From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
Understanding Your Needs
Sponsorship is a somewhat hit-or-miss process. Although your community does good and valid work, what you are essentially doing here is asking someone for some free money. It doesn’t matter that the person you are asking may be a large company. Large companies still need to account for the purposes of their expenditures, and particularly when the economy is facing difficult times, justification has never been more important.
Fortunately, I have a surefire way of improving your chances at getting sponsored. This is a theory that has been designed, refined, tested, and further refined to present a cookie-cutter concept that can be applied perfectly to your community— a cookie cutter built from reason, experience, and perfected mathematical ingenuity:
The less money you ask for, the more likely you are to get it.
Pretty stunning stuff, eh?
OK, back to the point. Consider yourself in the position of Chief Checkbook Holder for a large organization. If a community comes up and asks for $500 and another community asks for $5,000, which are you more likely to scrutinize? From which are you more likely to demand your money’s worth in associated advertising and favors? Which are you more likely to say no to?
Although this theory can be applied in a general sense to most volunteer community events, if you are organizing a large conference event (particularly if the audience is composed of professionals), asking for more money can legitimize the event. Although true, you should tread carefully with this approach: get it wrong and you may get nothing.
If you are considering asking for a significant sum of money, I recommend you speak to someone with event organization experience first and get that person’s take before you push the Send button on your proposal to the sponsor.
As such, you need to perform an exercise in cost cutting. You should first produce a big list of everything that is going to cost money, either in rental or purchase costs. This list should be accurate and complete. Everything from pens to the venue to expensive computing equipment should be on that list.
Your next step is to go through the list and turn it into a trimming exercise. The goal here is not to remove things that you actually need, but instead to find ways to source those things without paying for them. I know I shouldn’t need to say this, but people...stealing is not an option. If I get a letter from my attorney telling me that a community project leader is in prison for stealing 20 rack-mount servers and is pinning it on "the British dude who wrote The Art of Community," I am not going to be particularly happy.
What I am instead suggesting is that you try to source those things by borrowing, sharing, making, or otherwise gathering. Follow the general theme of the book here: think outside the box. Inspire yourself to get as much of what you need as you can without merely going and paying for it.
When we started organizing LugRadio Live in England, we did a lot of this. We borrowed projectors from some friends, and the screens from others. We got donations of paper and pens from an office worker with plenty of spare supplies; we produced the name badges, posters, and programs ourselves; we asked a conference to give us spare lanyards, as they didn’t need them; we provided the audio equipment ourselves; and we used a cut-out potato and ink to stamp the hands of attendees (really). Although some of this may seem a little cheap, what many of you want to achieve is not a large business conference. We are a volunteer community, and it is OK to be a little rough around the edges. Rough around the edges and endearing are close bedfellows (no one has ever forgotten that potato stamp...).
When you have been through your list and have a final tally of things that you just have to rent or buy, calculate the final cost of those elements. You now have a much lower figure to request sponsorship for, and you are much more likely to get it.
SWEAT VERSUS SPONSORSHIP:
I hate to belabor the point, but after my previous diatribe about thinking outside the box to source what you need without having to ask for sponsorship, I know many of you will think, "Well, it’s just going to be easier to ask for the sponsorship."
It is easier. I am not denying that. But being frugal with the mighty buck is not only a positive exercise in how to put together an event, but importantly it is the right thing to do for your sponsor. If you treat them with respect by asking only for exactly what you need, you will be putting down the seeds for a long and fruitful relationship.
Finding and Handling Sponsors
By now you have your sponsorship figure. The next step is to determine how many sponsors are likely to be able to cover it. Of course, anything to do with figures is difficult to provide concrete advice for, so take some of these words as general guidelines only. If you need $2,000 or less, it is likely that you can find a single sponsor who can probably cover the full cost. Still, you may want to consider breaking the figure in half (e.g., $1,000 per sponsor) and therefore asking each sponsor for less. Remember the golden rule:
The less money you ask for, the more likely you are to get it.
When you have an idea of how much you want to ask for from each sponsor, you can begin thinking of potential sponsors. The best bets for potential sponsors are companies that are related to your community’s activities. As an example, if you are an open source community, there is a raft of open source companies and wider IT companies with an interest in open source. Naturally, another indicator toward a potential “yes” on your sponsorship request is that the company has money.
If the company is known to be struggling financially, save your energy and focus only on cash-positive organizations.
Determining potential sponsors can be a tricky road to navigate. The best way to do this is to run the idea of sponsorship by some people you know well in existing companies who are potential sponsors. They may be able to help you get up to the next rung in the ladder. Every time I have organized an event that needed sponsorship, this has been my first port of call. Another approach is to meet someone involved in an existing event that is similar to your own and ask how that person handled sponsorship. Another useful technique is to look at the sponsorship lists for these other events. Often the primary sponsors are listed on the front page of the event website.
When asking for sponsorship, it’s important to remember that you are engaging in a business transaction. The organization giving you money expects something in return. Specifically what they expect varies tremendously between sponsors. Some sponsors will expect almost nothing. A good example of this is a company called Bytemark Hosting, which has sponsored every year of LugRadio Live since it began. The company has provided venue sponsorship year after year, even back when no one knew the event or its expectations. Bytemark not only had faith in the event but was gracious in their expectations: all they wanted was an exhibition table.
