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Charity Sponsorship Mistakes

by | May 15, 2023

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Before you dive in, if you are interested in charity sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for charities” series:

Here on the Sponsorship Collective, I try to be inclusive to my audience, as I recognize that some of you are business owners or work for a business and others of you are part of a charity or nonprofit.

Today’s post is for the latter group. I want to cover the sponsorship mistakes you could make when prospecting, meeting with sponsors, and pitching to them. If you recognize these errors, don’t stress, as I’ll also discuss how to correct them!

1. Assuming That Sponsorship Is Different for You

As a nonprofit or charity, you don’t deal in business transactions like your standard corporation or SMB. Instead, you primarily receive donations or in-kind items. 

Therefore, when you approach a sponsor about working together, you might assume it will go differently for you than for an average company. You’re used to asking partners to give you funds or gifts and receiving them, so why wouldn’t a sponsor comply just the same?

I can tell you why! 

Sponsors aren’t donors. They’re marketers. They don’t hear about your cause and feel compelled to give out of the goodness of their hearts. If they want to donate, that’s in a completely different capacity than a sponsorship arrangement. 

Sponsorship is about delivering assets and activations specifically chosen to solve a sponsor’s problems. In exchange, you receive the funds, in-kind items, or gifts you need. 

However, these funds and/or items are not donations, so you can’t write them off as such at tax time.

What to Do Instead

The next time a sponsorship opportunity comes up, I want you to take a step back and, as you go through each stage, ask yourself one question.

“Am I treating this like philanthropy?”

Sponsorship is not philanthropy. That’s something I’ve begun stressing a lot on the blog lately because it’s an important point to drive home. I especially want to make it clear for the audience reading today’s post.

Listen, you’ve been involved in the charity or nonprofit sector for a long time. It’s only natural for you to walk into a potential sponsorship arrangement wearing the same nonprofit hat you always do.

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It’s going to take a lot of stopping yourself and reminding yourself that this is a marketing arrangement, not a philanthropic one. 

That’s okay! As long as you’re catching yourself before you ask a sponsor for donations without anything prepared in return, you’ll start thinking in a sponsorship mindset sooner than later.

2. Looking for Mission Alignment with Companies

When determining who will sponsor your nonprofit or charity event, what sort of criteria do you use? Do you choose brands based on mission alignment?

If so, then you might have never gotten out of the prospecting stage!

This is a mistake I see my charity/nonprofit clients make a lot. They feel like their mission and the sponsor’s mission must align. 

However, it’s not going to happen. Sponsors are corporations, and they have completely different goals and business objectives than you do as a charity or nonprofit.

There’s no overlap, and if you expect there to be, you’ll spin your wheels, never getting the sponsorship process past a certain point. 

If a sponsor shared your mission goals, they’d be a nonprofit or charity just like you. All they’d have to dole out would be in-kind gifts or donations. Moreso, they’d be your competitors. 

What to Do Instead 

Well, for starters, stop wasting time looking for mission alignment that simply will not be there. 

Second, begin focusing on the right criteria in finding a suitable sponsor, such as a shared audience. 

If you don’t know who your nonprofit or charity audience is, they’re your event attendees, regular donors, board members, and volunteers. You must issue a survey to discover key metrics about them. 

It’s simply not enough to present broad swathes of audience data to a potential sponsor. Your attendees or donors earn a certain amount of money, live in specific neighborhoods, and work identifiable jobs. 

You must go as deep into audience data as possible to produce small sectors. These are the sectors that sponsors want to see more of.

You don’t have traditional customers as a charity or nonprofit, but you have an audience. Therefore, you owe your sponsors the same high level of audience detail as any other sponsorship seeker.

3. Choosing Companies Because They Have a Lot of Money

When you work in nonprofits for long enough, it’s easy to forget day-to-day corporate machinations and assume that every company must be sitting on huge piles of money. Surely, they won’t mind giving you some.

Plus, since companies are so well-off, it’s a lot easier to go through a company and obtain sponsorship than it is to knock on the doors of 20 or 50 people and ask for donations. 

