By Phuong Pham, Director of Knowledge & Communications, Southern California Grantmakers
However, fundraising for events has often felt the most transactional — neither selfless nor magical.
Recently, I was included in conversations about fundraising for an annual conference. My colleagues and I discussed sponsorship levels and benefits. We brainstormed how to make it worthwhile for funders to support our event and how to display our gratitude virtually.
Subsequently, I was invited to a prospect call with a funder for a $5,000 sponsorship. On the call, my team answered all possible questions about why we do what we do, what every line item in our budget means, and how we can help amplify the funder’s brand visibility.
After an hour, the answer to the $5,000 sponsorship request was a disappointing “no.”
The perils of event sponsorship and its transactional nature
I admire fundraising colleagues tremendously. If the nonprofit sector is like air as Vu Le so beautifully describes us in the first episode of the Ethical Rainmaker podcast, nonprofit professionals are the ocean producing oxygen.
Yes, the ocean generates at least half of the oxygen on Earth! And yes, we all keep our sector alive in selfless and magical ways!
As a membership association, my organization’s development team’s efforts range from generating membership dues and generational operating support to fundraising for specific projects and conferences. Each of these revenue streams is critical and helps keep our organization financially sustainable.
So, why do we still fundraise for events when we can fundraise for meaningful social change?
However, fundraising for events has often felt the most transactional — neither selfless nor magical.
The different levels in our sponsorship offerings correspond with specific numbers of complimentary tickets, precise forms and frequencies of logo displays, and verbal recognition throughout the event.
It didn’t feel great for my colleagues and me to pour our hearts out and then not get $5,000 for our organization. But more importantly, this particular experience left me perplexed and with a few unanswered questions.
Does the hierarchy of sponsorship levels imply that we value some sponsors more than others? If presenting sponsors get more for their dollars than bronze sponsors, do we appreciate the former more than the latter? Additionally, if our organizational messaging is that we value all funders the same regardless of their contribution amounts, are we then sending out the wrong message with our sponsorship packets?
Besides looking at the impact of a conference and how it’s received by attendees, are our sponsors really counting how many times we recognize their names verbally and visually? Also, we currently acknowledge our general operating support and project funders without logo recognition as a grant requirement, so why is it that our relationships with sponsors and other funders so different?
While every dollar feels like it matters to the livelihood of a nonprofit organization, not every dollar matters when it comes to our liberation and sanity.
Not unlike grants, event sponsorships can ideally help us convene funders, share knowledge, advance equity, and foster collaborations. However in practice, conference sponsorships are often so removed from the rest of our fundraising strategies. Unlike generational support fundraising, raising dollars for events requires distinct outcomes that have little to do with our mission and impact.
So, why do we still fundraise for events when we can fundraise for meaningful social change? Why do we shortchange the hundreds of hours it takes to put on a one-day conference by putting forward sponsorship packages that count how many times a sponsor’s logo should be displayed?
As a field builder in philanthropy, my organization helps to build momentum around movements that value relationships, such as the full cost project and trust-based philanthropy. Now, it’s time to hold ourselves accountable and live into the same values. It’s time for us to stop perpetuating the transactional nature of event fundraising and prioritize community-building.
Why we should get rid of tiered sponsorship levels
The truth is my organization has great partners. The prospective $5,000 sponsor mentioned above isn’t typical at all for us. But I suspect that the story is common in other organizations. Most nonprofits are likely not as privileged as we are to have most sponsors renewing their support generously without questions. And so, we need to change the way we fundraise for events.
Let’s be honest: While every dollar feels like it matters to the livelihood of a nonprofit organization, not every dollar matters when it comes to our liberation and sanity.
Before investing time in a new sponsor relationship, let’s remind ourselves to ground it in Community-Centric Fundraising principles. Although there are many types of nonprofit events, I’m speaking directly to those of us who produce educational conferences because that’s the system that I’m operating in. There is likely a lot that we can do to unlearn traditional conference fundraising practices; however, at the minimum, let’s get rid of those tiered sponsorship levels! Here are six reasons why we should do it.
1. It takes a lot of time to come up with those sponsorship levels and benefits
Time is money. There is only so much time in the day, and we are constantly making choices of how to use our time wisely. Virtual conferences are already taking away many options from our regular repertoire of sponsor benefits. It is not worth it to spend time coming up with the most creative vanity benefits.
2. Logo display and name mentions are not the true benefits
Sponsoring a conference is an investment in our mission. The true benefits of partnering are opportunities to connect with colleagues across geographies and backgrounds, participate in fresh and challenging conversations, hear from leaders whom we wouldn’t normally work with — you get the idea!
