charity auction

How to: Sequence Your Live Auction

Once you have successfully solicited the lots for your live auction, the next big challenge is deciding on a sequence for them. The order in which you sell your auction items is equally as important as the items you are selling.

Every decision you make has the potential to earn or cost you money. Lead or end with the wrong lot, and you will not realize the full potential of those lots. Put too many similar items in a row, and you run the risk of alienating the bidders who aren’t interested in that type of lot. Lump all of your highest-valued items together, and one of those items is going to underperform.

The right sequence creates an auction that flows with a sense of narrative, that builds to high points, and embraces downbeats. Most importantly, the right sequence ensures that you make the most money with the items your team has worked so hard to secure.

We could spend hours discussing this topic, and sometimes spend hours working on the sequence for one of our client’s auctions. There is too much information to try and convey in this single blog post. So we’ll cover some easy to implement points.

An auction is like a locomotive: it takes time to build momentum

An auction is like a locomotive: it takes time to build momentum

Do not lead with your most expensive lot

Do not kick off your auction with your biggest lot, or even your third or fifth most expensive lot. The first lot in any fundraising auction is challenged. The crowd hasn’t settled down and people haven’t warmed up to the process yet. You need to build momentum, like accelerating a steam locomotive. Your first lot should be something that has a low retail value, but hopefully a high perceptual value. Or, at the very least, is one of your lower-end lots that is appealing, but won’t be disappointing no matter what it sells for.

Do not end with your most expensive lot

While it can be exciting to end an auction with a really expensive lot that raises more money than anything else at your auction, I guarantee that if you do so you are costing yourself money.  The person who comes in second on your most expensive lot is trying to give you money. More money than anyone else in the room. If the most expensive lot is last, they have no more opportunities to give you that money.

But if there are more lots after the most expensive lot, that second-place bidder will have opportunities to spend more. More times than not, they will wind up bidding over value on a less expensive lot. I observed one bidder stop bidding at $10,000 on an item, only to come back a few lots later and spend $6,000 on a lot that was valued $4,000. To top it off, she turned to her table and said, “I just saved $4,000!”

Give your donors as many opportunities to give you as much money as possible.

 Separate types of lots

Unless your auction is comprised solely of trips, do not place all the trips in a row. Spreading them out in your auction will ensure that the people who want the trips have ample opportunities to buy them, and that the people who don’t want trips won’t be bored by a parade of trips.

Alternate values

The most successful method of ordering an auction is to build momentum, like accelerating a locomotive. Once you have momentum, you can’t expect every lot to sell at a high value. Every time something sells for a bunch of money, there is a buzz in the room that makes the next lot challenging. Embrace that buzz by alternating values, so you have mid- or low-level lots following expensive lots.

This creates a flow that embraces the natural tendencies of your crowd, and, most importantly, helps realize the full potential of the auction lots in your auction.

Lighting as decor: new technology is budget-friendly

Event design is always a balancing act between intended look and budget. Large, “blank slate” event spaces pose the most obvious challenges for décor. But even the most elegant venues often need a touch of flair to get them to better match an event’s color scheme.

Until recently, the main options for large-scale decorating were pipe and drape and large stage lights; each of had its own set of issues.

This airplane hangar is transformed into a festive party through the use of color and light.

This airplane hangar is transformed into a festive party through the use of color and light.

Pipe and drape is expensive, has height limitations, and usually comes in one color: black.

Large stage lights are limited in their flexibility. The use of filters can give you good color effects on most any reflective surface, and custom-crafted gobos enable you to cast whatever imagery you want. But these lights are large, hot, and not capable of rapid change.

In the past if you wanted to change colors for different parts of your show, you needed to rent a different light for each and every color change you want. Not a big deal if you’re talking about a small set, but if you are decorating  an airplane hangar and wanted to do two or three color changes…forget it.

