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The Keys to Going Out on a Limb in Fund-A-Need

For years, one of our recommended strategies for a successful fund-a-need has been to begin asking for pledges at the highest level with a lead donor lined-up in advance. In other words, start asking for money at a level you know will be immediately successful.

Even the most impromptu moments are the result of tons of planning, and your fund-a-need is no different. 

Even the most impromptu moments are the result of tons of planning, and your fund-a-need is no different. 

We had a lot of rationalizations for this: It forces events to have important conversations with donors pre-event; it pre-determines whether or not key supporters believe in what you’re asking them to help fund; and the night-of the event, it ensures that the fund-a-need starts off with immediate momentum.

In the past few years, however, we’ve had some phenomenal successes starting the fund-a-need “out on a limb,” at a higher level than our lead donor commitment. At one event we had a $10,000 donor identified in advance, but we went out on a limb and another donor offered to pledge $100,000. He was followed by two more donors at $100,000, including a woman who was completely new to the organization.

We’ve also had some abysmal failures, which are difficult to recover from. At a recent event, I was sent out on a limb at $50,000 and told to ask for $25,000 next. We received zero pledges at those two levels, killing most of the momentum the testimonial had generated. 

We have, therefore, identified four keys that will determine whether going out on a limb in the fund-a-need is appropriate for your event.

1)  Can you justify starting higher? It seems like a silly question to ask, but do you need more money? If so, you need to be able to tell that story the night of your event in a way that empowers people to support you at a higher level. If you are going to send your auctioneer out on a limb, make sure you have tied that limb to the change you are asking people to fund.

Example: You normally start your fund-a-need at $5,000 but this year you’d like to ask for $10,000. Prepare some examples of what $10,000 will help you do and utilize them as a reason for asking for more money.

2) Determine if your existing lead donor(s) will be upset by you asking for more than they agreed to pledge. Sometimes ego comes into play with high-dollar donors. I’ve seen instances where lead donors felt slighted because they thought they were going to be the top dog in the fund-a-need, and then we asked for more.

3) If you go out on a limb at a specific amount, make sure you have a *guaranteed* donor committed at the next level down. A fund-a-need that starts off with no pledges at one level can recover quickly if there is an immediate pledge at the next level down. Two levels of zero pledges can have a significantly negative impact on the momentum of your appeal and the amount you raise.

4) Do you have donors in the room who have the capacity to support you at a higher level? The $100,000 example above was set into motion the previous year, when a donor came to us after the event and assured us we had started the fund-a-need too low. He was right, as he was one of the donors who stepped up at $100,000.

You may not know all of the donors in your room and may not know the individual capacity of all of them, but you should have a good sense of the potential capacity – or at least know someone who does. When in doubt, ask your supporters – your table captains or board members – for a reality check. You may have untapped potential in your crowd, and you’ll never know if you never ask.

Creating desirable packages for your live auction

Procuring enticing packages is one of the most challenging aspects of organizing a fundraising auction. Solicitation committees often get hung up on comparisons to other events and focus on the lots they see doing well at other fundraising auctions.

And while there is value in learning from one’s peers, we never encourage our clients to focus on specific auction lots. It can be frustrating, and it seldom yields results.

Relationships are the biggest selling auction lots.

Relationships are the biggest selling auction lots.

For example: I’ve sold “Breakfast with Bo Derek the morning after the auction” for over $20,000. This was wonderful for the event that had Bo as a supporter, but it is useless to the rest of you reading this right now (unless you are good friends with Bo as well).

Instead, we encourage our clients to focus on the types of lots that sell best and then work to find the most desirable packages in each of those types. There are three levels of desirability across all types of auction lots: Retail, Access, and Relationship:

  • Retail is the ground floor of desirability in an auction lot. If your attendees can find a price for it online, they’ll bid accordingly. There are types of auction lots that do fine when sold as straight retail, such as trips. Generally speaking, however, it is the least desirable.
  • Access denotes an experience bidders could not enjoy otherwise, something that is not available through retail channels. Lots that offer access engage your crowd to spend more, and make your auction more memorable. 
  • Relationships are the hottest selling lots in any auction we do. “People support people” is one of the oldest adages in fundraising, and nowhere does this prove more true than onstage. Relationship lots offer access to a “celebrity,” and the definition of celebrity varies.

Creating attractive packages for the live auction is one of the most crucial elements of the pre-event planning we consult on, and one of the areas upon which we focus the majority of our consulting. As such, we’ll be discussing this and brainstorming desirable auction lots in person at our upcoming workshop: “Raise More, Right Now: Advanced Fundraising Auction Strategies.”