event planning

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.

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.

Create your own traditions for your fundraising auction

2016 marks the 35th year that the Sun Valley Center for the Arts has held its annual wine auction. 2016 also marks the 22nd year that Atkinson’s Market has donated a collection of seven 3-liter bottles with an image of Sun Valley etched and painted across all seven bottles.

It is a big, impressive, beautiful lot. It is a definitive collector’s lot, and you see previous sets on display in major donor’s homes all over Sun Valley. And over the course of the past 22 years it has raised one million dollars.

The Atkinson's Market annual collection of etched and painted 3-liter bottles is one of many traditions at the Sun Valley Center for the Art Wine Auction.

The Atkinson's Market annual collection of etched and painted 3-liter bottles is one of many traditions at the Sun Valley Center for the Art Wine Auction.

Every year the image on the bottles changes, making each set unique. Discussions about the art on the bottles, who bought it last year, and who is interested in it this year are all part of the fabric of the weeklong event. Over the course of 22 years, the Atkinson’s Market lot has become as much a tradition as the Wine Auction itself.

I see lots of other examples of traditions like this: the dinner that takes place every year in the same supporter’s home, the trip to Italy to stay in one of the biggest donor’s vacation villa, the chilled magnum of champagne to open the auction. Whatever it is, traditions are a valuable part of any fundraising auction. Traditions provide a sense of continuity, and hopefully make things easier for your solicitation team by not requiring a major revamp of your auction every year.

Whatever your traditions are, acknowledge them, embrace them and make them a part of the fabric of your event. And if you don’t have any traditions yet, now is a great time to create your own.

Get attendees to (willingly) give you their contact information

Does your event face the challenge of getting attendees to give you their contact information? Do you have a lot of guests who sit at purchased tables who give you nothing more than their name and the name of the person whose table they are sitting at?

One creative solution we’ve seen to this challenge is to incentivize attendees to give their contact information by offering “free” entry into a raffle in exchange for their contact information. Use pre-printed slips that are handed out to every attendee, asking for name, email address and telephone number. Make all information mandatory in order to be eligible to win.

Then use a small prize from your silent auction, or solicit a small prize specifically for this raffle. One year an organization used a fine bottle of wine. The next year, they offered up a weekend getaway at a local resort (see the photo below). Their fish bowl of entry slips was full to the brim. And so was their contact database.

You can’t cultivate donors if you can’t get in touch with them. And donor cultivation is one of the three main reasons to hold an auction, right behind raising money and tied with messaging. So if you find yourself struggling to get contact information from your event’s attendees, give them good reason to give you their information. Then follow-up and give them even more good reasons to give you their support year-round.

Use a chair to make your fund-a-need more successful

The fund-a-need is the single most important element of the majority of fundraising auctions we conduct. The fund-a-need usually makes as much as or more than the combined total of the rest of the auction lots. In many cases, the fund-a-need generates three to five times more than the rest of the auction as a whole.

Statistically speaking, more people participate in the fund-a-need than the rest of your auction combined.
Statistically speaking, more people participate in the fund-a-need than the rest of your auction combined.

An item this integral to the success of your event and your organization deserves its own committee chair.

Typically, the fund-a-need falls within the purview of the live auction chairs. However, these are the people who have been tasked with soliciting auction lots, creating packages out of them, writing up their descriptions and then marketing them. They have a lot on their plate, and often they simply want to know what the staff has decided to do the fund-a-need for, and where to put it in the auction.

Make one person the chair of the fund-a-need, and enable them to focus on all of the small details that will help make the appeal more successful. The fund-a-need chair can:

  • Work directly with staff to determine and define the fund-a-need;
  • Identify ways to quantify the need so that it maps to every pledging level;
  • Write the description for the catalog;
  • Coordinate the testimonial for the night-of the event, including either the creation of a video or working to identify appropriate speakers; and
  • Identify and solicit lead donors for each level of the fund-a-need.

With or without a fund-a-need chair, each of these steps is integral to the ongoing success of your fund-a-need. Putting one person in charge of all of them ensures consistency across the myriad tasks' timeline to help make it successful. Creating a fund-a-need chair also elevates the importance of the fund-a-need among those planning your event and auction.

A successful fund-a-need takes work, it seldom “just happens.” Getting other committee members to recognize that will change the perspective of the fund-a-need within your community, all of which will help make it more successful

It is the single biggest moment of your event, work to make it so.