It’s a professional fundraiser’s greatest nightmare. You’re standing in front of a group of 200 people at your fundraising auction and no one is bidding on anything. This actually happened to me. If we had held the auction at a funeral, it would have been livelier and just as productive.
To get the bidding started, the staff faked bidding (with assurance they wouldn’t be charged if they won the bid) and my board president ended up buying a lovely $7,000 trip to China in order for us to save face. This was when Florida was ground zero in the real estate crash, and people were afraid to buy bubblegum much less a stroll along the banks of the Seine River. It was one of the longest nights of my life.
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 advice on making your event more profitable.
How do you get people started bidding?
Barbara: We auction off a little teddy bear as the first item and they’re be a good guy in the audience that will kick off the auction with a little bid. Then we bring in this giant bear—as big as a person. We have fun. One of our assistants will dance with it. And we restart the bidding….now who is going to make a bigger bid on a bigger bear? On three occasions the bear went for $10,000.
What are the best items to auction?
Wade: This is the “something we’ve always dreamed about” category. Not a trip to New York, because most people think “I’ve been there” or “I can catch the next plane.” It’s more like going to the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Paris. The reaction should be “wow-wow.”
How important is it to promote the auction items ahead?
Barbara: Promoting items is like a news feed. You want to give them teaser information. You want people to get excited and say, “Tell us more.”
Wade: We do three emails. We start with a third of the items, and in the second email we add another third of the items and then the last email we add the final third. We always have more to come. During the auction itself our ringmen are walking smaller items such as jewelry around during the cocktail hour.
Should you use computerized programs for auctions?
Wade. We’re very much driven by the audience. If you expect the majority of bidders to be 42 or younger, then a computerized program works. If they are 45 to 55, it will have marginal success; but if [the audience] is 55 and above—NO. Here’s why. Men are funny animals. Younger men like technology. Wealthy, older men don’t depend on technology for everything. They like to do things themselves so a more personalized approach works. Computerized programs will get you a greater number of bids but will not get you a higher selling price at the event. No automatic program can demonstrate emotional value of the item you are bidding on.
How important are the ringmen?
Wade: Ringmen are the ears to the ground—and paying attention to what’s happening at the table is important. For example, we had what we would term a big-money person call us at the last minute, saying he couldn’t come because his college roommate and his wife were in town. We said, “Bring them along, we’ll make room.” They came that night and we were doing an auction for an animal group. We told the story of a child who was very sick and needed someone to help him through it, and a dog that was about to be put down because he was in such bad shape. They found each other and two years later—the boy and his dog walked down the aisle of our event and you could feel the emotion. The highest starting bid for the organization’s plea was $5,000, and they spotted a man who jumped up and said ‘I’m in for $10,000 and then his food supplier vender sitting next to him joked “you should give $20,000,” and then the bidder said, “I’m in for 20 if you’re in for 20”—we were now at $40,000.
Barbara: The wife of the man who was the college roommate tugged my arm and said, “We’d like to write a check for 100.” And I asked “$100?” And she said, “$100,000.” And, of course, I jumped down with my microphone and said, “Sir, would you please stand up.” It’s like covering a breaking news story. You get people involved with what’s happening. Ringmen give you clues so you know who’s interested.
How important is lighting and sound?
Wade: If we cannot see or hear you, we can’t engage you with the mission. Sometimes amateurs bring in five-foot-high floral arrangements or don’t know when to adjust the lighting. It’s why we love working with professional meeting planners so much, because you can’t have a good auction unless you have a good event.
What time should a live auction begin?
Barbara: There’s a witching hour for fundraising. It’s important to have all the fundraising done before 9 p.m. People get tired and restless. Timing is important. You don’t want waiters interrupting the auction.
How can a professional help position the organization’s plea for support?
Barbara: The bottom line is we were reporters. We got to tell stories about organizations, hospitals, and could see the results. That’s what we loved the most about our jobs, telling stories and seeing the good we could do. The plea is where you switch from high energy to calm. Now the focus is on you and your stories.
Wade: A professional knows how to capture the moment and think on their feet. We were doing an auction and were on the last item when someone ran in and then two of the tables just got up and went away. We found out that there was a boy that had been waiting seven-and-a-half months for a heart transplant, and they had just gotten in his heart. I had my notes on everything I was doing and I just threw it away. I told the audience, “If you noticed 20 people just had to take off. That’s the transplant team that works for the hospital” and then I told them what was going on. I said, “I know everyone in this room, if I told you I needed you to go to the blood bank and donate, or sterilize the surgical instruments—if we needed you to be there for them, you would. But by being here tonight…” the money flowed.