In episode 49 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Lewis Flax discuss:
Lewis Flax specializes in assisting nonprofits and associations generate additional revenue. His hands-on approach has helped numerous organizations implement strategies and tactics to increase sponsorship, partnership, and other funding streams. His firm, Flax Associates, established in 2008, serves as a partner in driving revenue and results.
Lewis understands the challenges nonprofits face, both from an outside consultant's point of view and from the internal perspective of a nonprofit executive. Previously, Lewis served as a Vice President for IEG (a sponsorship consulting firm) and served on the leadership team at Financial Executives International (FEI).
He is a certified instructor for Dale Carnegie Training (Winning with Relationship Selling) and an AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) Master Trainer.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Lewis Flax. Lewis and I talk about sponsorships. We explore why companies are interested in sponsorships, some of the misconceptions, and why to create real value you will need to get beyond your traditional bronze, silver, and gold-level sponsorships.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Lewis. Welcome to the podcast.
Lewis Flax: Thanks, Carol pleasure to be here and looking forward to discussing sponsorship and the tie in with associations and nonprofits.
Carol: Absolutely. So I like to start at the beginning, I guess the sound of music inspires that, but start at the very beginning, but, but what w what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you say is your why?
Lewis: When. First started working within the nonprofit world, realized when it came to sponsorship and how to go about it. When it came to how to structure and set up a sponsorship, when it came to how they go ahead and sell it, there was a lack of knowledge. There, there was a lack of awareness and the idea of how they work. Corporations and funders where they needed assistance and guidance. I felt a need or an urge to help, to give back through assistance and support. So I went to work for a larger consulting firm and then started my own firm in 2008.
Carol: All right. So you've been around the block a few times. So as you said, you work with nonprofits and associations on sponsorships. Just so folks have some context. Can you define sponsorship first?
Lewis: So sponsorship is where a company or an organization is paying a fee. Back to a property, the association or nonprofit where they're gaining specific benefits or specific rights which they value.
Carol: And what would you say motivates organizations to enter into those sponsorships? And I'm saying from the corporation side, what, what, what do they see as you a give get of what they're getting from that relationship?
Lewis: Sure. So they're aligning with an organization that can add value. So on the association side, often it's visibility awareness connection to thought leadership on the traditional non-profit side. It's aligning with a good cause, it's connecting with an organization which aligns with their values.
Carol: And what would you say are some of the key misconceptions that people have about sponsorships? You said that when you started there was a lack of knowledge. What are the things that you have to help people understand about those misconceptions?
Lewis: Sure. When it comes to sponsorship, often organizations on the nonprofit side look at, okay, well, put together a perspective. Especially now, given the pandemic things that have occurred, sending out a prospectus is not nearly enough, here's a standard offering of gold, silver, bronze, and this is what you get. That's not the way to generate higher revenue. That's not the way to customize your target in a way that's meaningful to a potential.
Carol: So what, what would you have organizations do instead?
Lewis: Well, there are a number of steps to take in working with different organizations. I walked them through a process that I term step up in terms of how to go about what it is that you can offer, whether a sponsor is interested in it, and then how you could structure your program to connect with the potential sponsors and align with your culture and your organization.
Carol: Can you give me an example of when you've seen that work well in terms of building that, building that relationship.
Lewis: Yeah. There are, there are many instances. So for example, with different associations it's well, what is it that they're offering? That's a value. So in working with one group, they have an awards program, safety awards. And for a sponsor, that's in a space where they're tied into safety. So say an insurance company or other types of companies. Well, if they can get involved with the safety program and they're providing insurance to the members of that association, all of a sudden it changes. Because if an insurance company is working with those who submit, apply or are involved in a safety awards program, well, they want to insure them. And if they can provide guidance as to how to handle safety procedures at a, in a manufacturing plant, or how to handle safety procedures in a different environment, that's who they want. So if they can get involved either on the selection committee or get involved in terms of articles on safety or debt involved in terms of working with an awards program that offers far more value than having your name and your logo on the website and on signage and pasted anywhere and everywhere. So when it aligns with what the company is seeking. And the specific association or nonprofit it's far greater. So I tossed out an awards program because I've seen that work a number of times.
