Attracting corporate sponsors

Julie Nightingale, Issue 42, p56-57, Summer 2008
Corporate sponsors can be a lucrative source of funding. But if you want to tap into this, you have to show what the sponsor will get from the deal

What motivates businesses to sponsor exhibitions or otherwise give financial backing to a heritage institution? There is an undeniable glamour factor: an association with a hip art gallery lends the CEO of Acme Motors, and by extension his clients, a degree of cultural sophistication as well as a venue for corporate events and a great marketing opportunity.

Working with a local museum or gallery can also help a company to deliver its corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. Companies keen to show staff and local politicians that they are about more than just making money will support local museums and galleries to demonstrate their commitment to the community.

That can be good news for exhibitions and events - though less so if you are seeking large amounts of funding for a building project. Some companies also see a link with a museum as an opportunity to give their management trainees or other staff training and professional development opportunities.

Big national museums and galleries seem to have little problem attracting sponsorship. Even with all the corporate belt-tightening following the turmoil in the global financial markets, plus competition from the 2012 Olympic games, the Tate has just renewed a series of deals with major companies as well as bringing in new ones.

Working with corporate sponsors is similar to working with other funders, says Becky Williams, the development director at the Tate.

"It's important to understand the project you are talking about so that you understand the reach - you think it will reach this particular audience and those visitors. You can then give the sponsor a clear understanding of the kinds of people they will be reaching if they partner with you in this way."

Corporate sponsors make their decisions in a variety of ways, says Williams. Some use sponsorship agencies to advise them. Others make decisions quickly on a personal basis, while some decision-making is more structured through the organisation so the negotiation takes several phases. Skills of diplomacy, tact and the ability to build good working relationships are paramount here.


Williams says that many sponsorship deals at the Tate are put together on a bespoke basis, but there are some fundamental elements, for example, credits on the marketing and promotional literature and hospitality benefits.

Always be mindful that you are dealing with businesspeople, she warns. "Sponsorship is a commercial arrangement and we are contracted and the sponsorship partner pays a fee. It's not a grant."
Outside a big, glamorous museum, drumming up sponsorship can be a bigger challenge.

"Sponsorship is about meeting the marketing needs of the company, and that's quite hard," says Alan Horn, the director of development for Culture and Sport Glasgow. "You are competing with all sorts of other ways where companies can get their key brand messages across. Sponsorship of exhibitions is not necessarily at the top of their agenda."

What companies are looking for is a sense that the museum is well run and there is robust measurement of impact in place, as well as how many people will be coming to exhibitions and where from - local, national or international. "That means there's a burden there to provide that level of detailed analysis of the impact it has made," says Horn.

The commercial, sometimes ruthless, way businesses operate can also come as a shock to people used to the politely consensual style of decision-making. One museum director recalls getting an audience with a major international bank and being given seven minutes to present their case. (They did get the money, though.)


Prestige is what attracts sponsors - and individuals - to an organisation, and it is hard to build this from scratch. Christopher Woodward, now director of the Museum of Garden History in London and formerly in charge of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath, knows better than most.

"Prestige is something you have to build as slowly and methodically as a brick wall. When I was at Sir John Soane's Museum [in London], people fell over themselves to give money because they had a sense of its preciousness and its significance. It's much harder in less prestigious museums."

If your museum has had a low profile, then you have to think pragmatically about how you seek sponsorship.

"You have to find projects which happen to coincide with the strategic objectives of the donor, so draw up a menu of projects that people might support," Woodward says. "At the Holburne, for example, we held an exhibition of houses and gardens that was sponsored by an insurance company, because they see country house owners as a key market. The pictures were beautiful, the exhibition was popular and the sponsor was happy."

The museum was clear from the outset that it was the eligibility for sponsorship that was a driving factor in staging the exhibition. "That's a position not everyone would want to be in," says Woodward. "But as a small museum you very rarely can do just what you want and expect to get a sponsor. Out of three or four exhibitions you want, the one you do will be the one that gets a sponsor.

"The sad truth is it's not a clinically objective process," he adds. "It often depends on being able to put your foot in the door of a company through a personal relationship," he says.


1. Scrutinise your own project so you are in a position to demonstrate to potential funders how its "reach" will meet their own promotional goals

2. Examine the projects that companies already support to see where yours might match their priorities

3. Remember that companies have their own agenda - self-promotion

4. Remember also that sponsorship is a business arrangement, not a casual quid pro quo

5. If you cannot offer 'prestige' as a small museum, you may be able to provide other benefits to a company, such as helping it demonstrate its corporate social responsibility

(Image: the Tate received sponsorship for its street art exhibition from Nissan to promote a new car, credir: JR/Lazarides Gallery)