I work with my fair share of celebrities. I try to be humble and not brag about them or post photos about them on social media. It’s a perk of my job - which I love. I do not take jobs simply because of the celebrities involved. I take auctions because I believe in the organization and their work.
Except one time. I let my personal desire to interact with a group of high-net worth people and gain exposure get in the way. I made the poor decision to take a job I knew was a mistake. I let my ego take control.
I’ll tell you what happened.
Last year I was approached by a very popular, fancy magazine focused on high-end products for wealthy people. This magazine features 20-million-dollar yachts the way Target features t-shirts. Its pages are filled with ads for $100,000 dollar watches, cognac, horses and all the other toys that the wealthy spend their millions on. Their target audience is the 1%. The magazine had its heyday in the 80’s and recently rebranded to become more appealing to younger audiences.
This magazine contacted me about raising money for a third party nonprofit organization, a practice that is more common than many people realize. It’s the upper-class equivalent of Safeway asking you at checkout if you’d like to donate a dollar to help the homeless.
I was told that if I helped them meet their fundraising goal of $200,000, I would be given a feature in their magazine in addition to my fee.
This had the potential to be HUGE for my business. The exposure alone was worth its weight in gold. Not only that, I was going to have the opportunity to meet several of the biggest names in the culinary world at this fundraiser.
I couldn’t say no.
What followed was an experience so overflowing with red flags and flashing neon warning signs that any sane person would have walked away. But I couldn’t say no to my ego. I’m great at my job and I wanted that exposure.
The first thing that should have sent me running the other direction was the nonprofit itself. I have a hard and fast rule when deciding which nonprofits to work with: If I learn about an organization and I am not moved to make a donation myself, I will not take on the client or the special event. I need to have the capacity to care for the nonprofit’s mission. If I don’t, I can’t speak in an authentic voice to help others understand the importance of the organization as well as tug at their wallets.
This nonprofit is run by two prominent chefs. It’s mission is to help younger chefs rise through the ranks and achieve Michelin star ratings. I’m not much of a foodie, give me a good burger and fries at the local greasy spoon and I am happy. This organization wasn’t one that I would personally donate to, nor could I see a real benefit to the community.
Furthermore, this fancy magazine had no connection to the nonprofit they were holding the event for. Rather, they were connected to the nonprofit only for access to the high-end chefs that they could provide. Another warning sign that I completely ignored. Their relationship was purely a business deal where the nonprofit provides the chefs and the magazine pays for them with a six-figure donation. And rather than donate the $200,000 themselves, they held an auction to pass along the cost to fine dining aficionados and wealthy subscribers.
Invitations for the event were posted on a ticket site and sold to whomever wanted to buy them for $1,500 a pop. Another red flag! The room that night was filled with people who purchased tickets to enjoy a ten-course tasting menu prepared by some of the best chefs in the country. They weren’t buying tickets to donate to a charity. No one in that room had any emotional connection to the cause of helping young chefs attain Michelin stars. They were buying a high end experience, not coming to a fundraising event for their favorite organization.
The event had a 100 person, or 50 couple, limit and a goal of raising $200,000. This means each couple needed to donate a minimum of $4,000 on top of the $1,500 paid for each ticket. The guest list was not curated at all. Rather they assumed that if couples could afford a $3000 meal, they could afford to spend $10-20k on a high-end auction package. What they didn’t know is that most major donors, don’t just donate because they have the capacity to give, they give big gifts because they have a multi-year relationship with an organization and know the inner workings of the nonprofit (how it is run, board members, transparency, etc).
Another rule, which I bent for this occasion, is that I never begin an auction after 9 p.m. People are just too tired, too drunk, or too ready to go home to bid with any sort of enthusiasm. They scheduled the auction portion of the evening to begin at 10 p.m., after the ten-course tasting menu and the many, many glasses of wine that experience entailed. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. I remember very clearly one guest who, by the time I took to the stage, had fallen asleep on top of her table using her Chanel purse as a pillow and her fur wrap as a blanket.
This was also a rare occasion when I agreed to an auction with more than eight items. This auction had twelve. All twelve were amazing. Some of the best things I have ever had the opportunity to sell. These were private dinners prepared by famous chefs. Chefs you see on TV. Chefs who have year long wait lists for their restaurants. Under normal conditions these babies would more than exceed the evening’s fundraising goal.
But these were not normal conditions.
The icing on this particularly under-baked cake was that the magazine refused to let me set my own starting bids. Instead, they set every opening bid at $10,000. $10,000! With an audience who was first introduced to the nonprofit that evening and who possessed an overwhelming urge to pass out on table tops, this was never going to work.
On this night, at this auction, with this group in attendance they barely made half of their fundraising goal. I was up on stage, doing my thing, grasping for any tendril of enthusiasm that I could get my hands on and all I got was crickets.
No one was bidding.
It was mortifying.
At several points, the chef whose dinner was being auctioned at the time grabbed the microphone out of my hand and lowered the price. Because, oh yes, did I fail to mention that the chefs were on stage with me while I was calling the auction for, what essentially amounted to, a private evening with them? They lowered the price on all items to ensure they sold, while also making me look like the worst auctioneer in the world who didn’t even know how to set starting bids.
After the event, the fancy magazine blamed everything on me and said I “didn’t bring enough energy,” despite the fact that I advised them to make different decisions regarding crowd size, auction timing, starting bids, and the like through the entire consulting process. It was decided that I hadn’t tried hard enough to get people excited and convince them to spend $10,000 on another fancy dinner.
They asked me to donate my fee to the nonprofit because I failed to meet the fundraising goal and, of course, I would not be getting that feature.
When I travel for events, as I did for this one, my fee covers my travel expenses. Without it, I have to pay for my travel out of pocket. But I agreed to make the donation, despite the fact that the evening’s failures could have been avoided if they were open to my advice, because I needed the experience to be over.
I wish I had trusted my gut. I wish I didn’t let my ego get in the way. I wish I had said no when I saw all these red flags. And more than anything, I am disappointed in myself for taking an auction that I knew had no chance of being successful.
After this experience my advice to nonprofits is:
- Make sure all the guests in the room have a connection to your organization
- Be wary of third party fundraisers
- Don’t start your auction after 9 p.m.
- Have a connection with your donors
- Trust your auctioneer to set opening bids
Have you ever bombed spectacularly at an auction? What did you learn from the experience?