Over the last two years I renovated my house. I purchased windows and five major appliances as part of the remodel. Nothing was cheap — the cost of some of these purchases hovered around the price of a car.
Shortly after the sales process was complete, I started getting sales calls, asking me to buy extended warranties.
All these conversations got me to thinking — if one of these appliances or the windows start to give me problems, I may have a hard time knowing if the problem was product-related, installation-related or service-related.
Similarly, when a fundraising auction flops, the problem can stem from any number of sources — the Gala Chair, the committee, the nonprofit Board, the auctioneer, the school administration, the PTO, misfortune, and more.
Let’s look at three examples of fundraising auction fails.
1. Sometimes the auction fails due to the (school or nonprofit) administration.
A private school in a wealthy Florida suburb had a ho-hum auction for years. I was contacted by an energetic Mom who was new to the community.
“My husband landed a GREAT job in this area last year,” she confided, “We don’t have near the money of other people here, but I’ve run auctions in my home state and — since we can’t contribute money — I’ll contribute my time. I offered to Chair the event!”
She’d witnessed the school’s auction the prior year and immediately recognized problems. The event wasn’t raising the money it should, given the wealth in the parent community.
From our conversations, I could tell this Chair had a good grasp of what needed to be done and the energy to do it. We spent a long day pulling together a master plan.
Sadly, the school administration didn’t support her. Time and again her ideas were shot down.
- Sending emails to parents to tell them about the auction? Not allowed.
- Selling sponsorships? Not allowed.
- Changing some raffles, games, and other fundraising elements? Not allowed.
She was flabbergasted — as was I. Her requests weren’t unusual but she was repeatedly told ‘no.’
The only real change granted was the first idea she discussed when she offered to volunteer as Auction Chair — she was allowed to add a live auction.
The auction results were stronger than they had been in prior years, but the overall total wasn’t anywhere near the growth it should have been, had the administration supported her.
“I’m never offering to help again,” she told me.
The school administration failed its own auction while also killing the enthusiasm of a skilled volunteer.
2. Sometimes the benefit auction fails because of the auctioneer.
Sixteen years ago — before I formerly launched Red Apple Auctions — I worked as a contract benefit auctioneer for one hot minute.
I worked a singular event for a fundraising auction firm. The owner of the company assigned me to a small Catholic school auction. He sent two or three experienced crew members to support me, even though it was a tiny event.
The auction went OK. Certainly I didn’t have the polish I do today, but my work was decent. The client was happy and I made it through the night, despite my nerves.
Shortly thereafter, that firm shifted its model. The owner decided he would no longer use contractors like me. If he was already booked, he was going to refer the school on to another auctioneer — like me — for a fee.
A few months went by and I got a phone call. A private school had called him.
He had worked at this school’s auction in the past, but he was already committed on their gala date. If I paid him $1000, he’d tell the school that they should hire me. I agreed.
Unlike the little school he’d sent me to work when I contracted through him, this was a large, high-end private school event. Some of the items to be sold that night were valued at $20,000. The evening included several fundraising elements I’d never overseen.
In short I was in over my head but didn’t yet know it.
That night, I was in awe of the gym — it was so beautiful with the lights. The music. The vibe! Because I didn’t yet have needed experience, I lacked the confidence to voice my opinion on important issues. Worse yet, I didn’t know the right questions to ask.
Although I was (sort of) familiar with the items I was selling, I now cringe to think of how poorly I represented those donations. I lacked knowledge — and certainly hadn’t yet developed a je ne sais quoi on stage.
At one point, the client slipped me a note. “SLOW DOWN,” it read.
In my memory, it was a mortifying evening. I wrote a notepad full of lessons learned.
I would like to think that the school administration ALSO learned a few things.
For instance, I hope they now ask more detailed questions when interviewing auctioneers. And I hope they consider the difference between an auctioneer’s price versus an auctioneer’s value.
I was a cheap auctioneer. But boy, did I cost them.
3. Sometimes the fundraising auction fails due to unexpected circumstances.
A dedicated auction committee did a phenomenal job of upgrading their auction. I was so proud of their hard work!
But on auction night, attendance was down by at least half from any proceeding year.
The severe drop in guest count dramatically affected sales.
- A Jimmy Buffet concert was re-scheduled to the same night as the gala. Ticket-holders headed to Margaritaville.
- The school basketball team made it to the playoffs. Fans left town that weekend to support the team.
- A prominent family’s son had his bar mitzvah — the same night as the gala. Those who were invited, went.
The committee did everything right; fate intervened.
They were disappointed.
As was I.
I could share other stories tied to the decisions made by Auction Chairs, PTOs, and nonprofit leaders.
Sure, it’s more fun to write about the record-breaking auction hits. But truth be told, I’ve learned more from the bone-crushing misses.
Got a story you’re willing to share?
If so, post it below.
Emee Pumarega says
Thanks for sharing this! So much truth in this.
Sherry Truhlar says
Events are a team sport, and — like a game — when everything is right and the players are “on,” it’s magic. Even if one little thing is off, maybe it’s not a big deal. But at some point, if the “thing/person” is substantial enough, it all crashes down.
Rick Gallo says
Boy oh boy can I relate. Been there and done that as far as trying to tackle a large event before I had the experience to handle it!
A couple of quick comments on why some events go wrong….how about calling an auction in Lexington KY on the same evening that UK has a big basketball game. UK had three tables at the event as well and they were all empty. Unfortunately there was no way to avoid it as they needed to secure a date prior to the basketball schedule being set.
Also, I had a very large event, just over a thousand people, and the director of development thought that 300 paddles would be enough. I was informed once I got up on stage and asked people to raise their paddles…less than half the guests had one. Since then I always ask.
Sherry Truhlar says
Yes, there are a few things I make a point to ask about now, too. (I had a similar paddle situation arise at a Texas school a few years ago.)
Susan Loucks says
Great post. Maybe you mention this elsewhere on your site, but in Story #2, you said you …”hope they now ask more detailed questions when interviewing auctioneers.” Besides previous experience, what questions should someone ask?
Sherry Truhlar says
Susan, this post might can offer insight. It doesn’t have questions, but addresses the issue: https://www.redappleauctions.com/11-pointers-to-selecting-a-benefit-auctioneer/