Unless you are a high-profile personality like Ed Viesters, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong (before he got busted) , chances are you will not have sponsors lining up at your door wanting to give you money. You will have to go looking for it.
I have raised thousands of sponsorship dollars to fund my mountaineering expeditions. Without the help of sponsors, I would never have been able to achieve my climbing dreams such as standing on the summit of Mt Everest.
A sponsorship arrangement is like a marriage. Conducted properly, it can develop into a fulfilling relationship lasting many years. Good sponsorship relationships have mutually beneficial outcomes to both parties that allow each other to realise opportunities they could perhaps never otherwise achieve. Bad sponsorship arrangements can be a painful experience.
Finding sponsorship can be challenging. But if you follow these 10 simple tips below which I have learnt from experience, you too can raise thousands of dollars to finance your own expeditions and dreams.
1 – Sponsorship v Donations – learn the difference
The first thing to understand is my explanation of the difference between a ‘sponsorship’ and a ‘donation’. I consider a sponsorship to be a business arrangement between two or more parties. The amount of money/ products or services given by the sponsor, should be commensurate to the level of value that the sponsor receives in return.
A ‘donation’ is a gift of money/product or a service from a donar without the requirement or expectation of anything in return. Donations normally are made based on emotional grounds (e.g. supporting friends, charitable causes etc).
Why is it important to realize the difference between sponsorship and donations? Because it is much easier to get money from sponsorship than it is to get money from donations. Donations rely on people’s financial generosity. In hard times this dries up quickly. Secondly there is so much competition for donations. Every person and their dog seem to be asking for ‘donations’ to support their next running, bowling or cycling cause. While I am not trying to disrespect these people – the reality is as my friend told me last week. “I am so tired of constantly being asked to donate money, it seems every time I look on Facebook or walk down the main street I am being hounded to donate to something”. This has led to a syndrome called ‘donor burnout’.
Sponsorship on the other hand is a sustainable method of raising money because it is a business transaction which gives value to both parties. Thus the amount of money you can raise is only dependent on how much value you can ‘create’ and offer to the sponsor. Many people I see looking for sponsorship are approaching it more like a request for a donation. They do not offer much or anything at all of value. Done effectively you can raise thousands if not millions of dollars of sponsorship money much faster than you could ever do from simply begging for donations.
2 – Cash is King
Sponsorship can be in the form of a product or service or cash. For my expeditions, cash is my main priority. This is because expeditions cost a great deal of cash. This is what I focus my main efforts on searching for. Cash is also the hardest of the three to acquire!
Think carefully before approaching manufacturers for equipment or gear sponsorship’s. Unless you really need that gear for your expedition and it is a high value item for you to purchase. You only have so much time to commit to searching and setting up sponsorship deals. Compare the opportunity cost of investing time searching and setting up a sponsorship deal with a gear manufacturer in exchange for say a sleeping bag or a jacket which costs a few hundred dollars too spending the same amount of time to find a cash sponsor who will give you S$50,000. You then can buy any sleeping bag or jacket you want and have more than enough left over for other expenses!
3- Less is more
It’s better to have one sponsor for $10,000 than ten sponsors all contributing $ 1,000 each. You only have so much time to commit to sponsorship deals and providing the value to sponsors which you have promised in your sponsorship contract. It is easy to develop the attitude when you start out with nothing, that ‘every little bit counts’. Be careful of over-committing yourself. Having multiple sponsors can get very difficult to manage and can also dilute the amount of coverage or focus each sponsor receives.
On my first Everest expedition I worked with a number of smaller sponsors. I found it difficult and time-consuming to balance the commitments to the sponsors and focus on the expedition. As a result one of the sponsors in particular became unhappy that I could not deliver what they had asked for. I learnt from this and made the decision for my second expedition to Everest to only work with only two sponsors. This freed up a great deal more of my time and allowed me to focus on the expedition and giving the sponsors as much value as possible.
4 – Sponsorship is a business
My Everest expeditions alone have cost me well over S$100,000. In addition I have raised thousands of dollars for community organizations mainly from professional sponsorship. One of the key points that many people fail to appreciate is the need to realize that sponsorship is a form of business. When in business it’s very important to behave like a professional business person.
