What could be worse than planning an outdoor gala in Florida with its unpredictable afternoon rains, swarming mosquitos and humidity heavy enough to melt coifs in seconds? “Our auctioneer is drunk,” my assistant said. Our live auction was just about to begin and 400 people sat under the stars waiting to raise money for animal rights. “And that’s not all. He’s making out with a woman,” she continued. “And it’s not his wife.”
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 learn their auctioneer advice.
How did you become professional auctioneers?
Wade: It was an auctioneer’s no-show that prompted us to get involved in fundraising auctions. Barbara was hosting a 1,200-attendee gala in Orlando in 1998, when she learned that the local car dealer/auctioneer the organization had contracted with didn’t show. With no plan of what to do next, Barbara’s impromptu response was to announce from the stage, “We are lucky tonight to have Wade West with us who is going to be our auctioneer.”
That was the only warning I had. At that point, I just got into my zone and I did it and son of a gun, the audience didn’t know. We realized our love was in helping nonprofits make money through auctions, so I went to auctioneer school and we quit our news reporting jobs, and now, 1,800 auctions later, here we are.
What would you do if the auctioneer got drunk or didn’t show?
Wade: We always have two trained auctioneers go to the event in case something happens. And all our ringmen [people who stand in the audience to encourage bidding] are also trained in auctioneering.
Why should an event planner pick a pro?
Wade: Experience. When you need a surgeon, you want someone that does a minimum of 45 procedures a year—and 70 is better. So pick the auctioneer that does a minimum of 40 auctions a year. Also make sure you pick a fundraising auctioneer. There are two types of auctioneers, one auctions goods, usually surplus, and the second is fundraising auctioneers. Their focus is entirely different.
How do fundraising auctioneers differ in their approach?
Wade: The auctioneer needs to know how to “romance” the items. For example, we once did an event on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby and were concerned about big money in the room because lots of people were out of town. We had a motorcycle to auction that John Travolta had ridden once maybe twice, and we were hoping to make sticker at $22,000 and just break even. But the movie Wild Hogs had just come out and we were able to promote the experience of riding cross-country on Travolta’s motorcycle and it went for $77,000. Two weeks later we were guests at an event with basically the same bike and it raised a little over $18,000. The bidder not only needs to win, but they need to be buying a dream.
What’s the importance of hiring professional ringmen?
Wade: The big high bid is not the hard bid to get. The hard bids to get are the early, significant bids. Our ring men are trained to work with the audience one-on-one and know who is interested in what items so when we begin, we have one or two starting bids—so you aren’t hearing crickets. When we ask for the opening bid, we hear “yes, yes, yes,” from all over the room.
Barbara: If you have volunteers that don’t know how to talk to the audience, don’t know how work the crowd and don’t know the items, then you don’t raise as much. People need to be able to ask questions and get fast answers to make bidding decisions.
How do you help get “big money” to the event?
Wade: Statistically, about 20 percent of the bidders are from big money; 30 percent are past supporters; and 50 percent have never stepped up to the plate at any significant level. You want to take people who haven’t been involved and make them become the big money. Fundraising is about the emotion of the moment to become a winner. You want to set the stage for them, so it’s not just “A trip to Paris,” it’s “Take your wife to Paris in spring.”
Barbara: Most organizations sell corporate tables for $10,000, but they’re giving away the tickets to the secretarial pool or wagging tickets in the air for anyone that has a black dress or tux that wants to go. We work with the organization to help them fill the tables with people who have money to spend. Who do they play golf with, who are people who want to do business with you, what friends or customers do you want to thank?
What types of things can an auctioneer pro bring to the party?
Barbara: A good professional fundraising auctioneer does things like bringing two auctioneers, trained ringmen and also will having unique items you can sell at your auction. By using a professional, you should raise two to two-and-a-half times what you [would] do on your own.
How much should you pay for a professional fundraising auctioneer?
Wade: We believe no organization should ever have to lie out money to make money. We charge a 10 percent premium on auction items and that covers everything. And if something doesn’t sell, it doesn’t cost them anything.