Advances in lighting technology, especially LED lighting technology, have made it easier and more affordable than ever to transform a “blank slate” event space into something special. A single LED light offers every color you could ask for and you can switch between colors with the push of a button.

Many LED lights are also battery powered, eliminating the need for additional power supplies or unsightly cables running throughout the room. LEDs are also compact and powerful, making it easy to cover huge patches of real estate with each small, unobtrusive light.

Possibly best of all, the LED revolution has greatly reduced the price of lighting solutions. The next time you are designing your event décor, be sure to have a conversation with your A/V provider; they have options that can impact your event’s look and feel without impacting the budget.

Tall centerpieces hurt fundraising auctions

Everyone wants their event to look great. The challenge is to strike a balance between form and function, especially when it comes to the centerpieces.

Even though they are see-through in the middle, the paper planes on these center-pieces are obscuring the podium.

Even though they are see-through in the middle, the paper planes on these center-pieces are obscuring the podium.

As auctioneers, our ability to engage a crowd is dependent upon two things: the crowd’s ability to hear us, and our ability to see them. It isn’t just the bidder’s paddles or numbers that we need to be able to see: we need to be able to look people in the eye, because it reveals a lot about their personality. Do they want to be played with? Do they want recognition? Are they smiling? Do they look to their spouse for the go-ahead between every bid? Are they looking to see who is bidding against them?

There is a lot we need to see from the stage, all of which enables us to raise more money for you in your fundraising auction. Tall, bulky centerpieces that block the line of sight from the stage to attendees’ faces hinder fundraising. They wind up costing you money – usually much more than you paid for them – in lost auction revenue.

If I can’t see the bidder as auctioneer, it means I have to move around on the stage until I can see them. Provided I know they are there, and know that they are trying to bid. But when I’m working around tall centerpieces, I usually just get to see the paddle number, jutting out over a mass of flowers.

If a bidder feels like they aren’t being seen, they either stand up or put their paddle down. Either are sub-optimal ways to get your crowd to engage.

Short, theme-appropriate centerpieces work best. They enable the people in charge of décor to flex their creative muscles without their vision literally getting in the way of raising money. If a designer insists on doing tall centerpieces, make sure they are as transparent as possible.

When in doubt, sit facing the stage at a table and ask yourself, “Could I look the auctioneer (or any other speaker) in the eye?”  If the answer is “no” you have to decide if there is anything you can do about it that night, or if it is an issue you’ll need to address the following year.  Because our goal is to lower barriers to supporting your cause, not build them.

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. 

Stick to your timeline

There is a tendency to adjust the timeline of an event mid-event if things aren’t proceeding as planned. Usually it’s because people aren’t bidding on the silent auction with as much fervor as the silent auction chairs had envisioned. They want to keep the silent open for “an extra 15 minutes, to give people a chance to bid.”

Unless there has been a major incident that is preventing attendees from getting to your event on time, don’t alter your timeline. Especially if your timeline has been published in the catalog or elsewhere at the event. The timeline for the evening is the one element that you actually have control over; hopefully you established it strategically.

Altering your timeline can have serious repercussions across the rest of your event. It can throw off the timing for dinner, it delays the start of your live auction, and ultimately it costs you money. More than that, however, altering the timeline can aggravate your crowd.

I emceed a silent auction conducted via mobile bidding recently, hyping items and announcing closing times. The event chair opted to keep the silent open for an extra 15 minutes, to “give people a chance to bid from their seats at dinner.”

When I took the stage to announce that the silent auction would be open for an additional 15 minutes, people actually booed! Their expectations had been set, and they were ready to move on with the evening. They didn’t want to have to spend any more time protecting their bids, they were ready for the next phase of the evening.

This crowd recovered and didn’t hold this decision against me or the organization, thankfully. But all it really takes is for you to piss off one of your big bidders to negatively impact your event.

Strategically craft your timeline, publish it, and stick to it. Your crowd will be happier, and your event will be better for it.