Co-sponsorship and other fantasies

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’m spearheading an event to benefit efforts to help women break through the glass ceiling in a number of fields.  I secured co-sponsorship from half a dozen women’s organizations, but with the event looming, none of their Board members seems to be planning to attend.  I’ve harangued them til I’m blue in the face about the event’s importance to the professional progress of their members, but all I get is a stone wall.  How can I get more cooperation and less passive resistance?  Signed, Alone in the Good Fight

Dear Alone:

Well, you can start by not haranguing them any more.  What’s that old expression, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?"  If your passionate arguments for the importance of your project to their members don’t seem to be making an impact, repeating them louder won’t do any good.  Instead–as you’ve discovered, it sounds like–it will backfire, causing them to turn their backs on you instead of simply facing you without helping. 

That probably seems like a distinction without a difference right about now, but this is probably not the last time you’re going to need their help on a project.  Pissing them off is a luxury you can’t afford, no matter how pissed off you are yourself.  So there are two questions: how can you get their cooperation right now, on this project, and how can you set things up for future projects so that securing their involvement is less like pulling teeth?

On Question #1, take a giant step back and figure out (for each of your co-sponsors) what, specifically, is in it for them if they (meaning their Board and/or members) attend.  Most likely each of these groups has a series of events, tasks, and concerns to which your event is NOT central, so recognize that you’re competing for a limited supply of attention and identify your competitive advantage.  Maybe showing up at the event will give them (the individuals or the group) a chance to see or be seen by someone important.  Maybe there’s going to be time to "network" before, during or after the event with people they’ve been trying to meet.  Identify something (note: the simple fact that glass ceilings are bad does not qualify), and then call the chair of each co-sponsoring organization and say–calmly!–"Listen, I’d like more of your group’s members to attend and I wonder if they know that [INSERT DESCRIPTION OF ATTENDANCE VALUE HERE].  What do you think would be the best way to get that across?"  People love being asked for advice, and will do almost anything–even help you–in order to have the opportunity to give it.

On Question #2, though, it will help to recognize that you’ve fallen afoul of the "Everybody’s business is nobody’s business" rule.  If you have half-a-dozen co-sponsors, I can assure you that every one of them thinks the others are going to be responsible for promotion.  It’s just a law of the universe: the more names on the letterhead, the less likely any one person is to be responsible for getting the job done. So the next time you approach these groups, or any other, for co-sponsorship, write down what it is you mean by that seductive but content-free phrase.  It doesn’t have to look like a lawyer-drawn contract, but it should say, "Organization X agrees to co-sponsor Event Y, meaning that it will 1) pay one-third of all expenses for the event; 2) promote the event to its members through a mailing and followup e-mails; 3) guarantee purchase of Z tickets for the event, etc., etc."  As my eighth-grade English teacher said in her deathless bestseller How to Get a Teenaged Boy and What to Do With Him When You Get Him, "The best social planning is not done subconsciously."  Don’t ask people to lend their names and later figure out that you want their bodies, too: decide what you want/expect and ask for it, and then document it.

Before you do that, you may wish to get through this event and then call the chairs of each of the co-sponsoring organizations and ask–calmly!  no finger-pointing!–what they understood themselves to have agreed to when they signed on as co-sponsors.  The answers you get will help you shape the statement of what you’re asking for next time around.

I know, I know: next time is the least of your concerns right now.  But every nonprofit ends up learning this the hard way, usually with Board members about the big benefit event of the year: if you don’t ask people for what you want in advance, it will be too late to demand it from them on the spot.  Sorry.

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