Dress appropriately for meetings with potential sponsors and turn up on time! (I once had a meeting planned with the president of a very busy sports club. I was very confident of securing sponsorship through the club but I got stuck in traffic and turned up 30 minutes late for the meeting by which time he had left. The person who had helped me set-up the meeting was embarrassed and the president refused to meet me again. I did eventually secure some sponsorship however it took a further 6 weeks and many apologies).
Get personalized name cards printed that relate to your expedition. (Don’t use your ‘day job’ name cards. It costs less than $50 to get a 100 – 200 professional name cards printed in full color)
Create marketing material to take to meetings. (I have an A4 clear folder which has a selection of media articles and events from previous climbs which I take along to meetings. This is a great marketing tool to pass to the potential sponsor to leaf through as I discuss with them. It is highly visual and helps to add credibility to my sales pitch.)
Create an online presence for your expedition through a website or blog. Remember to make your site appear in a way that a sponsor would be proud or happy to have their name associated with.
Create professional looking and worded sponsorship proposals to email and pass to potential sponsors. Give options for sponsorship ‘packages’. Make it as simple as possible for the sponsor to understand what you are offering to them and what you are asking for in return.
Draw up sponsorship agreements that outline the commitments of both parties once agreements have been reached. (A simple MOU – Memorandum of Understanding can also suffice)
You will also need to be able to prepare invoices and receipts to receive sponsorship payments. (You can download and customize sample formats of contract’s invoice and receipt templates off the internet).
Remember to talk at the level of your sponsor using language appropriate to them and their business. For example, it is not appropriate for me to sit in a meeting with the managing director of a company who has no interest or background in climbing and explain about my weekend ‘pumping out on the crux pitch of a 5.9 off- width flared crack when I my last piece of pro popped’. Instead I should be focusing on discussing the ways that being associated with my expedition would offer value to their organization, using language appropriate to the corporate environment.
One of my sponsors informed me after an expedition, that the money they invested in my sponsorship was the best marketing investment they had ever made. This has resulted in a fruitful ongoing relationship. If you can give your sponsors this kind of value, it increases your chances greatly of working with them in the future. Consequently if you do a poor job and the sponsor is not satisfied with the value they got from working with you – then you can kiss goodbye to their support again! Remember it’s a business relationship. If you get poor or bad service from a company, would you go back again?
5 – Finding synergy
Search for a company or organizations which share or can relate to or wants to be associated with similar vision’s to your expedition. This takes time and effort to research. For example a mountaineering expedition to a virgin peak would invoke vision’s of moving into new territory, boldness, exploration, calculated risk and pushing our boundaries. Companies who are at the cutting edge of their fields, developing new technologies or new markets (maybe in the country your expedition will be headed?) would relate to this vision. It also helps enormously if you can share a personal synergy with the sponsors.
I had a meeting with the Managing Director of a large multinational logistics firm. He was very interested in my expedition and we talked for a long time about what value they could get from sponsoring me. Whatever idea’s I proposed he did not seem to appreciate or understand, and whatever idea’s he proposed to me were not practical. In the end we could not come to a deal and the main reason was there was not enough synergy between us.
6 – It’s not about you, its about them
Hold on? If a company is going to sponsor me, surely it is all about me? Wrong!!! An organisation is not generally going to sponsor you because you are ‘you’ or even what you are going to do on your expedition(unless you are ridiculously famous, good-looking and have a squeaky clean image). The reason they will sponsor you is ‘what’s in it for them?’. What value they are going to get out of it? That’s what you need to focus on when you communicate with them.
Do your homework before approaching the sponsor to determine what they will find valuable from being associated with your expedition. Companies will differ with what they want. Some sponsors want to raise their public profile or gain more media exposure. A small company in a niche market may not be interested in mass media at all but instead want to communicate with their key customers on a different topic than normal day-to-day business activities. Equipment manufacturers may want their gear tested and have it seen and photographed for marketing purposes.
Don’t make the mistake of arranging a meeting with a potential sponsor and then wasting the majority of your time talking about how you want to be the first person to climb Everest oxygen-less, and naked wearing only a pair of roller skates. While the goal of your expedition is important, it should be summed up in a few sentences. Then you MUST focus your time and effort on the value that the sponsor will be getting from your proposal. This is the ‘music’ that the sponsor wants to hear.
