I know what you're thinking: Our utility doesn't have money to throw at community sponsorships. And even if we did, we wouldn't be able to support every worthy cause in town. And if we did spend money on sponsorships, our customers would overwhelm our call center asking why we are spending money rather than lowering their bills."
These are all valid concerns. Community sponsorships are not something to be taken lightly or decided upon in a knee-jerk way. Instead, they should be a strategic decision based on careful consideration with a goal of measurable impact.
Here are a few tips:
- If you can't give money, consider giving time. In many cases, in-kind donations of utility staff or resources can have a greater impact than stroking a check. Think about powerful message sent by a branded utility bucket truck hanging decorations around the holidays. Nebraska Public Power District partners with the Nebraska chapter of the Professional Golf Association and the Nebraska Community College Foundation to hold an annual pro-am golf tournament. As a political subdivision of the state of Nebraska, NPPD is barred from donating money to philanthropic organizations. Instead, it provides resources to organize the tournament and collect funds to be split between the tournament purse and scholarships for in-need students. As a bonus for NPPD (and its business case for supporting the cause), the scholarship funds are directed toward students entering fields related to the electric power industry (e.g. wind and line technicians, mechanics, accountants, and operations personnel).
- Get credit for your giving. So you've dedicated time, resources or money to a cause; now you need to make sure that the community knows you are contributing. Signage is essential to connect your brand with the event or cause. Make every effort to print that logo on that little league jersey, hang that giant banner over that community festival, and stamp that tagline on the stress balls you are handing out at a career fair. Lansing, Mich., Board of Water & Light's partnership with its local minor league baseball team, The Lansing Lugnuts, includes a healthy dose of signage (both traditional and electronic) at the stadium. This signage is seen by an estimated 500,000 baseball fans a year. In the end, there's absolutely no shame in collecting credit for your efforts. You need to help your customers see that their community-owned public power utility is active in the community.
- Promote your brand AND your programs. In addition to exposing baseball fans to their brand at Lugnuts games, Lansing BWL also uses between-inning promotions to highlight programs such as its "Hometown Energy Savers" conservation program, which encourages customers to save energy and money. Enrolling a bunch of new customers into an energy efficiency/conservation program can be a great way to show return on your sponsorship investment. Matching a sponsorship opportunity with a utility program is more art than science, but it's possible to find opportunities to pitch a captive audience.
- Measure the bang for your buck. This should be obvious, but you don't want to continue a community sponsorship just because you've always done it. Carefully measure and try to quantify the benefits of the sponsorship. Did you see an uptick in participation in a particular program? Did you see a huge web traffic bump? Is call center volume dipping? There may be a day where your sponsorship spending or resource allocation is called into question. Be ready to push back with data that justifies your efforts.
- Involve your employees. This is probably obvious to most public power professionals, but your employees are among your utility's greatest assets. They are brand ambassadors, message surrogates, and literally the faces of your utility. They hold a special kind of credibility as they are likely customers of the utility as well as employees. Make sure that they have the right information when they are out in the community. Consider what may be on your customers' minds and arm your employees with timely talking points before they head out to staff a utility booth at an event.
Every public power community is different, so carefully consider balancing the community's needs with your utility's ability to help. Start small with your sponsorship program and focus on delivering results. Done right, sponsorships can be a win-win for your utility and community."