Harper Commons reading room photo by Avi Schwab

Making the Most of Corporate Academic Sponsorships

Many firms find it useful to partner with academic institutions for a variety of reasons, including: to commission research, to advance a field of study, to identify a stream of potential recruits, or to promote brand awareness, just to name a few. While the combination of corporate capital and scholastic brainpower would seem unstoppable, there are plenty of circumstances that conspire to prevent corporate-academic partnerships from reaching their full potential.

In this post, I look at how for-profit corporations can better identify and collaborate with academic institutions (though the academic side is no less interesting and deserves to be addressed, it is beyond my experience set and hence better left to others).

Don’t jump at the first opportunity

A corporate academic partnership that goes bad can be a nightmare for all those involved–with countless hours wasted and frustrations aplenty–particularly when multi-year contractual obligations oblige. I’ve actually seen a company sign a multi-year agreement with the very first academic institution that came knocking at the door. It didn’t go very well. Do your due diligence. It’s better to identify a short list of potential candidates and use agreed criteria before selecting a partner institution and finalizing an agreement. Of course, this requires academic sponsorship program to:

Have an objective

It sounds straightforward, though it can easily be overlooked. A corporate academic sponsorship involves time and resources. It should have an objective and –ideally– metrics to measure the results just like any other effort. Setting an objective internally will help you to explain your vision of the sponsorship to the institutions themselves, helping everyone to have greater clarity from the start.

Document everything

In an extreme example, an individual at one firm signed the deal and then left the firm a short time later. This person’s replacement then left the firm within 2 years, meaning that they were unable to find back the relevant contracts, could not identify the objective of the sponsorship, had no short list to fall back on. Avoid this mistake.

It may be as simple as taking notes and making them accessible to your team. Alternatively, it may entail an internal communications campaign to raise awareness of the program and get more buy-in from stakeholders. While it may seem like extra paperwork, it’s crucial for organizational memory. If the person in the corporate lead role changes positions or leaves the firm, those notes will help the firm maintain continuity over time.

Match their scope to your ambition

Key factors in identifying appropriate potential partner institutions include: the academic entity’s notoriety, specialization, track record regarding sponsorships, personnel and value proposition. Each firm’s needs are different, so these considerations have to be weighed accordingly. A company that leads its sector would likely favor the most prestigious schools. However, a firm may want to select a school with less overall notoriety if a particular branch has a strong reputation in a given niche that is relevant to the industry–whether it’s agriculture, media or economics, etc.

Identify your full contribution upfront

A sponsorship requires time and money. But is that all? A while back I attended a seminar hosted by an academic institution that had a clearly defined approach to sponsorships, and understood the benefits they bring to the school. The school systematically applied a ‘business check’ to the output of their sponsorships. Essentially, they asked their sponsor firms to enter into a dialogue regarding the subject matter and offer the ‘real world view’ from industry practitioners. Yet, not every corporate sponsor was aware of this approach, which really amounted to a missed opportunity for everyone. How do you know what a school wants from you? Simply ask.

Weigh the pros and cons

In some jurisdictions, academic partnerships get beneficial tax treatment. That one advantage alone does not constitute a well-conceived sponsorship program. Take a holistic view of the effort, and make an evaluation based on a clear-eyed assessment that allows for the possibility that the program could have poor, average or good results.

Anticipate an adjustment period

Academia and corporate worlds operate differently. And it’s a different type of relationship than one with a supplier, client or external agency. Especially if this is your first corporate academic sponsorship, plan to learn as things go along in order to allow all parties to acclimate to the new relationship.

To conclude

A firm’s decision to launch a sponsorship program should not be taken lightly. Corporate academic sponsorships can be beneficial to both parties–though they sometimes leave room for improvement. Bearing in mind the above set of guidelines can help steer the corporate-academic connection towards a better outcome.