In this guide, you’re going to learn how to organize a benefit gala.
We’ll cover everything you need to know, including:
- Procuring auction items
- Attracting the right attendees
- Maximizing event proceeds
- Lots more
Whether you are a first-time organizer or seasoned pro, you’ll love this guide.
- Chapter 1: Form Your Committee
- Chapter 2: Goals & Budgets
- Chapter 3: Date, Venue & Theme
- Chapter 4: Technology
- Chapter 5: Hire an Auctioneer
- Chapter 6: Item Procurement & Sponsors
- Chapter 7: Audience Targeting
- Chapter 8: Get the Word Out
- Chapter 9: Set the Schedule
- Chapter 10: Set the Menu
- Chapter 11: Registration Packets
- Chapter 12: Volunteer Coordination
- Chapter 13: Silent Auction Display
- Chapter 14: Live Auction Prep
- Chapter 15: Fund-a-Need Prep
- Chapter 16: Games & Revenue Enhancers
- Chapter 17: Guest Check-in
- Chapter 18: Administer the Silent Auction
- Chapter 19: Administer the Live Auction
- Chapter 20: Cashiering & Item Pickup
- Chapter 21: Taxes & Reporting
- Chapter 22: Post-Event Audit
- Chapter 23: Donor Retention
Benefit Gala Basics
What Is a Benefit Gala?
A benefit gala is a social event whose primary purpose is to raise money for a nonprofit. Benefit galas are common among charities, schools and foundations.
Benefit galas can be black-tie affairs with celebrity entertainment or a less formal gathering. Though, most include a subset of the following elements:
- Silent auction
- Speeches & awards
- Live auction
- Dancing & other entertainment
Why Throw a Benefit Gala?
Although benefit galas can be a large investment, they offer a big reward when properly executed:
- Earn donations from ticket sales, cash contributions & auction proceeds
- Show appreciation for your supporters
- Make newcomers aware of your cause
- Convert attendees into sustaining members
How Long Do Benefit Galas Take to Plan?
For the majority of events, six months is enough time to plan your benefit gala. Though, many larger galas start planning up to eleven months in advance.
If it is your first time organizing a gala, budget more time as you build up your vendor list, marketing collateral and other capabilities. Be mindful as well about booking desirable auctioneers and venues early, as they may have longer wait times.
The Big Decisions
Chapter 1: Form Your Committee
Rule #1 of forming an auction committee is “Quality Over Quantity.” Too many cooks in the kitchen can lead to some members shirking responsibilities and frustration coordinating schedules and earning consensus.
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The three main criteria for choosing committee members are:
- Who wants to be there?
- Who is competent at X (e.g., managing volunteers)?
- Who has the right connections?
Find talented people who are self-motivated and have ties to the cause, donors, and local businesses.
To divy up responsibilities, consider assigning these roles on your committee. Assign multiple roles to the same person, if desired, to keep your committee small.
|Managing Director||-Coordinate various chairs to design and execute an integrated fundraising strategy.|
|Procurement||-Gather items for sale at the auction|
|Audience Development||-Design and distribute invitations
-Coordinate sales of corporate tables
|Operations||-Coordinate the venue, decorations, food service, and Audio/Visual|
|Publications||-Design and publish auction catalog
-Manage database entry into event software
|Publicity||-Engage local media and community about event
-Register event on community calendars
|Financials||-Manage budgeting across committees
-Accept and deposit all money from before, during and after event
|Display||-Set up live and silent auction displays
-Design live auction preview
|Volunteers||-Recruit, coordinate and train volunteers|
|Logistics||-Track and store auction items
-Organize pickup and delivery of any larger auction items
|Cleanup||-Ensure venue is in the same shape, or better, as prior to the event
-Check for personal belongings left at event
|Thank You Notes||-Thank everyone who attended or donated items|
|Odds and Ends||-Manage miscellaneous tasks that don't fall to a committee
-Augment staff of committees needing resources
Chapter 2: Goals & Budgets
Goals must be specific, achievable and measurable so you can build a plan to achieve them. We’ll cover the two types of goals for silent auctions: fundraising goals and donor development goals.
Vague statements like “We want to raise as much as we can” are not helpful for making decisions. Rather, your fundraising goal should answer precisely how much you want to raise and why. For instance, a proper fundraising goal is:
“Our shelter believes no dog deserves to suffer in a puppy mill, and our mission is to end cruel practices and rescue animals in crisis. Our goal is to raise $90,000 to fund animal advocacy programs and care for innocent animals.”
Such a format focuses your decision making and inspires donors and sponsors.
Additional Reading: Learn how to determine a realistic goal in our previous post: 5 Steps to Set Realistic Revenue Goals for Your Auction.
Donor Development Goals
Although generating a large donation is the most obvious goal of a fundraiser, your event can also build support that continues throughout the year.
As an example, some organizations use their fundraiser to engage a new generation of donors. While the younger generation may not have much money to donate at your event, building a lifelong supporter pays dividends for years.
As a rule of thumb, strive for your event costs to be roughly 25% of the total event revenue. For example, if you forecast to bring in $100,000 in total event proceeds, then you should budget $25,000 to throw your event.
Consider the following items when preparing your budget:
|Promotional Expenses||Auction Expenses||Other Event Expenses|
|Save-the-date & Invitations||Auction Items||Venue|
|Landing Page & Ticketing System||Display||Decorations|
|Swag||Credit Card Processing||Liquor License|
|Design Services||Catalog & Bid Forms||Food & Drink|
|Signage||Mobile Bidding Software||Insurance|
|Advertising||Raffle License||Sound & Lighting|
|Promotional Displays||Valet Parking|
Chapter 3: Date, Venue & Theme
There is no ideal day, month or season in which to hold your fundraiser. Successful events are held every day of the week and at all times of the day, including breakfast events, lunch events, and dinner events.
Your committee should begin the search for a date by answering the following questions:
- What time of year are we most likely to be able to get people to attend?
- What conflicting events or holidays must we avoid?
- Will our preferred venue and auctioneer be available on that date or potential dates?
- Will we have enough planning time to be successful if we select that date?
- Will that date or those dates support our theme?
One of your most important decisions is where to hold your event. Here are some unique locations to start your brainstorming:
- Hotel ballrooms and convention halls
- Sports stadiums and athletic fields
- Shopping malls after hours
- Private country clubs
- Tennis courts (indoor and outdoor)
- Train stations
- Corporate building lobbies
- University or college clubs, community centers, and church halls
- Zoos, botanical gardens, and public aquariums
- Amusement parks
- State fairgrounds
- Theaters and music halls
- Cruise ships or other large boats
- Horse arena/stables/barns
- Private mansions or exclusive homes
- Museum display halls
- Aircraft hangar or aircraft carrier deck
- Circus tents
Remember that cost shouldn’t be your only consideration. Sometimes the “free” option, like a school gymnasium, isn’t always free when you factor revenue you may lose by not choosing a more desirable venue.
Factors to consider are: accessibility, usable space, convenience, food service, sound & lighting and availability.
Pro Tip: One of the best things you can do to boost attendance is to provide child care for attendees. Ask your venue if previous events have done this and how.
Additional Reading: For more in depth discussion about choosing a venue, see our previous post: Choosing a Gala Venue: Ask These Questions Besides “What’s It Cost?”
A good theme solidifies your event’s branding and helps create a party atmosphere for guests. Your chosen theme should carry through on all printed material, advertising, publicity, decorations, and activities.
You may even let the theme determine your venue (or vice versa). For example, say your theme is “Show Your Colors,” where you encourage guests to dress in their favorite sports team’s colors. Then, it would make sense to find a sports stadium as a possible venue.
Additional Reading: For a list of theme ideas, check out our post: The Ultimate List of Gala Themes
Chapter 4: Technology
Today, online ticketing is more of a “must” than a “nice to have.” There is no shortage of options when it comes to building an event landing page and collecting ticket payments. Some examples include:
Additionally, your benefit auction software likely has a ticketing solution as well.
