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As event professionals, we’re constantly striving to create meaningful experiences for attendees and stakeholders while working within limited resources and a budget. In-kind sponsorships are relationships where a business sponsors an event by providing free goods or services rather than a financial contribution. So can in-kind sponsorships for events help you meet your event goals? 

In this episode of the Event Brew, Nick, Will, Deanna, and Xander share their reactions to the term “in-kind sponsorship,” tips on navigating them, and what they think is the ideal scenario for this kind of sponsorship. Let’s dive in!

The Brew Crew’s Initial Reactions to In-Kind Sponsorships for Events

“In-kind sponsorship” can stir up mixed reactions from event professionals. To get a feel for where the Brew Crew stands, Nick starts today’s conversation by asking if anyone has a visceral response to the term. 

“Mine is: that’s what I always try to do rather than give money as a sponsor,” says Will.

Xander has contrasting experiences. “As someone on the receiving end, everybody tries to do it. And it’s never exactly what I am looking for,” he says. 

Settled right between Will and Xander’s responses, Deanna doesn’t have a strong gut reaction to the term. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a position on the giving or receiving side. The one organization I worked for that did a ton of event sponsorships had a sales department that did the selling. By the time they came to me, the contract was signed, and I was just fulfilling it.” On the flip side, Deanna has worked for organizations that always paid to be a sponsor. “I’ve been on both sides: the person buying the sponsorships or selling. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been in an in-kind situation.” 

“I honestly just stopped sponsoring things for in-kind altogether,” adds Will. “I realized that when I was doing in-kind stuff, with event services specifically, chances for failure shot up dramatically. When you’re donating something, you want to give it less energy than when you do something that’s bringing you money. So I just started saying no and saying I’ll do it at a discounted rate. Every time we did it 100% free, it hurt us so badly.”

Will also found more value in offering his speaking services, even though it’s different from the event management services Endless specializes in. “After years of doing this, I realized people don’t care about the end product.” If things went great, no one seemed to notice. “But when things went wrong, everyone knew. So I in-kind donated a lot of speaking engagements.”

As an experienced event professional in food and beverage, Nick is familiar with in-kind sponsorships. “The world in which in-kind sponsorships were discussed every five minutes was F&B. So, the last F&B job I had I created a form for anyone who wanted to give their services in exchange for food. It was a gauntlet of things that proved to us they were at the center of our target for philanthropic goals. If they weren’t in that, they saw why they were not a good candidate for us.”

The second most frequent niche to receive in-kind sponsorship requests? Production. “A production company could give away its services most of the week from requests,” continues Nick. “I think he best ones are where you’re partners in some revenue-generating opportunity. That way, you’re not just taking a line item out but earning income. But that’s pretty rare.”

Commit to Excellence or Don’t Commit at All

Stuck on Will’s earlier comment, Nick brings the conversation back to effort. “When people give away their services, they rarely bring their A-game. To me, that’s a big mistake. Even though you’re making less money, you’re more exposed. This is an opportunity to shine. This is a marketing endeavor. Whatever you’re doing, you should do better than you normally do it. This is how you’re exposing people to the promise of what your brand is.”

As Will sees it, the opportunity cost of a failed in-kind sponsorship is much lower than if you were to fail within a paid sponsorship. “If you don’t do your job well when you’re getting paid, you lose out on getting paid,” he says. But with in-kind, “if it all goes to crap, you just don’t care.”

“I guess,” responds Nick. “But I’m a marketer. I would say, ‘Okay. I’m spending part of my marketing budget for this in-kind sponsorship.’ Knowing I’m spending budget money on this presence and not putting my best foot forward is foolish. I see what you’re saying. But imagine buying a full-page ad and giving it to a five-year-old with a crayon and saying, ‘Draw whatever.’ That’s what bringing your C-game to an in-kind sponsorship is like. Do it at A-level or don’t do it.”

Is the Sponsor Worth the Hassle? And is the Relationship Equitable? 

Curious about Deanna’s thoughts, Nick asks her what she would do. “Someone comes to you and asks, ‘You need to feed your attendees. I’m a catering company, and your attendees are attractive for me to be in front of. What can we do here?’”

“As an event professional, an in-kind sponsorship only has value to me if you’re reducing costs by providing a service I would’ve already provided for my attendees,” says Deanna. “If it’s not in that realm, then is this in-kind sponsor really worth the hassle?”

