Association Sponsorships: Partner with the Future in Mind

Originally published on the Partnership Professionals Network website
By Michael Butera and Bruce Rosenthal
Members of The 501c League and Consultants with Rogue Tulips LLC (www.roguetulips.com)


Is your association facing revenue issues with a new sense of urgency? No doubt, this is one of the facts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be sure, you have a short-term fiscal issue to face. Among the many options for revenue is sponsorships. Along with other revenue streams, sponsorships are one of the mainstays in the association community.

However, at this time of crisis, it is important to see sponsorships as more than an immediate dollar contribution to the bottom line. A successful sponsorship program can not only address the current situation but be the foundation for longer-term sustainability for your association.

The traditional understanding of the board’s fiduciary responsibilities is addressed as care, loyalty, and obedience. Permit us to add foresight. A need to strategically address the scenarios of the future and our ability to learn with the future in mind.

In short, board members look at available options that align with the association’s mission and meet member needs now and in the future. How will the association fulfill these member needs? How will the association pay to fulfill these member needs? How will the association define its stakeholders?

If we see sponsorships as a one-way trip where businesses provide dollars and the association provides exposure and mailing lists, are we failing the test of future thinking? Are we blind to a deeper relationship built around mutual trust, reputation, and potential integration of mutual interests? Is the association investing in the sponsorship program as the business is investing in the association?
Now is the time for the board and staff to “step up to the plate.”
Two reasons:
  • Many companies have a desire to engage with association members now to help members with pandemic challenges. (Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, said in March, “Not by trying to push product out the door, but by being authentic and in their desire to be able to help their consumers directly.”)
  • Many companies begin working on their marketing budgets (that include sponsorship expenditures) May – August. Now is the time to begin discussions about sponsorships for the coming fiscal year.
 Roles for Board members regarding sponsors:
  • Understand that sponsors can be an important source of non-dues revenue for associations.
  • Understand that sponsors have a wealth of useful information about the association’s members. These companies conduct R&D and market research; they know members’ biggest challenges.
  • Understand that sponsorship programs can be managed so it doesn’t appear that the association is “endorsing” the sponsors and so the sponsors aren’t presenting “sales pitches.” Medical/health association can have successful sponsorship programs that are in compliance with various pharma-related regulations.
  • Approve budgets for adequate resources, staffing, and support for the association’s sponsorship program.
  • Be ready and willing to meet with top-tier corporate sponsors; not for “sales pitches.” To discuss strategic issues impacting the association and its members. Associations could establish a COVID-19 Task Force, comprised of Board members, corporate sponsors, and some association staff members.
  • Treat sponsors like partners to advance the association’s mission and each company’s business goals.
  • Understand that companies have choices regarding which associations with which they do sponsorships. There can be a significant competitive advantage for associations that reach out and offer enhanced sponsorship opportunities soon.
Roles of the Association CSE/CEO/ED regarding sponsors:
  • Be part of the solution by providing information, contacts, and respectful guidance to the board and staff on the advantages of building sponsorship partnerships.
  • Demonstrate a high level of empathy to the board and staff. They are going through a difficult period that affects them personally and professionally. They need to know you understand the problems they face at the personal and institutional levels.
  • Recognize the sponsor relationship as a partnership in moving the Association forward. Other crisis will occur and we do not want our colleagues to look back and say, “Just save us – not like the last time!” 
  • Be accountable in victory and failure. Make sure that the board and staff do not take failures (there will be some) as personal losses. Never is there a greater need to be brave and accountable in changing the perceptions of the sponsorship relationship than during a crisis.
  • Identify a pilot project using the collective knowledge of the association and a sponsor to meet and resolve member needs due to the pandemic.
  • Write down all the actions and ideas (those done and those not done), failures and victories as a learning exercise for future board and staff development. You want to be better prepared for the next crisis and opportunity to improve sponsorships.
  • Maintain a calming attitude and focus on what can and cannot be done as you, the board, and staff learn from the actionable intelligence you glean during the crisis that will move the needle in the direction of a sponsorship partnership rather than a simply financial exchange. There will be unexpected twists and turns.
  • Communicate with all stakeholders in the sponsorship continuum. Be proactive in how the association moves forward in building and maintaining sponsorship relationships.
Henry Ford once said, “A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time.” Future value, reputation, and sustainability are more powerful when they are considered while making short-term decisions. As we face the current fiscal problems, we must understand that there will be others in the future. Thus, considering the future consequences as we make are short-term fixes is a must.

Taking a two-pronged approach in which you face the present and adapt for the future offers the strongest practical approach. Tell us what you think.

Butera is a consultant to Associations in executive coaching, strategic planning, and board governance and can be reached at. Rosenthal creates successful association sponsorship programs that increase revenue and member value; he is founder and convener of the Partnership Professionals Network.
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