Most ticketing providers charge you a fee per ticket sold, which reduces your risk if you don’t sell many tickets but also can be expensive if you sell out. Inquire about each system’s fundraising features, such as the ability to collect donations in lieu of attendance.
Pro Tip: Ever wonder how to get your event to show up on Google when someone searches for events in their area? Certain ticketing services, like Eventbrite, have partnered with Google so your event automatically shows up in Google Events.
Benefit Auction Software (w/ Mobile Bidding)
Benefit auction software helps you organize your staff, vendors, attendees and data. The main features include:
- Table seating
- Streamlined check-in & checkout
- Mobile bidding & online auctions
- Text to give
- Event reporting
Some benefit auction software to consider are Event.Gives, ClickBid, SchoolAuctions and MaestroSoft.
Should we use mobile bidding?
Mobile bidding is great for large silent auctions, because it prevents people from crowding around tables to read descriptions and place bids. People may also bid from home during your event!
While mobile bidding can also be used for live auctions, most organizers stick with bidding paddles to create excitement and interactivity.
Chapter 5: Hire an Auctioneer
If you’re having a live auction, you will need an auctioneer. Generally, you have three options:
Option 1: Volunteer Auctioneer
The volunteer auctioneer is your “free” option, where a celebrity, parent, or other person close to the cause shows up and takes bids.
Volunteer auctioneers (especially first-timers) should only be considered for small events, where there is a relatively low ceiling on the funds that could be raised during the live auction. While the volunteer auctioneer is “free”, you will “pay” in foregone revenue.
Option 2: Commercial Auctioneer
Commercial auctioneers are seasoned bid takers, but don’t specialize in fundraisers. For example, a commercial auctioneer could be a local real estate auctioneer who moonlights at benefit galas.
Hiring a commercial auctioneer lowers your risk that a volunteer will totally tank on stage. However, a commercial auctioneer may lack in fundraising expertise, like how to craft a fund-a-need presentation.
Option 3: Benefit Auctioneer
Benefit auctioneers exclusively serve fundraisers. In addition to taking bids, they consult on procurement, audience development, event planning, storytelling and other key aspects of your gala.
Any gala seeking to raise above $60k in revenue should strongly consider a benefit auctioneer, as your auctioneer expense will be a drop in the bucket relative to your total proceeds. Hiring benefit auctioneer minimizes your risk of a dud event and maximizes the likelihood you reach your event’s potential.
How to Hire a Benefit Auctioneer
The first thing you will need to do is create a list of eligible candidates. Two places to start are:
- NAA’s list of Benefit Auction Specialists
- Learn more about the Benefit Auction Specialist (BAS) designation here.
- TravelPledge’s Directory of Certified Professionals
- Each TravelPledge Certified Professional agrees to operate in a financially transparent way and follow key strategies to maximize donations.
Narrow your list based on auctioneers who serve your region and who are available on your preferred event date. Most benefit auctioneers work regionally, though some top professionals travel cross country to present at big events.
Finally, interview each eligible auctioneer, review their credentials, and follow up with references. Most established benefit auctioneers have a highlight video showcasing their talents that can be useful in your evaluation.
When interviewing an auctioneer, some topics of conversation are:
- Learn the auctioneer’s style. Would they be a good brand ambassador for your organization?
- Verify the benefit auctioneer has conducted many fundraising auctions similar to your planned event (and ask for references).
- Ask for data on success conducting the fund-a-need.
- Describe a tough situation your organization had in a previous event and ask how the auctioneer would’ve handled it.
- Learn what other services the auctioneer provides besides bid-taking. When does the auctioneer show up to the event and when do they leave?
- Inquire about the auctioneer’s compensation structure. You will find a wide mix of flat fee, commission, bonuses and services premiums. The optimal structure will depend on your organizational preferences and the size of your event.
What About Emcees?
Some events have an emcee in addition to the auctioneer. The role of the emcee is to introduce speakers as well as read each live auction item’s title, catalog number and brief description. After the emcee introduces the item, the auctioneer takes bids.
The emcee can be a volunteer or local celebrity. Generally, you want someone with good stage presence who is generally liked by your supporters.
Whether you have an emcee depends on your talent pool and the abilities of your auctioneer to entertain.
Procurement & Promotion
Chapter 6: Item Procurement & Sponsors
For the uninitiated, procuring auction items seems like a daunting task. Cold-call every businesses in town to ask for donations? No fun.
1. List the People You Know
Rather than focusing on “what”, start with the “who” and then see what they can donate. “Who” includes: yourself, spouse, immediate family, closest friends, co-workers, neighbors, extended family, places you shop, professionals, and vendors.
Then, match people with things they could likely donate. For example:
|Questions to Ask Yourself||Categories of Items|
|-What is their business?|
-What are their hobbies?
-Where do they live?
-What makes them happy (and would they share that experience)?
-Do they own a vacation home, cabin, or condo?
-Do they fly an airplane, sail a boat, or drive a sports car?
-Are they "connected" to celebrities or unique experiences?
-Who are their friends and contacts?
-Can they introduce you to someone who has what you want?
-Unusual or limited edition items
-Items with emotional impact
-Items everyone needs
-Local trips/cabins/mini vacations
-Items YOU would buy
Pro Tip: Trade your duplicate certificates with other nonprofits (local or otherwise) for items you can’t procure on your own. For example, a Colorado nonprofit could trade a ski trip to a California nonprofit for a vineyard getaway.
2. Make the Ask
Now that you have your procurement targets, it is time to make the ask:
- Be Specific: Don’t ask for “something,” ask for something specific.
- Be Thorough: Ask everyone on your list. You’ll be surprised who donates!
- Remove Barriers: Pre-fill any forms. All they should need to do is sign.
- Don’t Apologize: It is never an imposition to help a friend.
3. Show Appreciation
Write thank you notes, comp tickets and provide recognition at the event to show your appreciation. These are important steps to ensure they donate again next year.
Pro Tip: To ensure competitive bidding, you should not have more than one item for every two people at your event. It’s OK to procure more than this amount since you can always choose not to promote your lesser items or bundle them.
Need Auction Items?
Find local golf, B&B stays, wine samplings, yacht cruises, luxury vacations, glamping adventures and more for your auction, donated by generous businesses.
The steps to get sponsors mirror the steps to procure auction items. Rather than asking for items to sell, you are asking for cash contributions.
Start by engaging your board members with strong presences in the business community. Ask the board members to close 2-3 sponsors including their own businesses. Outside of your board, good places to seek sponsors are:
- Local businesses who don’t have an item to donate
- Membership and social clubs
- Supporters who can’t attend
For local businesses, contact professionals like doctors, lawyers, and real estate agents. Build a sharp prospectus that quantifies the marketing opportunity and explains the donation is tax deductible.
Like procurement, you should have an idea what you want someone to sponsor before making the ask. For the “big fish” exclude the lower level sponsorship opportunities from your prospectus. Here are some examples of things to sponsor:
- Title Sponsor
- Items for your auction or raffle
- Matching Donation
- Event Landing Page or App
- Photo Booth
- Email and other communications
You can also ask for in-kind donations, like wine from a local vineyard or printing services from a print shop.
Alert: For your donors and sponsors to claim a tax deduction, you must give them an acknowledgement letter. Deductions are available for cash contributions and donations of property, but not for services or vacation rentals.
Chapter 7: Audience Targeting
Audience targeting is the process of identifying the bidders, donors and sponsors you want at your event. The last thing you want is a room full of eaters-not-bidders!
Choose Your Target Audience
So, who are the right targets? Here are some things to consider:
- Monetary & Strategic Value: Were someone to attend your event, would they be willing and able to make a significant contribution? Would they spread the word about your event to their affluent friends? Would they continue to give after your event?
- Compatibility: Is your event well-positioned to beat out other things someone could do with their time and money? For example, parents would be a high-compatibility segment for a school fundraiser. Millennials would be a low-compatibility segment for an Alzheimer’s disease fundraiser.
