosts the venue’s Web site on a private cloud.

“Our head of IT is as aware as the next person of the need for funding,” said Polly Rua, the organization’s senior director of corporate relations. “When companies call on him, he is terrific in bringing them to me to talk about a sponsorship opportunity.”

Although most vendor deals for Lincoln Center are in-kind rather than cash, they help reduce necessary expenses, Rua noted. “Money not going out is as good as money coming in.”

Leverage board of directors and donors. Where possible, properties should try to leverage senior executives, trustees, key donors and other marquee stakeholders for sponsorship leads.

Lincoln Center attributes much of its sponsorship success to the willingness of its senior leadership to scout opportunities and make introductions.

“Not all organizations are as fortunate to have a dedicated board and leadership that are willing to get in the trenches to make a connection,” Rua said.

In addition, when targeting B2C and B2B prospects, rightsholders should be armed with research that identifies products and services used by senior leadership and top volunteers.

“We determine what autos they drive, the luxury goods companies they shop, and their relationships in the market,” said Jon Holman, president of The Holman Group, a sponsorship sales agency that represents the J. Paul Getty Museum and other arts organizations.

Approach national and local offices at the same time. When pitching a national company, Holman takes a dual sales approach by simultaneously approaching corporate and local offices.

Citing the auto category as an example, he noted that “the national office needs to work with local dealers to drive sales, and we try to anticipate that conversation. It’s a dual sales effort from top down and bottom up, and somewhere in the middle they meet.”

The strategy avoids the local entity feeling slighted or perceiving that a sponsorship is being imposed on them by corporate, Holman said. “If we don’t reach out to the local person, we have the potential to offend them because they believe the arts organization has gone over their head.”

Provide money-can’t-buy opportunities and support with top-notch service. With increased competition from other arts organizations, as well as sports teams and other entertainment platforms, rightsholders need to offer more than tickets to a show when selling their performance experiences.

Properties can accomplish that objective by offering packages that include receptions, talent meet-and-greets and other memorable occasions.

Rightsholders also should try to raise the servicing bar. Lincoln Center sponsors not only can use the organization’s patron services desk to access hard-to-get tickets for employees, customers and prospects, but also have access to an internal special events team that can help create unique, one-of-a-kind events.

“We are a public institution and anyone can rent space, but if you are not a sponsor you don’t have access to our programming and special events expertise,” Rua said.

Some properties also have carved out new inventory for hosting corporate functions. For example, the Dallas Museum of Art recently reconfigured an on-site restaurant into an all-purpose conference center to accommodate increased demand for corporate event space.

“I have noticed an uptick in corporate requests for client entertaining and employee engagement opportunities,” said E. Jeff Serrano, the museum’s director of corporate relations.

Gain internal and external buy-in with independent valuation. In addition to demonstrating fair market value to potential and current partners, Carnegie Hall uses a third-party valuation of its sponsorship packages to educate employees and other internal stakeholders about the importance of sponsorship and the value of benefits. (Editor’s note: Carnegie Hall’s sponsorship packages were valued by IEG Consulting Group).

“It’s hard for divisions of Carnegie Hall that don’t work on sponsorship every day to understand why the data we are asking for is valuable to sponsors,” Fisher said. “The valuation demonstrates the significance of our program, marketing plan and audience share, and the results help them understand their participation is essential in determining sponsorship levels.”