When we asked Helen Upperton to fundraise for MSF Canada, we also offered her the support and guidance of our fundraising and communications teams. I figured the two-time bobsleigh Olympian and silver medalist could learn a lot from us. This was raising money, after all, which made us her pilots and brakemen, the elite professional marketing athletes and coaches controlling her fundraising sled in speedy runs down the narrow, twisting, iced tracks of fund development.
Well. Helen is a veteran fundraiser. A master, as are most amateur athletes in this country. They have to be. Meet the Helen of 2003. Today, she’s retired from bobsleigh, in demand, and is right now broadcasting from Sochi. How did she achieve her quest for the podium and all she’s achieved in the last decade? Training, talent, and donors. Donors, and knowing how to ask. She’s so good at asking I started writing down some of our conversations. I share some with you now in the spirit of helping athletes and fundraisers around the world in reaching our own human potential:
As you progress through the system, in most sports the amount of time you must invest in your preparation to compete grows exponentially. Training and preparing becomes a full time job. At some point you’re faced with a choice: If I want to the best in the world at this, I have to give up everything else.” But how will you afford to live with minimal income? You have to suddenly become a fundraiser as you train to be an elite athlete.
On grassroots fundraising
So, when I first started fundraising I was a nobody. No one would sponsor me and I had to think of ways to cover expenses like food, bills, equipment, and team fees. My very first attempt at fundraising was taking my bobsled to a golf course. This was 2003. We wore our speed suits all day in the blazing hot sun. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable but we needed the money. People could pay $20 to put their name in a raffle for a four-man bobsleigh ride down the Olympic track in Calgary. My brakeman at the time was Kaillie Humphries. She was the pilot that won gold in Vancouver 2010 when I won silver, [RD: and yesterday defended her gold in Sochi!]. You have to be creative.
After we raised the money at the golf course, about $10,000, I decided to go bigger. We were one year away from the Torino 2006 Olympics and I still had no sponsors. My parents helped me organize a dinner and silent auction with a teammates on the men’s side. I was so busy training that my family did much of the leg work getting some amazing auction items. We had box seats for the Rolling Stones, friends donated time-shares, and we knocked on local businesses’ doors. My dad had a friend who flew stunt planes and he put a ride in the auction. People were very kind, and we raised $20,000. The problem was most of the people invited to the event were family and friends and close contacts…the same people you keep asking for money over and over. You often feel guilty about it. In the end you just hope you did a good enough job telling all of these amazing people how big a part they played in the whole thing.
Ultimately, what I learned from doing these events is that it was also an opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have. Many athletes have a hard time putting the work in to find support. Again, and I stress this, it’s all about building contacts and a good reputation on and off the field of play. You can’t just go around with your hand out asking for money. That’s not how business works. Learning to fundraise in amateur sports teaches you some pretty incredible skills that become very useful later in life.
About attracting sponsors
The hardest piece of this puzzle is that it is very challenging to become successful without financial support. But it’s very hard to get support if people don’t know you, or you aren’t proven: “I don’t want to be fourth again. Help me own the podium.” It was family and friends that helped get me to the point where sponsors were interested. I was twenty-six, a college graduate, and living in my parents’ basement with no car and no real job. You don’t have time to work and even if you did, who wants to hire someone who has six hours of training a day and leaves every October for five months? The athletes we see reach the Olympic podium in Canada are very determined, both on and off the field of play. The reality is, though, is it’s far easier to acquire sponsorship only AFTER you’ve reached a certain level of performance. I had a few major sponsors that really made a huge difference in my career: they came on board after I’d reached a ranking of second in the world and finishing fourth at my first Olympic Games. My major sponsors that came on board after Torino 2006 were Jennings Capital, B2ten, and Dilawri Automotive Group.