Carol: What are some other misconceptions that you see folks have about sponsorships,
Lewis: Offering? They view it as a connection with a board member and the board member knows someone. And as a result, oh, we'll set up this. Offering and they think that that's the key value where the board member leaves and often boom, the sponsorship disappears.
Carol: So what would you say are some of the challenges that organizations are facing in terms of sponsorships and building those partnerships?
Lewis: New issue often that they face is the idea of corporate involvement and how we go about it moving beyond. Well, we can offer a webinar or we can offer a slot at a conference, or we can offer a table at a gala because those are just tools. They'll just tools in a toolbox, but what is it that the sponsor wants? How do they want to get involved? What's meaningful to them. And often on the association, nonprofit side, they only see it as well. What can we offer without thinking about it from the lens or from the perspective of the sponsor?
Carol: So what are the types of things that sponsors are often looking for?
Lewis: Normally it's going to, so with associations, are they interested in a specific regulatory area? Are they interested in reaching a set or tying in with a consumer promotion campaign? Or are they interested in an advocacy effort? What issues or challenges that the member base, the distribution list? What are the issues and concerns that they face and how can we respond or are addressed?
Carol: So again, can you give me an example of, of what your of those kinds of situations like th those, those values that they see
Lewis: Let's look at, let's say it's in the accounting space where the association is to provide information. Well, the accounting firms are going to have information on that regulatory issue. And if they can provide that information, be it in the form of an article, maybe a webinar, a conference presentation, a survey, and all of those could be tied together. That's where it's offering far greater value to the sponsor. And it's going to offer value to the association, assuming that they have authority and they best review what's presented and who's going to be presenting.
Carol: And from this, what mistakes do you see sponsors making when they, when they try to, make the most of their sponsorship in that partnership?
Lewis: Often they're looking at it as a short-term game. What we need to have X number of leads. Well, that's generally not how sponsorship works. It's often, well, if you're going to be involved, You're going to get out of it. What you put in for the sponsors needs to. So for example, if it's a regulatory issue where it's an advocacy campaign or it's a specific issue, well, do they develop content? They have resources. Do they have information? That's a value, not just a product demo. They have information. That's a value too.
Carol: So it's getting out of just a pure sales mode then, and thinking about what are the, yeah, what's the information, what's the thought leadership that they can, they can share and provide. And how about on, on the more traditional non-profits sometimes I feel like it's, it's easier to see the connections from an association point of view. But your more traditional nonprofits are also interested in engaging corporate partners. D do you see differences there between the two and, and approach?
Lewis: Yes. In the sense that. From the standpoint of how they go about. Often it's somewhat the same. Yeah. Associations are often looking at it. Both perspectives. Associations are often looking at it saying, well, they should want this. And it's visibility, logos everywhere. The traditional non-profits are often looking at it through the lens of board member connections and how to leverage those, if it's more well, them. So they should sponsor as opposed to what the value is from the company's.
Carol: And what are some steps that organizations can take to get started in this? If they haven't, haven't had a sponsorship program before, what are some of the basics?
Lewis: Sure. So I walk organizations through what, like turn on step up S and the S stands for, well, what's their current situation and looking at who they have as sponsors and who's within their sponsor. Now. And then also addressing the key challenge. What is preventing them? What is stopping them from establishing that sponsorship program? And that could be maybe there's a board resent. It could be that we don't know corporate decision makers. It could be. So one of those challenges, often organizations will, or nonprofits or associations will begin to set up their sponsorship program and, oh, we'll come back to those challenges later. We'll address that down the line and it's when they do. Those challenges are going to pop up again, those obstacles are going to come back and if they don't address that upfront or think through how they're going to address it, there's going to be an issue. There's going to be a problem. So the first step is to evaluate your current situation and figure out how you're going to move.
Carol: I feel like every, every consulting process starts with that first step of figuring out what that current situation is. And when I'm working with groups on strategic planning, that whole process of helping them also have a shared understanding of what that current state is, I think, is also a helpful step that consultants can bring to organizations that they may be. I know for me, when I'm working. Clients there's often a perception or almost a fear that there's such a breadth of ideas and perspectives. And then once you have a chance to talk to folks and get into it it turns out that there's actually a lot more common understanding and shared perspective than people realize.
