Category Archives: Special Events

Tips From an Experienced Charity Auctioneer

treasure chestI recently spoke to someone who’s been volunteering at a nonprofit’s live auction for ten years — and in a major role, too. He’s the one who stands up in front of the room and solicit bids from the audience.

He’s not an auction professional, but it’s fair to say he’s learned a thing or two during that time — strategies that he’s noticed the pros sometimes overlook.

His main tips can be broken down, so to speak, into the following:

  • Break costs down. When you’re trying to solicit bids for a big-ticket item — let’s say, a starting bid of $1,000 for a weekend at a local resort — do the math, so that people are not focusing solely on that big total number. You might, for example, say, “Hey, this place sleeps eight people, or four couples. If you get your friends together, that’s only $125 per couple per night, and it comes with tennis privileges and a nearby pool!”
  • Break the flow up. A good auctioneer keeps an eye on the audience, and is ready to respond when there’s a lag in the energy, or when people just need a moment to breathe. Telling a story can help, or bringing in something 0r someone new. One year, a good strategy for this developed spontaneously, when a member of the audience jumped up and said, “I was the winning bidder on this dinner last year, and let me tell you what  a fabulous experience it was . . . .” You could, of course, arrange for such testimonials in advance.
  • Break the audience up. That’s right, humor. Easy to aspire to, hard to carry out. But it doesn’t have to be yuck-it-up jokes. Stories from the experiences of the nonprofit staff and board — those inside anecdotes that you laugh (or cry) about at lunch — can be great to share with the crowd.

Even if your nonprofit hires a professional for the important role of auctioneer, doing some of the background work suggested by the above tips can help keep the bidding fast, furious, and fun. For a comprehensive guide to holding a nonprofit auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).

How to End a Nonprofit Event on Time (Donors Need to Get Home!)

cmsamerica_nightThere’s nothing like the good feeling at a party where no one wants to leave. At an ordinary party, however, the departure time is voluntary.

At a nonprofit annual dinner or similar fundraising event, you hope and assume that everyone who can will stay put right up until the last honoree is honored and the last speaker heard from. (Especially the speaker who’s asking for donations . . . . )

Yet far too many nonprofit events drag on far into the night. This can lead to a flood out the door as attendees realize, “I promised the babysitter I’d be home by now,” or “If I don’t get to sleep soon, tomorrow is going to be Hell.” They run from their chairs feeling half guilty and half resentful. (And guess what they remember next year . . . .)

This time drag is not for lack of good intentions. Recently, I intended an event where the program itself included the exact time at which everything would take place: “7:35, Announcement by E.D.,” “8:00 Choral Presentation,” and so forth. How nice to know exactly what to expect! But keeping to such a schedule is always (and was) a challenge.

So, what can a well-intentioned nonprofit do? Here are some strategies:

  • Don’t try to pack too much into one evening. The more variables you’ve got, with speakers and participants from outside your organization who might revel in their moment in front of the microphone, the higher the possibilities for time to slip away.
  • Set an end time for festivities that’s earlier than when you want everyone to leave. Remember, people will need time for some final chitchat, and your volunteers or event staff will need time to clean up.
  • Give guest speakers strict instructions on how much time they’ll have. A casual, “Oh, we’d love it if you could say a few words” won’t do it. Tell them (graciously, of course) not only what their time limit is, but that you’ll have a timekeeper in the audience holding up signs as the cutoff approaches.
  • Plan for crowd control. There’s nothing that can throw your time calculations off faster than a large group of people who can’t be persuaded to move. How, for instance, will you get people from the silent auction tables to the dinner table? This may take more than just an announcement from the podium. You may need to have volunteers deputized to approach groups of people and invite them to sit down.
  • Enforce the timekeeping rules. It should go without saying, but if you tell speakers they have time limits, you have to make sure they stick to them. Some speakers will ignore the rules, or even ignore the person holding up the sign. Dragging them offstage with a hook is generally considered to be in poor taste, but designating someone to approach the podium clapping can work when all else has failed.

