In the spirit of partnership and sponsorship, shopping centers can be the community good will ambassadors they were once perceived to be.

In the classic tale by Lewis Carroll, Alice found herself wondering why she sometimes seems larger than life and other times as frail as a willow. Fortunately for Alice, she found her perfect self image when she awoke.

Signs of the times demonstrate that wake up calls are being placed around the country. Consider these trends: Open spirituality is on the rise; customers want to know the true mettle of a company before they buy its products; and corporations are finding ways to assist sales through philanthropic endeavors to the tune of $6.4 billion dollars annually.

These early risers have worked hard to recognize how their personal or business distortions affected their effectiveness. But how many are still hitting the snooze button?

As the millennium approaches, shopping center owners and retailers must reestablish their reflection of demographic and psychographic trends in the American society in order to successfully enter into this new era.

During the lifespan of the shopping center industry, centers have cycled through a number of perceptions. In the 1950s, the retail clusters outside the downtown areas were seen as a great solution for consumers to enjoy convenience, selection and security away from the core downtown areas.

Later refinements to the suburban model created a shopping center that offered a superior experience because it was in communion with the needs and interest of the community it served. Small retail spaces were occupied by local owners. Centers also enjoyed the benefits of single-ownership, and, professional, thorough and cohesive merchandising plans formulated to serve their communities.

However, as retail entities proliferated, the goods selected by the independent shop owner who lived and worked in the community were replaced with decentralized chain stores and repetitive merchandise. Category killing retailers produced price wars, predictable merchandise selection, the ultimate dissolution of large retail chains, and the propagation of large center vacancies.

This civil war drew attention away from shopping centers' original mission to serve their communities. And while the industry's head was turned, a demand grew for civic, even charitable, interaction from companies in exchange for consumers' purchasing loyalty.

Witness advertising trends that reflect a spiritual association: the "Got Milk" campaign where a nasty businessman dies when he steps in front of a truck, finds himself surrounded by chocolate chip cookies and no milk to wash it down. The tag sums it up, "Maybe this isn't heaven after all."

Or, the woman who confesses her miserly way for purchasing an affordable Chevy Cavalier. The priest responds, "It's not a sin to be frugal." Furthermore, Nissan relies upon ancient wisdom and ethereal aura to reclaim its market with the message, "Life is a journey, enjoy the ride."

Supporting this trend is a 249 percent growth in spiritual book sales. Although book stores are killing each other off and publishers are canceling titles, the category of ancient wisdom, psychic phenomenon, religious fiction and self-help has surged.

In response to these trends, enhancing lifestyles through sponsorships is fast becoming a marketing key to success. According to statistics, an earnest commitment to the betterment of lifestyle -- cultural, historical, educational and/or spiritual development -- secures loyalty. What a company gives; it also gets back.

In a study conducted by Cone/Roper II and reported in Inside PR, "93 percent of corporate executives participate in cause-related marketing (CRM) to deepen relationships; to enhance corporate image and reputation (89 percent); to create a new platform (61 percent); to create or maintain a compelling corporate purpose (59 percent); and to differentiate a product or service (51 percent)." According to Carol Cone, chief executive officer of Cone Communications, "Companies that practice CRM successfully have learned that they have an enormously powerful tool for building brand loyalty and lifelong bonds with their customers."

That is not to say that manufacturers, corporations or shopping centers should just randomly donate money to special causes and events or start reciting scripture. Rather, associations with the human interests and causes of the markets sought often result in achieving the desired sales and loyalty goals. This is no less a commitment or challenge than preparing and executing a marketing plan. In fact, the pitfalls are plentiful and usually require outside counsel to navigate through the maze of possibilities and ambushes.

A sponsorship program may cost up to 8 percent of a total budget and is usually supported with two to three times that cost in advertising to gain the desired result. But the sponsorship benefits include having interaction with customers and aligning a center's interest with the consumer market it seeks.

Honesty and integrity are keys. The large baby boomer and senior markets are savvy. The younger markets are cynical and suspicious.

Therefore, insincere motives are readily recognizable. Center owners/ managers cannot just say they care and are committed, they must be committed in order to affect perception and narrow the chasm between self image and public image.

Sponsorships alone are not the cure-all. For example, the shopping center that seeks loyal, well-meaning and well-mannered shoppers cannot do so if the center is riddled with posters full of rules and the stores are run by rude sales clerks.

If the urgency to "just lease it" results in an inappropriate use of space, consumers will notice the haste with which the decision was made. They are not asleep; and owners, managers and marketers will have to wake up too before shopping centers reclaim their status as community hubs.

Debra Sheridan is president IVY Marketing Group Inc., which specializes in cause-related programs and public relations. The Chicago-based firm recently assisted Heitman Retail Properties with the creation of a portfolio-wide sponsorship program called HEROICS (Helping Everyone Reach Out In Community Service).

The following strategies may be employed when trying to obtain quality sponsors for cause-related marketing events. * Communicate the benefits -- not the features -- of the package. * Tailor the sponsorship opportunities by category. * Send out level-appropriate packages to potential sponsors.

(Levels of sponsorship rights include: official sponsor designation; category exclusivity; right to use marks and logos in advertising and promotion; identification in event media buy; identification in promotional and collateral material; complimentary ad in program book; on-site signage; on-site product sampling, etc.) * Put a deadline on all offers, track rejections and create incentives. Small companies usually respond within four weeks, and larger corporations can take up to eight months. * Send proposals to all active sponsors in a category simultaneously (unless relationships with certain sponsors already exist). * Call for an appointment one week after sending out the proposal. * Go into meetings knowing the company's "hot buttons" and come out meetings knowing their specific goals. * Initiate the contract. * Pick up on signs of interest and further tailor the package during contract negotiations. * Take control of writing the contract. * Remember to "under promise and over deliver" the benefits of the event to the sponsors.