Lewis: Yes, absolutely.
Carol: So what trends are you seeing in the whole arena of sponsorships?
Lewis: Yeah, the trends are, there's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of unknowns. So on both the association and nonprofit side, they're unsure how to move forward. And so what ends up happening is they don't do anything or they don't make changes. So the idea of making changes. And making shifts as to how they're going to approach things. The associations and nonprofits that are going to thrive are the ones that are willing to take those chances. I say, take those chances. They're willing to experiment. They're willing to test and Rocky dies that not everything will go right. And when I say God, everything will go, right? Whether it's an event, whether it's a webinar, whether it's a sponsorship offering, they're going to try something new and organizations recognize that they need to do that. A lot of them won't. So the key is to take a step, make an effort and, and on the sponsor side, there's a lot more awareness of when organizations do that, they respect them. They acknowledge that these are different times.
Carol: Yeah. And I would imagine that, at least in my limited experience, Of just observing what goes on in sponsorship programs from the sides, certainly in working in different organizations. I think what I've seen is a traditional model that's very very event focused often around an annual conference or some annual convening. And, since the pandemic with so many things going virtual there's not that same. I guess it seems traditional, like slack, the logo everywhere. It's just not the same in the online environment. So what, what shifts have you seen with that? with everything that folks have been contending with in the last couple of years?
Lewis: Yeah. When it comes to events, Organizations have learned. Well, if you're just focused on events, you're going to be in trouble because in a virtual environment, whether it's zoom or teams or whatever the format is, you can appease the exhibit hall of 500 people. You can appease a gala where you had a hundred and 150 tables. So moving beyond events is a big component of how these organizations should shift. So earlier when you asked me for examples, the idea of a safety program or a safety awards program, the idea of a specific regulatory issue, when it's focused on a theme or an issue it's for a greater, because then it's not event centric and organizations can be more effective. The issue is a lot of the organizations struggle with how to piece that. If the conference department doesn't talk to the group that handles webinars, it doesn't talk to the magazine area. It doesn't speak to the research area. It's a lot tougher and they need to navigate through that because the truth is if there's good content and it was featured in a magazine or. Well, why not tie that into a webinar? And then why not include that at a conference presentation? Why not tie that into a survey? Why not allow the good content for the good content from a specific source, perhaps a sponsor and others. And you connect that across the organization. It's far better for the organization and it's easier than to establish a stronger sponsorship program. So it's more about themes and concepts. Topics or issues that are of interest to the member base or to the audience. And when that's done, it's far easier to set up a successful sponsorship.
Carol: That's a really interesting flip and I think it, beyond just sponsorship, it goes to a lot that, especially associations are doing around, serving their members being current and getting out of the mindset of, the, the delivery channels of whether it's a conference or it's research or it's, the magazine. But what are the overarching themes of the things that people need to know about the things that are upcoming, the trends the current research is helping, helping people navigate all that without being so caught up in what particular channel that it's being delivered.
Lewis: Yeah, analog organization, they get that's where I mentioned the tools they get caught up in here's a webinar, or here's put your logo on or banner on our newsletter or here's some other offering. And it's all about slapping or pasting logos everywhere. Well, that doesn't offer much value. Whereas it's an awards program, or if it's a specific campaign or advocacy effort or a themed approach, you move away from the tools. Then you move towards what the customer wants and then it could be, and should be far more successful.
Carol: And when the customer wants what you're saying there, that would be the member of the organization. Which customer are you talking about in that instance?
Lewis: Okay. So if the sponsor is interested in conveying their thought leadership related to regulatory issues, X. And they're pitched, here's an ad in the newsletter or here's an exhibit booth or here's a webinar. Well, it's not connecting with them. Those are the tools. And they're interested in this regulatory issue. Well, can they get involved in that regulatory issue?
Carol: Right, right. What are some fears that you would say either staff or board members have about, especially for, I would say on the more traditional nonprofit side of bringing in private sector groups to their, to their organization.
