How does a property without mass reach cut through the sponsorship clutter?

Despite being one of many performing arts venues in Washington, D.C., the Shakespeare Theatre Co. has overcome that challenge by taking a strategic approach to identifying prospects and closing deals.

Below, Noreen Major, Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s director of corporate giving, shares five field-tested tips on how to win big when you’re small.

Know who you are and what you’re not. While it may not have as many assets as larger properties, Major focuses on what the theater does have to help partners achieve marketing success.

“We focus on things we have and work within that framework and reality.”

The strategy boils down to understanding a prospect’s needs and creating tailored packages that support their objectives.

“Everyone in the arts thinks their organization is special. Just because a company should support you doesn’t mean that they will.”

Prospect strategically. While Major leverages STC’s board of directors for sponsor leads, the sales vet does not rely on the board for new prospects.

One prospecting tool: nonprofit information services. Major uses Guidestar, the Foundation Center, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers and other organizations to identify companies that plan to increase charitable giving.

“They let you know about companies that want to become more involved. We have identified companies that we didn’t know about or that are looking to become more involved in the Washington, D.C. market.”

Case in point: STC secured a partnership with an airline after learning that the company was looking to expand its charitable initiatives in the nation’s capital.

In addition to nonprofit information services, Major regularly reads local employment blogs to identify potential partners. 

The sponsorship veteran uses the blogs to look for sponsorship contacts that have landed new jobs. For example, Major secured a new sponsor after contacting a new hire who had joined the company after leaving another STC sponsor.

“We followed him over to the new company that we were trying to get support from.”

Major uses Google Alerts to stay on top of new hires and speed up the sponsorship research process.  

“Many people at nonprofits are one-person shops. Google Alerts does the work for you.”

Another prospecting tool: networking events. Major attends local business events to scout prospects and better understand the needs of existing sponsors. The events include retail estate, law and restaurant trade shows.  

“We see networking events as a cultivation opportunity.”

Major frequently attends events where sponsors are speaking to learn about the issues and challenges they face in their own industries.

“It’s a good way to see them in their natural environment. If you can’t talk their talk, there’s a good chance you’ll be pushed aside for someone who can.”

Keep offer letters simple.  When pitching a prospect, Major shares a quick overview of the opportunity and how it can help build their business.

“Keep it simple. Introduce yourself in a brief email, invite them to a show and ask them to talk for a few minutes. It’s often a deal killer when you send a biblical email with a bunch of statistics and a full proposal.”

Offer unique experiences. Major credits STC’s high renewal rate to its ability to offer unique, one-of-a-kind experiences.

For example, KPMG uses the venue to host an annual event for future CEOs. The theater enhances the event with behind-the-scenes tours, chats by theater educators and costumes from shows sponsored by the professional services company.

“It’s not another plated event where people listen to a speaker and leave. It’s interactive, different, and it doesn’t cost us that much.”

The theater tries to create unique experiences for every sponsor regardless of their rights fee.

“I don’t care if you give us $2,500 or $250,000. We respect your gift, we’ll protect your brand, and you’ll come away with an experience that you’re proud of. We work hard to make sure every sponsor gets what they need.”

Offer proof of performance reports. STG uses post-event reports and mid-season check-ins as a sponsor renewal tool.

While only one or two sponsors ask for them, Major gives a report to every sponsor to 1) show respect and 2) set the stage for renewal discussions. Major sends the document to each sponsor a month or two before contract renewal.

“There are many line items when sponsors are looking at budgets. We want to give them a fresh perspective so they don’t remove us.”

The theater use mid-season check-ins to ensure partnerships are going as planned, and, if not, make any necessary changes to the relationship.

“If it’s off track, we want to get it back on track.”