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PUT THE 'FUND' BACK INTO FUN-D-RAISING AUCTIONS
Ken Lindsay, CAI, BAS
American Eagle Auction Company, LLC

'Everybody is doing it'. The benefit auction business has grown considerably in every city across the nation. Time and time again, auctions are the most effective and most preferred fundraising effort. Needless to say, the quantities of fundraising auctions are at an all-time high. Despite the hype, MOST benefit auctions are leaving a tremendous amount of money sitting on the table. In other words, they are far from reaching their real potential. Let's assume that you are already on an auction committee. If so, I don't need to be the one to tell you that you're dealing with competition out there - a lot of competition to say the least. They may not be taking away your loyalists but your competition is making your event stale before it even gets started. They've already 'hit' the corporations and private businesses for 'donations' and in this business, the big dog wins every time. The message is loud and clear. Be diversified, be more impressive and bigger than the 'other' fundraiser, or get out of the way. You've kicked the idea around and you are 'sold' on the idea of developing your first benefit auction. For years I've worked closely with auction committees and have met a tremendous amount of great and very hard working people. It never fails, 99.9% of the time, I'll hear the words from a committee member, "What did we just get ourselves in to?" I swear that some of these committee members look like they've aged 10 years in a matter of weeks. For those of you that are 'seasoned' auction committee members, you know exactly what I'm talking about. To cut through the chase, 'auctions are hard work'. Please allow me to lend you some professional insight on the 'art' of fundraising auction success.

DEVELOP AN AUCTION EMPIRE!

More often than not, I hear the stories of nonprofit organizations complaining that their big annual fundraiser is raising nothing more than a few eyebrows. The auction is simply not performing like it did in the good 'ole days. Many have been faced with the decision to either give the auction the boot or do some serious overhauling.

The reasons for this are typical and in some cases, numerous. For starters, auction committees are generally made from volunteers who simply get burned out or move to higher ground. For those that do not catch the 'burn out' they are usually only a part of the committee for a few years. This is especially true with school auction committees. Once their child graduates from the school, the committee member moves on. This can work for or against the organization but in most cases, it works against them. Why? Right when the auction committee member has gained a couple years experience, they leave and they are typically replaced with a fresh new face with no previous experience. Another pitfall to this is the member that is no longer a part of the committee had developed relationships with key donors and supporters. In short, auction committees are always taking two steps backwards for every step they take. Ultimately, the new members of the committee have to start from scratch and relearn the process.

The planning stages are critical and will either make or break the fundraising event. In theory, many 'new' ideas sound great on the surface but in many cases, for every 'new' idea that is developed, critical 'Auction 101' details are overlooked.

You've heard it a million times. When the going gets tough get going. That saying is a good motivational kick but lets use the other one. When the tough get going, go back to the basics. The basics being, the basic strategies during the planning stages. Now let's go!

THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD!

If you expect great results then you need an audience with heavy pockets. A billfold the thickness of a Webster's Dictionary. Right? Right. For this to happen, you MUST develop a good product with exceptionally good services but most importantly, you have to tell them about it. This is a big deal and you need to get the word out as such. This is THE EVENT OF THE YEAR! You've heard of the salesman's saying, 'Sell the sizzle not the steak.' Well, in the fundraising auction business, we are selling BOTH the sizzle and the steak. The problem is, the sizzle often gets overlooked because the auction committee is too busy scrambling for donations, booking a catering staff and all the other fine details. You could have the greatest product in the world but without a solid marketing plan, your core audience may very well be those that are fidgeting and sweating the price of admission.

Who is on your guest list? Your supporters. The loyalists that have a vested or emotional interest in your organization. These people are automatic. Look outside the bubble and find the money. This isn't to say that your loyalists are not big spenders because in many cases they are. However, in just as many cases, there are two or three 'millionaires' with the Webster wallet getting the bidding up to astronomical prices that generally 'make' your event. It takes two to tangle, just hope one of them does not catch the flu bug nor has an emergency business appointment. See what I'm getting at? I don't like the odds where I need to depend on Joe Millionaire to make an appearance to save the day. Look outside the bubble and stir the pot.

