Partnership vs. Membership: STEP Up from Sponsorship To Partnership

Associations commonly struggle with how to increase sponsorship revenue. Reaching out to the same companies over and over again is time-consuming and difficult. Providing transactional sponsorship offerings may bring in dollars but is unlikely to dramatically increase revenue. The solution?  STEP up from transactional sponsorships and begin building collaborative partnerships.

My colleague Elizabeth Engel and I have been co-writing a series of blog posts on partnership vs. membership. This blog in the series will take a deeper dive into structuring productive and fruitful partnerships that drive revenue through bolstered, customized relationships. 

Start by Stepping into the Shoes of Your Sponsors

When we step into the proverbial shoes of potential sponsor, we quickly realize that traditional benefits offer minimal business value.  Sponsorship offerings typically are pre-set by the association and tend to be one-time transactions revolving around promotional benefits such as logo recognition and signage. Yet these have little focus on the larger business goals and objectives of the sponsor.  Do you know what these business goals are? Are your offerings customized to your potential sponsors’ objectives? 

Stepping up from transactional sponsorship to collaborative partnership means building a stronger and more in-depth relationship with sponsors, with the flexibility and willingness to customize partnerships based on mutually beneficial goals. When this shift occurs, win-win-win (company, association, member base) opportunities can be created and sponsors will be far more likely to increase their investment.  

Issues to Consider in Stepping up from Sponsorship to Partnership

After many years in the sponsorship/partnership world, I wish I could say that all associations could establish a partnership program. While I believe in today’s crowded world of sponsor seekers all associations should move to the partnership model, I also appreciate that there are a number of internal challenges to face. Associations may have:

  • Lack of clarity as to what benefits to offer beyond conference involvement or advertising  
  • Difficulty in gaining buy-in from other departments.  
  • Apprehension about the impact of sponsor influence on programmatic initiatives.
  • Concern that staff currently has the business development capabilities to move beyond ‘prospectus selling’.  

Yet, if there is also a:

  • Strong desire or need to increase revenue; 
  • Need to fund a specific new initiative or program; 
  • Willingness to think flexibly/creatively; 
  • Comfort level to more collaboratively engage with sponsors and view them as partners…

…Then an effective, revenue-generating partnership program can be built!

STEP Up and Build Your Partnership Program

Associations that are truly seeking mutually beneficial partnerships can begin the process of stepping up from sponsorship to partnership by following this general STEP framework:

S) Situation — Assess Your Situation

Appraise the current sponsorship environment at your association by considering the following: 

  • How have we previously worked with sponsors/partners? 
  • What is needed to provide organization-wide benefits and gain buy-in of different departments? 
  • What are the internal challenges that we face and how will we address? 
  • What is the attitude of our board/leadership toward corporate involvement? 
  • Are we positioned to go beyond ‘prospectus selling’ and engage with corporate executives on a strategic level?

T) Transform – Transform Your Assets

Evaluate the benefits and value of your current assets (e.g. programs/initiatives, audiences, communication channels) and assess which provide the most value (versus least) business value to sponsors. Consider:

  • What assets do we maintain of value to potential corporate partners?
  • How can we convert these assets to value-added benefits?  
  • What opportunities related to content development, program involvement can we offer? 
  • In what way can we connect assets across our association (e.g. webinars, conference presentations, newsletter articles) into benefits that will resonate?
  • What internal stumbling blocks (e.g. staff willingness to involve corporate partners) might we encounter and how will we respond? 

E) Engage – Engage Your Sponsors 

Proactively collect input and insights! Reach out to your current and potential sponsors and ask them specific questions.  Sponsors’ insights can help you build higher value (and higher revenue-driving) opportunities that better match their business interests and goals.  This is not a  “sponsorship selling” conversation. Rather, your sponsors are sharing their thoughts and their answers will help determine the path forward in building new customized opportunities that meet their business goals and challenges.  Questions to ask include:  

  • What are your key goals? 
  • What benefits are of greatest value and why? 
  • What do your other partnerships look like? How do you evaluate your partnerships? 
  • What does success look like?
  • What budget range are you allocating to address….? 

P) Plan – Develop Your Plan

Develop a long-term partnership roadmap. A partnership program does not start and stop with an annual meeting.  It is a long-term, year-round strategic process of collaboration to ensure that your association continues to evolve its value.  The roadmap should address:

  • Packaging and pricing strategies for the new partnership opportunities. 
  • Positioning benefits from a corporate perspective (e.g. trends in accounting policy, workforce development) as opposed to cobbling together unrelated benefits (conference booths, magazine ads). 
  • Revisiting sales process outreach, lead development potential, and enhanced internal coordination efficiencies. 
  • Implementing an effective approach to gain feedback and needed approval from board/leadership.
  • A launch plan for the partnership program.

What is Your Next Step? 

Many associations string together current one-off disconnected benefits and call it a “partnership program.” This results in the ‘partners’ seeking discounts on the total package and fails to yield the desired results. Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, be strategic, creative and responsive. Focus on the win-win-win. 

Think through the needs, interests, and goals at your association.  Revisit the STEP process and determine whether to move forward. Imagine what the future holds when you and your organization take these STEPs.  Revenue increases, staff becomes more efficient, and your association is positioned to thrive.    

In the next post in the series, Elizabeth will address considerations to keep in mind in structuring corporate membership. 

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 (lewis@flaxassociates.com) or phone (202 266-2655).