As a Charity Auctioneer, Fund-A-Need auctions are big part of my life. In fact nearly 60% of my clients hire me just to conduct a Fund-A-Need. If you are unfamiliar with the term “Fund-A-Need,” you may have heard it referred to as a Special Appeal, Raise the Paddle, Cash Call, or Fund-An-Item. Regardless of what it’s called, a Fund-A-Need auction is a great way to maximize donations during a nonprofit charity event. Taking place either alongside a more traditional live auction or standing on its own, a Fund-A-Need auction asks all event attendees to donate directly to the nonprofit either for a specific project or to the organization’s general fund. When done correctly, Fund-A-Need auctions can help a nonprofit organization reach their maximum contribution potential. When done incorrectly Fund-A-Need auctions can be a disaster. From poor timing to poor event planning, here are a few common mistakes to avoid when planning your next Fund-A-Need event.
1. Scheduling the Fund-A-Need at the Wrong Time
Proper timing is critical to the success of any Fund-A-Need auction. Your Fund-A-Need should be scheduled to begin no later than 8:30 pm on weeknights and 9:30 pm on weekends. Nonprofit fundraising events can involve a bit of drinking and scheduling the Fund-A-Need earlier in the evening insures that your event attendees have not yet lost their ability to focus and donate with purpose. If you wait too long people will either be too bored, tired, or drunk to pay attention to, or remember, what is happening on stage. Additionally, when scheduling the Fund-A-Need portion of the evening it is imperative to make sure nothing else is happening in the room. You do not want your auctioneer to be vying for attention with dessert, or be interrupted when an important guest arrives late.
I once had to conduct a Fund-A-Need auction after the Mayor of Los Angeles spoke. The minute he stepped off the stage all the major donors in the room got up to shake his hand and introduce themselves. Not only did this create a cacophony of chatter that the Fund-A-Need had to compete with, none of our big givers were seated or paying attention. Let’s just say that the Mayor of Los Angeles totally killed our Fund-A-Need.
2. Failing to Keep Track of Donors and Donations
Proper administration is key to any successful charity event, Fund-A-Need or otherwise. Keep track of who is bidding/donating and at what amounts. Contact information should be easy to obtain, and should always be obtained in advance. Do not ask attendees to fill out a form with their bid number and contact information during or after your Fund-A-Need. This is a recipe for disaster! Bid numbers should be easily visible and registered/assigned to attendees before the auction begins. One way to really mess up is not to record the event in some way. Video recording, audio recording, people on the sidelines taking notes. Whatever works for you, your organization, and your donors. If bids are not properly recorded it can be impossible to collect on the promised donations/pledges after the event. This could mean the difference between making your goal for the night and falling woefully short.
A few years ago I performed a Fund-A-Need auction at a huge event in San Francisco. It was my second time working with this client and the previous year we had raised a record $1.6 M at the event. However, they had changed quite a few things for our second year working together. The most impactful decision they made was to NOT give every guest a unique bid number. Instead they gave everyone a bid paddle with their logo on it. Unfortunately they also failed to tell me this in advance, so I discovered it during our tech rehearsal the morning of the event. I bet you can guess what happened? During their Fund-A-Need a donor new to them raised his Paddle for $50,000. They had no clue who this bidder was and did not get his information. After the Fund-A-Need was finished they lost this new donor in the crowd. They couldn’t figure who he was nor how to get in touch with him to collect on his donation. He and his $50,000 were gone forever. The moral of this story is - record your events and get all donor information in advance!
3. Pricing Out the Lower Dollar Donors
Another common mistake is not including every potential donor in the event. Make sure to have contribution levels that all attendees feel comfortable with. Only having big money levels means you are potentially leaving a lot of money on the table. Encourage everyone to donate by going lower than $500 during this portion of the evening. The last level in the majority of my events is $100, no matter if we start at $1000 or $100,000
Deciding to do a Fund-A-Need means committing to carving out the time in your event “Run of Show.” Cutting your Fund-A-Need short means losing out on dollars as well as donors. If you are going to have a Fund-A-Need as part of your special event, make sure that everyone can participate. Time is the main reason why many of my clients have cut their live auctions. They do this in order to make time in the schedule for a Fund-A-Need with levels for all guests, and the results are well worth it.
4. Having a Need That is Too Specific or Hard to Explain
Perhaps the most common mistake that nonprofit organizations make when planning a Fund-A-Need event is having a “need” that is way too specific or difficult to explain. Asking for donations to fund repaving the parking lot or installing a computer system may seem like a great idea, but those needs are way too specific and totally not sexy. Your donors may not feel particularly compelled by or connected to such a specific need and they may leave without donating anything at all. It is better to ask for a general donation to be used for causes to be determined in the future. Give a rundown of what the nonprofit organization has done with previous donations and how this work has directly benefited your community. That last part is crucial. You must explain to your event attendees how their dollars will be used in the community and why that work is important. Keep your need simple and keep it general. That is the way to appeal to the largest number of potential donors.
Here is a great story. I was on an interview call with a new potential client. Prior to the call, I had gone to the organization’s website and poked around. I can typically find and understand the “case for giving” right away, but with this nonprofit I wasn’t able to find a “case for giving” or a need anywhere. During our call I asked the organization’s Director of Development what they were fundraising for. She took a deep breath and spent twenty minutes trying to describe to me the need in broad, vague, and amorphous language. When she was finally done, I told her I still had no idea what they were fundraising for and couldn’t help them if I couldn’t understand it.
Having a Fund-A-Need Auction can be the quickest and easiest way to raise money at a charity auction or gala, but it is also an easy event to ruin. Heed my advice and learn from the mistakes that I have witnessed. Avoid these four most common ways to ruin a Fund-A-Need auction.