She continues: “At the end of the day, you’ll have to manage it. As an event professional, am I making money on this event? Is this an event I’m profitable with, or is this an event where we break even? That’s what I wrestle with. As Xander mentioned, your cash only goes so far if you’re in the nonprofit space or a small organization. I also recognize that there are large organizations that have the budget and are exploitative, asking for free speaking services in the name of exposure. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, and it’s hard to measure.”

“I also wonder if you, as the planner, are not paying for the services, are you giving them the due diligence you would to a vendor you’re paying? Are you making sure they have all the information they need? Especially any scenario where there’s not an equitable relationship or dynamic, I feel a certain way about that. I think you dabble into ethics and those types of conversations.”

Sponsorship Tips

Are Your Mission, Vision, and Values Aligned?

Thinking back to his college event days, Will remembers working for the ASU Undie Run event. “I was thinking about how in-kind sponsorships might potentially be bad. It depends on if it’s something the audience wants. The ASU Undie Run was going until 5 a.m. An energy drink sponsor might have been a great idea. But sometimes we say yes because we’re like, ‘A free energy drink for my audience? What’s the worst that could happen?’” 

One possibility is that the outcome of poorly planned in-kind deals is a misalignment in mission, vision, and values for everyone involved. Will looks at Patagonia as an example. “I’m sure Patagonia doesn’t do giveaway sponsorships because a shirt that gets thrown away is worse than anything in the world sustainability-wise.”  

Nick develops this alignment concern even more. “Are you on the same page with the person offering the in-kind sponsorship? In-kind relationships are partnerships at the end of the day. Everything else is more of a transaction. We’re both trying to provide value to the same group in different capacities. That’s where correlating mission, vision, and values might be something that you do. The negatives we discussed, like bringing your B-game, go to the wayside if you actually have a foundation of going in the same direction.” 

Don’t be Afraid to Negotiate

Will has one more tip for navigating in-kind sponsorships for events: don’t be afraid to negotiate. If you receive a request for an in-kind sponsorship from a company, don’t assume they can only offer that kind of relationship. “I think a lot of times, we assume money is completely off the table, but sometimes you can open up those conversations,” he says.

Xander agrees. “Especially when it’s inbound. That truly puts all of the cards in your hand. It’s all about negotiation. The easiest next step when you receive that cold inbound request for sponsorship is, just as Will says, to send them your packages.” You may arrive at a firm “no” for everyone involved, “but more likely than not, it’s when you start looking at the finer details and opportunities available that you can highlight elements they’re trying to capture and lean into the costs of that opportunity.”

What’s the Ideal Sponsorship Scenario?

For Deanna, what comes to mind are the things you want to implement in your events but don’t have the budget for. “In those scenarios, when it’s something that’s on trend or cutting edge, and you don’t have the buy-in, that’s an easy way to get it. As the person pitching the in-kind sponsorship, how will you know that? That’s where it comes to knowing your audience well. If you’re old in the industry and everyone has been there done that, you don’t have that angle.”  

Nick’s silver bullet is when sponsors bring experiential and monetary value to the host. “I don’t think that’s something many categories can do. But if you’re creative enough, there are endless ways to create win-win situations.”

He continues: “I think it comes down to, is there a way for alignment more so than there is a way for everybody to make money. That’s what I would focus on. Saying, ‘We are aligned. This event is better for you with me involved. And I am better by servicing this community.’ That has to be at the center of how you make that offering. Otherwise, it will sound like someone doesn’t want to pay.”

Xander sees two scenarios where an in-kind event sponsorship can make a meaningful difference in your business or event, leading to a win-win situation for everyone. 

  1. “The clear opportunity is when the in-kind sponsorship has a chance to increase the dollar-for-dollar value for the attendees,” says Xander. “That is such an easy and understandable pass-along to your attendees, and it serves as marketing fodder for you to secure additional attendees potentially.” 
  2. “On the other side, there’s the opportunity for you to explore mitigating business expenses for your company. If you are using a particular tool to execute something within your business, whether it’s Dropbox or Zoom, and you have this alignment where getting Zoom in front of your attendees is valuable, it can offset the cost.” 

Nick agrees, “It really just comes down to value,” he concludes. What do you think? What would be the ideal in-kind sponsorship for your business or event? And how would you seek out alignment in your partnerships? Send us an email! We read every one, and we love hearing your thoughts. We’ll catch you here next time for another episode of the Event Brew podcast!

Nick Borelli

Author Nick Borelli

With 20+ years in the industry, Nick Borelli is passionate about helping event brands communicate stories that result in achieving strategic goals.

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