The only time a client did get upset with me, specifically because of the auction, was the time I did not ask these three questions.
1. Can I double this item? If so, what is the minimum I can double it for?
After the client gives me a number, let’s say it’s $3000, I will rephrase the question and ask it again. “To be clear, if I have one bidder at $2700 and one at $2800 you don’t want me to sell two and make you $5500? You only want me to double it if I can get $3000 for each?
I ask this question twice because this is not a call that I, or any good auctioneer, can make on the fly. It leaves too much room for discrepancy. No auctioneer should be expected to make a call on the fly about how much you can and can’t sell an item for.
2. Does this item have a minimum selling price?
There are costs built-in to any event and there’s an amount the auction must make just to recoup the costs associated with it. I need to know the minimum price for each item so I don’t go below that price and jeopardize the income of the event.
3. Does this item have a minimum starting bid?
I didn’t always ask this question because, as an auctioneer, I really prefer to set my own starting bids. I can adjust them up or down depending on how well the auction is going, how the energy in the room is working, etc.
If a donor gives an item to an auction with the stipulation that the bidding cannot start lower than a certain amount, it’s important for me to know what that amount is. I can then adjust the order of the auction items, if necessary. If a donor stipulates that the starting bid on his item must be $2000, for example, I’ll move that item to later in the auction. You just can’t start most successful auctions with a $2000 opening bid.
Most people who aren’t in the industry assume that if you start high, you end high, but that’s not the case. When you start low, you end high because more people are able to participate, which builds the momentum and pushes the bids higher and higher. When items don’t sell well at my auctions, it is usually because the opening bid was set by someone else and it was high.
This is why I encourage nonprofits not to let their donors set the starting bids.
I did a school auction not long ago, and two of the donors were very concerned with how we packaged their items. One was specifically concerned that her item would have no bids unless we bundled it with something else. I offered to talk to the two donors on the phone and explain why their items were being packaged the way they were.
It turned out that their previous experience donating items to the school auction had not been pleasant. The previous auctioneer had not promoted and sold their items in a way that felt good to them, partly because he didn’t know enough about the items. They did not want to be embarrassed if their items didn’t sell again this year.
They didn’t need to worry. We smashed their fundraising goal and both items sold for way more than they thought possible.
In the nonprofit world it’s always a game of who is in charge. My job is to help the donor make the right choice, because they are in charge in this moment. They need to make the right choice in order for the item to be successful at auction, it’s my job as the charity auctioneer to lead them down the path to that choice.
I’m happy to report that these donors had a lovely experience and have already committed to donating again this year.