By Caylin Haldeman

We’ll say it over and over: few elements of the nonprofit business model are more misunderstood than corporate sponsorship. Unlike grants, sponsorships are built upon a fundamental assumption that there is a return on investment (usually through marketing and public relations or employee engagement and talent retention). Over on the CULTIVATE blog, where we write about best practices for emerging organizations, we shared some tips for building “win-win” corporate partnerships back in January – combining social impact for the nonprofit with marketing, public relations and employee engagement returns for the company.

Just five months have passed since we posted that article, but it feels like years. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted the landscape for nonprofits: in-person programs have been postponed or altered to align with social distancing guidelines, spring fundraising events have gone virtual or been cancelled, and employees are carefully operating on the front lines or working from home. These changes have impacted how nonprofits can “fulfill” their existing corporate sponsorships, too, and many are now left without their usual case for support.

On Friday, May 15, Next Stage hosted a roundtable discussion about creative approaches to corporate sponsorship fulfillment on The New Normal. More than 150 nonprofit and corporate social responsibility leaders joined us to hear from panelists Dominique Johnson, Community Affairs Manager at Duke Energy, Natalie Brown, Director of Corporate Citizenship at Ally Financial, and Blair Primis, Senior VP of Marketing & Talent at OrthoCarolina. If you weren’t able to join us last week and want to hear from our panelists, you can find a full recording of the roundtable here.

The conversation was full of nuggets of wisdom – the kind of insight into cross-sector partnership development and communication that you can only accumulate by spending years with a foot in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. We’ve highlighted some of the big takeaways on Twitter, but be sure to read through our Corporate Sponsorships and COVID-19 Checklist for more guidance below.

Corporate Sponsorships and COVID-19: A Checklist for Moving Forward

Existing Sponsorships

  • Reach out to your sponsors to update them on what COVID-19 means for your organization. What has changed, and how will it impact your ability to fulfill sponsorship expectations (e.g. program cancellations, virtual events, employee engagement or volunteer opportunities)?
  • Get creative! If an event has been cancelled, suggest alternative projects or opportunities that provide a similar benefit to the company. A co-branded blog series highlighting the increased need your organization is working to meet during the pandemic, or a virtual event meant to engage the company’s employees in your mission, are just a couple of ideas to get you started.
  • Honesty is the best policy. If need outweighs capacity to create a new strategy to fulfill the sponsorship expectations, share that. Many sponsors are loosening restrictions on sponsorships and some are even increasing their financial commitments due to growing need right now.
  • Don’t overpromise. And try to execute quickly on your new pathway forward. Corporate sponsors understand that this is an unprecedented time – but they want you to be successful. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and build trust between your organization and theirs.

New Sponsorships

  • Consider building new partnerships around marketing benefits. Digital communications are an increasingly important aspect of nonprofit sustainability for all organizations. Find prospective partners relevant to your mission and pitch them on creative brand alignment strategies.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of virtual events. Nonprofits are pulling off virtual fundraisers and events that engage more people than they could reach in a single in-person gala.
  • Integrate digital communications and virtual events into your sponsorship strategy not just during this crisis, but as an ongoing area of growth. The most successful organizations will use this time to build new muscles in marketing and online communications, ultimately growing their brand’s reach in the community and their ability to secure larger sponsorships.
  • Transparency and relationship development are key. Don’t make blind pitches to companies with a menu of sponsorship levels. They have likely realized some revenue shortfalls and operations challenges during this crisis, too. Approach new sponsorship asks as an opportunity to co-create strategies that are true win-win partnerships, solving core business challenges and providing benefit to all at the table.

Let us know how you’ve stayed in touch with your corporate sponsors during COVID-19 and if you are thinking differently about how to build future partnerships through social media using #NewNormalCLT.