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This 5-Minute Auction Warm-up Could Raise Thousands for Your Cause

Posted by Summy Lau

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Whether it's your first or fiftieth auction, chances are you could benefit from employing some new techniques to extract money from the audience. There's virtually always money left to give, and new strategies give you the tools to raise more without making guests feel nickel-and-dimed.

Today we're joined by Nelson Jay, the "Bowtie Benefit Auctioneer" based in Seattle, Wash. In a recent episode of our podcast Events with Benefits, Jay provided a bevy of ideas from the cutting edge of event fundraising.

Read on as Jay shares a warm-up activity that can generate thousands for fundraising events on the smaller side. As an added bonus, we've included a preview of the full podcast with Jay's tips for closing a silent auction and his take on no-risk consignment items.


Hot Auction Tip: Capture the room's attention with an arm stretch.

One of Jay's favorite ways to kick off a fundraising auction is with a warm-up activity. To do, simply have each audience member find their bid card and practice holding it up.

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(image source)

Why it's effective:

  • It breaks the ice. The auctioneer has a fun way to engage the crowd right off the bat.
  • It's unexpected. Donors want to be surprised and delighted year after year, and an energetic opening like the warm-up bid card raise gets everyone's attention.
  • It brings focus to the live auction. I do this right before the live auction, because so many people are otherwise unprepared for the start of live.
  • It's a great photo op. Not only does this make the perfect social media post to share on Facebook or Instagram, it looks very convincing to next year's potential sponsors. It shows the size and scope of your event and a highly engaged audience.
  • It sets up a specific need drive that raises significant money in minutes, no procurement required. More on that below.

Turn a simple stretch into a giving spree:

Here's how Jay uses a simple icebreaker to make charities money.

"First, I'll ask the audience to all raise their bid cards. Then, once they've gotten ahold of their bid cards and practiced raising them, we'll go into a specific item drive. Note that this is different than the fund-a-need. It's a low-level, nominal ask for something small.

"For example, at a school, I might ask for $25 per person for paper, art supplies, stationery. We'll have a PowerPoint slide that says "$25 Supply Drive" in the background.

"I'll encourage guests to hold up 2, 3, 4 fingers if they want to give more - four fingers means $100. Finally, I'll zip through the room calling out bid numbers from cards that are raised."

With a crowd of 200 or 300 guests, if about half raise their bid cards at $25 apiece (and some giving more than that), you can kickstart the night with anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 raised - a big boon to smaller auctions.

Won't this cannibalize the paddle raise?

It does not. The warm-up activity is viewed as a nominal, very specific need and is done before any of the big bids of the live auction are thrown out .  Plus, since the fund-a-need will have its own separate emotional trigger (possibly a speaker or video) and momentum from the rest of the live portion, it's likely to draw in much larger amounts.

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Will this work for all events?

There's a certain size crowd where logistically it doesn't make sense, and for a high budget fundraiser (with a goal of, say, $250,000 or more), it's probably not the best use of very limited time.

That said, this trick can work wonders for smaller events (like school fundraisers). Raising $2,500 to $3,000 can be a big windfall for the live auction - and costs nothing to try.

(This idea was shared with Jay from Stephen Kilbreath, another local auctioneer and previous Winspire webinar guest.

Bonus Tip 1: Don't close the silent auction too early.

clock on pile of money sm.jpg"In my experience, the longer you run the silent auction, the more it will make," Jay says. "However, if you let it run too long, the silent auction will bump into the real money-making activities later in the evening: the live auction and fund-a-need."

If an event starts at 5pm, Jay will typically advise leaving the silent auction open until 6:30. To keep the focus of the night on the bigger revenue generators, he recommends closing all sections before the start of the live. 

The exception: Super silent auctions, which are premium items worthy of the live auction that have been peeled back into the silent auction out of respect for guests' time.

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"These can stay open until, say, halfway through the live auction. Just keep in mind that the later you push the close back, the more work you pile onto the data entry and checkout team," Jay cautions.

To avoid a checkout queue - and undue stress on volunteers, staff and the auctioneer - space out the silent auction and live auction closings.

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Bonus Tip 2: Consignment doesn't take money out of the room.

"One of the things I've thought a lot about in the last year is the concept of no-risk consignment items," Jay shares. "I used to adamantly suggest my clients avoid no-risk consignment, because I mistakenly believed it took money out of the room. I figured, when somebody spent $4,000 on a trip in a live auction, that money could have otherwise been spent on fully donated items.

"Only in 2016 did I begin selling any no-risk consignment items, and guess what? It works."

Why the change of heart?

  • More revenue. "I've had clients bring in significantly more money for their events through consignment," Jay asserts.
  • Brings the "WOW!" factor. You might have 10 live auction items but there isn't a signature, unique item that makes the event extra special. Or you may be procuring the same types of items you've had year after year. Unfortunately, that's a recipe for an event flatlining or even taking a step backwards. "Guests want something new to get them excited," Jay shares. "Strategic use of consignment can help. No-risk travel adds a little gravitas to any event without any extra work for procurement."
  • Targets travel budgets. It may very well be true that every guest at your event believes in and supports your cause - but there are still attendees that want something in return for their dollar. Think your donors would be interested in spending some of their annual travel budget on bucket-list private tours of Napa Valley wineries, red-hot tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, a trip for 2 to attend the Country Music Awards in Nashville and more?
  • Fun to sell - in multiples! The ability to sell multiple items without any more stress on a donor is a potential game-changer for your event. "As an auctioneer, when we get an amazing auction item and are able to start a true bidding war, it's so fun. You build it up and build it up, and finally the unique opportunity sells. However, when you don't have the ability to sell multiples... It's still a success but I just think, wow, we could have done so much more!"
    • For more on how to procure and sell multiple items, see...

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"It's a new concept for me and I now understand why clients appreciate it," Jay concludes. "Selling multiples and capitalizing on a bidding frenzy is how you can take your event from one level to the next."

Offering travel in your auction gives your organization access to donor travel budgets.

πŸ”Š Hear the rest on Events with Benefits

This is just the first half of our session with benefit auctioneer specialist Nelson Jay.

You won't want to miss his invaluable advice, including more details on the warm-up activity, finding the right number of live auction items for your guests, how to close your silent auction, and his perspective on the state of charity fundraising auctions today.

Listen to the podcast episode below, or visit the full site here.

Events with Benefits Podcast - Listen Now

Topics: event-production, benefit auctioneer

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Meet Winston & Winnie, the Winspire Twins

Winston & Winnie love to help Nonprofits raise money for amazing causes. They also love to travel and have a bucket list of amazing Experiences they are determined to complete in their lifetime. Winspire News is the result of this shared passion, offering fundraising advice, industry news and insight into charity fundraising with travel.