Corporate sponsors and event funding: Ask early, not often

If you’re hoping to get sponsorship funds for your event, it’s better to ask early than to ask often. And even better to ask professionally…

For larger companies (i.e., the ones that actually do have a fair amount of cash for sponsorships) it is vitally important to ask early about sponsorships. Especially for events that are not yet established. Annual events like LinuxTag fall more easily into budget planning because you can establish a baseline for funding those events and plan year to year whether it’s worth attending and how much it actually costs. In addition to sponsorship, companies have to factor in travel, shipping, materials, etc. — the costs of participating in a conference are not limited to the funds that are put in for sponsorship.

Note that this applies to larger companies that have strict planning and budget cycles. If you’re looking for $500 from a medium or small-sized company, then they usually have flexibility and can spare that kind of cash. If you’re in the thousands and/or approaching a larger company, then these things apply. Even $500 can put you over budget at a large company when you’re approaching the end of a quarter and didn’t budget for something.

When approaching a company for sponsorships, you want to do several things to increase your chance of success:

  • Ask very early — As soon as you have an idea what funds you’re going to need, work a plan for sponsorship levels and start approaching the “big guys” that will have cornerstone and major sponsorships very early so they can work this into their annual planning (if they feel it’s important) and have the funds to cover your event.
  • Ask the right person — this is tricky, but it helps very much to approach the person who is going to decide, rather than randomly approaching anyone from company X. If you’re very lucky, if you don’t find the right person they’ll pass you on to the right person. Odds are, if you email the wrong person inside an organization the mail will simply go from inbox to trash.
  • Be specific — if you approach a company with vague requests, it’s less likely that you’re going to get what you want or need. Be specific about sponsorship levels, what they cost, and what the sponsor is going to receive for the money.
  • Have value — what does the event offer the sponsor, aside from a very vague sense of goodwill? What’s the return on sponsoring an event? You need to be able to answer that question — and you need to answer it very well if you’re asking for thousands of dollars.
  • Be realistic — small events should carry small price tags, don’t expect a company to pony up thousands of dollars for a one-day event that will attract less than 300 people at the outside. (I’m talking about community events — events with a highly desirable audience might be worth more money, so if your guest list includes President Obama and 50 U.S. governors, well, you could probably set a much higher fee…)
  • Be flexible — when times are tight, so are budgets. Don’t expect the rate card to remain unchanged from 2008 to 2009 and so on. If an event has a $500 sponsorship, then it’s probably not worth haggling over. When you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars (or Euros), then it may be necessary to budge a bit when times are tight.

Finally, realize that as important as your cause or event is, it’s one of many. No matter how deep the well, it will run dry eventually, and you might be the one holding the empty bucket. It may not be an indication that your event isn’t considered important, it may just be lack of budget or poor timing. You can at least remedy the poor timing by asking early.

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