Other strategies tend to depend on the exact nature of the event. At an auction, for instance, you’ll want to focus on developing a seamless procedure for having the winning bidders pick up their items, so that they don’t face a long line before they can get out the door.

Succeeding in having an event end on time isn’t something that will bring in loads of compliments — but you should see the payoff in ticket sales next time around.

 

 

It’s PTA Collection Time as the School Year Begins!

Can you feel the excitement in the air? Kids are finding out who their teachers are, buying their back-to-school wardrobes, and signing up for activities.

Parents, however, may be a little less excited. Whether the kids are attending public or private schools, this is the time when many are asked to write a big check — knowing that without parental support, the school will literally go without an arts or music program, a librarian, after-school tutors, and so on. The “suggested donation” levels can run into the thousands of dollars.

This raises the annual conundrum: Should the PTA or other volunteers organizing these fundraising efforts ask for the full, needed lump-sum up front, or plan to spread out their requests for funding over the school year, sometimes packaged up as special events or fundraising sales?

Two mothers I recently spoke with debated this very point. One said, “I helped with school fundraising last year, and noticed that some people just won’t write a check unless they get something in return — they hold out for the silent auctions and other sales.” The other said, “But I get so sick of having to attend events like that, and I’m sure things like wrapping paper sales don’t net the school more than a few bucks — I’d rather just add that to my check at the beginning of the year. Yes, it hurts to write that big a check, but at least I get it over with.”

FLIBThere’s probably no final answer, though if you’re a PTA fundraiser, it’s worth keeping an eye on whether parents are developing a “mass sentiment” toward fundraising. Here’s an excerpt from my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising, that will help illustrate:

[D]onor sentiment has cycled at South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange, New Jersey. PTA copresident Laura Reichgut describes, “We sent out a survey last year to get a sense of how the school community was feeling about fundraising, programming, and so forth. A lot of the feedback suggested that parents had had their fill of the various smaller fundraisers, such as giftwrap sales or walkathons. So the PTA decided to eliminate some of those this year—or at least take a break from them—and replace them with what we call the ‘No Frills Campaign.’ We sent out a simple letter asking
for donations and including a reply envelope. Our pitch was that this is an opportunity to support all the great work of the school with 100% tax-deductible donations. . . . [A] mere week into the campaign, the South Mountain PTA had already reached its minimum monetary goal for the No Frills Campaign, and the donations continued to come in during the following weeks.”

Got Milestones to Celebrate?

childrenThe East Bay Children’s Book Project recently announced to its email followers that, “We are getting ready to celebrate an amazing milestone. We will give away our millionth book sometime this year.” In recognition, the group is sponsoring a contest to guess the exact time they give away that millionth book, collecting one million pennies, and otherwise inviting publicity.

Let’s think about that milestone for a minute. It’s impressive, and it’s legitimate. But unlike, say, an organization’s tenth anniversary or the graduation of its first class, “millionth book” is not a milestone that stares you right in the face. This group basically had to decide to measure, mark, and announce it. And kudos to them for their nonprofit marketing savvy.

Milestones are an excellent way for nonprofits to engage with their members and supporters on topics that don’t scream desperation. Even if a group doesn’t build an event around them, they can be fodder for email campaigns and social media. And some milestones will, in fact, be worthy of a special event. Let this be inspiration for you to think about what milestones your group is reaching, beyond the obvious ones, and make the most of them.

For free tips on how to hold a special event, and how to engage with supporters via social media, see the Nonprofit Fundraising section of Nolo’s website.

 

 

That Fingerpainting Wasn’t Worth a Penny Over $49,000!

stjohnFrom the tabloids to the blogosphere to MSN to NPR, there’s hardly a news source that doesn’t  find this story irresistable. The elements alone are the stuff of sitcom, even before we get to the action.

Exhibit A is a wealthy Manhattan couple, Michelle and Jon Heinemann, whe are all too easy to poke fun at if only for the fact that they named their children Hudson Cornelius and Hyacinth Cornelia.

