by Kevin Bartram, Vice President, The Wilkinson Group

From Parks As Community Places: San Francisco, 1998, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

Kevin Bartram manages all operations at The Wilkinson Group, one of the leading sponsorship consulting firms in North America. His work is widely recognized as being on the cutting edge of corporate-oriented sponsorship marketing trends. His experience with The Wilkinson Group includes projects with Brita, California Milk Advisory Board, PG&E, AST Computers, Fresno State University, and Pacific Bell. Previously, Mr. Bartram worked in advertising and sports marketing, and served as Manager of Corporate Sponsorship at San Francisco’s Pier 39, the third-most visited attraction in the USA.

At The Wilkinson Group, we see ourselves as facilitators between “properties” – such as parks – and corporate entities, to help create mutually beneficial relationships. We try to find ways that a company’s investment in a “property” can be maximized. In that sense, our sponsorship programs help companies do what they’re in the business of doing, while helping a non-profit organization fulfill its mission.

I’ll give you an example of something we’ve done to help underscore this. We recently helped create a partnership between Brita Water Filt-ration Products, the Center for Marine Conservation and the California Coastal Commission. Brita provided funding in exchange for sponsorship of a national Coastal Clean-Up Day.

“You want real partners, and you want to use as many of their assets as possible”

In exchange for giving cash to these organizations, Brita received significant marketing exposure. They also gave a free water pitcher to every volunteer in California and Florida – which in some areas increased the volunteer base by as much as 50%. They drove this promotion through retail, getting their retail partners on board so that the coastal clean up was promoted.

Those coastal organizations gave Brita rights that allowed them to drive sales, and promote themselves as being committed to clean water – which is, of course, what their product is all about. The Coastal Commission and the Center for Marine Conservation received a lot more than they would normally have been able to get in a traditional philanthropic-oriented sponsorship, because they were able to give Brita real value.

The key for park systems is to identify what kinds of assets can be leveraged with sponsors. How can companies benefit, from a marketing and business development perspective, by being involved with you? And this does not mean putting banners and signs all around the parks. The right sponsors won’t want to do that, because it will just create backlash. It won’t make sense for them. What they do want is to be able to tap into whatever assets are you have. And to them, assets are the people that go to parks, or to events in parks.

Leveraging the relationships that you have with vendors, and giving them marketing benefits on top of the purchasing relationship that you already have is key. A beverage company, for instance, wants to sell more beverages. You can find ways that they can sell more beverages by sponsoring your park in a way that’s unobtrusive, and doesn’t clutter your park, but delivers some kind of value to the sponsors and to your visitors. And that is ultimately how you’ll maximize the investment you’ll get from those corporate sponsors. For example, if Pepsi Cola wants to put sand volleyball pits in six of your parks in the city, they’re going to expect something in return for that. And the thing that they’ll want the most is to pour beverages someplace.

I also like to reinforce the idea of trying to bundle rights on a system-wide basis. This way, you’re leveraging the major flagship parks and the power that they have in order to benefit smaller parks all over the city. Corporate sponsors want to be tied with the parks with the highest traffic, with the most events and the best concessions. So it benefits you to use those parks as leverage to build value for sponsors and then share the cash benefits with all the parks.

If this approach is not possible, look to events and concessions, because events are a great way to drive traffic and bring people in, which is a good way for a neighborhood park to build up value. You can also create media partners for those events. When you tie the sponsors in with the media, they get exposure for being a sponsor of the event and the park, and you build value.

Lastly, you can also think of bundling the assets of your sponsor. You want to create sponsorship programs where the sponsors are also committed to marketing and advertising your events and promoting programs in the parks. In turn, they are supporting the parks with product and services, like concessions and promotional materials where possible. You want real partners, and you want to use as many of their assets as possible.

General tips when seeking corporate sponsorships:

One asset that parks departments can leverage is the things and services that they buy, like equipment and supplies for maintaining parks. For example, if a recreation league has scheduling information that they want to disseminate, they could be tied into a company that disseminates information – by putting it out through their Internet service, or having informational kiosks installed in the offices of the recreation league so that people can go in and access league information using the technology provided by that company.

Corporate sponsorship should not replace other forms of fundraising. It should augment them. It should be used to create more awareness so the other parts of your fundraising efforts are enhanced through the marketing and promotional activities of the sponsor.

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