The Three Ring Circus: Sales Calls, Nonprofit Style

When I founded Aplos, I needed to raise funds to get it off the ground, but I dreaded the task. I believed in what we were doing, but just hated asking for money. Sound familiar?

The good news is, I didn’t let that feeling stop me. I successfully raised over $3.4 million for Aplos to accomplish our mission of creating simple nonprofit software.

You may be facing the same dilemma. You need to raise funds from business leaders, but feel out of your element. Sure, it’s easier to mail a bunch of letters and then wait for businesses to come to you. But, you will find significantly more success if you are willing to sell them on your nonprofit.

You don’t need to be a pushy salesman to attract new business sponsors, but you will still need to pick up the phone for sales calls, nonprofit style. If the idea of calling someone already has you sweating, this is the post for you.

I will start off by following Molly’s story through this common fear…


Molly here. Being director of a nonprofit animal shelter has me jumping through a variety of hoops most days. My latest circus act was an attempt to plan my very first fundraiser, the Pooch Parade.

I barely had enough cash to keep the lights on, let alone cover the cost of food, invitations, entertainment and rentals. I needed to round up a few local businesses as sponsors. Otherwise, we didn’t have a chance at making money at the event.

I really hated asking for money, but it was for a good cause. I was pretty sure businesses would be interested in helping, given the opportunity.

Pouring over my computer, I found ten steady businesses in the area that looked promising.

Feeling more than a little nervous about asking for money, I decided to practice on one of the dogs; however, we ended up just playing fetch for an hour.

I resolved to practice in the mirror instead, but spent most of that time critiquing my face.

Why was it this difficult to sit down and practice my call?

Only sending a letter started to seem like a much better idea. No interrupting their day. No annoying calls. And I wouldn’t feel as much like a phone salesman.

But I knew my board would expect me to call at least a few, so I had to try. It was time to stop dragging my feet and just give it a go. I picked up the phone with conviction, then hung it right back up…

My brain felt blank! What was I going to say? I mustered up enough nerve to pick up the phone again. I must have dialed the number wrong about three times before I finally got it right.

Ring… Ring… Ring…

I could feel my heart leap into my throat with each dial tone. I could have been planning what to say next, but that’s not what happened.

“Hi, this is Mark.”

From that moment on, the conversation was a complete disaster. At one point I actually considered disconnecting my phone. I panicked and only partially remember what I said, but in my imagination, I sounded like a toddler that made very little sense.


All I wanted to do was bury my head in the sand. How in the world could I raise money like this?

I still had at least nine companies to call, but I clearly needed to try something different. I replayed the call in my head and tried to see where I went wrong in the awkward, rambling conversation. I realized the business owner kept asking me questions about one thing – how it would help his business.

I had thought that just believing in our animal shelter’s mission would be enough, but they wanted more. It needed to make business sense.

Looking at our event, I listed everything I could think of that would be valuable to a business; from key people attending, to the number of invitations we were printing.

Before I made the next set of calls, I did some research on the individuals I was calling and identified why sponsoring would be good for their businesses.


I worked all day on my pitch and did some serious practicing, so when I finally called those last nine businesses, it was a million times better than the first one. They weren’t perfect, but it was a home run for me.

I wasn’t able to win over the hearts of everyone, but a couple of businesses said they would attend and one agreed to be a major sponsor by funding a huge chunk of our event! I had the biggest smile on my face.

Discovering my ability to do something out of my comfort zone was the highlight of my week. But the fun wasn’t over yet. I still needed to make many more calls, but I was motivated now. I was getting ready to jump into the real circus: hosting my first fundraiser. I’ll tell you that story next week.


Sales Calls, Nonprofit Style

Special campaigns or events are prime opportunities to cast your net wide and invite new businesses to partner with your organization. To cover that ground quickly, you need to be ready to confidently sell your organization to a business on the phone. That is where Molly ran into trouble.

The good news is you don’t need to be a killer sales person to successfully raise sponsorships. There are a few fundamental sales concepts that can be applied in the nonprofit sector that will make it easier when you call businesses to ask for support.


Why should they care?

As Molly quickly realized, she needed to think more like a business. Business owners may like you and desire to support your mission, but it is an easy “yes” if it is also good for their businesses. Consider your event and identify what you have to offer. Here are a few examples:

  • Logo placement on your promotional material, event signage, and website
  • VIP access to other sponsors, board members, and special attendees
  • Ability to speak at the event to more closely associate their business with the cause
  • Rights to share your nonprofit’s logo on their business materials as supporters of your nonprofit

Then, create a list of businesses, or sponsor hit list, that have the most to gain by partnering with your organization. The more visibility with their most valued customers, the better. Here is a template sponsorship hit list to get you started.

Your phone call will interrupt their business day, so it helps to prepare them by doing some ground work. Send a letter and/or email first to let them know when and why you will be calling. This will put it in the back of their minds so they will be more prepared to ask questions and make decisions. Here is a sample email.


Take note that it helps to personalize it by letting them know why you decided to reach out to them specifically or why you personally care about this cause. This helps them know it isn’t a bulk email, but a real person reaching out to them.

How much do I ask for?

After outlining your available benefits, structure them in tiered sponsorship levels. Choose to lead with the sponsorship level you feel is the best fit for that company during your pitch. For example, a bank makes money through business loans, so recommend a sponsor level that has VIP access to the other sponsors. If you are hosting a running event, reach out to local sports stores and select a sponsor level with signage along the course.

Now that you know who you will be speaking with, what they care most about, and what you want to for, it’s time to prepare your elevator pitch. Remember, keep it short, personal, and highlight the benefits to the business.

How to turn a no into a yes!

Just because you did your homework, prepared, and have iron-clad benefits for their businesses doesn’t mean they will agree to sponsor. When they say no, be prepared to get more feedback on what their current business goals are, and suggest a more appropriate sponsorship level that meets those goals.

If they are unable to financially support your organization at this time, be ready to suggest other ways to be involved such as in-kind donations, volunteering at the event, or purchasing a ticket.


Successful sponsorship calls don’t always end with financial sponsors. Even if a business leader can only attend the event, you have started them on the journey to more closely connect with your organization in the future.

Have you struggled with sponsor pitches in the past? What are a few things that have helped you make the process easier?

Founder and CEO of Aplos Software, Tim has always been an entrepreneur at heart with a passion for nonprofits. After starting his career as a CPA, he moved on to serve as a church executive pastor and helped start several small nonprofits. These helped develop a deep appreciation for the unique challenges of nonprofits and churches, as well as a desire to provide the easy-to-use tools they need.

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