I once worked with a gala chairwoman who insisted we include 230 silent auction items and 17 live auction item for a crowd of 200 people at our event—meaning that everyone in attendance needed to buy at least one item for the event to be successful. By the time the auctioneer got to the eighth live auction item, half the crowd was gone and the rest were sleeping off a night of drinking at their tables. The auction was like a giant garage sale except everyone was in formals. I took home a five-foot urn-like fixture that I can only assume was for an elephant’s ashes. I had to—it was among the 75 items that didn’t sell.
Orlando-based Wade and Barbara West are co-owners of the American Fundraising Foundation, a nonprofit organization specializing in fundraising auctions. I sat down with the Wests, former television news anchors who have more than 1,800 fundraising auctions under their belt, to hear their thoughts about common mistakes made at fundraising auctions.
What makes an auction inventory too large for a group?
Wade: There’s a formula: Limit items to 60 percent of the number of bidders (couples count as one). Load up with cheap stuff and give everyone a chance to get their own items. We don’t recommend posting the silent auction times in case something in the program causes time delays. The fewer the items and the more wow to them, the more money you will get.
On closing silent auctions too late…
Wade: The silent auction should be closed earlier than most do. Meeting planners know how hard it is to get everyone into the ballroom. So close the silent auction concurrently with people going into the ballroom.
Barbara: When you announce the closing of the silent auction, there’s usually a rush to get in last-minute bids. Some meeting planners get excited when they see so many people starting to bid and say “leave it open.” But it’s important to bidders for you to keep your word. If you extend times, you’re likely to get bidders who feel betrayed because they believe they’ve won the item.
Never put a value on items
Wade: Never put a value on items. The price that night is how much people want it not if they can get it less than retail value. The price is their imagination.
On using volunteers as ringmen…
Barbara: If you have volunteers who don’t know how to talk to the audience, don’t know how to work the crowd and don’t know the items, you won’t make as much money. They need to know to who might be bidders and where they are sitting. They need to stand by bidders and answer questions. You can’t have staff members or volunteers wanting to enjoy the party and drinking wine. You have to be very lucid and foremost know you have a job to do.
On letting amateurs play auctioneer…
Wade: This is not the time to have a magic moment for your board member. The live auction is the big money maker. You want a professional to raise the most money you can.
Don’t tell people times are tough
Barbara: Sometimes the chairperson welcomes their guests by telling them “We know times are tough and that’s why tonight we need your help.” We can hear the wallets slam shut. We don’t want to remind people about the economy and how we are struggling.
Don’t announce the big gift up front
Barbara: It’s not unusual for someone to make a major donation at a gala. Save it as an announcement for the end of the program. Make it the icing on the cake. That way people don’t think you don’t need their money.