Lewis: Number one is if we take corporate money, how does that impact us? And I'm a big believer that any organization, association, or traditional nonprofit, should stick to their values and their culture, and do not allow a sponsor to dictate or to determine how to handle something, their control, regardless of funding. That's, that's one, the and then secondly, for a number of organizations, if they take. Funds, what does that mean? How do they work with them? And to clarify ahead of time what those requirements are, what those values. So it's easier for them to set up a program that's going to be successful as opposed to just hit or miss and see what happens.
Carol: Yeah. And I would imagine helping a group talk through what they're looking for in sponsors. So the, in the same way that you're talking about flipping the script and thinking about it from the sponsor's point of view and what value they're going to get out of it. But then from the organization's point of view, helping them think through. What is it that we want? Who, who do we want to partner with? Who do we want to give access and who do we not? And like having that conversation without individual sponsorship opportunities in the room, or in the conversation I would think would set them up to feel more confident in moving forward, to look for a potential organization. So it isn't just based on, as you said, the current board members that they happen to have, who they happen to have relationships with, et cetera.
Lewis: Yeah. I mean, when they set the parameters or the guidelines ahead of time, they're going to be far more directed and focused. And it's going to be easier for them to move forward as opposed to, well, we'll walk through the door and whether the company says they would do, and then the board or leadership is looking at that. And all of a sudden they haven't clarified their own values. They haven't clarified their own culture. They haven't set the parameters, they haven't set the guidelines. And often that leads to maybe not a problem at that point in time, but the problem down the line. Sure.
Carol: So at the end of each podcast episode, I play a little game where I pull out a Random, somewhat random icebreaker question. So the one I have, I have three of them sitting here. I always put up for you to just see what let's go to fit. I don't know if this fits or not, but we just, we've just moved into spring. And I think this will actually be being published sometime probably as we're moving more towards summer. But which season would you say fits your personality?
Lewis: Probably fall. And the reason I say fall is in my mind, it's beautiful outside because the leaves are returning the weather's a little cooler, more comfortable. I like to walk with my family. We'll hike and get outside and fall could be a rebirth and it's a change. It shifts. And I liked that. I liked that change. Yeah. The feel in the air. I like how things are changing. So fall follows my favorite season. I think it would describe who I don't think describes who I am. Yeah. I really enjoy fall. I enjoyed the change of seasons.
Carol: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. We're just, I'm enjoying the, the, all the, all the. Flowers are popping up right now and the trees are blooming. And then yes, at the other end, when all the leaves are falling and you have that shift in the weather appreciate that. One of my sisters moved out to California and one of the things she missed the most about the east coast was having seasons so well, I really appreciate it.
Lewis: I was just saying, I love the different seasons. I love how in our area, in the Washington DC area, they're distinct and different seasons. And I liked that
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and what's emerging in your work these days.
Lewis: It's interesting as we start to move, hopefully out of the pandemic and working with different organizations. So much for coming back to the fall, there's a bit of a rebirth, okay, now we need to move forward. And then in my role, it's looking at it through the lens of, no, you can't go back to the way you weren't doing it. Let's make those adjustments, those changes, and then move forward.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on. I really appreciate the conversation.
Lewis: My pleasure. And thank you, Carol. I liked the way you asked the questions. You asked me good questions and the follow-ups are on target in terms of what does that mean to clarify?
Carol: Yeah. Well, what I, one thing I appreciate about doing the podcast is that I'm always learning something new because I get to talk to people about their area of expertise and it's not necessarily mine. So I get to have a little mini-masterclass. So appreciate that and appreciate you sharing your perspective and all your wisdom on, on sponsorships. So thanks so much.
Lewis: My pleasure. And thank you for giving back to the association and nonprofit community by adding resources.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Lewis described how to work with your sponsors and potential sponsors to create more value – for your organization as well as the company. That it starts with conversations with the sponsor – what are they looking to achieve? How might you align in your efforts? And for both sides – the sponsor and your organization – that developing the relationship should be with the longer term in mind. If either party is just looking for short term gain they are missing a lot of opportunity and value that could be there. There is also more opportunity available if different parts of your organization are cross pollinating and talking – in an association – staff who are managing the magazine, staff who are producing webinars and other learning events. Are they talking and coordinating their efforts with a sponsor and a tie in? Of course always being mindful of whether a particular sponsor aligns with your organizational values.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Lewis, his full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
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I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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