My first sponsorship experience was five years ago when I was landed with the task of funding a debating society for a year. In the spirit of jumping in the deep end, we approached one of the Big Four.
The happiness of all my friends was on my shoulders, so I prepared like a woman obsessed.
I had one of those ridiculous, lunchbox-sized external hard-drives ready at a moment’s notice to bring up analysis on cognitive development in young adulthood after being exposed to opposing opinions.
It’s all well and good to be hyper-prepared to speak about your passion or profession. It’s quite another to bring it to a level where someone from a far more commercial world gives a crap.
So, this post was remembered and written with the intention of helping adults to avoid the mistakes I made as a nearly-adult. That is, when I tried to get sponsorship for the first time.
Introduce Valuable Connections
Preparing for the first meeting, I felt I couldn’t offer this sponsor anything when it came to business connections.
For context, these were the three most impactful people I could think of that regularly went to our events:
- The guy who won the first inter-varsity competition for us in about 10 years. But who, a year or two afterwards, fell asleep in a tux he’d been wearing for two days. And when we woke him up, we found that he’d fallen asleep on top of two empty dishwasher tablet packets, the contents of which I’m still convinced he’d eaten.
- The young fellow who, at the Christmas party, helped us to find an ambulance for a homeless man. But his pitch would have been about smashing capitalism. While we were asking for money.
- The small man who we used to just call “Bombsquad”.
Not exactly the best collateral to bring to a board meeting.
How I overcame it:
The nice thing about running events is that you have speakers. Glorious, well-established, adult speakers.
I went with the most impressive thing I could think of which was the arsenal of intellectuals and advocates of social change that we’d spent a whole summer begging to come and enlighten our student body.
While they may not have always been the biggest names in the world, I knew all about their stories and passions. And they were something the sponsor could definitely see helping how they wanted the world to perceive their brand.
Do Your Homework
Before I met with the sponsor, I challenged myself to be able to write the Wikipedia article on what their company did when it came time to pitch. This was my first draft:
How I overcame it:
This wasn’t my most graceful attempt. My icebreaker of choice was to mention a tenuous common link about how my school and the sponsor’s school had once played football against each other in the 1940s.
I did eventually make up for it by recalling flash cards that had words like “collegiality,” “human capital” and “inclusive mobility” written on them.
While it wasn’t the most elegant explanation they’d ever heard about why they’re so great, it did at least show that we wanted to work with them enough to do some research.
If I had a do-over, there is no question that I’d have some sort of presentation around attendance numbers, return on outcome, and alumni but again, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Show Them Value, At Arm’s Length
In the agreement, there was a clause stating that anyone from the company could appear at any event unannounced to see how things were and how their sponsorship money was being spent.
When I read it, I nearly fainted.
That’s not to say that we weren’t legitimately sitting in a lecture theatre for three hours talking shop about the events of the day.
Rather, it was the fact that they’d have to be chaperoned that threw me for six. I had no idea how I could feasibly look after a sponsor and get everything else done on the Day of Stress.
Collected, I had approximately 400,000 things to do, broken down thusly:
- Organizing speaker workshops for students at the university (every Tuesday)
- Organizing a panel discussion or debate between 4+ guest speakers, housing them, feeding and wine-ing them, and generally preventing their boredom and/or death (every Thursday)
- Organizing a set of 6+ 18-20-somethings to represent the college at inter-varsities (every other weekend)
Not listed: keeping the peace, negotiating with the societies office, publicity for the events, dealing with that one guy who had to cancel because of his wife going into labour or something that was equally less important than the debate.
How I overcame it:
The committee were really, really excellent. In reality, my hands-on involvement was only during delegation, mediation and problem solving.
When it came time to describe the team that would be handling the society alongside me, it was surprisingly natural to recount dozens of examples of teamwork, efficiency, creativity and downright hard work that these people were willing to do, all while studying full-time degrees.
The lesson there was that, even on paper, the sponsor was playing into the hands of a team that was fully trustworthy and that I should never have forgotten that.
The Main Lesson
The common thread that solved for all of these obstacles is easy to explain: diligence.
That’s the exact feedback that we got from the elusive Big Four organization.
Allegedly, we were well-prepared, well-explained, well-presented and diligent, so they felt they could trust us with the €1000 or so that we’d negotiated.
In a time where most of us were living off potato waffles that we cooked in toasters whose electrics could trip an entire street, that seemed like all the money in the world.
Sure, there’s another 400,000 things that I would do differently now, but that’s a story for another post.
I learned that if I honestly did the best I could have and prepared the most I could have, it wouldn’t have been shameful to come back with €10, let alone 100 times that.