- Size: Are there enough people in this segment to be worth targeting? Targeting only billionaires, despite their high monetary value, would give you too short of a list of people to target.
Try to formulate donor personas representative of your targets, as well as personas representative of people who aren’t your targets. A proper persona contains demographic data, attitudes and motivations, and behavioral information (e.g., their prior donor history).
Can You Have Multiple Targets?
Of course! Be mindful, however, that if you target everyone you are really targeting no one. A good way to think about targets is to have one target audience per ticket level.
An alternative to having multiple targets is to have multiple events. Perhaps the big gala appeals to your high-net worth donors but a low-key “wine down” would appeal more to young professionals.
Build Your Invite List
Now that you have your target audience, it’s time to build your target list. This step identifies real people who fit your criteria for being a target so you can make a plan to contact them.
If you have a robust donor database, then this task should be relatively easy. Simply run a report that shows people who meet your criteria for being a “target.” If you don’t have a complete database, some good places to building your invite list are:
- Prior attendees, donors & volunteers
- Newsletter subscribers
- Social media followers
- Networks of your committee members, awardees, sponsors, vendors & beneficiaries
Additionally, think about any segments of people that aren’t on your invite list but you would like to attend. For example, if you have an aging donor base, your invite list may be light on young professionals.
If young professionals are a strategic target for you, put the category “young professionals” on your invite list and think of ways to reach them that don’t require contact information (we’ll cover that later on).
Pro Tip: You may identify people whom you feel compelled to invite but don’t meet your target criteria. Email these people an invitation, but reserve the personal asks (phone calls, etc…) for your targets.
Set Your Ticket Levels
The last step to audience targeting, before getting the word out, is to determine what you are selling. In the case of a gala, you need to know what your ticket packages are and how much they cost.
Your goal is create ticket packages that match up with your target segments’ preferences and willingness to pay. While there is no “one size fits all” to ticket pricing, there are some universal mistakes you can avoid.
Mistake 1: Pricing Too Low
If tickets are too inexpensive (or free), then people may question if your event is worth attending. Holders of free tickets are also more likely to “no-show” since they haven’t paid anything.
You’d rather target donors who are price-insensitive when it comes to supporting a quality organization.
Mistake 2: Pricing Based on Cost
Many organizers set their entry-level ticket price by taking their cost to feed an attendee and adding a markup to it (say 20%). This is known as “cost plus” pricing. While you may luck into the optimal price level with this method, it will leave money on the table most of the time.
What’s relevant to pricing is what the purchaser is willing to pay. Determine willingness-to-pay by estimating the fair market value of a ticket (what would a comparable meal and entertainment at a restaurant cost?) and add on a charitable contribution to the price.
Alert: Publish on the ticket how much is fair market value and how much is a charitable contribution. Purchasers can claim a tax deduction on the charitable portion. Learn more.
Mistake 3: Offering Only One Ticket Level
If you offer all tickets at, say, $50, you lose out on people who would attend for a maximum of $30 as well on people who would’ve paid up to $100.
Instead, offer multiple levels, such as Friend ($30), Patron ($50), Benefactor ($100), Silver Corporate ($500), and Gold Corporate ($1,000). Additionally, consider an early bird discount to encourage early commitments. Encourage people to buy higher levels by offering special recognition or a VIP reception.
Mistake 4: Selling Tickets to Attendees Only
This may come as a shock, but there are many people who support your cause but hate social events.
Add a ticket option that is “Donation in lieu of attendance” so people can send their regards and money. We’ve even seen an event that offered a “Pay So You Don’t Have to Attend” option!
Chapter 8: Get the Word Out
Selling tickets comes down to sending the right messages through the right communication channels. This ensures your messages reach the intended recipient (i.e., your target audience) and inspires the desired action (i.e., a ticket sale).
You have several channels available to you, some free, some paid. Evaluate your target segments to determine which channels will give you the best Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI).
Perhaps your most valuable channel, word-of-mouth marketing is when you take action to get people to tell their social circle about your event. Word-of-Mouth marketing is effective for fundraising galas because it assuages attendees’ fears that they won’t know anyone at the event. Oh, and it’s free.
Some ideas to get the ball rolling are:
- Committee & Volunteers: Challenge your committee, board, and volunteers to each personally invite 10 people to your event.
- Kickoff Event: Host a mixer at a private home for your top donors and ask them to refer someone else who might be interested.
- Table Captains: Table captains are attendees who volunteer for the extra responsibility of filling their table with their friends.
- Honorees: Encourage your honorary chair and awardees to fill a table or two.
- Class Projects: School fundraisers should incorporate a class project as an auction item so students tell their parents about the event.
- Social Media: Enter anyone who refers someone or who uses your hashtag on social media into a prize drawing.
Pro Tip: Furnish your committee, volunteers and table captains with email templates and talking points to make it as easy as possible for them to contact their network.
Email is a cost effective way to let your donor base know about your event. Consider setting up a drip campaign to contact people multiple times (with different messages) until they click on your event link.
If you have a large email list, customize your emails to your target segments. For instance, you may feature your Patron’s package to one-time donors and your Benefactor’s package to sustaining members.
Pro Tip: Test subject lines and content to see what gets the most opens and clicks. You may find that a text-based email that looks like it came from a friend performs better than a image-filled promotional email.
Increasingly, people hate receiving phone calls. It’s also not the ideal method to collect payment and issue tickets. That said, phone calls can serve the purpose of building awareness of your event, and alert people to check their emails for an invitation.
Call the people in your database who have a preferred method of communication of phone calls, as well as anyone else with which a volunteer has a personal connection. For everyone else, start with an email and circle back with a phone call to your “heavy hitters” who haven’t purchased a ticket yet.
Pro Tip: When making the ask over the phone, hold the silence until the recipient responds. Ask, “Would you consider purchasing two reservations for our fundraiser so we can increase after school programming?” Then, pause until they respond. Awkward? Effective? Yes.
If you have donors’ physical addresses, consider sending a save-the-date and invitation via snail mail. Although you’ll pay in printing and postage, the physical mailer gives something for interested recipients to post on their fridge.
The save-the-date should just have the basics: who, what, when, where, why. The invitation to follow should have more detailed information about your organization, event theme, pricing, basic agenda, and RSVP return card.
Facebook is a free way to let followers learn about your event, as well as let newcomers find out about you using it’s Discovery feature. Even more valuable is that your followers can forward the invitation to their friends, so you can expand your reach.
Additional Reading: Proper Facebook event promotion is an art and science. Check out our previous post: How to Promote Your Fundraiser on Facebook.
The resourceful event planner can get the word out in the community relatively inexpensively:
- During procurement, ask businesses to put a flyer their window. Do the same for your venue and vendors.
- Post your event on any online community calendars.
- Contact your local newspaper and radio stations to learn about promotional opportunities.
- Create a Google ad that shows up to people searching for events in your area.
Homepage & Email Signature
Work with your webmaster to post your event details on your homepage. Similarly, all committee members should add a link to their email signature saying “Join us for our fundraiser” with a link to your landing page.
Your messaging must accomplish two things. First, it must drive people through the conversion funnel so they buy a ticket. Second, it must create an expectation of giving so the people who show up are ready to open their wallets.
The Conversion Funnel
The conversion funnel consists of three steps:
- Make people aware of your event.
- Persuade people that your event is worth attending.
- Convert them into a sale.
Customize your messaging for each stage of your funnel and for each of your target segments. For example, encourage signups among lifelong supporters with a mission-focused message, while delivering a transactional message (“Our gala is the perfect date night!”) to potential newcomers.
