By Peter Hum
In 2007, the organizers of the Canadian Open and Canadian Youth Chess Championships in Ottawa raised more than $90,000 in cash and many invaluable in-kind donations from sponsors and donors to stage the two events.
We had no other choice — we lacked the government support that some of our predecessors in other cities enjoyed. Fortunately, we secured support from telecommunications giant TELUS (far and away our biggest sponsor), Magmic Games (an Ottawa company that makes gaming software — including chess — for mobile devices including RIM's Blackberry), Hill & Knowlton Canada, The Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Marriott, ATFCAN (which had a special interest in sponsoring Indian GMs at the Open), OZ Optics (which felt the same way about Turkish players), Bell Canada and several embassies. Major Canadian banks and law firms also made tax-deductible donations.
“How did you do it?” you ask. Q + A-style, here is a summary of our sponsorship drive:
WHAT ARE THE BASICS OF ANY SPONSORSHIP DRIVE?
The organizers must convince the sponsors (and donors — more about them later) that their money supports a worthy, accountable, and even prestigious cause that ideally attracts much attention from chess and even mainstream audiences. Regarding sponsors in particular, organizers must show that the sponsorships will be duly recognized and publicized, through event promotions, advertising and media outreach.
WHICH COMPANIES DID THE OTTAWA GROUP APPROACH?
The short answer is, “as many as possible.” (We did approach many companies that turned us down. But we still learned nonetheless from our interactions, and in the future, those companies could be approached again.)
The more nuanced answer is a) companies whose executives are acquainted personally or professionally with the organizers; b) companies that are directly connected to chess; c) companies that have chess-friendly executives or employees; and d) companies who may be receptive to the well-made case that supporting a high-profile chess event is in their interest.
Making use of personal and professional relationships with potential sponsors is the quickest and often most productive route to take in the quest for support. We were fortunate in that several of our organizers had access to many Canadian corporate leaders.
That said, we had notable successes at the ground level, with other organizers querying their bank branches and insurers, and finding support. In the past, makers of chess clocks and software have supported events, and we found that Ottawa’s Magmic Games, which makes gaming software for mobile devices such as the RIM BlackBerry, was a natural fit as a sponsor for our events — once it was made aware of what the Canadian chess community was up to. We also found support from one Ottawa executive who played chess, and had several Ottawa chessplayers query within their own companies to see if support was available — it’s great if there’s a champion for your cause within the company. Finally, for companies that we “cold-called” and for companies that we were acquainted with, we prepared kits detailing why supporting either the Canadian Open or the CYCC or both was worth their consideration. We believe that, in particular, the kits — or rather the case it made — had some sway in our negotiations with the Canadian Open’s venue.
HOW DID THE ORGANIZERS APPROACH COMPANIES?
The most experienced and successful fund-raiser on our committee stresses: “In securing corporate sponsorships and donations, the person who makes the ask, or introduces the person who will make the ask, is pretty well just as important as what the cause/use of funds is. In addition to having a worthy cause and great materials, a lot of thought should go into thinking through who might know whom in a target company, and how personal/professional relationships can be used in order to access time with key decision makers. This is non-profit fund-raising 101 for virtually every meaningful charity in the country. In fact, for donations, this is the single most important factor. It is maybe a little, but only a little, less so for sponsors, depending on how compelling the ‘promotional benefits’ of sponsorship are.”
He adds: “It makes a big difference if those doing the fund-raising are personally committing funds to the cause themselves. This is as simple as: ‘if you (or your company) are not financially supporting the cause/event, why should my company support it?’ ... This can’t be over-emphasized.” In fact, several members of the Ottawa organizing group opened their wallets for the cause.
In the case of cold calls, they often went through community relations officials at companies. These initial contacts and queries were followed by detailed packages usually sent by e-mail, but sometimes as hard copy. In other cases, generic online sponsorship forms were filled out. (Googling will discover such forms for companies such as WestJet, Lenovo, Dell and others, as well as descriptions of the sponsorship guidelines for the company.)
WHAT WAS THE THRUST OF THE CYCC SPONSORSHIP DRIVE?
With Corporate Social Responsibility on the minds of all companies these days, it was felt that our case for the CYCC would resonate meaningfully with potential sponsors. You won’t have to look very far on the Internet to find companies that support youth programs of all kinds (literacy, troubled youth, spelling bees) and we felt the CYCC could enjoy like-minded support.
Quite honestly and passionately we made the case that the pursuit of chess excellence is good for young people (a case that Maurice Ashley and Susan Polgar among others have clearly made already), that the CYCC’s champions are among the Canadian cream of the crop, and that the winners would be sent to represent Canada on the world stage. In a way, this could be alpine skiing, water polo, or spelling that we're talking about. Google and you will see that the big Canadian companies sign multi-year, seven-figure sponsorship deals for the most glamourous sporting pursuits. We were very pleased that TELUS agreed to be the CYCC’s Gold Sponsor, and were glad as well for the endorsement we received from Janet Yale, TELUS’ executive vice president, Corporate Affairs. “TELUS believes supporting the 2007 Canadian Youth Chess Championship is an excellent way for us to encourage and support young Canadians in achieving their academic and intellectual goals,” she said. “It is part of our commitment to becoming Canada’s premier corporate citizen by making a positive difference in the communities where we live, work and serve.”