You're looking for the event goers in the community that are looking for an exciting night out on the town. A place where they can impress their wife or new girlfriend at a Gala event. They want to crash somebody's party, but they have not decided which one. The most impressive fundraiser Gala event will ultimately be their choice.

You're probably thinking, 'that sound's great, but how do we know who these people are and how do we get them'? Good question and here is the answer. They will find you. Remember the baseball movie, 'Field of Dreams' with Kevin Costner? Remember the catch phrase? "You build it and they will come." Guess what! In the end they came.

Build an auction event that is sure to please. Don't cut unnecessary corners and be well staffed for the event. Have frequent meetings and 'how to' clinics with your volunteers or paid staff. Look and be organized. Don't decide to train members of your fundraising event staff at the eleventh hour or during the event itself.

Speaking of Hollywood, invite some of your local celebrities to attend the event and for crying out loud, don't charge them for a table. Their names alone will more than make up for the so-called lost table fee. However, make sure they are positively committed to your event and the results will pay ten fold. This isn't reinventing the wheel; it's using common business strategy into your fundraising event. I'm confident that you've heard about the ever so popular Celebrity Cruises which is just one of many examples. The company books a celebrity and his or her family for a free cruise in exchange to use their name(s) in advertising. It's a drawing card to book more patrons and those with thicker wallets. The same holds true to the auction industry, contact the Mayor, a professional athlete, a politician or a Playboy bunny - I meant the Easter bunny.

Come up with a themed event and decorate as such. Create a warm, exciting and breathe taking atmosphere. Expensive? Not necessarily. A lot can be done with balloons, graffiti and cardboard props. Don't overlook the importance of lighting on your silent auction tables.

You build it, promote it and talk about it and they WILL come loaded for bear.

THE BIG Event!

Your silent and live auction items should be well diversified that cater to both sexes. As a whole, items that have male appeal GENERALLY result in higher bids. There is a lot to be said about 'Men and their Toys.' However, items that appeal to both the male and female bidder such as Caribbean vacations oar night on the town with the Senator rank at the top on the biggest money list.

Take a good look at your live and silent auction items and come to a conclusion if the items are too generalized or not. In other words, are they boring?

Ideal auction items for a live auction event are what I call, 'Blue Sky' items. This was one of the things that I learned way back at auction school in Minnesota. The definition of 'Blue Sky' defines items that are difficult or impossible to pinpoint a real dollar value. For example, a color television set is not your most ideal live auction item for a benefit auction. Items such as this are fine for silent auctions but by all means; find those higher end 'Blue Sky' items for your live auction.

Here is a small sampling of ideal 'Blue Sky' Live auction items.

  • Dinner/Lunch with the Principal, Pastor, Political Figure etc.
  • Front Row Parking Privileges
  • Dunk the Teacher/Principal etc. Dunking Tank (or pie throwing)
  • Deidicated Parking Spaces, Hallway, Street etc. in name of high bidder
  • Backstage Access to Sporting or musical event. Meet the players, musician etc.
  • Prestigious Golf Course Packages or Fishing/Hunting expeditions
  • High end sports memorabilia from Nationally or locally recognized figure
  • African Safari or Skiing Expedition
  • Aircraft Simulator
  • Air Combat Artwork (Original or Limited Editions from well known artist)
  • Beach Home Getaway Night at the Ballgame (including dinner, parking, signed game ball, etc.)
  • Best seat at Graduation (or any other special school event)
  • Parking for a year (great for school auctions!)
  • Chauffeured Romantic Evening (Dinner, Play, Luxury Hotel, Breakfast)
  • Class Projects (make sure each student signs or identifies in some way)
  • Dessert a Month for a Year (Dinners, Flowers, Chocolate, etc.)
  • Custom Built Playhouse (Gazebo, Dog House, Arbors, etc.)
  • Progressive Dinner Dinner with Celebrity (local or national)
  • Framed and Signed Movie Posters
  • Fishing/Hunting Trips
  • Girl's Day Out (package including lunch, shopping massage, hair care, etc.)
  • Handmade Quilt Car Lease (could be for the weekend, month or year)
  • Guided Tours (Company, Movie Sets, etc.)
  • Hawaii Vacation Package (Bahamas, Caribbean, etc.)
  • Harley Davidson Motorcycle
  • Aerial Sightseeing (Plane, Helicopter, Balloon, etc)
  • Wine Collections and/or Wine Tasting Parties Lessons (Imagine all the possibilities!)
  • Mystery Dinner Name the Facility (Street, Room, etc.)
  • Buy a Tile
  • Principal for the Day
  • Party at the Fire or Police Station
  • Student Hot Lunch for a Year School
  • Tuition for a Year
  • VIP Table for Next Year's Auction
  • Health Club Membership with health related accessories

