In what may be a first for the sponsorship industry and religious institutions, The United Methodist Church has launched a corporate partner program.

And the program is already gaining traction: The church recently secured six-figure deals with two companies: The Dream Co. and Zebraplace / Foundation Automation LLC. 

Both ties benefit the UMC and its churches. The Dream Co. markets “discipleship” life insurance products to clergy and congregants, while Foundation Automation helps raise funds for local churches through an online shopping portal.  

The UMC launched the program to offset operating costs around its general conference, a ten-day quadrennial event that brings together delegates from around the world. The event was last hosted in Tampa, Fla. in 2012.

“The cost of bringing thousands of delegates together started to increase, so we started to look at nontraditional funding to offset costs,” said Bobby Lee Smith, manager of corporate partnership and philanthropic initiatives with the General Council on Finance and Administration, the UMC’s administrative arm.

When Smith began to sell the 2012 conference, he quickly encountered two obstacles: many companies had allocated their marketing budgets for the year, while others had restrictions on supporting faith-based organizations. 

Smith overcame those obstacles by securing deals with seminaries, vendors and other organizations affiliated with the UMC, each of which received on-site exposure and other marketing benefits at the general conference.

Although the sponsors were endemic to the church, the program helped temper concerns over commercialization, prompting UMC to explore the possibility of a larger, church-wide sponsorship program.

“After the general conference, we thought ‘how can we evolve the program with other assets? Can we use our 11 million members to attract sponsors?’”

Smith subsequently hired IEG to identify and package sponsorship assets. IEG Consulting Group carved out five packages that offer everything from organization-wide assets to a presence at regional conferences. 

The Dream Company and Zebraplace/Foundation Automation both signed deals at the top-tier, strategic partner level. The two-year packages afford church-wide reach including a presence at the general conference, five regional conferences and year-round exposure on the UMC web site.

Automation Foundation is activating its tie through www.UMCshop.org, a dedicated site that church members can use as a fundraising platform.  The site—which features Amazon.com, Expedia, Macy,’s and other retailers—donates a portion of each transaction back to the customer’s church. 

The Dream Company benefits local churches by giving customers the opportunity to name their church as a benefactor or co-benefactor on their life insurance policy. It also offers a dedicated account manager, strategic planning and other services to participating churches.

Funds raised by the two sponsors are in addition to their rights fee, said Smith, noting that churches are not required to participate in the programs.

Each sponsor must align with UMC’s mission and social principals, he added.