Let’s back up for a moment here and remember that sponsorship is not philanthropy. 

Also, let’s correct another erroneous thought. Companies don’t always have a lot of money.

Businesses shutter their doors all the time. Even the ones that are doing well only have a limited amount of money to dedicate to sponsorship. Once they surpass that budget, that’s it until the next quarter or year.

You can’t assume that every corporation has a pocketful of cash just ready to be issued to the next nonprofit or charity that comes by. 

Prospecting for sponsors based on how much money you think they have is foolishness.

What to Do Instead

So how do you prospect for sponsors the right way? 

It’s not based on name recognition or how deep you assume the sponsor’s pockets are. It’s not down to a perceived shared mission or beliefs either.

Instead, you want to prospect for sponsors using your audience data.

When you survey your attendees or donors, ask them what brands they buy. What do they wear? What do they read? What do they drive and listen to and eat? 

The brands your audience won’t stop talking about shoot straight to the top of your prospects list.

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Don’t stop there! Next, look into the brands your sponsors mentioned using. What kinds of brands advertise to the audiences of those consumers? These brands also go on your list. 

What kinds of brands should advertise to those consumers based on what you know about the brands and your own audience? Add those companies to the list. 

Finally, find the competitors of every brand you’ve listed, and voila, you’ve properly prospected for sponsors. 

Much more so than mission alignment, you’re seeking audience alignment. You have an audience that already likes these brands. You can assume that the rest of your audience that didn’t mention those brands in the survey should like them too.

The sponsor will present its products and/or services (through a cool activation, of course) to an already partially receptive audience. This ensures better results for the sponsor, which makes them happier at the end of your event and readier to work together again.

4. Assuming Sponsorship Is Easy

Since you are far removed from the corporate world as a nonprofit or charity organization, you can gloss over some aspects of sponsorship. Sometimes, it’s just your eagerness to jump to the finish line that does it, or perhaps it’s inexperience.

I’ll be honest with you. Sponsorship is anything but easy. If it was, I wouldn’t advise as many clients as I do on a regular basis, helping them iron out their common mistakes and learn better ways to approach sponsors. 

If sponsorship was easy, everyone who wanted a sponsor would have one, even you. Every event, from the little to the big ones, would have a sponsor attached. 

However, that’s not reality. People struggle every day to find a sponsor. It’s not like applying for a job, and it’s not like selling to a customer. It’s this unique thing. 

Sponsorship does have its steps and processes, just like anything. Once you know those, it becomes easier to find sponsors. Building your sponsorship portfolio and renegotiating deals also makes it easy to land sponsors.

Finding your first sponsor is the hardest part, and finding a second sponsor is the second hardest. Think of it like a snowball. Once you begin pushing enough and the snowball gains momentum, it starts rolling itself.

Sponsorship can be the same way, but it isn’t by default. It can take months and sometimes years to reach that point.

What to Do Instead

I always tell my clients that if you want a sponsor, you must treat sponsorship like a full-time job or darn near close to it.

That’s tough, as many of my clients already have full-time jobs, and I bet you do too. They’re business people, or nonprofit owners, or parents. They have other responsibilities.

I get that, but you’ll have to reprioritize if you want to find a sponsor. Maybe that means working more evenings and weekends, but you must be willing to put in the work if you want to enjoy the results.

5. Sponsorship Proposals Are Full of Mission Talk 

Nonprofit/charity sponsorship seekers and corporate sponsorship seekers might not have a lot in common…until you get to the sponsorship proposal. 

I understand these proposals are not easy to write. Filling paragraph after paragraph and page after page seems so difficult and daunting, especially when you have a blank page staring you in the face.

You might default to mission talk out of force of habit. Many businesses seeking sponsorship also begin talking about their causes or their companies. 

You’re not wrong to mention your mission at least once, but once is all you get.

What to Do Instead

If you have pages and pages dedicated to your mission, you must whittle it down to oh, say one paragraph, two tops.

I know, that seems outrageous, right? That’s so little space, so how can you possibly convey the enormity of what your charity or nonprofit does?