Reference the table below for some ideas and tweak it to fit your situation.
|Heavy Hitters||-Feature event on newsletter|
-Social media posts
|-Short video about the good work your organization is doing and the impact from their previous generosity|
-Other emotional appeals about your cause
|-Include SASE in mailer
-Sell tickets at other meetings for your organization
-VIP ticket offering
-Links to event landing page
-Social media posts
|-Short video about the good work your organization is doing and the impact from their previous generosity|
-Tease exciting auction items, live band, etc.
|-Early-bird discounts & promo codes
-Emphasize limited tickets left available
-Onsite ticket booth (great for converting museum visitors)
-Links to event landing page
|Not-Yet Supporters||-Word-of-mouth campaigns|
-Social media and paid search ads (use Facebook lookalike audiences)
-Local newspaper/radio (try to get a feature about your cause!)
-Flyers at local businesses
|-Highlight pictures/video from last year|
-Tease exciting auction items, live band, etc.
-Early-bird discounts & promo codes
-Pre-event raffle ticket sales (winner announced at event)
-Onsite ticket booth
-Links to event landing page
Create the Expectation of Giving
While your conversion funnel is designed to get conversions, pay attention to getting the right people in the room with the right mindset. Here are some proven strategies:
- Encourage table captains to set an expectation of giving with their friends in the sample emails you provide them. No one should be surprised at the event when you ask for money.
- Your corporate sponsors may try to fill their tables with representatives who don’t have the capacity to spend money at your event. Politely remind your sponsors, “If you can’t fill your table with your leadership team, kindly return the tickets and we will resell them.”
- Continually share with your registrants the donations you’ve received leading up to the event, thanking the donors by name when possible.
- Promote your auction items in your promotional messages and personal conversations. If your live auction items are date-specific, give this information to bidders ahead of time so they can bid confidently.
Get Ready for Event Day
Chapter 9: Set the Schedule
Getting your gala’s schedule right keeps momentum at your gala without fatiguing donors. Every element of your gala should contribute toward achieving your goals.
The Revenue Minute
Take your fundraising goal and divide it by the number of minutes in your gala. This is how much revenue you need to raise every minute, on average.
For each activity your committee proposes, predict whether that activity makes you more or less likely to reach your target revenue per minute. For activities that fall short, see if they can be retooled to take up less time or if they should be completely removed.
A perfect application of the revenue minute concept is speeches. Long boring speeches take up a lot of time that could be used fundraising while sapping the energy out of the room.
Rather than having a keynote address, opt for the following:
- Kick off your dinner presentation with brief welcoming remarks from a leader at your organization. The speaker should thank the board, committee and sponsors, and may even give the committee chair a small gift (2 minutes).
- Follow up the welcoming remarks with a “why we’re here” from a beneficiary explaining the impact of donations (2 minutes). Then, have your organization’s leader (who gave the welcoming remarks) introduce the auctioneer.
- The final remarks should precede the fund-a-need, usually in the middle of the live auction. A beneficiary gives a first-person explanation of the need (again, 2 minutes), and then lets the auctioneer get straight to the fundraising.
While you may think you need more time to explain your impact, your auctioneer can supplement your remarks with key talking points as they present items.
Alert: Long videos and speeches rich in statistics do not inspire giving. Emotionally engaging remarks only!
Transitions from activity to activity are another element of your gala where you are not raising money. Obsess over how you can get people where they need to be as smoothly as possible.
The biggest transition is typically moving guests from the silent auction to the main dining area. Some tips:
- Assign volunteers to facilitate the segue.
- Close the bar and food stations as soon as the silent auction is over.
- Instruct board members and committee members to take their seats first so people follow.
- Get a killer sound system so everyone hears the announcements to move to the next room.
- Have salads on the table before people sit down so they can start eating right away.
Pro Tip: As guests file into your dining area, display inspiring photos and quotes on your projector with uplifting music. Just because it is a transition, doesn’t mean you can’t continue delivering your message.
The other area where transitions are important are from speaker to speaker during your presentation. Assign speaker handlers to escort speakers from their seats to beside the stage before it’s time for their remarks.
Pro Tip: Have a leader at your organization introduce your auctioneer. When the auctioneer takes the stage, the leader should shake their hand to give the auctioneer credibility with the audience.
Which Comes First, Dinner or Live Auction?
If you choose to have a sit-down dinner, don’t wait for dinner to be over before starting your live auction because dinner will fatigue donors. Either conduct your short live auction and fund-a-need before dinner or start your live auction during dinner.
How Long Does the Live Auction Take?
Typically, the live auction portion takes 1.5 to 2 hours. Though, the length of your live auction will depend on the number of items you have. Each item should take roughly 3 minutes to present and sell. Budget 7 minutes for any games you may play, like heads-or-tails, and 15 minutes for the fund-a-need.
When to Have the Fund-a-Need
You want to time the fund-a-need so that you have the most people present and engaged. If you have fewer than 10 live auction items, put the fund-a-need at the end of the live auction. Otherwise, break up the live auction with the fund-a-need in the middle, just after you sell the premier auction item.
Below is a sample schedule, though yours may be more detailed.
|5:30 PM||Doors open for registration|
|5:30-6:00 PM||Complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres|
|5:30-7:00 PM||Silent auction bidding|
|6:40 PM||Silent auction section #1 closes|
|6:50 PM||Silent auction section #2 closes|
|7:00 PM||Silent auction section #3 closes|
|7:00-7:10 PM||Transition to dining room|
|7:10-7:15 PM||Welcome, thank you & "why we're here" remarks|
|7:15-9:00 PM||Live auction|
|9:00-10:00 PM||Awards, dessert or dancing|
|9:00-10:00 PM||Cashiering, checkout & item pickup|
Chapter 10: Set the Menu
There are two main food options for your gala: food stations and seated dinner.
You may opt for food stations if your budget doesn’t allow for seated dinners or you are planning a shorter event. Seated dinners are better for upscale events, though you can still achieve an upscale vibe with food stations.
If you opt for a food station, make the food available for the first two hours of your event during the silent auction and mingling. Since the food will be served during the silent auction, there are a few major “don’ts”:
- Don’t serve food that requires knife and fork or sitting down to eat.
- Don’t serve sticky food (e.g., BBQ ribs).
- Don’t serve anything that will create a line (e.g., buffets, carving stations)
- Don’t put all the food in one place.
Instead, choose food that doesn’t distract from bidding and encourages movement throughout the room. Your two best options are passed appetizers and hors d’oeuvres stations.
If opting for hors d’oeuvres stations, put your most desirable food items (like the shrimp cocktail) by the most desirable auction items.
If you opt for a seated dinner, schedule a shorter silent auction and mingling session with minor hors d’oevres, then move attendees to the main dining room. Make sure the caterer has plated salads on every table for guests transition to the dining room to keep your event’s momentum.
For the entree, avoid sticky finger foods as well as buffets. The last thing you want is people getting up for seconds during your fundraising presentation.
Dessert should be delivered to guests after you’ve concluded fundraising. Desserts are notorious attention grabbers, and for many guests, dessert signals the end of the evening.
Commonly, benefit galas provide an open bar for the first hour or a limited number of drink tickets. After that, people can have the “house wine” or purchase drinks with cash or their bid number.
While booze gets the attention, the most popular drink at your event will be water. Give your bartenders a break and set up several self-serve water coolers throughout the venue.
Consider placing your drink stations in the most remote areas of your silent auction to draw bidders. Just be careful that no lines extend in front of bidding areas. During the sit-down portion, regularly bring carafes of water to the tables to prevent people from getting up.
Alert: A common misconception is that more alcohol is better for raising money. Drunk guests distract other guests and increase risk of an adverse incident.
Chapter 11: Registration Packets
The registration packet sets up guests for bidding success and reduces the questions you’ll get on event date.
The outside of the registration packet should include the guest name, table number and bidder number. In the inside of the package, Include the following:
- Name badge
- Auction catalog
- Bid cards
- Event agenda
- Drink tickets
- Map of venue and auction items
- Auction scrip (see Revenue Enhancers)
- Pre-addressed business-size envelope
- Other promotional materials from sponsors
Pro Tip: Print some extra registration packets at each ticket level for walk-ins who did not pre-register. Label them with the bid number, table and ticket level.
