General Fundraising

Gamblers like to know the odds

Raffles are an important revenue generator for most fundraising events. They provide a low-cost entry point for attendees to participate while simultaneously helping raise significant amounts. We consistently see raffles that raise $5,000 - $10,000 and occasionally see them in the $15,000 - $25,000 range.

Most people think the prize is the most important piece of a raffle and focus all of their attention on finding something they think will have universal appeal. While the prize is important, I argue that the number of tickets you are going to make available is even more crucial. 


Gamblers like to know the odds before they put down their money. When you limit the number of available tickets for a raffle, you are giving people a clear understanding of their odds. And a perceived “good chance” encourages people to pay a higher price to play.

Unlimited $25 raffle tickets aren’t as appealing – from a gambling standpoint – as 1 of 100 tickets at $50 each. Who knows how many people are going to buy one of those $25 tickets? But the $50 ticket? There are only 100 of those, and odds resonate with gamblers.

By limiting supply you also enable your staff or volunteers to create a sense of urgency: “Do you want a 1 in 100 chance to win this trip to Hawaii? There are only 50 chances left…” Tickets will run out. Buy yours now. For a limited time only.

There are a number of calculations that go into deciding how many tickets you should make available for a particular raffle and how much you should charge per ticket. First and foremost, you need to determine how much you want to raise in your raffle. Our recommendation is that any raffle should raise at least double the value of the donation.

Then you have to calculate how many tickets you think you could sell. If you’ve never done a raffle before and have no data to rely on, just know that you can’t expect 100% of your attendees to buy raffle tickets. Between 15% and 20% of your attendees is a reasonable assumption, if the raffle is compelling.

It is always preferable to have more demand than supply, so people will rush to get their tickets next year. Limit the number of tickets and increase the amount you raise in your raffle. People who participate in raffles are gamblers, and every gambler likes to think they are getting good odds.

Personalize your paddle raise

The paddle raise is the most important component of most fundraising auctions, often raising more than the rest of the auction combined. The way it is introduced is crucial to engaging the crowd and ensuring success.

A good paddle raise pitch tells stories that connect your audience to your mission on a personal level. It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to be overly dramatic, it just needs to be honest and engaging. Like this video of Trent Yaconelli, associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of St Helena and Calistoga, at their BIG Night gala.

One way the election will impact your fall auction: communications

Last week we explored the upcoming presidential election’s impact on fall fundraising auctions, and concluded that the popularly held beliefs are misconceptions (see our blog post on the topic for an in-depth analysis). But there is one area where the fall election cycle is going to impact fall events: direct mail, mailing houses, and the sheer volume of communication people will receive.

The first week of November is consistently one of the top three busiest weeks of the year for mail. If you are planning on sending an invitation or direct mail to your attendees between October 1st and November 4th, make sure that your mail house is not going to be inundated with political work. One event planner we work with only contracts mailing houses that don’t do any political work; she wants to ensure her clients are top priority.

Non-profit communication always faces stiff competition for recipients’ attention, and during an election year that competition is much fiercer. It is no longer limited solely to direct mail, either. Since the 2010 election, political campaigns have come to rely more upon email, social media and other electronic outlets. For events in November, this means that your two-week prior touch-base with attendees to confirm their attendance and get them a copy of your auction catalog is going to be competing with a lot of other noise.

Your most ardent supporters will know who you are and open your emails to them – but their guests might be another story. Relationships rule development, so leverage all of the connections you have. Utilize your network of supporters: have table captains reach out to their guests directly on your behalf to market your auction (see our blog post on the subject). And start now: I am a big fan of expectation management through clear communication. If you get your supporters committed to making your event a success in advance, they will help continue that tradition every year.

How will the election impact your fundraising auction?

Arguably, 2016 is the most contentious presidential election in my lifetime. The emotional impact is extremely high, and very few people in my network are unaffected by it.

Charitable giving infographic created by  Beth Sandefur .

Charitable giving infographic created by Beth Sandefur.

The majority of the spring fundraising season was complete before either party had finalized its candidate. We didn’t see events suffer negative impacts that we could attribute to directly the presidential campaign. But now that the candidates are set, the conventions are over and the fur is starting to fly, how will the election impact events in the fall?

The commonly held “wisdom” is that charitable fundraising falters in an election year, for a variety of reasons. The predominant theories being that donors give to campaigns instead of charities, or donors are scared away by uncertainty or fear. A recently released study by Blackbaud sheds interesting light on both of these theories.

