By Laura Haight

First there’s something that just catches your eye. Then there’s that feeling that you share something special. Eventually, you come together and – with luck – find your needs fulfilled. Romance? No. But it is about passion.

“We do sponsorships for things we feel passionate about,” says Debbie Nelson, whose company – DNA Communications – see sponsorships from both sides of the table.

The quest is to find the right matches – because sponsorships are monogamous and, even in a tough economy, companies say they try to touch a lot of things in smaller ways.

Sponsorships should be a part of every marketing plan, Nelson says and this launched an event planning department to serve her clients who either want to participate as a sponsor or sponsor events themselves.

Increasingly, she said, sponsorships are taking a lot of different forms. This year, as the economy has contracted, she said “in-kind sponsorships have become much more popular.” Many companies that want to be involved but can’t afford to donate money will donate a service or product.

At The Greenville News, those “trades” have enabled the company to maintain its level of support for the community, despite an economy that has disproportionately affected its industry.

Susan Schwartkopf, VP of Market Development, says “We try to say yes to everyone.” Saying yes often means donating space in the newspaper or its products for promotion.

Small donations and commitments have helped Marsha Wallace take Dining for Women from a micro-local effort help women n impoverished nations to an international organization with 130 chapters in just nine years. Dining for Women last month concluded its first real sponsorship-heavy event. Wallace believes her organization and others benefit from a trend toward “social philanthropy.” Companies need to be seen as giving back to the community and “social entrepreneurism is becoming more trendy.”

Smaller donors and sponsorships are also at the heart of the Greenville Humane Society’s strategy, according to Kim Pitman, executive director. With a million-dollar budget and receiving no support from any national, regional or local organizations, GHS depends entirely on its direct donors and corporate sponsors.

The organization is starting to sell sponsorships on its high-traffic website that is bringing in 28,000 visitors a month.

“We are apple pie and motherhood,” says Pitman. “What’s better than puppies and kittens?”

GHS is making a concerted effort to build up its grassroots support to show large corporations “the outpouring of public support we’ve got.”

Sponsorships are no longer a strictly cash business and even large, multi-national businesses like BMW don’t always just open up a checkbook.

Max Metcalf, manager of government and community relations for BMW Manufacturing, says, “At a time when budgets are tight, we may not be able to give money, but may ask if there’s something we can do in kind.”

For some current events, BMW is donating the use of vehicles for transporting dignitaries and an opportunity to test your driving skills on the BMW performance track.

This negotiation is a growing strategy that Carol Black, a meeting, conference and trade show planner, believes should be practiced by more businesses. Black, who also trains on how to buy and sell sponsorships, coaches her clients that the baseline sponsorship packages are just “a place to start.”

Black sells sponsorships for Euphoria, an epicurean event held last month.

“When I go in front of someone, the first thing I ask,” explains Black, “is how can we help you meet your goals. Do you have a new gidget, a new service, are you working on customer service or awareness? What do you need?” Spending time assisting companies with achieving their goals often results in a more productive partnership between event and sponsor. The end result may be a unique package of opportunities in exchange for services or in-kind donations.

Like a crowded bar on a Saturday night, there is a seemingly endless array of sponsorship possibilities. So how does a company decided what relationships it wants to venture into?

Says Metcalf: “It is very much in the fabric of BMW to support sustainable communities. It’s where our associates live and work and volunteer.”

Sustainability factors include the environment, social climate, quality of life and more. The company looks for ways to have an “impact” on that sustainability through the programs it supports. The BMW website lists a clearly defined set of principles BMW adheres to in its sponsorships. Education is clearly one of its goals and a full 47 percent of its community contributions go to support it.

The Greenville News seeks out sponsorships that dovetail with a particular audience segment. Its Moms Like Me brand is a perfect fit for a lot of family-centric organizations, Schwartzkopf says.

But at its core, businesses agree with Debbie Nelson: “If we take care of the community, it will take care of us.”