Sponsorship in practice - Museums Association

Sponsorship in practice

Museums need to think beyond financial support
Gary Noakes
It might mean offering a networking venue for local businesses, a product tie-in or a barter deal. But when it comes to sponsorship, the key messages are that it’s not always just about cash – and that museums need to think creatively.

The other thing to remember is that sponsorship is not a free handout. It is money or a service that the sponsor believes will enhance its own image and profile, not that of the museum.

The first question for museum directors to ask before negotiating with a potential sponsor is not what the company can do for the museum, but what the museum can do for the sponsor.

Lateral thinking might be the key to finding a mutually beneficial relationship. A high-profile example is the National Railway Museum in York’s 2014 collaboration with scale model specialist Hornby, which won an Arts & Business Sponsorship Award.

Hornby sponsored a gathering of the last six Mallard locomotives at the museum to mark their 75th anniversary. It also produced 510 model sets of the steam engines that sold immediately via pre-orders.

The Mallard 75 season attracted 107,000 visitors to the museum and, according to Hornby, “raised the profile of both parties”.

A similar commercial partnership was achieved by the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley and Banks’s Brewery. The museum allows the Marston’s-owned company to sell its products at various events throughout the year.

The annual Halloween event, with pop-up bars, attracts 1,800 visitors each night and is great profile for the brewery, as was a 1940s weekend in July, which saw 6,000 visitors come to the museum over a weekend.

New partners

Many museum websites advertise for corporate partners through “Support Us” pages on their websites.

But Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, which gained local legal firm Lanyon Bowdler as its first-ever corporate sponsor in June, did so via the more direct route of networking.

Like most museums, Shrewsbury has to make up for dwindling public funding but has the added incentive that its new building, which it has occupied for just over a year, gives it a major exhibition space for the first time.

As well as sponsoring future events such as the Viking exhibition Valhalla in January 2016, the law firm has supported the recent introduction of The Culture Club, a bi-monthly breakfast networking event for businesses.

“It’s a very helpful relationship as they are serious players in the region,” says Tim King, Shropshire Council’s visitor economy development officer.

The original deal was a four-figure sum from the firm to sponsor the Secret Egypt exhibition, which attracted 12,000 people, and came about following a conversation between a Lanyon Bowdler employee and a councillor.

The firm displayed banners in the exhibition and was mentioned in press releases.

Since then, a rolling partnership has been cemented. Lanyon Bowdler’s staff provide marketing advice to the museum, and are given discounted exhibition entry.

A deal to give council staff cheaper legal services is also being explored.

“The firm is very clear that it wants this relationship to be beneficial for both sides,” King says.

The council has now put together three sponsorship packages, bronze, silver and gold, with tier levels still to be decided, and is talking to more potential partners.

“We have some nice irons in the fire but we are very new at this kind of job,” King says.

Some general points worth considering when a partnership is being discussed include:

  • Ask yourself what the sponsor will want before you approach them: profile, community involvement or reputation recovery?
  • Build a database of companies from your existing contacts such as trustees, patrons and staff members. Some local authority members will be non-executive company directors or have extensive commercial experience, so use their connections.
  • Take time to nurture relationships and offer a tangible system of Return on Investment. For example, if it is reputation and brand association that the sponsor mainly wants from the deal, then collate the press reviews and website hits to show how the company’s name is being used on marketing material.
  • Engage the sponsor’s employees by offering family days and special viewings.
  • Use any specific subjects in your exhibition or project in your search for a partner. For example, a country’s embassy will point you towards anyone wanting to be associated with an exhibition by a native artist.
  • When planning strategies, remember that exhibitions come and go, so try to seal a longer-term deal instead.
  • Don’t over-promise – be very clear about what you can deliver. And don’t think too big. Start small and local, as one small success can be easily replicated.
  • Know who to approach and if you find someone with a passion for heritage, latch onto them.
  • Examine the corporate’s giving history and remember decisions often go down to departmental level. If so, remember local causes can be more popular than supporting things like national charities. Giving in kind – with a local workforce using a volunteer day to help – is one example.

Thinking outside the box

At a grassroots level, thinking has to be innovative. Sassy Hicks, the South Wales-based membership, marketing and projects manager for the Association of Independent Museums, stresses that sponsorship does not always equate to cash.

“Just saying we need money in an area like this isn’t going to cut it,” she says. “In order to engage you need to be a bit quirky.

“I once ran a competition to design a local history video game at Pontypool Museum to attract younger visitors. Staff from Game, a high street video game shop, helped and a top Welsh video game producer acted as judge, with prizes donated from local businesses and Rotary Club.

“This opened up new ways of working with corporate partners for the museum that still continue to this day.”

Pontypool Museum also built a partnership with local firm Black Sheep Publishing, which printed large photos for a world war one exhibition for free and publicized publicised the exhibition on its website and via social media.

“This translated into actual paid visits for the museum and enhanced publicity of the exhibitions,” Hicks says. “In return, we thanked it for the firm support in the museum newsletters, on our social media and local press.”

Museums that are unable to afford to employ a fundraiser think about creating a volunteer role with a specific remit to garner and handle corporate partnerships, Hicks says.

Getting appropriate marketing material that will appeal to the business sector is also critical.

Once they become involved, Hicks says it is vital to make sponsors feel valued by asking for feedback and inviting them to take part in any steering groups that are relevant. On a less formal level, an invitation to a Christmas party can be an ice-breaker.

 “Always say thank you and make them feel valued,” Hicks says. 

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