NIGP’s Brent Maas on Taking a Chance and Redefining Association Sponsorship

NIGP’s Brent Maas on Taking a Chance and Redefining Association Sponsorship

The following is re-posted with permission from the 10/15/2012 issue of  Bottom Line Briefing (BLB).

Established in 1944, the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) is a Virginia-based organization that ranks as the largest association specifically dedicated to government procurement. On the surface, one might think that such a seemingly button-down group would not be the type to take chances. But NIGP is taking a big risk and Director Marketing Brent Maas is one of the driving forces behind this ambitious initiative.

“We are in the middle of transitioning and redefining what it means to be a sponsor of NIGP,” Maas stated, during a recent interview with Bottom Line Briefing. “We launched our sponsor program back in 2006. It was the first time we offered any such program that wasn’t event-specific. When we launched it, we had a two-tiered program. There was your premiere sponsor and your entry, or corporate, sponsor. Over time, we looked at what some other associations were doing [in this regard]. Certainly, we looked at the National Association of Counties and ASAE and their programs and kind of used them as models in trying to do things that might enhance or provide something a little more unique, something above and beyond what was being offered at the time. After about five years, we felt it was time to do a program review — how have things changed, what could we do different, etc.”

At the end of this evaluation process, the decision was made to go with a single-tier sponsor program. Maas explained, “We have a lot of long-term exhibitors who have been exhibiting with us for years, but they have not wanted to necessarily do anything else other than exhibit. Every other program out there that we looked at, associations were looking to maximize revenue through the broadest inclusion possible. Our position is, ‘Yes, we do want to maximize dollars, but there really does have to be something there that gives great value to that sponsor.’ For us, where we see that value is about brand alignment, but it’s also about exclusivity. That’s the key and risky element to this strategy. Having identified a sponsor company in a given market segment, that company enjoys exclusive representation of that segment within the new program. And our program is close-ended. We are capping it at 15 participants. We’re in transition to date … transitioning from the legacy program into the new format.”

Maas’ specific role has been to shepherd the evaluation process. He had defined and launched the initial iteration of the program. “Starting in 2011,” he noted, “I identified the third-party firm [McKinley Advisors] that we would use to help us do the program assessment, provide recommendations for a structure going forward, [determine] pricing, and so on. Once that recommendation came back, we then took it to the next step of presenting it to our chief executive and to the board and then communicating the outcome to the sponsors. They were included in the process. McKinley did interview all of our premiere sponsors and probably half of our corporate sponsors.”

He continued, “We are doing something very unique and it’s very risky in that there is no fallback. We don’t have something else to offer to a company who can’t afford [our program’s $25,000 fee], but would like to still be a sponsor for $10,000. Not anymore. Of course, there are still opportunities that we do offer. You can advertise in our newsletters and our publications, even in our forum program or online buyers guide. But when it comes time to have placement on our website or to get recognition at our annual conference, we’re going to say that these are the folks that are aligned with us and have supported us throughout the year. We recognize them exclusively, and they will also be exclusively recognized in our educational materials and so on. We give them acknowledgement across all programs.”

Maas, it should be acknowledged, has been with the NIGP since March 2005. Prior to that, he was senior marketing manager for a couple of high-tech companies and had also held an operations management position with the Walt Disney Co. This is the first non-profit he has worked for.

“I was the first marketing director for this association,” he proudly pointed out, “and there has been quite a learning curve for board and staff as to what marketing is all about. It goes beyond ‘pretty colors’ and nice, catchy phrases. I am involved in a lot of strategy development and relationship development with partners to support our operations and augment the offerings we provide for our members.”

He went on to note that NIGP’s relationship with the supplier community is not a membership-oriented one. The association’s members are exclusively those who are procuring on behalf of governments or who otherwise are spending taxpayer dollars. He elaborated, “They could be working specifically for a government agency or they could also be working for a public utility, a school, a university, an airport authority, and so forth. Principally, it’s state and local. We do have some federal procurement folks. But our membership of 15,000-plus individuals is mostly state and local.”

He added, “Our relationship with suppliers is really about embracing them for the solutions that they bring to the public sector. They’re not just providing product or service to generate bottom-line profit, which absolutely they are and everybody gets that. But they need to be made aware that they are a part of that overall public eco-system of ‘This is how we build communities.’ They are substantial contributors to the experience of a community. Those are the companies that you see aligned with our sponsor program. We view that sponsorship as an opportunity for those companies to demonstrate that they have a different kind of commitment and understanding of what it means to be in public service and how they contribute to the operations of government.”

When asked what advice he would have for other association executives out there looking to rejuvenate their sponsorship programs or otherwise make a major and quite possibly risky change in course, Maas was quick to answer. “It’s important to have very clear goals in mind with what your expectations are from the program,” he stated. “Know your value proposition. One of the things that we were pressed very hard on was our value proposition. … Also know that there are a lot of very good firms that are out there that can help you with developing a sponsor program. It’s just a matter of your resources and your capacity to support the program. Don’t think that you can put up a sponsorship program as a marketing program and then not support it. You absolutely need to have a level of dedicated staffing to make it successful.”