These are just a few ideas of ideal live auction items. The list is enormous and subject to your creativity.

IT'S ABOUT TIME!

Time is money in more ways than one. Pay attention to the date of your fundraising event. It isn't on Super Bowl Sunday is it? How about two days before Christmas? For obvious reasons, the date of your event is important so make sure you cross reference your date with the rest of the world.

Have you ever noticed that the majority of major fundraiser banquets are held during the winter months? The reason being is the winter months and early spring are good timing. People are jumping at the bit to get out of the house.

Although summer months are not entirely out of the question, but when the weather breaks so do you and me. Weddings, graduations, yard work, golf and fishing, the summer cottage, Billy's baseball game, Family vacations, the annual metal detecting and hula-hoop competitions and the list goes on. I'd rather have to contend with old man winter than a day on the beach.

Let's discuss the timing of the agenda of your event since this seems to be a highly discussed topic among committee members. Not EVERY auction follows this order and I recommend that you discuss this with your auction consultant.

1. Start and finish ALL items on the agenda as they are scheduled. The ONLY exception to this is the LIVE auction portion of the event. The bidding participation or lack thereof will determine the time. Allow the auctioneer all the time he/she needs to get the job done.

2. Your silent auction tables should close prior to dinner and should be spaced between 5-10 minutes of each other. NEVER extend the closing of the silent auction tables. In addition, most bidders will wait until the announcement of the closing of a particular table before bidding. The event staff should keep a close eye out for bidders that 'hide' the bid sheets or congest the front of the table to prevent additional bidders. Sneaky tricks like this happen frequently at auctions.

3. The LIVE auction should begin before dinner ends. The people are in their seats and that's where you want them to be.

4. Allow bidders to finalize their purchases at any given time. Experienced bidders often refrain from bidding on items that don't HAVE to have because they dread the check out procedures. Make arrangements for bidders to log their credit card information (You MUST accept credit cards for maximum results) with the cashier PRIOR to the event. This is a great selling tool.

5. Hire a professional and certified auctioneer/auction consultant who is experienced with fundraising auctions. Experienced and professional auctioneers are a highly skilled trade whose expertise and showmanship will MAKE your organization money - not cost them.

THE 21ST. CENTURY IS HERE

Get with the times. The conventional way of entering data is out. High tech auction software is in. For a minimal investment, you'll be saving a mountain of headaches, the check out process will be simplified and your audience will love you for it. Think of it this way, with the correct auction software, all you need to do is key in the bidder number and presto! Their invoice prints with a detailed listing of what they purchased and all you need to do is collect. Figure that each customer can 'check out' in a matter of seconds.

'THINK FRESH'

Out with the old in and in with the new. Remember to keep your auction fresh and new. Your auction should not look like it did the year before and the year before that. This isn't to say that you should turn down that wonderful golf package that brings in hundreds year after year, but you need to add some new spice to the pie. Don't get lazy on your donations as your committee should be prospecting for new donors throughout the year.

