I received a request from a journalist for my top six hints for a successful charity fundraising auction. I told her my recommendations would vary a bit based on the size of fundraising auction and whether the host was managing with volunteers or had hired the services of professional event managers to run part or all of the event. I asked about her intended audience.
That level of detail was way more than she had considered for a fundraising auction and decided maybe she better just go and ask someone who only had six hints.
Is this really a surprise? Hints helpful to the host of a major fundraising auction event at an elegant hotel and employing professional event management staff might not be of much use to the youth soccer league holding a neighborhood fundraising auction managed by moms and dads at the ballpark ramada. Both events may feature common elements such as silent and live auctions, but best hints for success may vary greatly, or not – it depends.
Later that same day my spouse reminded me about a fundraising auction we would attend in a few weeks. The fundraiser is an annual event held at a very nice wine country restaurant.
The reminder made me think again about the journalist’s question. I have at least six hints for the host holding the fundraising auction we would soon attend. In fact, I have had these “hints” for almost a year now. But in reality I have more than just hints. I have detailed recommendations for the host on how they can increase their net revenue by at least 30 to 50 percent. We attended the annual fundraising auction event for the first time the previous year. After the event I spoke to the long-time Chairman of the charity hosting the event. He was a wonderful gentleman. I gave him my card, explained my position on the faculty at a nearby university, and volunteered my help.
My spouse and I make small donations to the charity, not enough to make much difference. But we have close friends who make contributions that are enough to truly make a difference, so I felt I could make a larger contribution as a volunteer by helping increasing the net revenue from the annual auction.
There were many aspects of the fundraising event that were well-planned and managed. There were other aspects that were poorly-planned (or not planned at all) and poorly-managed. In an event all things are connected, so poor execution in one aspect of an event will affect other aspects.
Unfortunately for the host, the most poorly-planned and executed aspects of the event were the fundraising activities held at the event. Specifically the host poorly executed the silent and live auctions, and a direct cash solicitation.
The host left considerable money in the room. The money was there for the charity, if only attendees had been presented with a sufficient number and better-executed opportunities for attendees to give. I am certain the host could have increased net auction revenue by at least 30 to 50 percent ($15,000 – $25,000) had they followed these seven hints (several are self-evident, others need a bit more detail to understand):
Seven Hints to Improve Event Fundraising Net Revenue
1. Ensure attendees can see clearly and know exactly what is being auctioned and available for bid, whether in a silent or live auction.
2. Never, ever hold a silent silent auction.
More: Hosts should never be quiet about the silent auction. Silent auctions treated passively by event hosts are passively treated by attendees. Silent auctions need to be promoted as loudly and prominently as any other event fundraising activity. Constant updates, countdowns, descriptions of items in the silent auctions, and more lend success to silent auctions.
3. Hire or obtain the volunteer service of an experienced professional auctioneer who understands charity auctioneering.
4. When asking for direct cash donations from attendees at an event have a plan, train volunteers who will collect cash donations, rehearse, and follow the plan.
5. When using motivational elements in fundraising, use them to raise funds.
More: At last year’s event, the host featured a person who had been helped by the charity who gave a motivational speech. He did a superb job speaking. He stirred the emotions of all attendees. He also had personally donated a moderately valuable item to be offered in live auction. The host failed to capture the emotion of the moment after his speech to offer his item in auction. Instead the item was offered much later, well after the emotion had waned. Still worse, the speaker/donor was not effectively made part of the auctioning when the item was offered. And, most disappointedly, his item received less than it should have given attendees’ potential for giving. It was not his fault!
6. Order the presentation of items in the live auction in a sequence that promotes maximum giving.
More: This hint follows on the previous one. Not only did the host misplace the motivational speaker’s donation in the sequence of items offered for auction, they also misplaced the most valuable item in the auction. They offered it first. It was by far the most expensive item in the auction. The unprepared volunteer auctioneer opened the live auction with the most valuable and most featured item. Attendees were caught cold. But the attendees were not nearly as cold as the “auctioneer” as she flubbed through keeping track of bid amounts and bidders. Spotters were cold as well. I don’t know if there had been any training, but it was clear this auction team was getting on the job experience by trial and error. As a result, placing the most valuable item first was probably the most costly mistake of the entire evening. Inexperienced auctioneers aside, here is general guidance on auction item sequence: In general, start with two or three items of moderate value (relative to items offered at the auction) that will be popular to bidders. This helps generate early excitement and warms up auction attendees. The moderate values and popularity should generate quick interest by bidders. Throughout the auction, mix up the kinds of items offered. In other words, if there are four art prints available for auction, spread them out. Don’t offer them one after the other. Build toward the middle of the auction with the highest-value and featured items coming at or just after the midpoint. Once the featured items have all been auctioned off, wind down to the end. The basis for this sequence is to (1) generate excitement early, (2) build to the middle of the auction, and (3) give unsuccessful bidders for the most featured items an opportunity to bid on some very nice items after the most highly featured items are all gone. Consider that not all bidders will be able to take home the most desired items. If the most desirable items are offered at the very end of the auction, anyone who has held off bidding big in anticipation of winning a featured item will have nothing to bid on if he or she doesn’t win the desired item. On the other hand, if the most featured items are auctioned off first, the highest drama and excitement of the auction are over almost as the auction begins.
7. Make sure there are sufficient opportunities for giving so all attendees can participate and contribute.
More: There were far more attendees than there were opportunities to give. Sure, all attendees at any event can place bids on live and silent auction items, but only winners actually contribute funds. Event hosts should match the number and kinds of fundraising opportunities to the number of attendees expected. Plus, in any large group of attendees there will be some people who simply do not participate in auctions. Additional and alternative fundraising opportunities are needed to ensure there are fundraising opportunities for all, so all in attendance can enthusiastically participate and give to the cause.
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While the sequence of events regarding the charity fundraiser at issue and the journalist’s questioning took place recently, hints provided in this blog are based on passages from the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising by Rudolph Rosen. Texas A&M University Press.
In Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising, veteran nonprofit executive director Rudolph Rosen lays out the field-tested approaches that have helped him and the teams of volunteers and professionals he has worked with raise over $3 billion for environmental conservation.
As Rosen explains, fundraising events can range from elite, black-tie affairs in large cities to basement banquets and backyard barbeques in small-town America. Money for the Cause runs the gamut, demonstrating methods adaptable to most situations and illustrating both basic and advanced techniques that can be duplicated by everyone from novice volunteers to experienced event planners.