Sponsorship Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I’m not much of a country music fan, but I love me some Johnny Cash.

Perhaps more than any other musician, Cash’s lyrics are just stuffed with life lessons. Usually of the hard-learned variety.

You can even learn a thing or two about sponsorship from them.

Take the classic “A Boy Named Sue.” If you’ve never heard it, it’s a musical story about a young man whose absentee father named him Sue. Sue ends up getting bullied and teased for his name, so he vows to find the man who named him that.

When he finds him, they have a heart-to-heart (well, after they brawl a bit) and his father tells him this:

“Son, this world is rough

And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough

And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along

So I give ya that name and I said goodbye

I knew you’d have to get tough or die

And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”

Just like Sue in Cash’s song, some lessons you’ve just got to learn the hard way. A challenging circumstance, an embarrassing mistake, or a slip-up.

Who among us hasn’t had one of those moments across their career? Big or small, mistakes teach us lessons that we remember for years.

I asked a few brave sponsorship professionals to share their mistakes that taught them valuable lessons.

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“You DO actually have to train people…”

Jonathan Goldman took a non-traditional path to his current career in non-profit sponsorship. Moving from the corporate world to fundraising in his 40s, Goldman took an internship with a brand-name performing arts organization to help sharpen his skills and boost his resume.

“That lasted 8 months, it was great for my resume and it led to a job offer at a small off-Broadway theater,” recalls Goldman, “The people who hired me at the theater, even though my resume said I was an intern at my last position, hired me with very little training.”

He was thrown right into the fire at this new position, with a massive gala coming up in a matter of days.

“They were expanding the size and budget of the organization by three times, so this gala was a big part of that. The person who used to oversee corporate relations (now the Director of Development) said ‘All these sponsors have agreed to donate to the silent auction. If you could put the packages together, we’ll move forward and get this done.’”

Goldman worked all week preparing the material. Then, on Friday afternoon, just before everything needed to be sent off to the printers, he was approached by the Director of Development.

“She said ‘Have all the sponsors signed off on the artwork you prepared?’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ And she said ‘All those sponsors need to see the artwork before it goes off to the printer.’ I had no clue, and I think at that moment she almost had a nervous breakdown.”

Jonathan and his team sprung into action, staying late Friday night to get everything sorted out. In the end, they only got a request for one minor change.

“It was like that nightmare everyone has of showing up for your exam without studying,” recalls Goldman, “It was tough for me, because I was older and already made this huge mistake in my first week on the job. They realized after that I needed a bit more training and couldn’t do everything on my own.”

“It was heart attack inducing in the moment, but luckily it all worked out.”

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“Be Patient…”

Securing media sponsors for a brand new event presents unique challenges. You want to emphasize how successful the event will be, but you have no prior track record to prove it. No pictures, no media hits. Just your plan for the future.

That’s the challenge Alan Diamond, Publicity Manager for DKMS, found himself in a few years ago.

“I started an annual event a few years ago and I had a difficult time securing a media sponsor for it as the event did not have images or press hits for me to include in the solicitation,” says Diamond, “In turn, (the sponsors) were not able to gauge how successful it had been in the past – as this simply didn’t exist.”

Alan compiled a wishlist of media outlet sponsors, and reached out to 15 of them. Due to the difficulty he had already experienced courting a sponsor for a brand new event, he took the first one that responded to him.

That was his mistake.

“A few weeks later the outlet that fit (our audience) the most responded back to me but it was too late to switch things.”

Despite this frustrating situation, Alan moved forward with his original sponsor. They were still a close fit, and it was a good win for their first year at this event.

“They weren’t the perfect fit and had I been more patient, it would have been easier down the road to target the audience that fit better. The event, or brand as it has become, would have been better suited with the other media sponsor that took its time in deciding if we were a good fit for them – and we were,” he said.

Diamond took that lesson to heart for the next iteration of this event.

“I went back to them the next year and secured them as a media sponsor.”

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“Do Your Research…”

Some research is easy, like knowing who your prospect’s competitors are. That’s a lesson one sponsorship pro (who asked to remain anonymous) learned through experience.

“I was overseeing sponsorship for a community-based festival, and Pepsi was our sponsor. My CEO and I went to lunch with our Pepsi contacts to discuss renewal, and she ordered a Diet Coke! It was a little uncomfortable to say the least. I’ve even heard stories of non-profits pitching UPS and sending their proposal via FedEx!”

While slip-ups like that can provide a good laugh, other times, lack of research can really throw a wrench into your proposal’s gears.

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to first, do your research. Even when you think you’ve done a lot, do more.”

Our incognito sponsorship expert relayed a story of a time she pitched a well-known brand who did most of their work online.

“We had had several conversations and I had pulled together what I thought was a great proposal. I thought I was hitting all of their hot buttons, but during one section of the proposal, as I was discussing how we could co-promote the partnership via social media, I was informed that they don’t actually include any non-profit partners in their social media strategy.”

Prior to the meeting, she had done research on some of their past partnerships with other philanthropic organizations, but the lack of social media promotion for these partnerships managed to slip by her.

“Thank goodness it wasn’t the key to my proposal, but I felt pretty foolish.”

Mistakes Are Only Mistakes When You Don’t Learn From Them

It’s tough admitting when you dropped the ball, but who among us has a perfect record? As long as you take the lessons learned from your mistakes and apply them moving forward, you’re better for making them.

Even Johnny Cash learned a thing or two from his dear old dad in that song:

“And I think about him, now and then

Every time I try and every time I win

And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him..

Bill or George! Any-damn-thing but Sue!”

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Andrew Littlefield is a freelance writer who has written hundreds of articles, guides, and more for the non-profit community. You can check out more of his work at onefortheswipefile.com