Whether it’s a professional conference, a fundraising walk or a black-tie gala, just about every event you attend is sponsored by one or more businesses, with banners, signs and mentions in the program announcing their philanthropy. Rarely do these businesses come knocking at the doors of the event planners. If the sponsorship deal benefits the cause and the sponsors alike, the sponsors will come back year after year.

Best Companies to Approach for Sponsorship

New event planners often wonder if there's a list — written or unwritten — of the best companies to approach for sponsorship. The answer to that is "no" because if there were such a list, of course it would include the huge, multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, Nike and others known to sponsor numerous events. However, unless your event is on the scale of the Olympics or the Super Bowl, these aren't the companies for you.

When considering sponsors, ask yourself if your event will be of interest to most of the potential sponsor's customer base. You'll find yourself crossing off the big names until you're left with only local and regional businesses and organizations, and that's as it should be. These are the businesses that care whether the high school's grad night has enough prizes or whether your professional conference is a success that brings hundreds of visitors to town.

Local businesses care about the locals; they are their customer base and their neighbors. Some will be sponsors because their competitors are also sponsors, some will do it to get their name in front of a wider public in a positive way and some will become sponsors because they have soft spots for the event or for some of the participants (such as if the CEO has a graduating senior). Make a list of all local businesses and regional businesses that have a connection to your cause because these are your best companies to approach for sponsorship.

Consider Their Return on Investment

Potential sponsors want to know the benefits to them for sponsoring your event — in other words, their return on investment. It isn't enough to say, "Your company's name will be on huge banners for everyone to see!" It's a start, sure, but be more specific by telling them how many banners you'll have, their sizes, where the banners will be displayed, how many people will be in attendance and even how many of those in attendance would be likely to become their customers after seeing their company name.

Of course, since your event has not yet occurred, you don't know for certain the answers to these questions. However, by digging into previous years' data, you can speak with certainty about what benefits previous sponsors realized. If possible, get quotes from businesspeople who participated in the past about how they benefitted from sponsorship.

If this is the first time the event is being held, focus on the demographics of attendees and how well they match the demographics of the potential sponsor's target market in terms of age, gender, income and other data. Tell them how many tickets will be sold and at what price point and relay promises you have from companies or individuals who will buy tables of 10 or other blocks of tickets.

Assemble Exciting Sponsorship Levels

Rather than just asking each sponsor to donate something and leaving how much up to them, offer different levels of sponsorship and be specific about what sponsors receive at each level. Make it exciting by naming the levels and adding benefits to each so that donors want to be at the highest levels. Brainstorm with a team and let your imagination go wild.

For example, if you named the levels three star, four star and five star, it's clear that each level is higher than the one below, but it's not a very enticing lineup. Instead, say you delve into outer space, where the possibilities are endless, and have levels of star, constellation and galaxy. Sponsoring at any of these levels would be acceptable and appreciated; after all, even the lowest-level donors are stars! Maybe there's only one galaxy-level donor who will lead all other sponsors in what they donate and what they receive so businesses that can afford to sponsor at this level may compete for the spot to appear both prosperous and benevolent at the same time.

Build on the benefits at each tier to encourage sponsors to sign on at a higher level. For example, very basic tiers could look like this:

  • Galaxy ($10,000): Name in the program and on banners and top billing in all social media posts and printed materials

  • Constellation ($5,000): Name in the program and on banners

  • Star ($1,000): Name in the program

At the same time, though, leave room for flexibility so you can offer sponsors more of what they want from a sponsorship. Be prepared to sweeten the deal with additional benefits if asked, such as free tickets, a chance to speak or a networking get-together prior to the actual event.

Contacting the Right Contacts the Right Way

Consider in advance whom you will contact at each company. For small companies, it's probably the owner, but there could be a VP of finance who handles anything financial. Larger companies might have a public relations department to contact.

Most companies say they prefer that your initial contact be through email or social media rather than a phone call so they have time to do some research on you, your event and your past history. Before you make your initial contact, make sure their research on you and your cause will turn up positive results. Update the event's website and any other website with which you're associated as well as all social media where your name or the event's name will take them. If you haven't posted on your social media outlets in months, how can they count on you to follow through on your promise to promote their company?

Then, follow up with a phone call asking for an appointment. You're not asking them to donate yet; you want to get in front of them to show them the sponsorship packages you're offering and to watch their reactions as you listen to their responses.

Create and Practice Your Pitch

Come up with an elevator pitch — how you would convince prospects during a short elevator ride — that explains your mission, how your event differs from others and why they should hear more, all in just a few sentences. This is actually quite doable if you create your pitch in advance and practice it so you can recall it at a moment's notice. For example:

"The (NAME of EVENT) will help (WHO or WHAT) be able to (MISSION). Unlike other fundraisers, it (EXPLAIN HOW IT IS UNIQUE AND WILL BENEFIT THE SPONSORS)."

Practice, practice, practice your pitch until you can give it easily and naturally with enthusiasm and a smile. The purpose of your pitch is not to sign up sponsors on the spot but to get an appointment where you can fully explain all the details, reveal your data and make the sponsorship deal. This is where flexibility is so important, as every sponsor should feel that his needs from a sponsorship will be met. Follow through with your promises, and you'll have sponsors who are happy to come back again and again.