A Fundraiser’s Journey: Auctions

Kelly UpdikeA Fundraiser’s Journey by Kelly Updike

I hate auctions.

Be honest, I bet you do, too.

I’ve worked hard to avoid hosting an auction to benefit my nonprofit. I was successful in weaseling out of them for years until the Embassy’s 80th anniversary and the planning committee gleefully – I think I missed that meeting – decided to host an auction of Embassy-only artifacts and memorabilia.

It’s obvious I lived through the experience but it cemented my fears and observations about auctions.

No one really seems to like them, not the planners or the participants. Hard work and lots of time are spent by the organizers in obsessing over the list of items and putting together the right packages that will incite a bidding war and generate tons of money for the organization. On the other side, attendees gird themselves for yet another auction that looks a lot like the one they were at last weekend. And when they do bid, it is to obtain the item at a bargain rate.

The exception to the rule is the Turnstone Center gala, which each spring draws hundreds who attend for the sole purpose of financially supporting the cause. Wow! That didn’t happen overnight but from many years of hard work to foster a culture of fundraising and development.

I recently got sucked into another live auction at the Embassy by kind-hearted staffers who apparently could care less what I think. And my board members thought it was hilarious because I’ve mentioned a time or three that I hate auctions.

Well, the good news is that it didn’t crash and burn. It exceeded our modest budget expectations and folks appeared to if not enjoy the moment then they did survive it in good humor.

Lessons learned? Ah, there are many:

  • Currently trending: Our donor community has auction fatigue and is disconcerted by rows of silent-auction items but thankful for concise, live auctions.
  • Select a small number of items to auction and make them special to your organization, one-of-a-kind or hard to get anywhere else.
  • Select items that range in price, from very affordable on up. If every item is $100, that’s boring. If every item is $3,000, that’s scary.
  • Find a terrific auctioneer. This is extremely important. A good auctioneer will meet with you ahead of the event to learn about the items and give helpful tips.
  • Publicize your items prior to the event. Do this several times.
  • Try to seed the audience with a few key buyers. Silence at a live auction can be deafening.
  • Board members need to bid and/or to egg on other bidders.
  • Communicate to attendees that several of them can go in together to buy that cool yet expensive Embassy rooftop experience. It’s more fun and also more affordable when they divide the price by four or more.
  • Try to provide at least one item that is great for companies to buy and give to staff or clients as a special treat. Win-win, baby!
  • Understand any expenses related to items offered by your organization. Then set minimum prices/bids and stick to them.
  • Be prepared to offer a second prize of an item if it’s popular during bidding. The auctioneer can assist you with this.
  • Have trained staff or volunteers in the crowd to assist the auctioneer by quickly pointing out raised bid cards and to encourage bidding.
  • Be sure your sound system works well and can override that table of talkers in the back of the room. You know who you are.
  • Be sure you set up good operations for gathering bidder contact information and matching bidder numbers to the right persons. And obtain swift (that night!) payment for all sold items.
  • Publicize to all how much was raised and thank the buyers.
  • Many organizations are going to all-tech bidding methods. Select a method or combo of methods that fit your attendees and their IT comfort level.
  • When you go to colleagues’ auctions, model good auction behavior. Do not go for the bargain but go to help that organization raise money. Be the change you want to see in the world.

P.S. I still hate auctions. I do admire a well-done auction, though, because it is a rare and beautiful thing.

The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Embassy or the PCNRC.

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