To call fundraising events complex would be an understatement.
With so many moving parts and unknown variables, most nonprofits learn from past experience... which typically means sacrificing significant revenue right out of the gate.
While no event is perfect, most common errors can be prevented. Why not learn from someone else's mistakes and close calls to raise a whole lot more for your cause?
We sat down with Jim Nye, "The Auction Guy," a professional benefit auctioneer specialist out of Los Angeles/Orange County, Calif. with over 20 years' experience learning what works (and what doesn't) in charity auctions.
Today he shares his list of top 10 most critical - yet most commonly overlooked - items to have at the ready on auction night. See how a videocamera, stepstool and even the right kind of Sharpie can influence thousands of dollars of event revenue.
#1: Video camera.
Why it matters: If anything goes on in the live auction or fund-a-need that you don't understand - for example, you don't know who bid, or there's a disagreement on who won an item - having a record to reference is invaluable.
"This is an item I neglected to bring my entire first year," Nye shares. "Since then, there's been plenty of times not having one could have been disastrous."
Example: "I recently received a frantic call from a client I'd worked with months ago. One of the $100,000 donors in their paddle raise had backed out and said it never happened, and guess what - the charity didn't have a video. But we did."
It's the kind of scenario you might assume would never happen to at your event, but why take the chance?
Tips: The footage need not be professional, Nye emphasizes. You can get an inexpensive video camera for a couple hundred dollars at electronic stores, online or at Costco, then set it up in the back of the room and hit record.
"It was a poor video, all shot from the back at just one angle, but we had footage nevertheless of someone raising their bid card and making that huge pledge," Nye says. The peace of mind - and potential revenue recovered from an unresolved discrepancy - is priceless.
#2: Audio recorder.
Why it matters: An audio recording is a fast, easy way to keep track of all the action in the live auction and fund-a-need.
Example: "Volunteers, auctioneers and ringment can use the audio recording to determine on the spot if bidder number 2-4-0 won the puppy, or if bidder 2-0-4 won the puppy," Nye says.
Tips: You can purchase a low-end portable digital audio recorder for $100 or less, but most smartphones come with rree voice recording apps. iPhones come with Voice Memo installed. All other users can find a multitude of voice recording apps (see 10 best voice recorder apps for Android) in the app store.
Once you've got your recorder in place, just hit record and put it next to a speaker.
#3: Music stand.
Why it matters: The podium provided can be insufficient for a number of reasons, Nye says. "It might not be in the right place, or I end up miles away from the guests, which is not my preferred style."
It could also allow papers to slide off the top instead of staying firmly in place for speakers. Plus, many come with built-in microphones that make it impossible for all-important auction notes to lay flat.
"I've had events where Robert Downey Jr. could use the podium just fine to speak - but I couldn't fundraise with it," Nye says.
Tips: Get a music stand that is portable and can be raised tall (or short) enough to fit different speakers, emcees and, most importantly, the auctioneer.
#4: Step stool.
Why it matters: Auctioneers need to create an entertaining experience and connect the crowd with the cause. Not being able to walk around can stunt momentum and thus bidding potential.
Example: "At a recent event, I got to the stage to start the live auction and the stage was so high, I literally could not get off the stage and interact with the crowd," Nye says. "I would have broken my leg!"
Unfortunately, the charity lost a lot of money that day.
Nye has since committed to bringing a step stool to every event. If any speakers aren't aware of staging ahead of time, prepare to have a stool on hand.
#5: Podium lights.
Why it matters: To get the most out of every incredible live auction item, be sure to equip the podium with some extra reading lights. This ensures the auctioneer will be able to read an item's description, features and benefits in order to sell it to its full potential.
If they can't, the nonprofit can lose thousands of dollars.
Example: "I've been to countless events where the lights were too dim for reading - and even where the lights just went out completely," Nye asserts.
Tips: Get a small, lightweight battery-powered desk or book light that can clip onto the podium, or music stand. These are inexpensive and can be found in most office supply stores or online. One top-rated option (pictured): Eye Care Warm Book & Music Stand Light, $18, amazon.com.
#6: Backup notes (hard copy).
Why it matters: Be prepared for as many scenarios as possible with as much documentation as possible.
Examples: "You would be amazed at how many times I've been asked by the emcee, or even the event planner themselves, if I have a copy of the auction timeline," Nye says. "And every once in a while the charity auction binder disappears during the craziness of the silent auction."
Those notes can easily be worth $20,000 or more to an event, Nye asserts.
Tips: To sidestep problems, bring paper or hard copies of timelines, scripts, live auction notes - as much about the auction as you can compile. Then know exactly where the backup is at all times during the event.
