Instigating a sponsorship "cold call"

I’ve noticed that there are a few grants on the FIRST Grant Opportunities page for companies that have a branch in our city who do not have a local relationship with FIRST (or teams) at all.

Does anyone have a good strategy for reaching out to these types of companies to try to make a local connection? They usually have a published phone number, but it’s hard to know who to ask to speak with. If you are cold calling one of these numbers. what do you say? “Hi, I’m so-and-so, a (volunteer for/student on) a local high school robotics team. We saw that (your company) works with teams like ours, and were wondering if we could speak to someone who might be interested in telling us about the type of work (company) does.” And then see where it goes? Does anyone have a successful approach you can share?

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Following. C’mon John Deere!

We start with a letter, and call a week later. Only students make the calls, they’ve been coached.

‘Corporate giving officer’ or ‘community relations manager’ are two typical titles of the charity folks at larger companies. Smaller ones, try to get the owner. If they are near by, try to visit.

Here’s a strategy that worked well for us: Find a large company that is near by. Contact their community relations manager and don’t ask for money: Ask them if they can spare an hour for a couple of students so they can better understand how corporate giving works. And if they do, still don’t ask for money, as what they’ve given is worth more. A parent working there can help you get your foot in the door.

Then use what you’ve learned to hit up other companies.

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Definitely a good start.

Some cold hard truth… no company gives out money for fun. That would defeat the purpose of being a company. Every dollar that goes out the door has a purpose attached to it.

Some companies are big on recruiting pipeline - they want to see numbers showing how the FRC dollars turned into good employees working at the company.

Other companies are under pressure to support their community in some way. They need to see other numbers demonstrating the community improvements that came from their money.

Other companies want advertising. They need to see their spend turn into new customers and new income.

Figure out what the company wants in return for their dollars. Then pitch to them why you’re the best team for them to give their dollars to.

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All good points, but part of the work is already done. These are literally all just companies that already have an account of funds for FIRST to distribute to teams. You just need a mentor from that company to come help you and apply for the grant and you’ll likely get it. So I guess we’re looking for how to connect with a mentor from those companies and how to ask that question.

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If it’s the kind of business with a front door you can walk in, do it. Though “you” should be a student or two, and maybe bring a robot or something fun with you. FRC is one of those things that sounds cool in theory, but is so much more awesome (read: mfd) when you see it up close. If you can get potential sponsors to come at to events or practices, even better.

And, don’t wait for someone to become a sponsor to start offering them certain perks. I’m not talking sponsor sticker on the robot or anything else that’ll cost you or look bad to your existing sponsors. However, if there’s an opportunity for you to do a demo at the company, do it. Having an open house at your shop? Invite them. Company has career opportunities? Share them.

As with everything, build the relationship first. The ask comes later. And it’s fair to start small. You might spend years with a sponsor at a relatively low funding level before you’re finally able to get them to meet you at a bigger ask. That’s okay, that’s great, in fact – it shows they believe in you and gives you something to work towards.

Lastly, the golden rule of fundraising: never say no to a donation. (Okay, this is entirely true – social responsibility and all – that aside, though…) You might not understand what you can do with an obscure in-kind donation. Maybe you’re being offered services you don’t think you need or personnel for an event. Take it. You never know.

This is, of course, technically true, but I think can be said with a more positive tone. I took a class on the business side of nonprofit management in college – it was taught by a business professor with a long career mostly in the for-profit, corporate world. I remember one lesson clearly: No company or organization is 100% profit driven and non company or organization is 100% charitable. Every company falls somewhere in the middle.

This doesn’t just mean that every company gives >1% and <100% of their money to charity. It’s much more nuanced.

Companies makes decisions based on a complicated list of factors. A main driver is profit, but another significant factor is public image. An example from the class is a soda company that brings back a nostalgic flavor, not because they think it’s going to sell a ton and make them money. In fact, they know they will lose them money because they still want to sell the cans at $0.99 which is hard when this is a limited run. But they do it because it improves their good will with the public.

There are lots of reasons companies will sponsor you. It’s certainly a good idea to investigate why they might, so you can meet them where they are. I’d recommend a few steps:

  • Find where on this profitable-charitable spectrum the company falls
  • Identify in what ways the company has been historically charitable
  • Determine, based on the answers to those previous items, if the sponsor is a good fit for you
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There are a multitude of ways to reach a potential sponsor that you don’t have any prior contact or connection with.

When I would work on sponsorship, first step was always seeing first if they have an online grant/sponsorship site. If so fill that out and can try to do a follow up, especially if you want to send media with the application.

If there isn’t you can go the fun route of just cold calls and playing telephone tag. Some of the best ways to start is calling up and asking directly do they sponsor local non profit events/programs. (Sometimes they may not do the team but I could then refer them to our planning director for our regional. Sometimes it worked the opposite, and she would direct people to me.)

In this route there’s a few ways the call can go.

  1. the person you reach may not be sure if they do or know who to connect to. You can see then about chatting with marketing department as they can usually provide the correct line/person to talk to if not them.

  2. they can help direct you to who to chat with. If you can get to a person directly it always works best, voicemails and emails can work well, but I always found when chatting with someone first it helped or had more potential as you can tell them more about your team, then offer to send over photos and videos.

Cold calling may not have the highest success rate, I had 1 fall I probably had 100 places written down on our board that got some information from.

It would list the place, the contact method (phone or email), did I chat with them directly, the way to reach, their name, and what we can try to get. (Mentorship, money, materials, other)
Then you need to try and play the follow up game, which can be a tricky one.

A big trick I found is calling in the September time gives you potentially 2 chances at getting the sponsorship. I had places that said they would love to help, call again first thing in January when their budgets reset. Others I hit them as they still had too much in the budget as it’s getting close to years end.

The best resource honestly is finding a list of places that could be helpful. (Big and small, 5 small donations can add up to 1 big) and see with students, mentors or parents if anyone has any connections to that company. They can potentially help put you a leg up in getting to the right person or getting a sponsorship.

We would have students who knew the exact person to talk to, would set it up, and next year we can just reach back out and have no problem renewing the sponsorship. Other times we spend the fall making a new list, and going through the year before a list to see if we can get more success.

It can be very akin to applying to jobs, you can potentially face many rejections but you only need that 1 yes. (In this case you ultimately want more, but the sentiment stands.) you can receive 100 no’s but still raise enough money to fund the season from a few people agreeing to help.

With small and medium businesses you can also see about walking in and chatting with someone in person. Bring a nice little flyer about the team and sponsorship and try to give the elevator pitch.

Best of luck!

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