A New Way of Thinking About Sponsorship Partners

professionals shaking hands across a meeting table May 15, 2017 By: Emily Bratcher

As membership dues decline as portion of association revenue, some organizations are relying on sponsorships to meet their bottom lines. Here's a case for thinking about those partnerships in a whole new way.

Some associations are finding that even their tried-and-true partners aren't interested in participating in association sponsorship programs anymore.

"There used to be a sort of set-aside [of sponsorship funds] to support associations within our field," says Zachary Sikes, president of Expansion, LLC. "That's what I think has gone away. There's not an automatic given that [companies] are always going to give to the associations in the field."

Why? More often than not, it's because corporate partners can't see the value in what associations are offering them. "It's been years since the economy changed, but companies are really looking at the ROI, and they're really forced to justify what their expenses are," says Bruce Rosenthal, principal of Bruce Rosenthal Consulting.

This means that association leaders need to rethink what they're putting on the table for their partners—truly considering their sponsors' ROI, as well as their own. But it can't all be about money.

The role of the sponsor has to have a direct impact, other than just financial, to help the association in achieving its mission.—Zachary Sikes, Expansion, LLC

Sikes and Rosenthal recommend that associations think of corporate partners like members. For instance, the association should commit to the success of its corporate partners—and should serve them to that end. On the other hand, corporate partners should commit to the association's mission like a member.

This sort of relationship starts at the top. "If the [association] CEO is only interested in the program's health because [he or she] needs more money . . . that is not a setup for a successful program," Sikes says. "That is a transactional view of how a business relationship works, and businesses now sniff that out."

So, what are businesses interested in? Companies don't want a laundry list of sponsorship benefits, Rosenthal says. Instead, approach companies the way your competitors do, asking questions like:

  • Tell me what you're trying to achieve?
  • What are your business objectives this year?
  • What does success look like for you?

Based on those answers, you can start to give good suggestions on how the association can help the company meet its goals. An association might be surprised to find that, for instance, a sponsor doesn't want its name or logo advertised on signs or collateral for the annual meeting. It may prefer an opportunity to share expertise on a panel discussion or in a focus group.

Before contacting a business about a potential sponsorship, an association should ask itself some honest questions. "The role of the sponsor has to have a direct impact, other than just financial, to help the association in achieving its mission," Sikes says. Ask:

  • As a mission-driven association, is this the right partnership for us to seek?
  • Can we accomplish our work through this partnership, or are we selling out?
  • Are we forcing our organization to make a difficult choice between money and mission?

"That's a very productive discussion and the start of a very productive approach of how an association builds a sophisticated program that's attached to the mission and builds value," Sikes says.

But even a mission-focused sponsorship program will fall short if the association doesn't have something more fundamental to offer. "The most important thing an association can have is a really great product—a great association," Rosenthal says.

Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a contributing editor at Associations Now.