The Unspoken Value of Association Sponsorships: Learning Content!

September 13, 2023
Woman taking a virtual learning course on a laptop
When associations' staff and board are asked about the value of corporate sponsorships, they often say "money"; "money to underwrite project costs"; "money to reduce member dues and registration fees." However, money is not the correct answer—it’s about much more. While associations need revenue, they also need learning content to fulfill members' growing needs for solutions, models, tools, research, and more.

Since sponsorships aren’t just about money… what are they about? The answer is learning content: articles, white papers, case studies, webinars, podcasts, and more! The types of learning content that you can produce are endless, but the main rule of thumb is to educate to sell, not sell to educate.

Advancing a sponsorship program around learning content is about educating first, and then afterward, if companies capture the names of those who interacted with the learning content, they’re able to reach out, have a meeting, and market to them—that benefit comes secondary to educating members. The core of a sponsorship program is tied to the association’s mission and the needs of its members (again, educating to sell, not selling to educate).

So, how can you leverage sponsorships to fulfill your members’ needs for learning content? Bruce Rosenthal, of Bruce Rosenthal Associates, has distilled his insights into a 4-step process. This approach will guide you to securing more valuable sponsorships, which will ultimately help you achieve the triple-win for your association, the sponsors, and, most importantly, your members.

Bruce Rosenthal recently unveiled this process in a webinar hosted by Blue Sky eLearn. Dive into the details and gain a new perspective and approach to securing valuable sponsorships to help meet your members’ needs.

Step 1: Identify members’ learning content needs

A good sponsorship program is very membership-focused, which is why Step 1 really has nothing to do with sponsors—it’s all about members. What do members truly need in terms of learning content, and how do you identify those needs? First, it’s essential to find out what it is your members really want. How? You can begin by looking at your basic association core document surveys, strategic plans, committee goals, and tracking conference session attendance.

Another approach is to consider the current trends in the professional and trade industries, as well as what’s happening around the country. New situations, like COVID-19, can flip the script completely on what your members want and need. It’s important to ensure you have up-to-date knowledge of these situations and how they can affect your association and its members.

Finally, ask the experts. Connect with your board members, committees, and staff. What do your members need more information about? What solutions are they looking for right now? A helpful tactic is interviewing each department head in your association (or in a smaller association, each staff member) right after your budget is approved and ask them what they requested for their departments’ budget in the coming year that was not approved? Since they’ve already vetted their rejected budget items and determined it was a good idea, this is a great opportunity to try to find a sponsor to support that initiative.

After identifying this list of members and new member needs, it’s time to take a closer look at what you want to produce but don’t have enough time or resources to accomplish. The hard truth is that a lot of organizations don’t have the staff, money, or expertise to provide for all member needs all the time. Once you’ve identified these gaps, it’s time to align learning content needs with current or prospective sponsors.

Step 2: Identify potential sponsor companies to provide content

Now, let’s talk about how to discover the right sponsorships for your members’ learning content needs. You’ll want to ensure that you are connecting with potential sponsors whose core experience is compatible with your membership goals and learning initiatives. We’re not talking about aligning your members with what a sponsor sells, but rather the knowledge they have around their products and services.

To determine a potential sponsor’s expertise, you’ll need to research their website, paying special attention to their:

Services: What kind of information is listed outside of their sales pages?
Resources: Are they already creating learning content on their own?
Corporate Social Responsibility: Do they have a program that incorporates learning content?
Press Releases: What’s new with the potential sponsor? What are their current focuses?

Most companies don’t just need another logo placement or banner ad—what they really need and want is to align their learning content (their expertise) with associations. Whether it’s leadership development and mentorship for younger members, women in leadership, or D.E.I., finding the companies’ learning content that would be valuable for your members as part of a sponsorship arrangement is key in the research phase of acquiring new sponsorships.

When searching for a sponsor, it’s all about quality prospecting, not quantitative prospecting. If you have a list of 400 “hot-prospect sponsors” and you are sending out a prospectus to see what sticks, you aren’t connecting your members with what they really need. It takes research and a more personalized, targeted approach to outreach to pare down your list of hot prospects and lead you to Step 3 of this process.

Step 3: Sell sponsorships (it’s not really “sales”)

So, if selling sponsorships isn’t sales, what is it? It’s relationship building. Once you can build a relationship with your sponsors, you’ll find yourself not having to call and ask about renewals. Renewals will happen organically due to the collaborative nature of your relationship. Sales is not just calling, emailing, and offering something in return for money; it’s all about relationships.

