You are charged with establishing your corporate partnership program and face a major hurdle: Board members have a negative view of sponsor involvement.

One association executive director was pressed by his board to increase sponsorship revenue. Association revenue was stagnant and he was worried about board perception of his capabilities and the increasing pressure to increase revenue. He was aware that this would play a major role in his future with the association. He knew he needed to produce, but he had serious doubts about how to get started, and how to successfully ensure board support of partnership programming changes.

His question to me was, ‘Where do I even start’?

In our ongoing ‘partnership vs. membership’ series, Elizabeth Engel recently reviewed ways to gain board approval for membership changes and dues increases. In this post, I’ll cover a recommended approach to gain board buy-in for a corporate partnership program. Is this going to work every time? Of course not. Is it your best approach to begin to move forward? You decide and let me know your suggestions in the comments below.

How to get started?

1) Review How Prior Board Decisions Were Made 

Before jumping into the specifics of the partnership program, revisit how your board makes decisions. Are there specific individuals with major influence? Are decisions made behind the scenes before board meetings? Does the board readily approve the work of committees?

Be clear on how relevant prior decisions have been made. Revisit difficult or tough decisions that the board needed to make and find out what occurred, who was involved, and how the board arrived at consensus. Each association has a different board culture, dynamics, and it is important to recognize how things get done at your association. Follow the path which led to previous success.

2) Interview Selected Board Members: Know Their Concerns & Gain Their Insights

Prior to creating your program, it is important to gain a sense of board member opinions. Select specific board members such as those in leadership positions or influence, ones that are opposed to sponsor involvement and those more inclined to support stronger sponsor involvement. Interviews can shed light on what the program should look like, protections or guidelines to include, and importantly, potential hurdles that you need to address.

Here are a few tips for board member interviews:

·  One-on-One Interviews: Speak with board members individually, so they are not swayed by opinions of others on the board.

·  Understand the “Why”: Seek to understand not just any specific concerns they may have with sponsor involvement/partnership programming, but also the “why” behind their concerns. Ask about any of their specific experiences or incidents – positive and negative – that you and your association could learn from.

· Probe for Problems…and Solutions: Gain insights on potential problems, proactively. You may have a board member who rattles off problem after problem with sponsors. Use those problems as a springboard for solution building. Ask follow-on questions on how to prevent or address that concern. Ask how they’ve seen other organizations effectively handle that concern. Now, you and the board member are focused on solutions. Understanding the problems/concerns that board members have run into in the past can then help determine measures to protect your association when structuring your partnership program.

 · “Prime the Pump” with Strategic Questions: Ask board members about a major hurdle in the sponsorship world – what potential benefits to offer ­– then use strategic questions to see how open they are to adding layers of value to sponsors (and, accordingly, attract higher sponsor dollars). For example, if they mention sponsoring a webinar with branding opportunities – ask how sponsors could be involved with the webinar beyond logo recognition as the primary benefit. Can the sponsor send a post-event email message? Can they introduce a speaker or serve as the moderator? Can they be recognized by the moderator? As partnership programs are generally not board members’ primary area of expertise (yes – they may view that differently!), your suggestions on potential benefits phrased in the form of a question are often welcome and a good strategic way to move the conversation forward. These questions and conversations include board members in the program development process, which will make it far easier to gain their buy-in when seeking board approval for your final program.

3) Effectively Present Your Program for Board Approval and Include Board Member Input 

To maximize the effectiveness of your presentation:

·  Incorporate Specific Suggestions and Give Recognition: As you are creating the program, the more you can incorporate specific suggestions from board members the better. Even stronger if you can reference board member names in support of specific ideas (assuming you covered this with the board member during the interviews). Board members love to receive recognition for how they have added value. No need for me to comment on how most board members have not read the board books in advance; yet they are concerned with how they are viewed by their peers — and this is a way to provide them with recognition.

· Vet in Advance: Prior to presenting the program, it is recommended that you review it with a few keyboard members in advance. Allow them to edit/revise or offer their suggestions. This shows that you acknowledge their opinions and value their input. When one of their suggestions is included in the program itself and the program presentation, they will be in favor of the program. Guaranteed – as they will feel a sense of ownership for the program.

·  Seek a Board Champion or Co-presenter: Seek out a board member to co-present the program. A staffer trying to make the case is much more difficult when compared with peer-to-peer interaction among the board. Have the board member assist in also taking questions. While the board member will not be as familiar with the program, their peers are far more likely to respect and agree with one of their colleagues.

·  Reassure about Organizational Protection: Proactively address concerns that were expressed to you. As part of selling the value of your new sponsorship program to the organization, show how you have also built-in protections. Demonstrate how you will protect your organization — such as establishing specific partnership guidelines or clauses that protect your association will be included in all contracts. These tend to be important board concerns, as they make sure that the culture of the member base is a priority when creating your partnership program.

That’s it. Simple, right? Of course not. But if you take this approach, you will be in a much stronger position.

Picture your new partnership program: Board buy-in, sponsors turned into partners, and additional revenue.

On a personal level, you will have demonstrated interest in board member opinions, incorporated their insights in creating the program, and earned their respect for including protections for the association. This is exactly how you want to position yourself.

You have a choice to make. Will you STEP Up?

Feel free to offer your suggestions or experiences in the comments below.

In our next post, Elizabeth will address how you roll out your new program.

Flax Associates helps associations and nonprofits establish mutually beneficial partnerships that enhance the value offered and result in additional funding. We help develop the strategy, structure, and ability to STEP Up from sponsorship to partnership. If you’d like to discuss your current sponsorship strategy and plans to boost your revenue, please reach out by email ([email protected]) or phone (202.266.2655).