Management | Jen Dodd

By: Jen Dodd  09-12-2011

[This is a post I wrote in 2008 for my previous blog that I'd like to save.]

The question of how to get sponsorship for science-related BarCamps, and events in general, is something I’ve had some experience doing, so I thought I would write up my best understanding to date – my personal, evolving checklist – to share. I’d value any comments and other ideas.

There’s two parts to getting sponsorship: the first is making contact with the companies you’re hoping will support you, and the second is making a proposal that will convince them.

Brainstorming potential sponsors

The first task is to make a long list of potential sponsors:

  • Companies that you and your coorganisers are associated with.
  • Companies that your event’s participants are associated with – participants are often enthusiastic about helping out with an event they feel is important by approaching their employer for sponsorship.
  • Companies with missions that are a natural fit for your event – for example, if your event is aimed at improving scientific literacy, then you might think of makers of scientific toys, publishers of popular science books or school textbooks, local bookstores, and so forth.
  • Companies that have sponsored similar events.
  • Companies that would be well-placed to provide in-kind sponsorship (e.g., the venue might provide their space for free).

Making contact

The most important step is making contact with each company via someone who knows you. In my experience, it’s rare to obtain sponsorship without this contact. (The exception is when you’re applying for an established grant via a formal process. I’m assuming that you’re not doing this.)

Go through your list and, unless you personally know someone to contact in the company, then for each work out someone to give you an introduction. If one of your coorganisers is well-known or senior in their field (e.g., a Faculty Dean, the author of a best-selling book, etc) then they can often help you make contact even if they don’t personally know anybody in the company, simply by writing in support of your event or sending the proposal on your behalf. But the best approach is to find someone who has direct connections to the company in question. (Sometimes your existing sponsors will help you with this.)

Once you have an introduction, in many cases the person will want more information about your event. At this point you need a written proposal, even if you plan to discuss your event with potential sponsors over the phone:

  • A potential sponsor will usually eventually ask for something in writing, especially if they have to convince colleagues. Having a document ready to go is professional, and ensures that you won’t miss the window of enthusiasm.
  • In the course of writing you will almost certainly address issues you haven’t previously thought about, and craft a compelling statement of what your event is about that will help you be convincing when explaining it to a potential sponsor.
  • The written descriptions in the proposal will be reused over and over again – on your website, in a description you send to potential participants or to the media, and so forth.

“Big” and “small” sponsorship

There are two kinds of sponsorship you can ask for, corresponding to different types of proposals: “big” and “small” sponsorship. Small sponsorship is any amount that an individual from a company can easily pledge without a detailed justification or getting approval from higher up – usually no more than hundreds of dollars. Big sponsorship – usually thousands of dollars – requires a formal process or multiple people to sign off on it. Of course the amount that an individual can readily sign off on depends on the company and the individual, but in my experience the distinction between hundreds and thousands of dollars is about right. (An interesting point is that asking for more than a few thousands (tens or hundreds of thousands) doesn’t require a longer proposal to get started – although you may eventually need to supply a much longer document.)

Based on this, assess your list of potential sponsors and see which ones are most likely to be big sponsors or little sponsors.

Writing a proposal for big sponsorship

For big sponsorship you need a compelling case based on a detailed understanding of what the company stands to gain, in the most practical terms possible. Even if the person reviewing your request is deeply sympathetic to your cause, they will have to justify it to their colleagues or superiors, who may be more or less unsympathetic.

Building a compelling case means focusing on the point of view of the company. For example, it’s no good saying that “sponsoring this scientific event will improve scientific literacy” unless you can explain how improving scientific literacy helps the company achieve its mission.

This seems obvious, but in my experience it is easy to lose sight of it in my enthusiasm for something I feel is important. I find that going over my proposal and subjecting every single sentence to the test of asking “what does this mean for the company?” is incredibly valuable. Of course every sentence doesn’t have to directly address the company’s interests (i.e., not every sentence has to end with some variant on “and this will help your company achieve it’s mission”) but they all have to be written from the point of view of the company.

So, how do you determine what this point of view is for a given company? Some companies are very explicit about what they support (usually explained on their website). Other companies aren’t so explicit, but you can usually guess based on their past sponsorships, their mission statement, and how they are trying to position themselves within the market. Of course, speaking to someone within the organisation is often the best and fastest way to get an idea of what they’re likely to support.

To make your proposal convincing, it should be based as much as possible on facts. For example, saying that “contributing to scientific literacy programs is a valuable activity” becomes compelling only if it is supported with a fact such as “similar programs have shown that participants improve their scientific literacy by 20% according to the such-and-such test”. This is especially true when it comes to claims for the benefit that the company will see. If the company’s motivation for supporting an event is to have their brand publicly associated with it, then there should be facts about media coverage for similar events.

A related point is that you should have a well-thought out plan for what you’re going to actively do for your sponsors. Think about the best value you can give them (without, of course, constraining your event or being artificial), and then explain in some detail how you’re going to do this. For example, explain that you will associate their logo prominently on the webpage, at the event opening and closing, and on the event hand-out.

Once you have your arguments and evidence together, make the proposal professional:

  • Make it short (a few pages at most), well-laid out, and check for spelling and grammar. It should read like a good newspaper article, with all the best bits up front and all the boring bits left out.
  • Include a short statement of the gist of the proposal, probably as the opening paragraph: what the event is, why it’s exciting, and its relevance to the company. Use simple, direct language with lots of active verbs and no jargon. Don’t forget to say what, explicitly, your sponsors will receive.
  • Also include a brief budget, even if this isn’t explicitly requested. You needn’t have details down to the individual pens and pencils you plan to purchase – just a rough accounting along the lines of “$X for venue hire costs, $Y for equipment, etc”.
  • Include (very briefly) anything that notably increases the credibility of your plans: e.g., point to the event website if it looks good, note if there will be a board of advisors, and mention your existing sponsors if you have any.

After your proposal has been received, be prepared to answer questions that are skeptical of your goals and plans. For example: “Why is your event going to succeed when several similar ones have failed?” “What do you plan to do if… [insert a bad outcome relevant to your event here, such as bad weather, no turn-out for the opening event, etc]?” “Why do you need this amount of money rather than half (or double) that amount?”

Writing a proposal for small sponsorship

The basic content is the same as for the big sponsorship proposal, but compressed to the essential points. I recommend the following:

  • A few-sentence description of the event and how it relates to the company, similar to the opening paragraph of the big proposal.
  • A short paragraph about what is most exciting about the event, with the most compelling facts you have about the likely impact.
  • Some information to establish your credibility (a sentence for each person, no more than a few sentences in total).
  • What sponsors you currently have, what you’re doing for your sponsors, what you’re asking for, and what it will pay for.

Since you’re likely to apply to many different companies for small sponsorship, it’s impractical to write a new proposal for each one. Instead, I suggest writing the proposal from the point of view of a “generic” company. For a small amount of sponsorship, it’s likely that most companies won’t be looking for a detailed fit with their sponsorship priorities, but instead will be satisfied with having their brand and logo associated in a prominent way with your event. If you know something specific about a company, then by all means adjust the proposal to suit, but I wouldn’t recommend doing too much in depth research for each one. Since it’s most likely that a given company will refuse your request, it’s best to figure this out as quickly as possible and move on to the next.

The information in this article was current at 06 Dec 2011

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