Sponsorship 101
Credit: Craig Foster/Dreamstime

My wife Julie and I have received thousands of email inquiries over the years, and one of the most common questions is: “How do I get sponsored?”

There is a good reason for this — who wouldn’t want to get paid for having fun outdoors? If you’re going to climb a mountain or sail an ocean, wouldn’t it be nice to get the project funded and maybe even promoted in some glossy pages?

I still remember my own pitiful efforts in seeking financial backing for my first adventure. It was the early ‘90s and my friend Dan Audet and I were planning on sailing around the world (despite having no sailing experience). Dan and I were 18 and 19, respectively, and as far as we knew we were the youngest people ever to attempt an offshore sailing voyage not financed by one’s parents. Perhaps our meagre savings could be thickened with a little sponsor cash, we naively hoped.

Now remember the era — the Internet was in its fledgling stage, and as far as we were concerned, didn’t exist. We lived in a small town on Vancouver Island, and the big companies seemed a world away and impossible to connect with. Our solution was to visit the local supermarket and jot down the phone numbers and addresses of consumer relations from products of major brands.  

As Dan and I walked up and down the aisles, notebook in hand, the manager angrily approached us. He didn’t buy our story, instead believing we were spies from the competition price-checking and asked us to leave the premises. We continued our research elsewhere and sent off an armada of inquiries.

Most companies didn’t reply and a few politely declined. We were deflated. Not to be deterred, we sailed away from Canada in our decrepit sailboat with less than $500 between us, and zero chance of a bailout if funds ran dry. The five-year sailing odyssey to follow was financed exclusively by working odd jobs in foreign countries and keeping costs to a minimum. Our diet consisted of rice supplemented with free foods from the land — mainly fish, guavas, passion fruit and bananas. When luxury yachts invited us aboard for a meal, eyebrows were raised as we devoured helping after helping (and chilled beverages) like there was no tomorrow. 

With no sponsors to pay the bills, I worked more than 20 jobs in countless countries — from digging graves in New Zealand to ploughing sugar cane fields in Australia to being a deckhand on a yacht owned by the world’s eighth-wealthiest person. 

My next two expeditions, the first descent of the world’s fifth-longest river, the Yenisey, and the third descent of the Amazon River, garnered similar amounts of sponsor interest despite continued efforts. Personal savings and tight budgets were as essential to success as boat skills and endurance.  

Now for those of you with rosy sponsor aspirations, you may think this story is going in a dismal direction, but quite the contrary. With the lovely 20-20 focus that comes with hindsight, I now realize how much my early journeys were enriched by our dearth of dollars. The struggles we endured allowed us to connect more intimately with the people and lands we encountered. And let’s face it, whether you’re wearing thrift shop wool, or The North Face’s finest, the exhilaration of achieving your goal is the same.

Over the years, after publishing several bestselling books and having our documentaries aired around the world on National Geographic Channel, things have changed and we’ve been fortunate to acquire the support of some great companies and organizations including Truestar Health, Helly Hansen, Wallace & Cary, National Geographic and Random House. This backing has been fundamental to the success of our more recent expeditions, and has allowed us to focus more on expedition logistics — meaning we’ve been able to take on more complex and challenging goals.

So for those of you looking for sponsorship, give it a whirl, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. The joy of an expedition doesn’t come from being surrounded by Chevy Avalanche trucks and an arsenal of porters, but simply from taking on a goal that challenges you. Think about the memories you’ll be taking from that experience rather than how many Gore-Tex garments you can collect for free.  

Some of my fondest memories are of being barefoot in a small boat in the South Pacific, with fewer dollars than fingers and a distant horizon possessing infinite possibility. It didn’t take money to move forward, just some tatty old sails and desire. 

And sage advice on how to get sponsorship? There’s no magic formula; it’s all about hard work, business savvy and a lot of luck. If you don’t like schmoozing and knocking on doors, try flipping burgers instead. At least the results are guaranteed.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2013 issue.

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