The report is based on data from the 2012 election, and focused on 143 national 501(c)(3) organizations. Blackbaud found that donors who contributed to political campaigns also increased their 2012 charitable contributions 0.9% compared to the previous year. Donors who were engaged in the political process increased their donations to charities.

Donors who did not make a political contribution in 2012, however, gave 2.1% less to charitable causes than in 2011. Donors who were not engaged in the political process decreased their donations to charities.

Charitable fundraising as a whole was up 1.7% in 2012, but mainly because contributions to religious organizations was up 6.1% and contributions to education was up 1.6%. If you take those two categories out of the mix, charitable giving as a whole was down 1.7%. Individuals donated an estimated $258.51 billion to charitable organizations in 2014 (results for 2015 have not yet been reported). So a 1.7% swing at that level could wipe out numerous organizations.  Unless you were a school or a church, your category of charity saw a decline in charitable giving during the last presidential election.

Blackbaud doesn’t offer any deeper insight into their numbers, but we can draw a few conclusions. Obviously, unless you are a religious organization or a school, you are going to have to work harder to make the same amount of money as you did last year.

If your support base is energized by this election, it is a good sign for your event. People who are engaged in the process are more likely to engage with your cause. I would theorize that this is because people who engage in the political process believe in it and believe that they can make a difference in the process; and then that “actionable optimism” carries over to their charitable beliefs. 

According to the statistics, the potential problem for charities is the donors who are not contributing to politics at all this year – because they’ll be contributing less to charity as well. There is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding this election, and it is easy to imagine people cocooning until Thanksgiving. If your donor base buries their collective head in the sand, you and your clients will wind up paying the price. But only if you can’t effectively communicate you and your clients’ needs.

It always comes back to messaging, communication, and conversations: Establish why you are asking for money and empower people to help change the world by supporting your cause. You always have to compete with a lot of external noise to get the attention of your donors. This year that noise is much louder than usual, and you’ll have to work harder than usual to make your case.

Cultivation is a conversation, not a one-off ask that happens only at your event. Engage your donors. If you are worried about the election, discuss it with them. Work with your biggest supporters to formulate strategies specifically for your donor base. Engage, engage, engage. This year and every year.

Statistically speaking, the election is bound to have little impact on your event. But from a practical standpoint, it is best to assume the election will impact your donors, and then work hard to make sure it doesn’t. 

The pre-event marketing that will change your event’s bottom line

If you want your fundraising auction to succeed, you have to market your auction lots in advance of the event. Pre-event marketing can make the difference between an average and a spectacular auction, and different forms of marketing yield varied results.

We often see events focus on methods of broadcasting instead of leveraging individual relationships. For example, we see lots of events focus on publishing the live auction catalog on the Internet or sending it out via hotsheets, email, and social media.

These all have value and are a valid component of any pre-event marketing campaign. However, the most important element of an auction’s success is much more direct: reaching out to individual bidders in person, by phone, or email.

The most successful auction chairs and committees invest time and energy identifying potential bidders for specific auction lots and contacting them in advance to interest them. The most successful auctions have at least two individuals committed to bidding on specific lots in advance.

It is incredibly valuable if you can line up two bidders for each and every lot in advance of your auction – but it’s also an unreasonable amount of work to demand for a longer auction. The truth is it doesn’t have to be done on every lot in an auction, but should be done on a few select lots, including:

  • The first two lots in the auction; they set the tone for the rest of the auction. 
  • Any lot that has an exceptionally high value; or is more valuable than any lot sold at your auction in the past. 
  • Trips with set dates or extended trips that require air travel. 
  • Buy-in parties/events.
  • Art and jewelry
  • Unique access that pertains to the tastes of someone you or the committee knows.

In each case, we are aiming to create momentum, avoid dead-air, and insure that challenging lots are successful in the heat of the moment. The first two lots, for example, set the pace and tone for the rest of the auction. Art and jewelry are the most challenging items to include in most any fundraising auction, and if we must have a certain piece or art or jewelry in the auction, it is important to make sure it succeeds.

The expectation put on these bidders isn’t necessarily that they must commit to bidding until they buy. We are looking to them to get the bidding going; and hopefully drive up the price. If your pre-committed bidders wind up becoming so interested in a lot that they vigorously bid on it and win, fantastic! But it’s not the expectation. At a certain point, we have to trust the process of an auction, and any momentum boost makes that process more successful.