As Featured in AFP Advancing Philanthropy Fall 2015
Author Jill McCorkle, one of the guest hosts for Mount Auburn Hospital’s benefit auction, along with her bestselling colleagues Alice Hoffman, Amy Tan, and Andre Dubus III, whispered nervously, “I sure hope this brings at least a few hundred dollars.” For her unique live auction item, McCorkle was offering to name a character in her next novel after the winning bidder.
“We are about to do something amazing,” I told the crowd. “It’s really not about what you get at this auction. It’s about how much you can give to change a person’s life. Your generous bidding will raise funds for the hospital’s breast cancer center, where lives are saved every day.”
The paddles went up fast, and after some high-spirited auction action, two final bidders emerged: a dashing, silver-haired gentleman standing in the back and a reserved but determined young woman at a front table. Both had caught the bidding fever and the numbers soared past $1,000, now $1,500, I hear $2,000, up to $2,500, flying to $3000. McCorkle applauded each raise of the paddle along with the other guests, who were fascinated by the bidding volley. Suddenly the gentleman strode up to the stage, pointed to the young woman bidder, and promised McCorkle, “I’ll give you $4,000 if I can have an affair with her in your next novel.”
McCorkle hesitated. “For the hospital?” I said, and she nodded yes.
The crowd roared with delight as, with the author’s dazed blessing, I sold not one but two character names, doubling profit for the breast cancer center.
Here are the lessons: Remember to double the auction item whenever you can. Keep the focus on why you’re there. When I teach auctioneers in my fundraising school, I tell them, “Don’t just sell auction items. Sell the mission.” Create momentum, letting the pace build to a dramatic moment. Keep both the donors and the rest of the audience engaged and excited till the end.
It’s a lot of work, right? Why do a benefit auction at all?
Because it’s one of the most powerful catalysts for identifying new donors, engaging audiences, raising funds, having fun, increasing supporter participation across many levels, and keeping it going year after year.
But even more important, a benefit auction’s a golden opportunity to connect your supporters to what they love most. You can show your guests exactly how their gifts will help transform the cause they’re passionate about. You can give them fresh reasons to care, deeply, about that cause. And you can make sure it stays meaningful for them.
Development professionals, volunteers, board members, and auctioneers already hold this golden key in their hands. The trick is using a benefit auction or a Fund a Need in a way that’s compelling enough to engage your donors and transform your fundraising.