What I Wish I Knew at the Beginning of My Sponsorship Career
One of my personal heroes is Ira Glass, the longtime radio producer and NPR reporter. He’s turned the radio show into a modern art form, built for the podcast age before podcasts were even a thing.
One of my favourite quotes about creativity comes from Glass. It’s a bit long, but I promise, it’s worth the read:
“For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you… Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have… And if you’re just starting out, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work… You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
What I like about this quote is not just the hope it offers to those struggling with their work, but how universally it can be applied. Sure, Glass was speaking to creatives when he said it, but substitute a few words and the advice can be applied to nearly any professional craft.
Sponsorship and corporate giving included.
No matter your craft, there’s always this “gap” that we go through at the beginning of our careers where we know the work we produce isn’t quite what we want it to be. And the only way through that is to keep grinding, every week, without fail.
It’s always wise to take the advice of someone who’s been there before venturing on a journey of your own—here’s what a few seasoned sponsorship professionals had to say about their early careers.
Don’t Take It Personally
Joel Feldman handles corporate partnerships and major gifts for the Red Cross of Seattle. But before starting his sponsorship career, he handled sales and marketing for a direct mail marketing company.
That got him used to hearing “no” a whole lot.
“That really helped me as I went into fundraising and philanthropy,” he recalls. “I already came out a little less shy than some of my fundraising colleagues. The best thing I ever did was get a thick skin from working in sales.”
When it comes down to it, sponsorship and corporate giving is a sales job, and any sales job brings with it a lot of rejection. But as Feldman advanced in his career, he learned a valuable lesson—rejection at work is not a personal rejection of you.
“Never take anything personally,” he advises. “A lot of times, it’s somebody bigger than you (or the person you’re asking) making the final decision. If they say no to you, it’s often because they have a connection to another cause—or your timing is just bad.”
Laura Amerman, Director of Development at Breakthrough New York, also knows what it’s like on both sides of the sponsorship table. She too started her career in the corporate world, handling marketing, advertising, and corporate communications for a private business.
She started the nonprofit part of her career 12 years ago, and there’s one thing she knows now that she wish she knew then:
“Companies don’t really like going to your gala,” she says with a laugh. “Oftentimes, when sponsorships involve seats at a gala, companies view it as work—forcing them to find people willing to go.”
This again, is not a personal knock on you, your organization, or even the gala—who among us doesn’t feel like they already have too many commitments? Amerman says when this happens, companies will send less senior workers, who aren’t likely to have the giving capacity or decision-making capability you seek. “And at $175 a plate, that’s not really the value proposition you’re looking for,” she says. Instead, Amerman advises corporate giving professionals to engage new contacts in more meaningful ways first, like volunteering opportunities.
It’s All About Relationships
Just because you’re dealing with a corporation doesn’t mean you should abandon all the relationship building skills you use in other forms of fundraising.
“Like any other relationship in life, corporate giving is a relationship,” says Heather McGinness, Vice President for Advancement at Concordia College–New York. “You need to get to know what people care about and find common ground.”
While it’s vital to keep in mind the goals of the business when approaching potential sponsors, you can’t forget that on the other end of that proposal is a human being. Building rapport with contacts will increase the likelihood of proposals being accepted, and give you valuable insight about what the company values and needs out of the sponsorship—allowing you to tailor your approach to maximize outcomes for everyone.
“Do your homework,” says McGinness. “Find out what other types of causes the company has sponsored before talking to them, find out what they care about and see where you align on goals.”
Kirk Laughlin, Director of Advancement at Academy for Precision Learning in Seattle, echoes that sentiment.
“One thing that I’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily about getting the most requests out, which I was prone to do early on in my career,” the 23-year development veteran says. “It’s a great benefit to develop a personal relationship with your company contact as much as possible, even to the same extent you would with major donors.”
Laughlin also takes that personal, precision approach to his board contacts as well. Rather than simply make a blanket “Who do you know?” ask to his board members, he recommends doing the research on your own to find potential connections, then asking directly about those relationships.
“This is something I found out on my own after doing a blanket ‘Who do you know?’ type of ask to my board,” says Laughlin. “It was only later that I specifically asked a board member about a connection she had at a growing restaurant chain, and she exclaimed ‘Oh that’s right, I do know them!’ It just didn’t come to mind before.”
Additionally, this avoids the frustrating scenario of board members rattling off the names of local companies, without any insight on connections or strategy. “I’m already aware that Microsoft and Coca-Cola are companies! It’s easy to grow a cold prospect list with huge names, but it’s always more insightful to ask directly.”
Get Out, Get It Done
When it comes to to it, there’s no replacement for experience. If you want to excel at sponsorships and corporate giving, you’ve got to get out of the office, make some asks, take a few rejections, and score a few wins.
Ten years from now, you’ll be ready to pass along your own advice to the sponsorship rookies.
Andrew Littlefield is a freelance writer who has written hundreds of articles, guides, and more for the nonprofit community. You can check out more of his work at onefortheswipefile.com