Exhibit B is the “posh” (that adjective came from the British press) kindergarten that little Hudson Cornelius attends, the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, with tuition rates of $39,000 a year.

Exhibit C is a fingerpainting that Michelle, an artist, helped the divine little schoolchildren create for the school’s fundraising auction. She intended to place the winning bid on it herself, for $3,000, and apparently arranged this with the school before she went on vacation.

Now, for the action: The school apparently decided that its power over the absent Michelle’s bidding didn’t stop at $3,000. So when a first-grade teacher named “Ms. Bryant” threw herself into the bidding with great enthusiasm — or, according to the Heinemanns, with a wink and a nod from the school — it countered with proxy bids for the Heinemanns until the bidding topped out at $50,000. (Collective gasp.)

The Heinemanns may not want to spend $50,000 on a fingerpainting, but they may be about to spend that amount on lawyers. They’re suing the school for $415,000, a figure they derived from the costs of placing young master H.C. in another school. You can  read the details about that in the various tabloids. Let’s talk now about why the school’s actions were — if we’re to believe the basic gist of what happened — just plain dumb, and a reminder to every nonprofit not to get into the same type of trouble.

First off, if the school was really told that its bidding-proxy power stopped at $3,000, then failure to honor that is a major breach of trust. And even if that memo got lost somewhere, bidding a fingerpainting up to $50,000 just doesn’t pass the smell test, no matter how wealthy the bidders.

But let’s say it all seemed okay to the school in the heat of the moment, and no one rethought it until what must have been a rather awkward phone conversation with the Heinemanns. (“Uh, good news! You outbid the competition for the fingerpainting!”)

The school had a couple of perfectly viable options here. First, it could have offered the fingerpainting to the second highest bidder (“What, Ms. Bryant? You don’t want the fingerpainting for $49,000 after all?”). Okay, maybe the third-highest bidder. Oh, that was probably the Heinemanns. Come to think of it, the better option would probably have been to ask the Heinemann’s to pay the $3,000 that they thought they’d agreed to. And by the way, making them happy would have increased the chances of higher donations down the line.

The priceless lesson that the school hopefully learned here is that a nonprofit that gets into activities like auctions is acting somewhat like a business — and business customers expect to be treated with great deference, not as the walking checkbooks that nonprofit donors sometimes complain of being treated like. For more useful tips on how to run a fundraising auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).

“There Was Nothing to Bid on at the Silent Auction!”

This is not what you want to hear someone say about your nonprofit’s silent auction.

But it’s exactly what a friend of mine said recently, upon returning from a fundraising event. She didn’t literally mean, of course, that the silent auction featured rows of empty tables. But for her purposes, it might as well have. There was nothing she wanted. And she’s usually the type to eagerly enter lots of bids, as well as sign up for every raffle that comes her way.

I asked for specifics on what went wrong. They included:

  • “Too many local goods. I don’t live in that city, and don’t want to drive an hour just to redeem a restaurant or haircut gift certificate.”
  • “Too many crafts made by the same person. They were weird little animal sculptures.”
  • “I don’t know, too many things that just seemed a little tacky, or weren’t to my taste.”

It sounds like this nonprofit did some things right, and some things wrong in planning its silent auction.

dollFor instance, there’s nothing wrong with approaching local vendors for donations of auction items, particularly if most of your attendees will come from nearby. The local merchants will often say yes to a donation of goods or a gift certificate, partly because they’ll get advertising and goodwill among their natural clientele. But clearly not everyone attending an event will be a local, so it’s worth making sure to branch out or go to some merchants with a presence in other cities.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting crafts, most likely from an enthusiastic member. But if they’re not surefire sellers, make sure not to overwhelm the tables with them. People might wonder whether the craftsperson was having trouble selling them, too.

As for the “tacky” comment, it sounds possible that some merchants were also unloading items that weren’t selling anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to turn up your nose at offerings that might, after all, suit someone in your audience — you just need to balance these out with items that will suit a broad range of people.