#7: Backup notes (flash drive).
Why it matters: The flash drive serves a similar purpose to the hard copy notes, except you can incorporate all the multimedia elements of the event as well.
Examples: "I put everything about the event - every video, every PowerPoint, all music and songs - every email and committee meeting minutes from the last 12 months I've been working with the nonprofit, and put it all into one flash drive," Nye says.
"Again, you'd be amazed how often I'm asked, 'Do you happen to have the paddle raise video intro? Do you have the live auction powerpoint?'
"The answer is, yes I do. I hand it over, we move on, and we raise lots of money."
#8: Thick Sharpies.
Why it matters: Successful fund-a-needs rely on the auctioneer being able to read off card numbers accurately and at a quick clip. All too often, bid card numbers are scrawled in ballpoint pen or a fine Sharpie. These cards are difficult to read in any situation, but the problem is compounded with dim lighting and large ballrooms.
Tips to use: If you're writing numbers on the back of registration forms as people are coming in, hand one thick Sharpie or marker to every registration helper.
#9: Fund-a-Need Music.
Why it matters: Another key component to paddle raises is building momentum, getting off to a strong start, and incorporating an emotional trigger. Having the right background music can make all the difference to create an ambience for giving.
What's more, if you're asking for a $25,000 lead gift and don't get, the 'crickets' can start chirping real loudly without some background music, Nye cautions.
Examples: "I like to use slightly inspirational songs as background musics during the paddle raise," Nye says. "They don't need to be over the top, but something that can be played low in the background and extract emotions."
Tips: Purchase and download the music on an mp3 file or CD, then clearly mark the song, hand it over to your professional AV technician and explain the timeline cues to play.
(Bonus advice: "Only use an AV professional and rented sound system if you want to raise money," Nye quips.)
#10: Professional benefit auction ringman.
(Pictured above: Cowboy Auctioneer ringman, Wade)
Why it matters: An auction ringman (also called a floor auctioneer, bid spotter or auctioneer assistant) is someone professionally trained to interact with guests in the crowd. Ringmen are out in the crowd and ideally have done enough auctions that they know what's going to happen well in advance.
"I could go on about having professional ringmen for 3 hours, but bottom line is that ringmen will save your event and revenue," Nye says. "They will help you raise thousands and thousands of dollars more than an auctioneer alone can."
How? The auctioneer can seem so far away, up on a big podium with lights and huge dance floor. The ringman steps in to bridge the gap between the auctioneer and guests.
Another problem is visual obstructions like high centerpieces. They keep people at table 32 from seeing the bidding action at table 7. As a result, the contagiousness and peer pressure that drives auctions is lost.
An added bonus: The immediate recognition of a ringman makes bidders feel good about giving more than they think they should.
Examples: You might be thinking, 'We have volunteers who have done this a couple years, and they've always done a fine job.'
"I love volunteers, but I've never met a volunteer who can do the same thing as a ringman," Nye says.
"Take this incident at a recent auction. I started off the live auction by selling a glass of water for $500. This is a trick I often do to set the tone of the evening and show people we're here to give, not get.
"Now, nine items in, we get to a darling puppy. Bidding drops to two bidders way in the back of the room. I can barely see them, but bidding goes up to $5500, then $6000. I'm trying to get one to $6500, and I see my ringman is back with them.
She's waving at me - 'hold on, hold on' - as she's facilitating a conversation with two contending bidders.
Finally, she runs up to the stage and announces, 'Jim! The gentleman on the left has agreed to purchase the puppy for $6500. However - the generous woman on the right would like to buy a glass of tap water for $6500 as well!'
Concludes Nye: "A benefit auction ringman is like the nurse to a heart surgeon. You can try to get a volunteer nurse, but you won't have the best success. I never would have gotten this result with a volunteer."
Every auction eventually comes down to two bidders going toe to toe, and having a ringman stand alongside the donor while the auctioneer addresses the other, is a good strategy to amplify bidding.
There's always generosity left at the end of the night. It takes someone with the right skill set to cajole it out of the audience before you leave.
🔊 More on Events with Benefits
You can't plan for every hurdle that pops up on auction night, but you can be prepared for the majority of them. This is just the first half of an invaluable podcast with Jim Nye. Listen to the full episode for tips to...
- Get thousands of dollars at the end of the night (try auctioning off who gets to be first at the valet!)
- Ensure auctioneers pay for themselves
- Design a smooth auction timeline
- Execute an effective paddle raise (tip: get bid cards in people's hands)
- Raise more money and elevate next year's donations with no-risk travel packages
Check out Jim Nye's full podcast episode below, or visit the full site here.