3. Because of the above benefits, our conferences are transformative, not transactional
Even if we don’t mean it, what screams transactional more than a list that includes complimentary conference tickets, logo placement in digital marketing, verbal recognition from podium, and opportunity to address attendees?
4. We would recognize sponsors anyway
Isn’t it fundraising 101 to give funders the recognition they deserve for believing in our work? It might not be necessary to uphold such specific benefits around logo display and name mentions if our deep appreciation already moves us to do so regardless of a sponsorship contract. Could some combination of the transactional benefits above be offered to all sponsors?
5. Tiered sponsorship levels divide our community instead of fostering belonging
Why create a sense of othering when we can foster belonging by building a community of grantmakers who believe in our impact? Every relationship matters and begins with trust. We don’t need to distinguish between conference sponsors and operational funders if all aspects of our work serve the same mission and priorities.
6. Instead of discussing sponsor benefits, we could spend time talking about race, equity, and social justice
Again, how do we want to use our time? Negotiating transactional benefits could bring certain sponsors. But it is more meaningful to have uncomfortable discussions regarding the real reasons why we host conferences. Ultimately we do what we do and the nonprofit sector exists because racial inequities and disparities are persistent and deep-rooted. Our conferences are one of many strategies to solve much larger issues.
Conference sponsorships have been donor-centric for so long. I believe that we can free ourselves from the rigidity of tiered sponsorship levels because our time is valuable and our events are transformative, not transactional. As my organization is planning for next year’s budget, we are weighing what we might lose and what we might win as we move away from transactional sponsorships. I know that it will be challenging but we are building our muscles to have difficult conversations.
Phuong Pham (she/her) is a creative professional working at the intersection of digital media and philanthropy. Phuong is an avid home chef and dreams of creating a community space that inspires others to eat well. She believes in the healing power of food and enjoys bringing people together around her dinner table. She can be reached via email, LinkedIn, or on Instagram.
Love this article! Now, how do we convince businesses to do it?
We were recently invited to submit a sponsorship request for $2200 to a new business relationship. They told us how much they were considering and required us to complete are rather complex proposal for the size of the sponsorship. They wanted to know the outcomes for that donation and an outline of all the benefits they would get. Of course, it was in their format, not ours. I was tempted to object, but I couldn’t take the chance that we wouldn’t get the donation so I relented and completed the overly-complex form explaining how they were going to change the world for $2200 and how we would give them outstanding benefits in return. Frustrating! Businesses are built on transactions, so it is no surprise they expect to be compensated for their sponsorship. I just wish they realized that a sponsorship is a marketing tool, not philanthropy. I’d MUCH rather see businesses give us truly philanthropic gifts and trust that we would do good work with it. How do we change this expectation and still secure the funds we need to do our work?
THIS: “Let’s be honest: While every dollar feels like it matters to the livelihood of a nonprofit organization, not every dollar matters when it comes to our liberation and sanity.” YES! Since corporate sponsorship dollars are so often coming from marketing budgets, they will always look at philanthropy through the lens of ROI. But you’re so right – we would recognize them regardless of the amount of funding they give. Why not ask each corporate partner to give at a level that is meaningful to them (perhaps set a minimum?) and then recognize all sponsors the same. Makes so much sense. I have personally spent countless hours thinking of ways to arbitrarily make different sponsorship tiers – such a waste.
Six years ago we stopped having events but asked our corporate partners to stick with us as “mission” sponsors. The first year most did, but support has fallen each year. Now, I’m at about 20% of what we used to raise, but without the expense of an event. I would love some tips and ideas of how to secure mission sponsorship, how to engage our sponsors in our mission and how to increase support through new corporate partnerships without events.
I don’t know if this will apply to your org, but an alternative strategy we developed at my FORMER org to a corporate employee engagement strategy. We began to try and mobilize corporate employees, especially affinity groups, toward more volunteerism and donations to our work. We focused on bringing them closer to our mission and values, benefited greatly from their volunteer efforts, and leveraged the company matches and, in some cases, volunteer time match. As reference, our org previous targeted sponsorship between $1000-$5000.
Thanks James! We’ve been tossing that around too. In terms of new sponsorship, how did you approach employers? Through HR?
Isn’t that at least as time consuming?
“Instead of discussing sponsor benefits, we could spend time talking about race, equity, and social justice” YES! I love this. Our time/energy should be focused on bring constituents closer to our mission and focus around race, equity, and social justice.
Well said on all sides. This is helpful in starting a conversation about shifting our focus. I love the idea of using language other than “Sponsor” to foster impact-focused relationships rather than the marketing tool of a sponsorship.
Good article but I’d like to see an example of how this is communicated to our business partners. As Molly says, most sponsorship dollars come through the marketing department and they are the very people who are most focused on how many images and mentions they get. It is much easier to talk about investing in mission when talking to executive suite folks.