On Relationships and ROI
For years I invented, created, and searched for ways to return value to a sponsor’s financial investment in me. It was part of the pitch. I came up with no after no after no. What I realized later is that most sponsorships are through people you have an existing relationship with, or are building one. It’s all about connections and connecting. The truth is in amateur sport, a sponsor will NEVER get a good ROI. Our international competitions are barely televised, are more popular in Europe, the athletes are not well known (sports companies go after big professional athletes for better branding visibility so the companies that sponsor amateur athletes have no real marketing needs in the international amateur sports world. It’s an impossible sell. What you CAN sell is a journey. The incredible thing about the Olympics are the people that become a part of your journey. You become a representative of their business, and a symbol of their investment in the local community. It’s a motivational tool for their employees and a very unconventional partnership, that, in the end, offers everyone an insight into what it takes to stand on an Olympic podium. I built some wonderful friendships with my sponsors. They became part of my team. They were with me and my family when I was in tears one year before the Vancouver Olympics with two detached ribs and another fourth place finish at the World Championships. They were also there in the stands in Whistler when I climbed onto the podium to receive my Olympic medal. They see the struggle, the ups and downs, and they feel so much pride in what they are doing to help you accomplish your dream and help inspire a country though sport. When the dust settles, you look back and realize that none of it would have been possible without so many people. That human connection and journey of excellence is what you sell. And smart business leaders see the incredible value of what an Olympic athlete can do for a business or an organization.
My advice on attracting corporate sponsors? Be yourself, be marketable, be creative, and become a good public speaker…even if you need to find a coach! Most importantly: know that people want to feel like they are a part of something great. You just have to find a way to let them. Ultimately, your funding needs as an athlete is a story to sell, and like any type of fundraising, you have to convince people to be interested in whatever you’re selling.
On grasstops fundraising
B2ten is a group of business executives that sets up trust funds for the athletes they support. I was a B2ten athlete, and am ever, ever grateful. They use their contacts to help invest the money and offer incredible financial advice for athletes. One of their goals is to help create successful athletes and successful contributing members of society post retirement. I learned so much from them. They were and still are great mentors.
On a practical level, they bought me my bobsled before the 2010 games. It cost $80,000 to buy and probably another $20,000 in repairs and maintenance. The steel runners we use to race are about $10,000 a set and we need different sets for different weather. I usually needed three or four sets at any time. Then add in nutrition, therapy, training, and coaching expenses: it becomes astronomical when you start going above and beyond what the Canadian sport system offers.
Building your case for support
Mr. JD Miller, one of the business men from the B2ten group, helped me negotiate my sponsorship contract. He had the knowledge and experience and I was clueless! He did it at no cost. Because of him, I was able to solidify a great contract. Now, I hadn’t been to the dentist in seven years or something because I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t have a car. Both a leased vehicle and medical coverage were written into my contract. I never even thought about that before. There are so many creative ways to get support. JD helped me to realize that you have to be specific. He said to me, “Ask yourself, what do you really need? What will make a difference? Prioritize them and then ask.” He gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received about amateur sport sponsorship: don’t waste people’s time. Know exactly what you want and what you can give. And ASK, never be afraid to ask! If the answer is “no” you’re no worse off than you are already. I became a bit fearless after that and it paid off.
You also have to consider the majority of Canadians only cares about amateur sport once every two years when the summer or winter Olympic Games are held. So for me, Canada and the world only cared about bobsleigh every four years. That’s also the only time that you cannot display or promote any personal sponsors. That means the people who invest in your journey as an athlete have to be in it for reasons other than self promotion.
Winning and the donor journey
When you look back on your career, at how hard it was to go from nothing to the top of an Olympic podium or a World Cup podium, you realize how absolutely impossible it would’ve been without so many people. That’s the most touching part of the Olympics – the people that become a part of your journey. And you hope that somehow, you’ve managed to convince them that a piece of that medal belongs to them as well because you couldn’t have done it without them.
Final fundraising advice from a bobsledder
Don’t undervalue yourself as an athlete. Canadians have a tendency to do that when considering sponsorship contracts. Persuade people to invest in your journey, not just in you. Ask them to share it with you, become a part of your team. You want a partner, not a sponsor. Explain to prospects they can become a part of building a great athlete and great person. They will be helping inspire a country by investing in an athlete’s Olympic journey. Supporting an athlete shows they value the Olympics ideals of sport, fair play, teamwork, inclusion, and participation. These things have a hugely affect our country. Athletes are incredibly inspiring. Inspire your donors, encourage them, and become a spokesperson for their business. Also, carry business cards with you everywhere and talk to as many people as possible. You never know who you’ll meet and what role they’ll play in moving your career forward.