Invest in simple, attractive graphic design for the catalog cover and ensure your font is easy to read. Don’t try to save a few bucks by using a small font size. You’ll pay it right back and more with reduced bids.
Your auction catalog should include the following items:
- Welcome Letter: Usually written by the committee chair, the welcome letter thanks attendees for attending and reminds them that this is a fundraiser for a good cause.
- Acknowledgements: Use the acknowledgements page to thank committee members, volunteers, sponsors, and anyone else worth acknowledging.
- Agenda: Let people know when various auction sections close as well as any other programming you have for your event.
- Auction Rules: The auction rules specify how to bid, when payment is due, and how to handle ambiguity in the item descriptions. FundraiserHelp has a good example of silent auction rules.
- Item Listings: Include the catalog number, title, fair market value and donor for each item for auction. Include descriptions for live auction items but exclude them for silent auction items.
Pro Tip: Use an easy numbering convention for silent auction items based on their section. For example, Section A items should be 101, 102, 103, etc…Section B items should b 201, 202, 203, etc… Color code your tables or promotional materials based on the section.
Obviously, discretion is important when determining seating, and be willing to accommodate special seating requests so couples can sit next to their friends. That said, strive for the following seating arrangement:
- Put your premium ticket holders and heavy hitters in the front two rows of tables in the middle.
- Seat other guests who are likely to bid on several live auction items in the next few rows of tables in the middle.
- Flank the stage with you guests of honor so they can access the stage quickly.
- Place people unlikely to bid in the live auction in the back corners.
Chapter 12: Volunteer Coordination
Having clearly defined roles for volunteers helps your event run smoothly and prevents you getting tons of questions on event day. Invest in written reference materials for your volunteers so you can focus your efforts on guests.
The volunteer coordinator knows your volunteers by face, name, strengths and weaknesses. She assigns roles, trains and supervises volunteer staff, and also serves as the primary point of contact for vendors who need to engage volunteers.
Below are the roles that should report to the volunteer coordinator. Of course, the same volunteer can fill multiple roles if timing allows (e.g., registration volunteers can cashier at the end of the event).
|Volunteer Role||Responsibilities||# Needed Per 200 Guests|
|Registration||Check in guests and pre-process credit cards.||4|
|Silent Auction Closer||Close out the silent auction sections. See Chapter X: Administer the Silent Auction.||2|
|Live Auction Display Assistants||Carry live auction items through the venue as they are up for bid. Use props for intangible items.||2|
|Live Auction Spotters||Identify bidders out of the auctioneer's line of sight and encourage bidding.||2|
|Live Auction Runners||Distribute bidder recognition prizes (e.g., balloons) and deliver guest receipts to bidders who pre-authorized payment.||2|
|Slides/Video Presentation||Advance slides and video on the projector during the live auction.||1|
|Recorders||Write down winning bid amount and bid number on live auction items, and record donations during fund-a-need.||3|
|Data Entry||Enter data into your event management software or spreadsheet. Use two volunteers so one can read bid form data to the typist.||2|
|Cashiers||Collect payment from guests for purchases and donations.||3|
|Auction Filers||File silent auction bid form copies into the winning bidder's folder and into event records.||2|
|Greeters||Welcome guests and direct them to registration tables and coat check.||1|
|Salespeople||Sell tickets during the silent auction for any raffles or other games to take place later in the event.||2|
|Item Pickup||Help winning bidders retrieve their items after the winning bidder hands them proof of payment they received at the cashiering table.||3|
|Coat Check||Give guests tickets for their coats and retrieve coats when requested.||1|
|Photographer||If not hiring a professional, the photographer documents the event for future marketing materials.||1|
Chapter 13: Silent Auction Display
When creating a silent auction display, you want to maximize the perceived value of each item. Here are the key elements of the silent auction display:
Print a flyer with promotional information and display it on an easel or photo frame behind the bid sheet. This makes it easier for bidders to browse experiences without bending over to read the bid sheet.
Descriptions must be complete, accurate and exciting. What makes the description exciting are not flowery words, but accurate words. Bullet points are OK!
If there are blackout dates or restrictions, be sure to list them. If the bidder is left to assume information, they will assume incorrectly and that will hurt the bidding.
Guests will be reading the descriptions from a distance, often from 3 to 8 feet away. They will not bend down to normal “reading distance” to see the descriptions, so font size is critical.
Use a large font size, around 16 points. Also, avoid “fancy fonts” that may fit your theme but make descriptions difficult to read.
If you’re not using mobile bidding, the bid sheet is where bidders will record their bid in the silent auction. Even if you are using mobile bidding, having bid sheets available in case of an emergency is a good idea.
Ideally, the bid sheet is 3-part carbonless form (learn why in Chapter 20: Cashiering & Item Pickup), and includes the following:
- Auction Section
- Item Number
- Description & Restrictions
- Fair Market Value
- Starting Bid & Bid Steps
- Buy-it-now Price
- Field for Bid Number
Alert: Do NOT require personal information on bid forms, such as name, email, or phone number. People may not want others to know what they bid on, or they may not want to upset their friend whom they outbid. Use bid numbers only.
What Should the Starting Bid and Bid Steps Be?
For fully donated items, start the bidding at 30% of the fair market value (FMV). For fixed-price consignment items, add 10% to your cost if the item sells. And for TravelPledge items, use the minimum bid we provide you.
Pre-print bid steps on your bid sheets so guests don’t have to do any mental math. Your bid steps should be about 10% of the value of your item. You should have around 14 steps, with the 1st step being the starting bid and the 14th step being the “Buy-it-now price”.
Example: Suppose you have a fully donated item valued at $500. Then your starting bid would be $150, and the following bids would be $200, $250, etc…all the way until a buy-it-now price of $800.
Tables, Sound & Lighting
Now that you’ve got your flyers and bid sheets, it’s time to lay out your silent auction items. The display portion of your silent auction is not a time to cut costs. Invest in extra tables and lighting if needed. You will make your money back and more with higher winning bids.
- Budget two linear feet of table frontage per item.
- Keep at least eight feet of walking space between tables.
- Use circular or serpentine tables instead of rectangular tables to help bidder flow.
- Test the lighting at the same time of day as your event.
- Use props to display items at varying heights.
- Add a mission-based message (or photo) on an easel in the center of each table.
- Minimize any cellophane on your auction baskets.
- Install a great sound system to build excitement, deliver announcements, and close out auction sections.
Live Auction Preview
The Silent Auction sets the stage for the Live Auction, so having an area in the Silent Auction where your guests can preview the Live Auction items that will be up for bid is a good idea.
When planning your space allocation, therefore, include enough space in a prominent area for the Live items to be displayed, with excellent lighting and easy access. This will contribute to your Live Auction by giving your bidders an hour or two to think about the items and for couples to discuss their interest.
Chapter 14: Live Auction Prep
The live auction and fund-a-need portions of your gala are where you will raise the most money. Proper preparation can result in tens if not hundreds of thousands of extra dollars at your event.
Live Auction Items
Which Items “Make the Cut?”
Organizers must decide which items “make the cut” for your live auction and which get relegated to the silent auction.
Nothing will be a better indicator of a good live auction item than previous auction data. Evaluate which items got the most bids last year, and promote similar items to the live auction this year. Otherwise, look for the following traits:
- Monetary Value: Obviously, a family vacation belongs in a live auction over a restaurant gift card. However, include a mix of item values so everyone has something they can bid on.
- Broad appeal: Vacations are superior to golf vacations since not everyone golfs, for instance.
- Emotional appeal: A class project for a school auction has high emotional appeal.
- Kid appeal: Items that parents and grandparents can fight over deliver competitive bidding.
- Simple to explain: Avoid items that are difficult to understand or have many restrictions.
- Multiple sales: Check with your item donor if you can sell the item to the two highest bidders.
Alert: Do not auction pets. You have no means to verify the winning bidder has the time and motivation to care for the animal.
How to Sequence Your Live Auction Items
Now that you’ve settled on your live auction items, it’s time to put them in the order that maximizes revenue:
- Start with a tangible that focuses the audience’s attention. A wagon of toys, big stuffed animal, or instant romance package are good options.