On the other hand, some sponsors want the moon on a stick. Another (unnamed to protect the innocent) sponsor I have dealt with wanted branding scattered across the venue, weekly calls with their demanding marketing manager, regular branding mentions in the podcast that we did, control over the size and location of their booth, and other requests. The experience with that sponsor was frankly a huge headache that none of the event organizers needed, especially with so much else going on.
You need to set your own balance of what to offer and ensure that sponsorship requirements don’t impinge on the values of the event. For LugRadio Live, we decided on a set of opportunities that we would present to sponsors in exchange for sponsorship, offers that we felt did not compromise the ethics or atmosphere of the show. These included:
- Sponsor logo printed on the back of the program.
- Small sponsor logo printed on the back of the presenter and crew t-shirts.
- Sponsor logo and link presented on the event website.
- Exhibitor space at the event in a location where the most traffic flows.
A thanks to the sponsor in the LugRadio live show in front of the event audience.
In addition to this, we also clarified with all sponsors that no editorial content or changes could be mandated by a sponsor. In other words, we would always have complete control of the content of the podcast, as before.
When you want to approach sponsorship, you need to have your own list of bullet points indicating what you can offer the sponsor. The ones I listed are a good starting point. When you put together your own list like the one just shown, be sure to clarify how sponsorship intersects with editorial privilege. For instance, a logo is obviously a form of advertising and simply indicates you made a deal for much-needed financial support. In contrast, some forms of sponsorship are a bit insidious. When a sponsor gets the right to deliver a keynote, you are pretending to offer your attendees useful information when all you’re doing is delivering them up as a captive audience for marketing.
With your sponsorship figure and your set of bullet points to indicate what you will offer ready, you now need to put together your pitch. It should be a short document that outlines the event, what you need sponsorship for, and what you can offer the sponsor. The size of this pitch should reflect the amount of money that you are asking for and the complexity of the event. If you are organizing a large conference with 2,000 expected attendees and are asking for $50,000, you should sharpen your pencil and prepare a comprehensive, detailed, multipage sponsorship request.
I am willing to bet that 98% of you reading this are not in that position and are instead asking for a fraction of that amount for an event with no more than a few hundred attendees. As such, your pitch can be much more straightforward and can fit into a one- or two-page document or a single email to the sponsor.
In your pitch, you should include the following details:
Key information about the event:
The name of the event, where it is located, the date(s) that it is happening, and the number of expected attendees. You should also do your best to describe your attendee’s interests; sponsors want to know that their company logos will be seen by people who could become customers.
Why the event is important and unique.
The required sponsorship amount and the date by which you need it.
Reason for sponsorship:
What the sponsorship money will cover. Be honest here; don’t say that $500 is going to cover way more than it can reasonably cover.
What the event provides:
List here the set of bullet points indicating what you can provide in exchange for the money.
Include your name, email address, and a daytime and evening phone number. Your pitch should be straight to the point, respectful, frank, and complete with all of the details just shown. When you have your list of sponsors and contact people, you should send off your pitch and cross your fingers.
Whatever you do when emailing sponsors, don’t email multiple sponsors at the same time. In other words, don’t send an email with a CC list as long as your arm. It is cheap and disrespectful to your sponsors.
Each of the potential sponsors that you send your pitch to should get an email directed specifically to that contact, personally addressed to the contact (e.g., “Dear Alan”).
Handling the Money:
If you manage to source an agreed level of sponsorship from a company or two, congratulations! The next step is to know how to deal with the money.
If you are dealing with a small sponsor, the transfer of the money will likely be quick and efficient. Some sponsors may just cut you a check or perform a bank transfer. Some sponsors may have more complex requirements and request invoices, purchase orders, or other paperwork.
When you agree to the sponsorship amount and conditions, you should ensure that you are entirely clear on how this process works. The reason for this is twofold. First, satisfying these requirements may take time, and you want to ensure that this time is factored into your plans.
What you don’t want to do is get into a situation in which you have ordered a lot of equipment and resources and have not received the sponsorship money yet to pay for it. That happens way more than it should, so be cautious of it.
The second reason is that sponsorship can open up a rabbit warren of other headaches. As an example, consider this trail of dependencies:
- To get the sponsorship money, the sponsor requires a bank account to transfer the money to.
- To set up a bank account, you may need to be a registered organization in your country. This will require certain community members to be signatories on the account. And this in turn may require some kind of community assessment of who takes on these responsibilities.
- To be a registered organization, you will need to file your taxes. This will require a formal paper trail. You will also need a regular reassessment of how well the members who are representing this organization are functioning.
None of this work is enjoyable. It is a painful bureaucratic necessity for accepting sponsorship money. You should ensure you are entirely clear on the ramifications for accepting the money from sponsors and what is involved. Keep it as simple as possible.
AVOID HEADACHES: INVOICE DIRECTLY:
A great approach that can avoid the problems of managing money is to never handle money in the first place and simply have the sponsors invoiced. As an example, if you need to spend $500 to hire a venue, just ask the venue to bill the sponsor. This means that the money never passes through your hands.
If you would like to pursue this approach, you should obviously ask whether the sponsor is happy to do this. Some sponsors are simply not set up for this method of dealing with events. You should also ask the venue. Some venues will not invoice to people other than the primary contact for the event.