The creation and implementation of effective alliances is nothing new for virtually all departments. We all have mutual aid agreements and contractual obligations with other jurisdictions for a variety of services. But the environment is getting better for the formation of strong, mutually beneficial alliances with the private sector as well as other non-profit organizations. The public continues in its support for the fire service community. This means that the opportunity to form alliances and sponsorships with other diverse organizations and the private sector has never been better. So how do you do this in such a great environment? First have a plan.
Alliance Development is a Part of the Marketing/Public Affairs Plan
It's important that alliance development become part of the department's overall marketing plan. It is a part of the "relationship sector" (the who) of the Marketing ICS System. When the marketing or public affairs plan is broken out of the departmental strategic plan there should be a section on alliance development and sponsorships. Then it's a matter of who, what, how and when.
A quick point about definitions. I use the terms sponsorship and alliance development interchangeably sometimes. However, I believe there is a difference. I prefer the term alliance development because it denotes a long-term progression of the relationship. It means that this relationship is going to move forward based on the fact that both organizations (the fire department and the ally firm or organization) have decided that they have enough in common to form a mutually beneficial relationship. Also, the term, development, denotes that you are going to grow or build something together. It has all of the earmarks of good marketing: exchange for mutual gain. The next step is to consider the universe of possible allies.
Who Should You Choose for an Alliance Partner?
Allies and sponsors can come from extremely diverse sources. You just never know who might want to ally with a fire department. This brings us to a few filters to consider when forming an alliance.
First, make sure that the companies you are considering are large enough to even support a sponsorship alliance. Most in smaller towns are not. The companies that can support such an initiative may be taken or are approached by every cause in the neighborhood. Regardless, you should always assume that you are in competition with someone if not just another use for the company's budget. Your job is to prove that your reasons are compelling enough to deserve a portion of the marketing or sponsorship budget.Discuss: Fire Service Marketing In The Public Information & Media Relations Forums on Firehouse.com
Naturally, you would probably want to focus on organizations and firms that might have something in common with your department. The obvious ones are companies that produce emergency equipment and supplies. Other obvious examples are insurance and security companies. The problem here is that these firms may be too obvious. Everybody goes to them first. My suggestion is to consider a wide range of possibilities. You can always shorten the list later. What firms and organization in your jurisdiction are marketing to the public in a big way?
Secondly, who has a significant enough budget to provide the support your department needs? Try not to waste time with small firms that can only provide minimal financial or in-kind support. This can be a real problem because it takes just as much time (usually more) to work with a small sponsor as with a large one. This brings me to a very important point: alliance development can be very time consuming. If you are going to do it, you must have a system and people in place to handle it.
As I have stated in the past, a fire department is not a marketing company but an emergency service. Marketing is only a tool to support this effort. The best situation is to form an alliance with one or two organizations or firms that can assist your efforts with their own manpower. They will want to do this because they will understand the strength of fire department brand equity.