Hold that auction!

Hold that auction!

One of the events I had the privlege of working with last year was Web 2.0 Summit, put on by O’Reilly Media and techweb in the first week of November.  2008 marked the fifth Web 2.0 Summit, and the first time that they opted to do any sort of fundraising in conjunction with the conference.

The decision to hold an auction benefiting technology-related charities was made just a few months before the event. And while the connection between the conference and philanthropy seemed straight forward, no one was sure how it would fly with attendees–especially given the economic turmoil at that time.

We held an auction on the first night of the conference, at the end of a dinner which followed the keynote address. There were a number of logistical challenges: we had to move the entire crowd from one room to another between the entree and the dessert course; we started the auction immediately after a 45-minute onstage interview of Lance Armstrong; the number of lots was limited; and the fund a need was being split amongst all three charities.

When the dust settled, we’d raised over $75,000 on just eight lots and a fund a need. Not a record-setting auction but definitely life changing for any of the individuals served by those charities. And definitely a success given the lead-time we had to plan and implement the auction.

I was surprised in our follow-up meeting when I found out that they were debating whether or not to hold the auction again. Some said that the amount of time it took to plan and implement was simply too great. Others felt like it had been a success worth doing better. I had one simple question: other than staff time, what did the auction cost the conference? In other words, did attendees spend less money elsewhere at the conference because of their involvement in the auction?

Answer: no. Other than the planning and implementation, the auction cost the conference nothing. It cost Tim O’Reilly some money because of his personal support of the fund a need, but beyond that it didn’t affect the conference.

To which my response was hold that auction! Do it! Not because I want the work, but because it is incumbent upon them to continue to make the world a better place, now that they know they can.

There are many ways that Web 2.0 Summit, O’Reilly and techweb could get better mileage out of the auction and, in turn, make the staff time expenditure on their end more worth it. They could have had Al Gore present the check from the auction to the CEO of one of the charities at his speech on Friday. They could use video-blog updates to show how Web 2.0 Summit’s auction continues to impact people’s lives throughout the year. And while all of that is important, it’s not the point.

The potential of any given crowd of people has a finite lifespan: If you do not capitalize upon it at that very moment, it dissipates. Completely. The Web 2.0 Summit auction proved that they have a roomful of attendees who are capable of changing many lives, and readily willing to do so. If they forgo their auction in 2009, they effectively send all of that philanthropic potential away with no guarantee that anyone else will ever be able to make good use of it.

If the question you are wrestling with in 2009 is whether or not to hold your auction, answer me this: what lives does your event change, and who will change them if you don’t?

One Comment

  • January 11, 2009 at 5:57 pm · Reply


    You make several great points. The most important one is the last. Fund Raising auctions are the fuel that makes change possible. Once you eliminate the opportunity for donors to assemble, have a great dinner in a fun environment, and
    experience the feeling only giving can create, the chance to build a better world for those not as lucky as us goes away.

    Thank you for your important thoughts.

    Redmond, WA

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