ask an expert

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who isn’t sure where to begin to attract business support and sponsorships for their small nonprofit. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

We’re a small nonprofit wondering what we can do to attract business support. We’re not a big well-known brand and don’t have events that attract thousands of people. My boss keeps asking me to get more business support, but I’m not sure where to begin.

Worried we aren’t business worthy

Dear Worried about Worthiness,

You don’t have to be big, or appeal to the entire universe, to be worthy of business sponsorship. All you have to do is be appealing to folks who care about what you do or who may benefit by aligning with your mission.

How to Identify Benefits You Have to Offer 

This is a great opportunity for a group brainstorm. Sit down with members of you team, board and staff, and consider the following:

1. Who are your audiences?

If the demographics of the people you serve, or the donors and volunteers who support you, match the demographics of the people the business wants to connect with, you’ve got something they want. For example if you’re a school, businesses that cater to families will have an affinity with you. If you’re a social service organization, health care businesses may be interested. If you’re a legal services organization, law firms might be a good place to begin. If your donors tend to be educated, with high average incomes, financial services and real estate businesses may want access to your constituents. If your donors are young and affluent, start-ups wanting to build a customer base of younger consumers may be interested. If you’re fuzzy on your audience it’s a good idea to focus on building a strong, engaged and describable audience for your organization. Audiences send a signal to companies of what’s good, popular and profitable in the world. 

2. What volunteer opportunities do you offer?

When I worked at a Food Bank local businesses were constantly looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities for their employees. We were happy to offer these – in exchange for a sponsorship commitment. Even if you don’t have one-off opportunities now, perhaps you can invent them. When I worked at a social services agency, most of our volunteers committed to weekly jobs like taking seniors shopping or to medical appointments. But we created some one day, group-oriented activities like packaging food baskets and doing small home improvement tasks.  These brought in business sponsors who wanted such opportunities as team-building experiences for their employees (not to mention the fact they wanted to look caring and compassionate).

3. What other engagement opportunities do you offer?

Sometimes human resources departments are looking for speakers who can offer workshops as an employee benefit. Or they may simply be looking for fun benefits they can offer, like attendance at a symphony or play rehearsal. Or a special behind-the-scenes tour. 

4. What advertising opportunities might you offer?

All nonprofits have valuable real estate that can act as an advertising billboard. Do you have vehicles (like a bus or mini-van) where you could list your sponsors? Do you have a highly trafficked lobby where you can list sponsors on a donor wall? Might a sponsor become an underwriter of your newsletter? Or a special section of your website? Or an event invitation? Or a segment of your event? Might they even sponsor your annual appeal, offering their commitment as a challenge grant?

5. What meaningful content do you have with which a business might wish to align?

More and more people are reporting they’d prefer to patronize a ‘good guy’ business if they have the option. Approach local businesses who might be interested in sharing your story – and supporting your mission – for this purpose. Take stock of your stories, visuals and videos. Pet Rescue in Australia attracted a nice group of business sponsors by asking if they’d like to share their cute visuals of cats, dogs and other pets. As they note on their website: “There’s a very special breed of pet-loving CEOs, managers and business owners who kindly donate a percentage of their profits to support PetRescue’s vital work in saving every life and finding a home for every pet.” 

How to Identify Prospects

1. Check donor honor rolls locally.

See what businesses in your geographic area are in the business of offering philanthropic sponsorships. This will give you a useful prospect list from which to begin. Take particular note of businesses that may have natural synergies with what you do. Think creatively!

2. Make a list of business for your board to review.

Once you have a prospect list, see if any of your board members have contact there. While they’re at it, see if the names on the list prompt them to consider other similar businesses. Maybe they don’t know anyone at Wells Fargo, who supported your local ballet, but they do know someone at a more local bank. Maybe they don’t know the law firm that sponsored the local food bank, but they’ve recently done a lot of legal work with a different law firm they might approach.

3. Sit down one-on-one with board to pick their brains.

This is how I’ve found a preponderance of sponsors. Board members won’t always respond to a group ask. But if you’re able to talk to them individually they’ll come up with one or two viable suggestions that may pleasantly surprise you.

4. Check your vendor list.

Have a bank, insurer, office supply business or printer with whom you do a lot of business. Methodically think through all your vendors. Often they’re willing to give back to keep you as a client.

5. Consider businesses within your neighborhood.

Restaurants, retail stores, dentists, real estate offices and all sorts of local businesses may be willing to affiliate with you.  It’s likely they’re not being asked as much as the big downtown businesses, making your chances of success better. Tell them you’ll list them in your newsletter and website, and even give them a sign or plaque they can post in their place of business.

6. Pick the low-hanging fruit.

If a company contacts you and wants to partner with you, explore the opportunity. If a major donor owns a chain of coffee shops, ask them to host a fundraiser for you. Stick to the easy stuff that’s right in front of you.

7. Convene a committee or ad hoc “Business Sponsors Advisory Group.”

This formalizes your commitment to developing business sponsors and puts it on your agenda as one of your priority fundraising strategies. If you assign responsibility you’re more likely to get traction. But you do have to hold people’s feet to the fire to brainstorm prospects and connect with their contacts!

Bottom Line

Every nonprofit is sponsor-worthy. You simply need to be thoughtful about your own unique assets and benefits and look more broadly at who your natural prospects may be. While you may be small, you can still be nimble, authentic and personally relatable.

All fundraising boils down to a value-for-value exchange between people.

That being said, I’d like to add a caveat: Don’t spend more time on this than may be warranted. Business giving is a fraction of individual giving for the lion’s share of nonprofits. Remember, per Giving USA dead people give twice as much money (10% bequests) to nonprofits as businesses do (5% corporate gifts)!

Build your audience, assess your benefits and be the magnet that pulls companies in.

Take heart and be confident! 

Charity Clairity

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Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.