That’s the thing, you can’t. You’re not supposed to. A sponsorship proposal is not about you or your mission. It’s about audience, as are most things related to sponsorship. 

You should dedicate a large portion of your proposal to all that audience data you worked so hard to curate, and a good amount should go toward case studies, but only a small piece is about your cause or mission.

If your sponsor is interested in working together, they’ll have plenty of time to learn all about you through regular meetings, email correspondence, phone calls, and their own independent research. 

The proposal is not do-or-die time. If you don’t include every last piece of information about your mission in this document, it’s not like you won’t have another opportunity to mention it or for the sponsor to ask about it.

6. Using Gold, Silver, and Bronze Tiers

The sponsorship package outlines all the assets and activations you could offer a sponsor, hopefully customized to the prospect’s needs, interests, and wants. 

Some sponsorship seekers jump the gun and begin discussing pricing right away. They’ll categorize their assets and activations into tiers, usually gold, silver, and bronze. The gold tier will contain the best assets, the silver tier will consist of good assets, and the bronze tier has whatever is left.

So what’s the problem with this? Many things!

For one, using gold, silver, and bronze tiers is the mark of an amateur. And no, it doesn’t matter whether you call the tiers something else besides gold, silver, and bronze. It’s the presence of the tiers that’s the issue, not the name.

Sponsors don’t want to work with amateurs, as that could damage their brand. They wish to work with consummate professionals. 

You could be a professional in your line of work, but if you come across as a complete newbie in sponsorship, that overshadows everything else. After all, a sponsor is interested in what you can contribute in the sphere of sponsorship!

The second issue with gold, silver, and bronze tiers is you’re showing your hand. I never recommend including pricing in your proposal. When you do that, you give the sponsor only two options: take it or leave it.

Very often, sponsors leave it! Even if they do take it, you might undervalue your offerings, so you’re missing out on money.

What to Do Instead

Ditch the tiers entirely. Include no pricing components in your sponsorship proposal. 

Instead, ask about the sponsor’s pain points, and choose assets and activations based on that information. Value your assets by comparing market value and raising or lowering your prices accordingly. 

Customize everything, but don’t mention customization in your proposal. Actions speak louder than words here, and when you truly customize your sponsorship offerings, there’s no need to proclaim it.

7. Relying on Logo Placement as the Primary/Only Asset

Again, because you’re coming at sponsorship from a different background than a company seeking it, you might assume that logos are the best asset you can offer a sponsor.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Logo placement is as out-of-date as gold, silver, and bronze tiers.

What to Do Instead

Remember when I talked about custom assets and activations in the last section? That’s what you must offer your sponsors. 

To do that, you first have to sit down for a discovery session. This meeting between you and your prospect is an information-gathering session where you ask questions to learn as much about the sponsor’s challenges as you can. 

When the meeting concludes, ask yourself, “what can I offer that will solve this company’s problem?” More than likely, it’s several things. These are your assets and activations.

8. Skipping the Discovery Session

On that note, the last charity sponsorship mistake is foregoing the discovery session. 

Many sponsorship seekers in the nonprofit and charity sectors might not even realize they missed this step, but it’s a critical one in the sponsorship process. 

The discovery session is your chance to learn about your prospect, including which tactics they’ve tried and why they haven’t worked. 

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Without that information, you can’t create customized assets and activations. You’re just taking a shot in the dark, and it usually doesn’t end well. 

When a sponsor sees assets and activations that have no bearing on their issues, they assume you’re offering this same stock sponsorship package to everyone. Unless it happens to have something they really need, they’ll usually pass on working together. 

What to Do Instead

You must schedule a discovery meeting with all your prospects moving forward. This meeting can take place on Zoom, on the phone, or however is most convenient to both parties. What matters more is that it happens, not how it happens. 

When you first communicate with a sponsor, your goal is to schedule the discovery session. Prepare your questions in advance, and don’t let any sales talk seep into the conversation. 


I know what I discussed today might make it seem like sponsorship is hopeless for charities and nonprofits, but it’s anything but. Since you’re coming from a different background, you must retool some of your processes, but you can find a sponsor. 

Book a call with me today to get started!