The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Learn how to grow your corporate sponsorship program

Kirsten M. Ellenbogen

Kirsten M. Ellenbogen

Kirsten M. Ellenbogen ( is president and chief executive officer of Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Early in my career, I worked in a museum with a storied history of corporations’ dictating content. There were even instances of corporations creating entire exhibitions. It was a difficult introduction to corporate partnerships. Thankfully, there were a few stellar colleagues at that museum who modeled alternate paths. I spent the next decade or so avoiding collaborations with corporations beyond the occasional partnership to inform exhibit or program content. I am grateful to the incredible colleagues who have transformed my views on corporate partnerships and sponsorships. I am most grateful to my Great Lakes Science Center colleagues Amy Pausche (vice president of development) and Greg Renkas (director of corporate partnerships) who have completed my journey to a full appreciation for the value of partnerships between museums and corporations. Some of the most compelling examples I describe below come from the new path laid by our strategic plan’s emphasis on a culture of philanthropy. My professional learning journey has reached this peak alongside an organization-wide transformation of our appreciation for the role that each staff member plays in supporting philanthropic partnerships. Here are a few thoughts about what I have learned along the way.

Multiple hands holding puzzle pieces

1.  Spend Time in Their World
You spend time in the community getting to know your visiting audience. Do the same for your potential corporate partners. Attend the public meetings of the state economic development agency. Interview corporate recruitment and training staff. Tour factories and corporate training spaces. Volunteer to serve on the county or state workforce committee. Invest your time in proactively getting to know the pain points or areas of growth at the organization and then link to those solutions in your proposal.

2.  Leverage Professional Associations
A great way to meet new corporations is through their professional associations. Approach the local technical society, local start up accelerator group, business development organization, small business association, or other umbrella organizations to share your mission and the benefits you can offer their members. Be up front about your goals, ask for their mailing list and a chance to present at a meeting, and be prepared to offer something in exchange, such as space for one of their large meetings or admission tickets to use when they are hosting visiting companies.

3.  Meet New Leaders First
Corporations in your area use relocation specialists, especially when hiring new senior leaders. Get to know the most well-regarded relocation specialists in your community. Host them for a get-to-know us meeting. Give them access to staff who can respond quickly and professionally for last minute VIP tours. Understand the professional guidelines that may keep the relocation specialist from telling you who is visiting. But know that if the family of the new corporate CEO has a great time visiting your organization, you’ve already made great strides in beginning a partnership.

4.  Do Not Be Neutral
Establish guidelines about how you work with corporations on content. Take staff and, if appropriate, board members though scenario exercises to make sure everyone feels comfortable speaking to these expectations consistently. Prepare examples of how your organization has worked with a corporation on content so you can talk this through with a new corporate partner.

5.  The Whole Corporation
Congratulations on that grant you received from the corporate foundation. Once you develop a partnership with an organization, make sure you leverage your contacts to work across the entire organization. Have you also approached the foundation’s human resources staff about creating a team of volunteers or hosting their holiday party? Are you co-creating content with the foundation’s engineers? Which marketing team member can you work with to develop a sponsorship? And which partners or vice presidents have a special fund they can use to purchase tickets for tables at galas?

6.  À la Carte
Think of your corporate partner or sponsor program benefits as a matrix, not a list or a few “perfect” benefits. Develop personas just like you do for your marketing audience. What do you have for the large corporation with a median staff age of 28 and a thriving corporate volunteer program? How about the small, family-oriented business that is just getting itself established in the market? If you create custom partnership benefits for every organization that comes along, you’ll exhaust yourself, but you do need to create some; corporate benefits are not one size fits all. Take a persona or matrix approach that allows for different options, but protects you with norms and boundaries.

7.  Know Your Value
If you are just starting your corporate sponsorship program, spend time assessing your value. Research and compare pricing of other local partnerships—what are comparable organizations charging for their partnerships? Make sure you have a good range of options at different price points. But do not get discouraged when a potential partner balks at the sponsorship price. Counter offer with a different, lower-priced benefit. Or repackage the original benefit for a shorter time period. Don’t offer the same benefits at a lower price. Be patient and know it may take time to find the perfect match for your highest level sponsor package, as it may have to be integrated into a partner’s budgeting process a full two years ahead.

8.  Make Policies Early
If you do not already have them, work with the development committee of your board to establish a code of ethics and donor bill of rights. You may also want to hold joint discussions among your recruitment/governance and development committees to establish boundaries and guidelines that address the intersection of donations and board membership.

9.  Find Common Passions
Follow the company on social media, read through the press releases they have posted online, and find out what they are proud of and passionate about. Somewhere in there is a common interest that may be your best introduction to a new company.

10.  Identify Your Existing Connections
Your volunteer program probably includes current staff and retirees from a number of local corporations. In your conversations with volunteers, learn more about the companies they already know well and ask their advice about approaching the company. Don’t overlook the value of your own team in getting to know the local companies—their friends, spouses, and family members employed at the company may be some of your best connections, or introduction to the right people.

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