Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Going, Going, Gone!

Over the past month, I have found myself attending two auctions for the benefit of cultural institutions in the Hudson River Valley NY. For some years auctions have become a regular item in the nonprofit fund-raising menu across the nation. I have had some on the ground experience in such enterprises. As director of Maymont Foundation in Richmond, I took part in starting an annual auction that began in 1996 and this October will have its 14th iteration. Now called Vintage Maymont, it began as a live auction of wine and grew to include both silent and live auctions of wine, trips, events, art, jewelry, etc. When I left for Boscobel in New York in 2006, the evening was netting over $200,000 and has since climbed to over $250,000. What accounts for success in such ventures?

The right people: volunteers/staff, audience, auctioneer. Auctions are very labor intensive, involving acquisition of items, attracting sponsors, encouragement of attendance, seating of tables, etc. Like any charity event, people recruit people – friends and business associates – in this case to donate items, attend and most importantly BID. Ideally the audience should be pre-disposed to participate. Volunteers and staff typically will spend months accomplishing the above. A talented experienced auctioneer is critical. That person can “read the room,” recognize who the players will be and cajole and induce the highest bids. The auctioneer can create and nurture the bidding competitions that crop up over certain items. The auctioneer can also contribute to the sense of fun that should be in place for an auction’s success. The auctioneer is like an orchestra conductor – he/she doesn’t make the music, but sets the tone and pace.

The right stuff: even though the event is for the benefit of an important organization and a certain percentage of the impetus for bidding is charitable, the items in both silent and live auctions must be both desirable and valuable.

Silent auctions, usually highlighted during the reception prior to the live auction, features material of lesser “value” than those in the live auction to pick up support from those who might not be able to afford the pricier live ones later. In large silent auctions, tables are often sub-divided into categories: Art, Services, Wearables, Wine, Children/Family, etc. A goal of an auction evening is to have everyone in attendance bid on something as evidence of participation and support. But some silent auctions can teeter on the edge of looking like a yard sale if care is not taken as to quality. Silent auctions need constant on-site promotion. People who come to these – or most any charitable event – want to socialize. So they have to be pried away from their chattering and be persuaded to graze the Silent Auction tables.

The right beverages: Unless you are raising funds for the Temperance Union, the availability of alcohol during the auction’s duration is strongly advised. Alcohol is a useful fuel for a live charity auction. Many a checkbook has been influenced by Chardonnay. Caught up in the excitement of competitive bidding and abetted by the glow of a good (or a bad) wine, bidders can sometimes temporarily suspend judgment. Across our nation hundreds of bureau drawers of nonprofits’ supporters are littered with unredeemed auction certificates for this weekend on the lake or that dinner for four – all with expiration dates. But – all for a good cause.

If the auction is fun, spirited and clearly successful – as evidenced by successful bids way over market price - everybody wins, the charity, the “winners” and the audience. And when an attendee looks around the room and sees who is there having a good time, the residual “buzz” is all to the good. And finally, the organizers will be gratified to see how their many hours of hard work have literally paid off.

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