At a silent auction that I recently attended, one of the items that got the most buzz was a Trader Joe’s gift certificate for $25. The bidding started at $15 and ended at a mere $26. Not exactly a big-ticket item, but that was $26 of pure profit for the nonprofit — and it added something to the table that everyone, male or female, bargain or luxury hunter, found interesting and worth returning to check on. People who come to the table to look at one item are bound to give one more look at the other ones there . . . .

For more information on holding a successful auction, see the articles on the “Nonprofit Fundraising” page of Nolo’s website.

Wanna Hear Insults? Listen to What People Have to Say About Bad Event Emcees

shakespearemedlers-sThe world used to be a lot more creative about issuing negative criticism. Shakespeare, for example, came up with lines like, “He is white-livered and red-faced” (Henry V) and “You are not worth another word, else I’d call you knave” (All’s Well That Ends Well).

Nevertheless, some pretty biting stuff can be found in the realm of audience reactions to a bad emcee at an event. It’s almost visceral – perhaps because one is trapped in a room (or in a TV-land audience), waiting for the real action or to hear from the people you care about, only to have precious time wasted by some joker who should never have been handed the microphone – but is now in total control.

Of Seth MacFarlane as the 2013 Oscars host, for example, New Yorker writer Richard Brody said, “he seemed as if he were doing an ‘S.N.L.’ parody of an Oscar host, delivering lines that resembled Oscar-host gags that exaggerate the worst emcee stereotypes (mainly, regressive, Archie-Bunker-ish attitudes) and faking the outward tone of chipper salesmanship while never conveying authentic joie de shtick.”

Or, from the gaming world, there’s this commentary from Michael McWhertor about Jamie Kennedy’s hosting of the E3 2007 Activision press conference: “Jamie would seemingly not appreciate being reminded that his phoned in, barely comprehensible emceeing gig, in which he was heckled by the crowd and out-joked by at least one video game developer, was actually a trainwreck.”

Or, in case you all missed the Miss North Carolina messageboard, some poor pageant emcee seems to have been univerally reviled, inspiring such audience comments as, “Anyways this guy is a terrible and I mean terrible emcee. He doesn’t understand timing at all. He’s some meathead, football loving, brainless person that needs to be replaced immediately.”  To which someone added, “The main thing I see is that he isn’t prepared. Did he get the script yesterday? When you have to read a question like ‘What’s the typical day of a Miss NC’ to Arlie from a notecard, you have a problem . . . .”

So, whether it’s the Oscars or the Miss North Carolina pageant, finding a good event emcee can clearly be difficult. Meanwhile, countless nonprofits are trying to do just that, for their next fundraising event. To help you avoid the slings and arrows of a disgruntled crowd, we offer the following new article on Nolo’s website: “Choosing an Emcee for a Fundraising Event: Do’s and Don’ts.”

It’s Actually Okay If Your Nonprofit Doesn’t Hold a Golf Fundraiser

golfTo hear all the ads and emails, you’d think that any nonprofit that hasn’t started planning its spring golf tournament — right now, this instant — is putting a permanent divot into its fundraising budget. Doesn’t it make you feel a little nervous, hearing about how other groups are raising money in ways that yours hasn’t even contemplated?

Relax, take a deep breath, and remember the fundraisers’ mantra: Your fundraising plan should be based on your nonprofit’s assets and capacities. If you don’t have a fundraising plan, now might be a good time to get going on one. But chasing after ideas like golf tournaments is only going to postpone that process, probably without much of a budgetary boost in the meantime.

There’s a reason I’m picking on golf tournaments, too. I’ve never met a fundraising method more famous for insinuating itself into a nonprofit’s activities — usually because one founder or board member happens to love golf — and then occupying oodles of staff and volunteer time, despite the fact that the number of participants hasn’t grown much and it has absolutely no thematic tie-in with the nonprofit’s work or the interests of most of its members.