An aside: in my opinion, a high-profile sponsor such as TELUS wants an event to aim high by, for example, staging the CYCC at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier and bringing in former Women’s World Champion Susan Polgar to inspire and play CYCC kids so that the event has more appeal to mainstream media. Susan received plentiful press coverage in Ottawa (TV, radio, the Citizen).
WHAT WAS THE THRUST OF THE CANADIAN OPEN SPONSORSHIP DRIVE?
Our top fund-raiser says: "Raising money for an adult activity requires a very strong business case based on what the participants mean to or can do for the sponsor/donor — hence the need for very strong player statistics and demographic information." Generally speaking, this is a harder case to make than the case for the CYCC, when the benefits for children can be stressed.
We made the case that to sell the Open as an event worthy of attention for the world's online chess fans, and our efforts had more oomph once we had compiled some metrics concerning the popularity of online chess play and the leading chess websites (Chessbase.com, Monroi, Susan Polgar's blog).
Again, it was important for us to aim high, which meant trying to secure the participation of both high-rated and numerous grandmasters. As we were able to confirm the participation of GMs, we generated greater interest within the global chess community, which culminated in our recognition by the Association of Chess Professionals.
We were successful in finding smaller “niche” sponsorships — having companies and foreign missions in Ottawa supporting specific grandmasters. Bell Canada was pleased to sponsor GM Mark Bluvshtein at the Canadian Open with its specific contribution. ATFCAN, a Canadian clean energy business that is very active in India, which sponsored two Indian players. We also received invaluable support from selected diplomatic missions in Ottawa — the British High Commission, the Embassies of Poland, Israel, Slovakia and Turkey — which contributed to supporting players from their countries and our events.
One other point: there was a bit of a snowball effect, in that after some key sponsors signed on, their support helped buttress the case made to other companies.
APART FROM MONEY, WHAT OTHER KINDS OF SUPPORT DID THE OTTAWA GROUP RECEIVE?
We received vital in-kind support — sometimes as an alternative when financial support was not an option for the otherwise interested sponsor. The Canadian Open’s venue was recognized prominently as a sponsor in exchange for benefits. The Ottawa Citizen assisted with our banners and printed materials. Our relaunched website, logos, programs and media liaison were all supported by the human capital at ATFCAN. We received crucial e-commerce assistance from the Ottawa company Jaded Pixel, whose technology far surpassed what the CFC’s website offers for online registration.
WHAT DID THE SPONSORSHIP PACKAGES CONSIST OF?
Prospective sponsors received packages with a targeted covering letter, a “splash page” for the event with a photo and one-paragraph description boiling the event down, a term sheet that spelled out the benefits for the three tiers of sponsorship with respect to sponsor recognition and visibility, and examples of media coverage of previous CYCCs and Canadian Opens. We also included detailed, point-form media strategies for the respective events. A key sponsor requested to see our event budget before coming on board.
For the CYCC sponsors, we presented a one-pager detailing the benefits of chess for children, quantified by researchers. For Open sponsors, we included a page of metrics quantifying the online audience for chess.
GENERALLY, WHAT BENEFITS DID SPONSORS RECEIVE?
When we drafted our term sheets, we took our lead from examples found on the Internet of sponsorship term sheets. We offered three levels of sponsorship — Gold, Silver and Bronze. The kinds of benefits included naming rights, opportunities to speak at opening ceremonies, acknowledgement at closing ceremonies, logo prominence on t-shirt, websites, news releases, promotional materials such as programs and chessboards, mentions during pre-event publicity (mail-outs, webpages, etc.) on-site banners and mainstream media opportunities.
It followed that we were extremely conscientious to make good on our promises to sponsors, both during our pre-event publicity and during the events when we made considerable and successful efforts to attract mainstream media (print, TV and radio).
Finally, a vital assurance to sponsors and donors that must be met is that the organizers will meet the highest standards of financial probity — carefully accounting for all monies, ensuring the funds go to the benefit of the stated purposes and not to the personal benefit of the organizers.
WHAT ABOUT DONORS AS OPPOSED TO SPONSORS?
Donors do not receive the widespread recognition that sponsors do. The Chess Federation of Canada is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations that may be earmarked for specific events, and indeed, some companies preferred to support our events with major donations rather than sponsorships. Their decisions may have been due to budgetary considerations.
WHAT WOULD THE ORGANIZERS DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
Start earlier. We had only six months to find support. A year or a year and a half or two years would have been much better, both for us and the companies.
One priority during that time would be to create and compile better written materials to help persuade potential sponsors. In particular, chess organizers and organizations need to pull together some hard and impressive market data on chess to support why corporations should be interested in being associated.
Finally, it would be good to give more consideration to cultivating lasting sponsor/donor relationships. One-shot sponsorship (that is, having a different organizing group each year try to figure out, once again, how to raise some money) is highly inefficient. Repeat/multi-year sponsors/donors are the most efficient way to go.
ANY LAST WORDS?
There are naysayers who contend that corporate support for chess in Canada is a complete non-starter. But we hope our experience — starting very much from scratch — suggests otherwise, and that other organizers will be keen to follow in our footsteps and take Canadian chess events to a higher level.
Peter Hum was one of a dozen or so volunteers who organized the 2007 Canadian Open and Canadian Youth Chess Championships.
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