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Vol. 39, No. 1

The big picture: Generating non-dues revenue through integrated marketing

by Kristen Senz

Every membership organization relies on annual dues, but there are plenty of other creative ways to generate revenue that can enhance mission fulfillment and member services.

At a workshop on non-dues revenue at the National Association of Bar Executives Annual Meeting in Boston, panelists discussed integrated marketing strategies that, in the case of the Maine State Bar Association, doubled the amount of annual sponsorship revenue in just five years.

Angela Weston, executive director of the voluntary Maine state bar, said a sponsorship policy and a big-picture approach to selling were key to the success of the association’s Corporate Patron Program. Designed to connect nonlawyers and companies that provide goods and services to member attorneys, the program offers three levels of sponsorship, ranging from $500 to $3,000. These annual sponsorship packages include advertisements in the bar’s publications, web ads and hyperlinks, discounted exhibit booths at events and seminars, and other forms of exposure, such as sponsorship of event breaks.

The MSBA board generated a list of sponsorship prospects on which the association’s staff focused their efforts. While board members should be discouraged from directly soliciting sponsorships from businesses, Weston said, their connections with business leaders should be leveraged to help get the conversations started.

Where do you start?

The local and national companies that provide benefits to association members are a good starting point for forging sponsor relationships, the panelists said. These member benefit providers may come to the table with some expectations of marketing assistance, but creative sponsorship opportunities—provided at the right price point—can enrich both the company and the association, said panelist Brant Bittner, executive director of the Orange County (Fla.) Bar Association. Finding them often means thinking in a way that is less event-focused and more member-focused, the panelists noted.

Bittner has found that a number of these opportunities occur right in the bar center. For example, sponsors were able to underwrite the snacks and soda provided at a “lunch and learn” workshop series, he said. And sponsors jumped at the chance to support the bar’s “New Lawyer Boot Camp.”

“Sponsors get excited about this, because they can hook the young lawyers early,” he explained, “and the lawyers appreciate it.”

The DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association provides free coffee to members at its Attorney Resource Center. It sells coffee sponsorships at $500 per month and provides recognition of the monthly sponsors with a sign near the coffeemaker. The bar also includes member mailing labels with its sponsorship packages—which other panelists said they would never do.

Some bar associations have sponsorship packages that reach $10,000 or more per year. Companies are willing to pay for the chance to be connected, face to face, with the association’s membership, the panelists said, and bar staff members have a tendency to undervalue that connection. “They want a marketing agent,” Weston said. “It’s the only way they can reach these firms.”

Key to success: A sponsorship policy

Panelist Ellen Miller-Sharp, executive director of the San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association, said instituting a sponsorship policy is an essential part of expanding integrated marketing efforts. The policy document sets out clear expectations and boundaries for sponsors and any staff or members who may interact with them. Most important, it helps keep board members and others from soliciting sponsorship dollars without seeing the big picture of a sponsorship relationship that the association has established or is working to cultivate.

The policy should identify a single point of contact for sponsors, to avoid multiple, uncoordinated efforts, Miller-Sharp said, and the contact person must have the authority to negotiate sponsorship contracts. Oftentimes, she added, that means companies insist on or end up dealing directly with the association’s executive director.

Julie Armstrong, executive director of the Indianapolis Bar Association, moderated this panel. She shared the sponsorship menu for the IBA’s annual Bench Bar Conference, which offers a variety of levels and opportunities, ranging from $500 to $8,000, for companies to meet members and get recognition and exposure at the event.

The importance of timing

The panelists all agreed that it’s important to consider the timing of the sponsorship pitch. September is the best time to approach potential sponsors, they said, as sponsors begin formulating their budgets for the coming year.

Bittner suggested forming a sponsorship task force that includes members from state and municipal government, the business community, and the association membership. He encouraged workshop attendees to think big with respect to their marketing strategies. Reaching out to the business community and educating them on business law and the bar association is a great way to begin establishing relationships with local, national, and international companies, he believes. “Go international,” he suggested. “Connect with your state’s economic development efforts.”

At smaller bar associations that may not have the staff time to put toward integrated marketing strategies and selling, volunteer attorneys—especially new lawyers—can be a useful resource. Bittner suggested enlisting a young lawyer who has an understanding of the larger bar association picture and who has business sense and connections in the business community. But a volunteer can only do so much. When it comes to talking with sponsors about the return on their investments, the information really must come from association staff, Weston said.

Be selective, and nurture relationships

While increasing efforts to secure sponsorships can help increase non-dues revenue—Maine saw its sponsorship revenue jump from 1.5 percent to 3 percent in five years—it’s equally important that members don’t feel bombarded by sales pitches emanating from the bar association.

“You’ve got to be selective about what events are sponsored,” Weston said, noting that the Maine bar does not allow exclusive sponsorships or sponsorship of social events that are strictly about networking. She also warned against inviting sponsors to participate in or sponsor panel discussions.

Building and nurturing relationships with potential sponsors and establishing a broader approach to selling may require a cultural shift within a bar association, the panelists noted, but it’s one that ultimately has the ability to significantly increase non-dues revenue and improve member services.

Kristen Senz

Kristen Senz is managing editor at the New Hampshire Bar Association and New Hampshire Bar News.