For help with identifying your nonprofit’s core assets and developing a fundraising plan that best utilizes those, see “Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work” (Nolo).

Happy National (Underfunded) Library Week!

books-188x300From April 14 through 20, the U.S. is celebrating books and the role that libraries play in people’s lives. Libraries have become many communities’ go-to place to rent a movie, do homework, search for a job, and more. Of course, many remain shuttered or on a reduced schedule, with libraries across the U.S. having become, in the last few years, victims of city and county budget cuts.

As if librarians didn’t wear enough hats already, these budget difficulties have led many librarians to assume a new role: fundraiser. I talked to a number of them for my book, The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising: Raise Money for Your School, Team, Library, or Community Group. Many were involved in contacting prospective donors, organizing special events, rounding up donations for an auction or raffle, and so on.

Fortunately, librarians are also a multi-talented bunch, and they’ve got a great theme to work with: reading and literature. Book sales, book awards, and author events are staples of the library fundraising world. But the fundraiser that gets my vote for creative adaptation of the theme is the Edible Book Festival, which started in 2000 and has now spread around the globe.

The idea is that people create cakes or other food items that represent famous books and in some cases, themes and characters from those books, which are displayed and then consumed at a public event.

Check out some of the pictures here and here. And if you’d like to learn how to hold your own such festival, check out the “Eat your words: Tips for hosting an Edible Books Festival in ProgrammingLibrarian.org webinar,” to be held Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 2 p.m. CST.

 

After the Event Is Over: Where’s the Follow-Through?

3a47103rDo you know when the real work of a big event begins? Not the day of the gala, but afterwards.

Nonprofit organizations often put  much energy into an elegant gala, an annual dinner, a silent auction, or some other special event. The event itself may be a roaring success (or maybe not). But then, as Bay Area fundraising consultant Lela DaVia describes it, “the captive audience attending the event is often forgotten in the aftermath of  staff and volunteers recovering from the hard work. If there’s no follow-through, you may have lost a golden opportunity to cultivate current donors and engage new ones who attended.”

A profitable event can, with the correct follow-through, maximize its fundraising potential by fostering new and ongoing donor involvement.  This was a key theme in DaVia’s January, 2013 workshop at the Foundation Center in San Francisco, entitled “A NONPROFIT’S NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: IMPROVE DONOR RELATIONS.”

What exactly does effective follow-through involve? In the case of one organization with which DaVia worked, it meant that “after the event, every person in the room was entered into the organization’s database; the guests were segmented into categories; and then they were personally contacted by someone from the organization (ideally a Board member or key volunteer), asking how they learned about the group and inviting participation, for example in the next year’s event-planning efforts.” Sending a follow-up letter or e-mail is another option for communication.

Of course, the organization that holds the event may not have a complete guest list on hand — after all, if a corporation buys a table and invites various employees and their family members to attend, even the ticket-buyer may not know until the last minute who will actually show up. But your group can capture such names by unobtrusive means, such as putting out a guest book, offering a door prize, or holding a contest (in which attendees are quizzed on facts about your organization). You can do all of these to cover all bases.

If this sounds like common sense or something you’ve heard before, remember that it’s still not the way things typically happen. In fact, lack of follow-through was a prime concern expressed by members of DaVia’s workshop audience. In many cases,  despite coming from established nonprofits, and their interest in attending the workshop indicating their organizations’ commitment to professional development, many cited lack of follow-through as a major impediment to their group’s fundraising success. Sometimes the ball got dropped even before the event was over, as in: “We have house parties, but no one is willing to make a clear ask for money.”

Follow-through issues can be compounded when a group brings in a consultant to serve as events planner. The very person who was devoting the most energy to assuring the event’s success must pick up and leave when it’s over, along with a good deal of institutional memory. No matter how great a job the event planner did at creating notebooks or files describing what happened before and during the event and what needs to happen after, the key is  actually reviewing those notebooks to take the next steps. A good new year’s resolution to cultivate those donors from minor to major!