- Ramp up to your premier items with intermediate steps. This helps the audience adjust mentally to higher bidding.
- Mix up your categories of items to keep the audience’s interest. No back-to-back dinners, for instance.
- Place the premier item just after halfway, and follow it immediately with your fund-a-need. Your audience will be thinking “big numbers” for the fund-a-need, and you’ll leave a few items for the second highest bidder time to redeem themselves.
- Put merchandise at the beginning of the auction and experiences toward the end of the auction.
You will need a projection screen that the audience can look at while looking in the direction of the auctioneer. Bigger venues should have multiple project screens. If your venue doesn’t have screens, you can rent popup screens.
Your projector should be powerful enough so image is visible in a bright room. Test your projection ahead of your event at the same time of day. You may find text that is legible on your laptop screen but washed out on the projection.
Supply your auctioneer with one slide to be projected on the big screen per auction item. Keep your slides as simple as possible: photo, title, item number, a few bullet points, and the donor. Nothing else is needed.
Pro Tip: It is very important to have the item number prominently displayed and announced, as some bidders will tune out until they hear the item number called.
Sound & Lighting
Spring for a “surround sound” system: one where the room is ringed with several speakers. Sound that is band sound or DJ sound focuses the sound on the front of the room.
Guests in the front get blasted with too much sound, and the guests in the back struggle to hear. Both are bad and will adversely affect bidding.
As for lighting, your audience must not only see the auctioneer and items for bid, but also each other. For real live auction energy, guests should be able to see all the way across the room. Similarly, the auctioneer needs to be able to see all the guests.
If you can stand at one corner of the room and read a 200-300 point bid number from the opposite corner, then your lighting is adequate. If not, you may need to hire spotters to assist the auctioneer.
Pro Tip: Queue an exciting song and add lighting effects to play when the auctioneer says “Sold.” Some events have volunteers deliver winning bidders small gifts or funny outfits that pertain to the item that sold or the gala theme.
Bid cards are readily available for sale from many auction companies. While bid cards seem trivial (just a bunch of numbers on card stock, right?), there are a few pitfalls to avoid:
- Use simple black font on a white background. Dark backgrounds, even with white text, make the number difficult to read.
- Don’t add handles to make them bid paddles. Guests will use the paddles to fan themselves or summon waitstaff, confusing your auctioneer.
- Use jacket-pocket-sized bid cards for smaller gatherings (<100 guests), half-sheets for medium gatherings (100-250 guests), and full sheets for big galas (250+ guests).
- All bid numbers should have the same number of digits (most commonly, 101 to 999) and should contain numbers only (no alphanumeric bid numbers).
- Print multiple bid cards with the same number for couples in order to streamline checkout.
- Do not try to use the back of your auction catalog as the bid card.
Chapter 15: Fund-a-Need Prep
The fund-a-need (AKA “raise-the-paddle”) is where you solicit donations from your audience to, as the name suggests, fund a need your organization has. It is usually placed just after the halfway point of your auction.
In the typical fund-a-need format, the auctioneer starts at a high amount, say $5,000, and asks donors to raise their bid cards to commit to a donation at that amount. The auctioneer solicits donations at gradually decreasing amounts until, say, $100.
Choosing the Need
The need that your choose to fund should be specific, understandable and achievable. The more emotion the need evokes, the better.
The need should not be to cover general operating expenses. Choose something that may not get funded without the audience’s generosity. Some examples include:
- School computer lab
- Safety equipment
- Research to find cures for a disease
- Send a child to camp
- Community park
Pro Tip: Involve as many people in the decision making for your fund-a-need as possible, especially board members. You’ll find the people who help you decide on a need will be your biggest donors.
The Inspirational Speech
Precede the fund-a-need with a very short (under 3 minutes) video, presentation or remarks. As mentioned earlier, this is not the time for a long speech or for statistics. Explain what the need is and why it’s important.
Don’t worry about having a slide or other visuals unless they are required to explain your need. You want your audience quiet and focused on the speaker.
After the speak, you can rotate slides with inspirational imagery as the auctioneer makes the ask.
After the inspirational speech, the auctioneer takes over. A critical decision is the starting donation level. Too high of a level results in an awkward moment where nobody donates. Too low of a level leaves money on the table.
Try to secure a lead donation in advance of your event to be presented at the beginning of your fund-a-need. Then, the auctioneer can ask if anyone wants to follow that lead.
One happy exception is when your lead donation is so high that no one else in the room could come close to donating that amount. In that case, wait until the end of the fund-a-need to announce that gift so donors don’t think “They’ve got their money. I don’t need to donate.”
Don’t offer too many levels that your audience loses steam. Around five to eight levels is optimal. For example, levels of $5k, $2.5k, $1k, $500, $250 and $100 would be appropriate. You may choose to go lower to encourage participation.
Pro Tip: Work with your major donors to secure matching gifts for the entire funds raised, funds raised at a donation level, or for a pre-determined amount. A matching gift of say $5k at your lowest level can do wonders to make your fund-a-need end on a high note.
Chapter 16: Games & Revenue Enhancers
Revenue enhancers are things you do in addition to your auction and fund-a-need to maximize your event proceeds. They bring energy to your event and give people of broad socioeconomic backgrounds a chance to contribute.
An auction scrip is simply a voucher that is good toward some amount of an auction purchase. Auction scrips encourage people to bid because the scrip is worthless after your event! Include auction scrips in your ticket packages.
Add pledge forms on a silent auction table where guests can pledge money to fund a need. Provide a box for people to submit their pledge forms.
Green Line Auction
Grab a green marker and draw a line under one of the biding lines in each of your bid sheets. People who bid on that line are automatically entered into a raffle. The effect is that people will skip the initial bids and jump straight to the green line!
Fill a locked box with valuable items and sell identical looking keys to guests. Over the course of the event, people will try their luck at unlocking the treasure chest, but there will be only one key that fits.
Wrap a felt bag around the stem of 100 champagne glass. All but one of the bags contain a cubic zirconium with the exception being a real diamond. Sell each glass for a fixed price, say $50. Purchasers visit an “Appraisal Station” for a jeweler to examine each person’s stone to identify the real diamond.
Get rid of small gift certificates by putting a slip of paper representing each in a helium balloon. Sell the balloons for $25, $50, or $100, depending on the value of the certificate within. Purchasers pop their balloon to see what they won.
Raffle an item for which bidders can easily assess its value. For example, you could auction a flat screen TV for around $400, but make way more than that selling raffle tickets for $10/each. Make sure to follow all rules & regulations for fundraising raffles.
Last Donor Reward
After all Fund-an-Item donations have been made, the auctioneer holds up a prize (bottle of wine, dinner certificate, etc…) and says, “We appreciate all your generous donations tonight. Before we move on, I want to give this gift to the person who is willing to be our very last donor at the $50 level.” Of course, many cards go up and the auctioneer now can get additional donations.
Bundle three similar items together in your live auction catalog, and let the winning bidder choose which option they want (or which two options they want). The opportunity to choose creates additional bid activity on each individual item.
A benefit of certain consignment items is that you may be able to sell the same item multiple times. Make sure to get clearance from the item provider to sell the donation more than once if bidding reaches a predetermined level.
Say you have the option to auction an evening on a party yacht where up to 40 people can attend. Rather than try to find a single bidder to pay $20,000, sell 20 pairs of tickets for $1,000/pair. You’ll have much greater luck!
Rather than hire a dessert caterer, have the desserts donated by committee members, local bakeries, and restaurants. Let each table fill out a form to bid on the right to choose their dessert first.
Take a break from the regular live auction items to sell off 10-20 of your restaurant gift certificates at full retail value. The auctioneer calls out the restaurant and value of the certificate, and the winner is the the first paddle raised. Whereas these certificates may only get 50% of retail value during your silent auction, they can fetch the full retail value during a bidding frenzy.