SHOW ME THE MONEY - ASK FOR IT FIRST.

Find the money in the room. This is where a true professional auctioneer and fundraising auction consultant plays a critical role.

What happens to the back up bidder? Huh? Okay, you have an item in the live or silent auction and there was a successful bidder. The successful bidder won the item for let's say, $100.00. The bidder before that bid $90.00 and lost out on the piece. Hold it right there. We have $90 confirmed dollars in that room that is still stuck in that bidder's pocket! Let's get it!

The easiest route is to have an identical piece readily available for the back up bidder. Here's an example, I was conducting a live auction where I donated a nice golf package to a country club. The audience was in laughter over these two gentlemen that kept sticking it to each other trying to win the lot. Finally the bidding realized a selling price of $850.00. A round of applause filled the room and I made a few jokes about the process. Then I pulled out the magic rabbit from out of the hat when I said; "Mr. Jones I'm giving you a discount on that great round of golf and instead of paying your bid price of $850.00, it's yours for $800.00." The look of confusion throughout that room was priceless and I took in the moment for a few seconds before I announced; "Mr. Back up Bidder! I'm a lot like yourself, I cannot stand the thought of defeat and I'm moving your status up from 2ndplace to a tie with first place by offering you the SAME package for your bid price of $800.00!" The crowd erupted! "Just think, all that fighting for nothing" I joked. This was possible by having doubles of the same lot. Recognize those back up bidders and get that money. In this case, we peeled off another $800.00 in that room that would have otherwise walked out.

The opportunities are endless in this business and the strategies are complex. From reading body language to finding that magic rabbit that lurks in every fundraiser, it's important that you implement a winning team that knows the value of teamwork by setting and reaching realistic auction goals.

Ken Lindsay is a certified professional auctioneer who specializes in fundraising and estate auctions. Lindsay will be spotlighted at the MSAA Bid Calling Championship in January 2006.

His clients include everyone from elementary schools to national organizations. Book Ken Lindsay for your next auction event at www.AEauctions.com or call (248) 473-1547.

WHAT THEY ARE SAYING!

"Ken's performance was remarkable! His enthusiasm was infectious along with his optimism and good humor. We simply could not have made a better choice."- Harry Baker, Girlstown Foundation

"Ken's professionalism, sparkling sense of humor, and vast knowledge were very well received and entertaining for our audience. He contributed greatly to increasing the bidding price for our live auction items, thus helping us earn more money for our playground." - Lindsey Smither, Principal, Lakes Elementary School
Click here and read a recent letter we received from Lakes Elementary school

"...Prominent dealers and collectors have applauded Lindsay's efforts and called him a hero. The hobby needs more honest dealers like Lindsay who have the guts to go after the scam artist who are threatening the whole segment of the hobby." Bob Wimmer, National Columnist

.....in a relatively short time you were able to pull together advertisements in key publications, send out more than 1,000 postcards to prospective bidders, create an auction video, conduct an extensive telephone campaign and generate substantial exposure on the Internet. Of course the crowning touch was the national publicity you generated with the press release ............... "The attendance at the auction exceeded our expectations and the proceeds generated were in line with our estimates. It was particularly satisfying to see that the high value items consistently brought in as much or more than we anticipated, and that all items were liquidated. - Paul Cogley, ASA (Wychovia Bank Representative)

"Ken does a super job of presentation!"- Jerry Davie, Former Detroit Tigers pitcher

"You guys were great! I have never seen an auctioneer work the crowd so hard like you did."- Nancy Mooney, St. Joseph Parish, Howell, Michigan

"I didn't get a chance to talk with you at the end of the auction last week! We had a great time...and you did a great job! We raised $3,000 that I know we could have not done with out you! Thanks for your assistance and I bet we will see you again next year."- Kim Spinelli, Vice President, National City Bank (Brighton Chamber of Commence Luncheon)

 

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