Corporate Sponsors and Non-Profit Millenarianism

Why can't these people write US a blank check?

I used to privately jeer at people who believed in the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ, or the 12th imam, or whoever–that omniscient deity who will one day swoop down and rescue the suffering faithful from the jaws of death. Now, though, I work at a non-profit museum, which means I’ve acquired my very own messiah: the mythical but all-powerful corporate sponsor.

Like all good messiahs, belief in this deity skyrockets during times of hardship. After our fundraising events were rained out several years ago and it really looked like we were going to have to disband, we all started talking more about why no corporate sponsors were lining up to save us. Weren’t we valuable enough to the community? Hadn’t we been around for over 20 years? Didn’t we have a diverse and valuable clientele to attract businesses?

The irrationality of corporate sponsorship encourages this sort of magical thinking. You KNOW you’re better than that Alpaca Sock-Knitting non-profit up the road–your staff is nicer, your events are cooler, damn, even your BUILDING is better. So why do they have a huge “Proudly sponsored by [Local Business] for over 8 years!” sign on their door and you don’t?

Deep down, of course, you know the answer: It’s the “Ya-Gotta-Know-Someone” game. If you’re searching Google for “corporate sponsorship for non-profits”–well, I sympathize. Your board is either non-existent or composed of more losers like yourself that spend all their time hunkered-down with struggling non-profits and none making well-connected friends or talking business with family members.

I know, this is depressing. But here’s a little secret of the non-profit world: Corporate sponsors are often much more of a hassle than they’re worth. So the first thing to ask when corporate sponsors come up is “do we really, really need one?”

The answer to that question: If you NEED one, you shouldn’t try to get one. Your budget should NEVER rely on a corporate sponsor. They’re fickle, especially nowadays. They demand a lot: They want lots of free advertising, and they want to control the context of that advertising. They want to be on the board. They want you to do things for them: Buy their products or adopt their point of view about political issues, for instance. Every decision you make will revolve around them. If you do something that peeves them, they’ll pull the plug. And then you’ve got much bigger problems than you started with.

So, here’s the bottom line: Take care of your core things, like membership and board issues, before even thinking about a corporate sponsor–and then really think about it.

Most of all, NEVER make a “cold call” or write a “cold letter” to beg a business for money. Unless you have a family, friend, or board member connection, you’re not going to get a response and you’re going to look desperate. Instead, invite a representative to one of your events and make sure it goes perfectly. Let them come to you. It’s your terms completely, or no ball game. And if you’re running a $5,000 deficit and just paying the bills on time…well, it’s hard to negotiate on your terms. So back off for now.

This is a hard pill to swallow, I know. But it’s reality. If you learn to think of corporate sponsors, not as free money, but as people who will come to you when they’re ready to reach their demographic, you’ll experience significantly less pain in the long run.


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