Have some items that just missed out on your live auction? Let diners submit a single blind bid on them via form on their table. Runners periodically collect the forms throughout the live auction. At the end of the live auction, the high Bid-O-Gram bidder(s) are announced.
First in the Valet
Valet parking is convenient on arrival but can be a nightmare after the event is over. Start the live auction by offering “First in the Valet” as an auction item. The winner has their car brought up to the valet area immediately, and it is waiting for them any time they wish to leave.
After you record the winning bid for your final item, tally the total amount you raised at your event. The auctioneer can then announce, “We are so close to raising $XX,XXX tonight, a new milestone and record. Is there anyone who would like to make an additional donation to get us there?”
Heads & Tails
Guests purchase tickets for, say, $20, during the silent auction to participate. During the live auction portion, participants stand up and predict the outcome of a coin flip by either putting their hands on their heads or on their hips. Once someone misses, they are out of the game. Flip the coin until there is a single winner.
Have someone at each table play auctioneer to sell the centerpiece. Offer incentive gifts to the highest bidding table and to the table auctioneer.
Alert: Choose revenue enhancers diligently as to not fatigue your donors. Remember, these are side shows, not your main event.
Chapter 17: Guest Check-in
Streamlining check-in is crucial to your event’s success. If people have to wait in a long line, they may choose not to bid to avoid checkout. When checking someone in, accomplish the following:
- Deliver the registration packet
- Collect any money due for entry fees
- Verify guest contact information for your donor database
- Pre-authorize payment to save time during checkout
Organize your registration packets by last name, not bid number, since attendees will not know their bid number.
What About Walk-Ups?
“Walk ups” are people who didn’t pre-register for your event. You should have some extra registration packets available without names on them to give them. Since you will likely need to collect payment and contact information from walk ups, divert walk-ups to a secondary check-in table to keep the line moving.
Pro Tip: After the guest leaves the check-in station, have a volunteer ask the guest if they have any questions about bidding, especially if you are using mobile bidding. The volunteer can train multiple people at once so people can continue checking in.
Chapter 18: Administer the Silent Auction
If you thought your silent auction was “set it and forget it”, think again. Proper silent auction administration drives competitive bidding and ensures a fair process for participants.
There are several things you and your staff can do to increase bidding activity:
- Position your staff around the auction floor to answer any questions your guests have. Give your staff a booklet with additional details about each item in case the flyer is incomplete or unclear.
- Continually check that the bid sheets are in the correct place and that there is a pen. Guests will steal your pens, so consider making a cup available with additional pens.
- Monitor bid sheets for skipped bid steps (a good thing!) and cross out the skipped steps so the next bidder knows where to bid.
- Pull any bid sheets for which there is a bid number at the “Buy-it-now” price.
- Use announcements to spur competitive bidding. A classic maneuver is: “Bidder #123, you were just outbid for XYZ.”
If you have many auction items, close out your silent auction in three sections, not all at once. Stagger your closing times by around 15 minutes to give your staff to close out each section.
Each section closing is an exciting moment to see who wins each item. It also concentrates bidding on the remaining items for increased competition. For this latter reason, you should place your lesser-valued items in the first section to close and the most valuable items in the last section to close.
Typical Closing Procedure
- About 10 minutes before the schedule closing time, announce to the guests which section will be closing and remind them to check that they are still the high bidder.
- Have a staff member pick up pens by each form to prevent further bidding once time is up. Have a second staff member follow behind and circle the high bid to “lock it in”.
- The first staff then collects the top two copies of the bid sheet to take them to checkout area. One copy will be for your organization and the other will be the bidder’s receipt. Tape or staple the third form to the item as the item tag.
- Finally, remove any tangible auction items from the table and take them to your item pickup area. Repackage the item, if necessary.
Pro Tip: If there are two (or more) guests still bidding on an item, consider letting them continue bidding until there is one winner. You’ll avoid any gamesmanship from the competitors and increase your yield. This is known as the “soft close.”
Chapter 19: Administer the Live Auction
Managing the live auction and fund-a-need is generally more straightforward than managing the silent auction. However, there are some important details to mind regarding recording bids and recognizing winners.
Larger events may require bid spotters. Bid spotters identify bidders who the auctioneer can’t see. Typically, there will be, say, 4 bid spotters on the floor, each responsible for a quadrant.
When someone bids in a quadrant across the room from where the auctioneer is looking, the spotter yells “Bid!” to the auctioneer and makes an “L” shape with their arms to point to the bidder.
Once a final winning bid has been determined, the spotter reminds the winning bidder to hold up their bid card for the auctioneer to see as they are being congratulated.
Record Bids & Donations
Station three volunteers next to the live auction stage, where they can hear the auctioneer very clearly. Once the auctioneer says “Sold”, the recorders write down the bid number and amount. Similarly, the recorders record bid numbers and donation levels as the auctioneer announces them during the fund-a-need.
Three is the magic number for recorders to avoid errors. During the fund-a-need, the auctioneer will read bid numbers very quickly, While one recorder may transpose a number by accident, it will be rare that two or more transpose the number.
As with the silent auction, the bids should be recorded on carbonless, multi-part forms to provide multiple copies for the winning bidder, cashiering and your event’s records.
Every 5-10 auction items, have a runner take the bid forms to data entry. The bids are entered into your event management system, If the bidder pre-authorized payment, the payment is processed as well.
Pro Tip: Supply your recorders with extra bid forms in case the auctioneer sells an item twice or otherwise sells an unexpected item, like the frosting and remaining crumbs on the cake platter!
Alert: Some galas have the winning bidder sign the bid form from their table to “confirm” the sale. Skip this unnecessary step by having the auctioneer recognize the winning bidder by name and bid number. If there’s a problem, the bidder can still raise their concern through a different means than signing the bid form.
Recognize Winning Bidders
It is a nice touch for auctioneers to recognize winning bidders by name once the item is sold. In many cases, the auctioneer will know the donor if the auctioneer had previously worked with your organization. However, there will be scenarios where the auctioneer doesn’t know the winning bidder by name.
Supply your auctioneer with a list of names, sorted by bid number. This avoids a winning bidder feeling snubbed because the auctioneer recognized someone else but not them.
As an additional expression of gratitude, a volunteer can bring a small gift to the winning bidder, or, if appropriate, a bottle of champagne for the table. Avoid helium balloons as recognition gifts to maintain the auctioneer’s sight lines.
Pro Tip: Instead of looking at the auctioneer during your live auction, stand by the stage and watch your donors. See how they react to the presentation and use that feedback to inform your decisions for next year’s gala.
Chapter 20: Cashiering & Item Pickup
After your auction close, provide brief thank you remarks to your guests. This puts a nice cap to the evening and gives your staff time to prepare for checkout and item pickup.
Prepare Receipt Folders
Compile two receipt folders for each guest who won an item. One folder will contain the original bid form for your records, and the other folder will contain the winning bidder’s copy. Add any bar tabs or other receipts to the folders.
Additionally, for any winning bidders of an experience (or other non-tangible item), add any gift certificates they won to their receipt folder or provide a letter with instructions on how the bidder should expect their certificate.
Your auction management software likely has built-in credit card processing functionality, so you would simply need to obtain card readers. When collecting checks, write the bid number in the memo field for future reference. Where possible, avoid collecting cash payment since handling cash is theft liability.
Process payments for guests who pre-authorized payment during check-in. Then, direct them a special line for them to pick up their receipt folder. For other guests, have them line up to remit payment a cashier station. You should have one cashier for every 75 buying units.
The general cashiering process will be as follows:
- Ask for the guest’s bid number.
- Retrieve the two receipt folders.
- Collect payment.
- Mark your receipt folders as “PAID.”
- Hand the winning bidder their receipt folder and direct them to Item Pickup.
- File your own copy of the receipt folder.
Alert: Collect any sales tax as required by your state and locality. Just because your organization is exempt from paying sales tax doesn’t mean you are exempt from collecting it.
