When Surprises and Fundraising Do Mix

One of my long-held tenets is that surprises in a fundraising auction seldom succeed. Many times have I stood onstage with a donor who midway through the bidding decided to "spice up the lot" and add to it in an attempt to raise more money. Usually their efforts generate exactly zero more bids.

But for every "rule" in fundraising, there is an exception to it, and this year I've been surprised by a few onstage surprises that worked.  While it is never possible to predict when a donor will pull an impromptu add-on, knowing these will help guide you when a donor gives you advance warning of their plan.

Radical Upgrade: The change being made to the lot was a major one, radically increasing the value of the lot. This isn't about simply "adding two more seats to the dinner" here. We're talking about adding 18 onfield-passes to the 18-person luxury suite at a Raiders game, so the winning bidder and all of their friends can go down on field and meet the players before the game.

Other major upgrade examples include a donor throwing in first-class airfare on the spur of the moment, or a vintner agreeing to show up in person to do the wine-pairing for a dinner instead of just donating the wine.

Donor Celebrity: It is also imperative that the person making the changes to the auction lot has celebrity status within the crowd. The guy who jumped up at his table and announced that he'd add 18 onfield-passes to the Raiders game was a high-level executive within the Raiders organization. People were as interested in impressing him as they were getting the additional benefits he was adding to the lot.

Lots of times someone will make a change to a lot believing they have major celebrity status with the crowd, only to find out otherwise. It's a painful moment onstage, one that usually gets blamed on the crowd, not the would-be celebrity.

Easy to Understand Changes: It is hard for an audience to hear what is going on at an auction, it's the simple truth. Making changes to an auction lot mid-auction are difficult, because people simply cannot hear the changes - and even if they can hear, they have to be able to process them.

If a donor is going to change a lot on the fly, try to make sure it is a simple, easy to understand change, such as adding more seats to the dinner or doubling the number of people who can go on the trip. Finer points, such as, "we'll be having the '72 Y'Quem instead of the '84" will get lost in the shuffle.

Generally speaking, surprises in a fundraising auction aren't a good idea. But if a donor insists, do your best to guide them to a surprise that is going to work for everyone - but especially you.