As mentioned earlier, focusing on the quality, not the quantity, of your sponsors will ultimately lead to more valuable sponsorships for your members. You can achieve this with a targeted, scaled-down approach. Once you do your research and identify member needs and companies that can support those needs, it’s time to secure those sponsorships. Here’s a recommended process:

The 15-Second Pitch
  • Send a short email or make a phone call.
  • Center the conversation around their company. If it’s just another generic sponsorship request, you likely won’t get far. That’s why you need to focus on the company in the context of learning content – let them know you’ve done your research and homework ahead of time.
  • Introduce what your members are looking for and connect that to something you’ve found on the company’s website, social media, etc. that aligns with your membership needs.
  • Schedule a follow-up call/meeting. The goal of the 15-second pitch is to secure a second meeting to discuss the sponsorship further.
30 or 40-minute Call/Meeting
  • Ask about the company’s business objectives and marketing goals. Start off by letting the company know you aren’t selling anything today—this can change the whole tone of the meeting. Now, you have their attention.
  • Ask questions, and then ask more questions. Continue to show interest and a little bit of empathy. Ask follow-up questions to ensure you understand the company’s objectives and goals.
  • Discuss mutual interest around a learning content topic. If appropriate, offer an idea or two, but most importantly, you’ll need to ask a lot of questions, take a lot of notes, and deepen your understanding of what their needs and interests are, and schedule another call to solidify the partnership.

Step 4: Develop a partnership

After you’ve had the call or meeting with the sponsor, it’s time to develop the partnership. Take all the notes from your call and meet with your colleagues to develop a learning content project. Things to consider:

  • What are the company’s goals?
  • What expertise do they have?
  • What do our members need?

Once you and your colleagues have developed a pre-proposal, it’s time to go back to the sponsor with the equivalent of a one-page proposal or email proposal.

Make the proposal about the sponsor company. You should begin by highlighting some of the goals the sponsor discussed during the 30-40-minute call and how your association is going to help them fulfill those needs.

Don’t make it all about your association. Sponsor companies are mainly interested in having their roles fulfilled, not about the number of members you have (which is something they can find on your website or ask about later if they want to know).

It may come as a surprise that many companies are willing to pay more to reach a smaller number of members if they are the right members for the company’s content.

It’s also important to focus on year-long projects within the proposal. Conferences are a great opportunity for sponsors to connect with members, but they are only a few days long—you can’t neglect the rest of the year.

Once you have completed the proposal, it’s time to send it to the company and set up another meeting to discuss, review, and negotiate.

What do sponsor companies really want?

While the answer to that question varies, Bruce has found a consistent pattern over the last 15 years of companies wanting the following inter-related aspects:

  1. Business Development
  2. Brand Visibility
  3. Thought Leadership

If you can position brand visibility and thought leadership into the sponsorship, this will lead to business development for the company.

Bruce has conducted numerous sponsor interviews and found that companies don’t want to sponsor the conversation; they want to be in the conversation around learning content. For example, they want more than just their logo on a slide; they want to be on the panel for your webinar. The relationship with your association and benefiting your members with their participation is of utmost importance to sponsors.

Competing for sponsorships

Sponsor companies have a lot of choices when it comes to what they will or won’t sponsor and how they can get their goals fulfilled. So, who are you competing with for the company’s sponsorship?:

  • Other associations in your space: Take healthcare, for example: There are countless associations within the healthcare industry, and from the sponsor’s point of view, they are doing very similar things.
  • Other associations in other spaces: If a sponsor company services different verticals, the sponsor will go where the most value is.
  • Trade publications in your space, for-profit webinars/conferences, Google ads vs. banner ads with an association.
  • Company outreach and networks: Companies have realized that when they have more control over the message, they can get more new business, which is one of their goals (i.e., in-house webinars or publications).
The Triple-Win

This is the ultimate goal of securing sponsorship for your association. The learning content sponsorship triple-win looks like this:

A win for members: More learning content.
A win for sponsors: Positioned as knowledge leaders (for much higher sponsor value).
A win for associations: Increased sponsor revenue.

Understanding the true value of corporate sponsorships in associations goes far beyond mere financial gains. It's about recognizing the power of learning content as a bridge between sponsors, associations, and members.

By following the four-step process outlined by Bruce Rosenthal and prioritizing the needs and interests of members, associations can forge meaningful partnerships that benefit everyone involved. Through relationship building, aligning expertise with member needs, and emphasizing thought leadership and brand visibility, the triple-win scenario becomes attainable: members receive valuable content, sponsors become recognized knowledge leaders, and associations secure increased revenue.

So, as you embark on your sponsorship journey, remember that it's not just about money; it's about creating lasting educational experiences that enrich your association's mission and enhance the lives of your members.

Interested in a deeper dive? Watch the recording of our webinar, The Unspoken Value of Association Sponsorships: Learning Content!

About Bruce Rosenthal

Bruce Rosenthal is a strategic advisor, consultant, and educator to associations and not-for-profit organizations, creating corporate partnership programs that increase revenue, add membership/constituent value, and foster organizational sustainability. He demonstrates leadership in identifying and cultivating sponsorship and partnership best practices, opportunities, and solutions as Convener of the Partnership Professionals Network (PPN). You can learn more about the work his team is doing at and

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