fundraising 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.

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.

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.