tl;dr: WordCamp sponsors aren’t buying advertising, they’re supporting the WordPress project. Giveaways are reserved for actual sponsors. Start local when looking for sponsors.
Once you’ve secured your venue, figured out your budget, and set the ticket prices, it’s time to raise the money you need. In your budget review, you’ll determine what your fundraising needs are and how much will be provided by WordCamp Central from Global Community Sponsors and review how much additional money or support you need to raise from local companies and WordPress-related businesses that want to support the growth of the WordPress community near you by giving financial or in-kind donations to the cause.
Traditionally, these businesses were called sponsors, and various levels of sponsorship were set by each WordCamp organizing team. Each level awarded sponsors a variety of benefits (largely marketing-related) in exchange for progressively higher amounts of funding. However, this trend led to over-commercialization of a number of WordCamps: logos plastered everywhere, sponsors giving live pitches for their products and services on official event time, event space taken up with swag tables and banners rather than hack spaces and job boards.
WordCamp sponsorship is not an exchange of money for marketing/advertising at the event/with the attendee audience. Sponsorships are donations, given to support the WordPress project and official events. Think of your funding sources as supporters rather than sponsors, and hopefully that will give you a gut check on whether or not your sponsor benefits are veering too far toward marketing and promotion. Would a children’s hospital plaster donor logos on their scrubs? (Keep the t-shirts clean, and people will actually wear them after the event instead of tossing them in a drawer.) Would an environmental group name a rescued piece of land after the sponsors that funded the purchase? (Don’t name tracks after sponsor companies, name them for their content.)
Who to Approach
First, determine how much money will be provided to your event budget through the Global Community Sponsorship program and how much you will need to raise locally. This will happen in the budget review. Publish your sponsorship levels and packages after your budget has been approved.
Second, who’s saving and/or making money thanks to WordPress in your local area? Identify design and development firms, publishers, businesses using it to power their company sites/intranets, and prominent bloggers using WordPress; they should be in your first wave of fundraising appeals.
Third, think about your local WordPress community. Are there businesses they tend to frequent? Coffee shops, co-working spaces, computer and mobile phone stores, local hosting companies and ISPs, bars, local breweries… anywhere your community already tends to spend money is a great place to start.
Fourth, think about businesses in your community in general. Are there any that tend to support non-profit events in your city? Does anyone in your meetup group have connections to any businesses? Are there any that just plain have something you need for your event? You can find in-kind support in unexpected places: a restaurant might be willing to donate some food, or at least give you a serious discount, in exchange for acknowledgement and maybe giving a coupon to attendees that will drive business after WordCamp is over. An office supply store might be willing to donate a box or two of paper. Not every form of support is a cash donation; every bit helps. A “supporters coupon pack” is a good way to give supporters the benefit of increased exposure without plastering your event with logos, naming rights, banners, etc.
Fifth, hit up WordPress-based businesses that are not local but tend to support WordCamps around the world. Why is this fourth? Because a) there is a lot of competition for these sponsors and budgets are not infinite, so if you can raise money locally, do so; and b) because these companies will find you on the wordcamp.org schedule and contact you of their own volition, so you should focus your outreach on potential supporters that need more encouragement to get involved.
Finally, if you are having the worst time and can’t find any sponsors, use the forums on this site for advice from past organizers, and contact WordCamp Central for help.
A Note on Giveaways
You will undoubtedly be approached by companies wanting to offer you a few things to either use in attendee raffles or distribute to all the attendees as a free giveaway. A few copies of a book about WordPress, a piece of software related to blogging, a free business card offer, you name it. What they are asking for is free advertising. Raffles usually make attendees antsy, because handing out prizes takes time that could be spent on content or at an afterparty, and few people are rewarded for everyone sitting around while this is done. Reserve giveaways for actual sponsors, and make sure your distribution process does not take time away from the reason people are coming.
How to Approach
Based on your budget, decide on your sponsorship opportunities. These can include cash (they give you $$), in-kind (they donate products or services that you had planned to buy), and picking up the tab for a budget item (they pay your vendor directly, like for lunch or t-shirts). When you’re happy with your sponsorship benefit packages, send them to WordCamp Central to be approved. This ensures no WordCamp will cross a line that could endanger the Foundation’s non-profit status.
Put together a page on your site outlining the opportunities, and create PDF (for printing) and email versions, so that you’re ready when it’s time to start pounding the pavement (and that time is pretty much immediately).
Your fundraising committee, led by a member of the organizing team and consisting of 5-10 volunteers, should brainstorm who these potential supporters might be, and record the results in a spreadsheet. Also make use of Twitter, Facebook, the event site, and everyone’s personal blogs to get your collective followers involved — they can suggest potential supporters and/or ask their employers if they’d be interested. Assign each volunteer a list of potential supporters to contact. Contact can be made by email, in person, or by phone, depending on what seems most appropriate.
As each potential supporter is contacted, record the results in the spreadsheet. When you’ve raised enough money for your event (with a small buffer for unexpected costs), close the fundraising drive. Anyone who approaches after fundraising is closed can be encouraged to support the meetup group throughout the year, or put on a list to contact early next year.
Supporters should be asked to provide payment as soon as they’ve committed; don’t give them a chance to change their mind. Have them give/mail a check if possible so you don’t lose funds to PayPal fees. If they want to use PayPal, adding on 3% will cover the fees.
When payment has been received, be sure to let the supporter know, and update your spreadsheet. At this point, you can collect information for display on the site’s sponsor/supporter page, and give out the coupon code for any included ticket registrations you are providing to them.
At the Event
Depending on how you do name badges, you may wish to identify supporters with a special badge, lanyard color, sticker, etc. For large WordCamps, having a separate sign-in table for supporters is often helpful. Don’t forget to thank the supporters. Without them, you couldn’t have done it.