Beware of the ‘flag on the summit syndrome’. A common conception of a climbing sponsorship revolves around getting a photo with the sponsors flag on a particular summit. This is very risky. It is also very unimaginative. What if you don’t make the summit? What if you do make the summit but your camera is frozen up and will not work? My point is, don’t hinge the success or failure of your entire sponsorship arrangement on one risky event. If you are creative, you can develop a whole publicity campaign for your sponsors which has a ‘before’, a ‘during’ and an ‘after’ expedition phase. You can leverage heavily on pre-expedition publicity and coverage so that the sponsor gets a great deal of value before the expedition even starts! This takes a lot of pressure off you during the expedition.
During my 2012 Everest, I had a deal with a sponsor which involved pre-expedition talks, website exposure on my expedition blogs for the expedition phase and post expedition lectures and talks to their customers. As well as what was listed in our sponsorship contract, I managed to get media exposure over and above our agreement like this 6 minute Television clip featuring me thanking the sponsor from the summit which aired on prime time TV in New Zealand. You should if possible aim to ‘over deliver’ to your sponsors. That way you are setting your future up nicely to continue the relationship.
7 – Networking versus cold calling
Your key focus when contacting potential sponsors is to arrange a meeting with the decision maker. A person who has the authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to your proposal. The most effective way I have found is by using my network of friends and colleagues to make personal introductions. If you are targeting a specific organization but have no personal contact with the decision maker, don’t waste time starting at the bottom of hierarchy. The lower level people will pass you off very quickly or will promise to ‘pass your request on’ and that is the last you will ever hear of it. Try and find someone in your network who can make a personal introduction.
I once spent months ‘cold contacting’ companies. Most of the time I never even received a response. To their credit the ‘Body Shop’ in Singapore were polite enough to send me a rejection email. This was the final nail in the coffin for me and I knew I had to change tactics. I started using my network of friends and acquaintances to make introductions to key decision makers in organisations and eventually got an introduction to the director of a company who become a key sponsor.
8 – The two-minute sales pitch
Once you do have that meeting arranged with the decision maker, you need to prepare your ‘sales pitch’. My rule of thumb is that you should be able to sum up and deliver an inspiring sales pitch within two minutes (shorter if possible) that will make or break the deal. You must prepare and practice this. Remember that managers are generally very busy people. You will have their complete attention for a very short period before their eyes will start to glaze over and they will start looking at their blackberry phones and wonder what they will be having for lunch. If you are droning on for 45 minutes and they still aren’t getting it, you have probably lost them. I can generally tell within this first few minutes if I will be successful or not. This does not mean that your meeting should be over within 2 minutes, it may end up taking one hour to discuss the finer details, however you should aim to ‘snag them’ as early as possible.
In 2011 I managed to secure a meeting with a senior manager of a large company. I was excited about this as I knew he was the decision maker. I prepared for the meeting, turned up early, bought my marketing material. However 30 minutes later I was still there trying to explain the whole concept. I could literally feel the enthusiasm draining from him the longer I talked and he was getting more and more impatient. I left after 45 minutes and knew that it was no deal which they confirmed by email the next day.
9 – Choose a mentor
Having someone who can mentor you is very useful. Someone you can discuss your idea’s, advise you, pick you up when are feeling down etc. Don’t expect a mentor to lead you directly to a sponsor, but they should be able to encourage and teach you. Choose your mentor carefully and beware of ‘false prophets’.
The best people to have as mentors are people who have been there and done that (i,e, raised significant amounts of money themselves through sponsorship). If you can’t find these people then I suggest you find someone who is a professional and successful sales person. The ‘business’ of raising sponsorship is mainly a sales activity. You are selling your expedition and the value it can bring to the sponsor. Professional sales people should know how to approach clients and the art of selling and will be able to share these techniques.
10 – Patience
Finding sponsors takes time. You will need to be patient. You will need to be thick-skinned to handle the numerous rejections. Don’t be surprised if you approach 20 – 50+ companies before you strike a deal. Over time it gets easier as you become more experienced. You will need to be disciplined and hard-working. I set myself rules when looking for sponsors, that every day I would contact at least one new company and try to make an appointment with the decision maker.
In 2009 I was sourcing for sponsorship for an expedition to Kazakhstan We had a ‘pre-expedition’ press release which made it into the national newspaper. The week before we left, When a potential sponsor saw this it was the final motivation they needed to commit S$20,000 to the expedition two days before we left! I kept trying until the end and was patient!
I also share my climbing and sponsorship raising experiences through lectures and presentations. Do feel free to contact me to discuss more.
My next article will be “How to raise money to climb Everest if you can’t find a cash sponsor”