Pro Tip: At checkout, ask the guest if they would be willing to allow the final bill to be rounded up to the next $100, with the extra being a cash contribution. Most agree, of course, adding significant cash contributions to your total.
There are five scenarios you’ll need to consider for item pickup, small tangible items, big tangible items, online purchases, and items that didn’t sell. Here’s how to handle all five:
Certificates can be anything from restaurant gift cards to vacation vouchers. If you have the certificate available before your event, add them to the receipt folder you hand your guest at checkout. Otherwise, give winning bidders a letter that explains how they will receive their certificates.
For TravelPledge items, winning bidders are emailed their certificates once the auction organizer checks out in our system.
Small Tangible Items
By “Small Tangible Item”, we are referring to any item for which the winning bidder will no trouble carrying to their car to take home.
For these items, the winning bidder hands their receipt to a volunteer in the item pickup area. The volunteer matches the receipt with the third copy of the bid sheet that was attached to the item during auction.
An alternative workflow is the “Costco model”. Winning bidders collect their own items, with a volunteer checking receipts upon exit.
Big Tangible Items
If an item is too large to take home on the night of your event, pre-arrange to deliver the item to the winning bidder.
The only reason you would choose to include a cumbersome item would be if you could generate a large donation on it. Hence, covering the delivery should be worth it.
For online purchases, or any other scenario where the winning bidder isn’t there for in-person item pickup, you have a few options:
- Mail the winning bidder their item for a fee. Buy shipping insurance for expensive or fragile items.
- Have a volunteer personally deliver the item. This is a nice touch to get additional face time with a donor.
- Arrange a time and place after your event for the winning bidder to pick up the item.
Items That Didn’t Sell
Items that didn’t sell are generally not returned to the donor, unless specifically requested or you were selling the item on consignment.
Returning the item could insult the donor – you’d be better served finding an alternative use for it. Gift the item to a volunteer or use the item at a future event.
For consignment items, like memorabilia, follow the consignment company’s instructions for returns.
Chapter 21: Taxes & Reporting
Many organizers are surprised at the tax and reporting requirements associated with their auction. And, unfortunately, many organizers ignore them.
Alert: Requirements vary from state to state and organization to organization. So, while we do our best to cover the key considerations, you should consult your accountant.
Are donated auction items and sponsorships tax deductible for donors?
Cash contributions and donated property are tax deductible. Furnish your donors with an acknowledgement letter for their contribution.
The letter should contain your organization’s name, item description, and a statement that no goods or services were given in exchange for the donation (or estimate the value of what was given). It is the donor’s responsibility to estimate the value of the item they donated, so no need to provide that for them.
By contrast to cash donations and donated property, donated services or the use of property (such as vacation rental time) are not tax deductible.
Are tickets and auction purchases tax deductible for attendees?
Tickets and auction purchases are tax deductible only to the extent that the purchase price exceeds the fair market value of the item purchased.
As the organizer, you should furnish the fair market value of the ticket on your ticketing page, as well as the fair market value on auction items within the catalog and bid sheets.
Do you need to collect sales tax on our tickets and auction items?
Generally, yes. You will need to collect all applicable sales tax on tickets and auction items. Just because your organization is exempt from paying sales tax, you are not exempt from collecting it.
Is auction income taxable?
In some instances your auction income is considered Unrelated Business Income (UBI), meaning it was generated in a manner unrelated to your tax-exempt purposes.
There are many conditions that determine whether you will owe this tax, such as how often you throw such a fundraiser. You will need to consult your accountant for your situation.
What forms do you need to file with the IRS and state departments of revenue?
Check out Blue Avocado’s Sample Auction Reporting Checklist for Nonprofits.
What records do you need to keep?
Keep records of all donations and purchases for at least five years in case of an audit or if you need to look something up.
Additional Reading: The above considerations are spelled out in more detail in a post by Blue Avocado: Nonprofit Auctions: A Complete Compliance Guide and Sample Forms
Chapter 22: Post-Event Audit
We hate to follow up the chapter on taxes with a chapter on audits, but this is a very different kind of audit. The post-event audit helps you solidify your lessons learned for next year.
Numbers don’t lie. Your best lessons will come from reviewing event data, and then forming explanations for metrics that surprised you. You’ll also be able to measure your success year over year to determine the efficacy of new initiatives.
- Total revenue
- Total expenses*
- Revenue to expenses ratio
- Break down metrics by each revenue stream
Pro Tip: Include volunteers’ time in your expense calculations by allocating $10/hour. This represents other ways you could’ve used volunteer time, perhaps not related to your event.
- # tickets sold
- # attendees
- # attendees who gave
- Top 20 donors
- Break down metrics by each ticket level
- Silent auction item yield (winning bid divided by retail value)
- Live auction item yield
- Top performing silent auction items
- Top performing live auction items
- Top performing item categories
- Donors at each giving level
- Lead gifts & matching gifts
- Longest registration line
- Longest checkout line
- People who left early
- Qualitative observations of guest engagement
The goal of the recap meeting is to uncover additional opportunities for improvement not reflected in the data, as well as form explanations for surprising findings during data analysis.
Your committee should meet for the recap meeting as soon after the event as possible, while your fundraiser is fresh in everyone’s minds.
Some topics to discuss:
- Guest Experience (e.g., Were there long lines?)
- Audio Visual
- Silent Auction Display & Flow
- Sticking to the Schedule
- Guest Sentiment (e.g., What comments were overheard?)
- Committee Performance
In your thank you emails to attendees, request feedback on your event either by email or a survey link. Even if you don’t get many responses, your attendees will appreciate the opportunity to give their input.
On any thank you calls, have a keen ear for opportunities for improvement as well.
The next year, when you listen to your donors’ suggestions, give the donor credit for their idea. They will appreciate that you listened and will be forthcoming with additional feedback.
Additional Reading: It’s common among PTAs to hand off next year’s auction to an entirely new committee. Communicating your lessons learned is critical to their success. Check out our previous post: Break the One-year Planning Cycle for Your Fundraiser
Chapter 23: Donor Retention
Your inspirational event laid the groundwork to turn your attendees into a sustaining donors. The event follow-up can go a long way toward “sealing the deal.”
A common way to express your gratitude is through thank you letters. Ideally, the letters are hand-written (especially for big donors) though email may be required for larger events. Personalize your letters and give a clear call to action for more ways to be involved. Your letter will stand out, retain the reader’s attention, and compel them to act.
Here are some examples of letters to send attendees and ways to personalize them:
|Email topic||How to personalize|
|Thank you note for making the event a success||-Add a photo (or link) of the recipient, or tag photos in a photo directory so they can easily find themselves.
-Have the "sender" be a volunteer or beneficiary who spoke to the donor at the event. Hand-write the note for bonus points.
-Acknowledge specifically what they contributed (ticket purchase vs. winning bid vs. table sponsorship, etc...).
|Sharing a story that illustrates your mission||-Send first-time attendees a story focused on why your cause is worth supporting, but send "heavy hitters" a story that shows their continued support has made a difference. Hint: It can be the same story told in different ways.|
|Invitation to another event that showcases your mission in action||-Segment your programming by target age and commitment level. Send the right invitations to the right people.|
|Appeal for donation or other contribution||-Ask repeat donors to renew their membership, but think creatively about how to engage people who may not have discretionary money. Remember, your goal is lifetime donations!
-Some alternative appeals: volunteer, tell friends & family about us, sign a petition, subscribe to our blog, follow on social media.
In addition to the articles linked within the article, we want to acknowledge the following books which were invaluable to putting together this guide:
- The Big Book of Benefit Auctions by Jay R. Fiske and Corinne A. Fisk (learn more)
- A Higher Bid: How to Transform Special Event Fundraising with Strategic Benefit Auctions by Kathy Kingston (learn more)
Let’s Hear From You
We hope you found this guide helpful. Now we’d like to hear what you have to say:
- Which chapter was the most helpful?
- Which section do you want to read more about?
- Do you have any tips that weren’t included?
Let us know by leaving a comment below.