Surprises and Fundraising Do Not Mix

Surprises and Fundraising Do Not Mix

Culturally, we love surprises. The surprise birthday party is considered the greatest of celebrations. A surprise ending to a novel or movie is heralded as excellent fiction. A larger-than-expected return from the IRS is like manna from heaven. So it makes sense that donors and event planners often try to use surprise to their advantage in the midst of a fundraising auction.

I’ve seen it happen too many times to count: a donor leaps onstage in the middle of their lot being sold, and attempts to add more components to their lot in an attempt to increase the bidding. Or an auction chair who chooses not to print details of the Fund-a-Need in the catalog, believing that the crowd will simply “react in the moment” with their heartfelt support. Sometimes these surprises will yield better results, but more often than not they will fail. Our job as fundraising auctioneers is to get people caught up in an emotional moment and encourage them to spend or pledge as much as they are willing in support of a charity.

That emotional moment is, however, preceded by a logical decision. Bidders make up their mind about an auction lot before I begin trying to sell it: usually before the auction or during my pitch for the lot. They look over the details for the lot, and decide how much they are willing to spend on it. If the lot does not appeal to them, they don’t bid anything at all, and usually turn to their friends and continue their conversation. The act of adding on to the lot mid-bidding is meant to entice people who have already tuned-out: they are un-enticeable.  Changing a lot mid-bidding is also meant to encourage bidders to recalibrate what the lot is worth to them, on the fly.

Donors usually choose to do this add on once the bidding has started to slow, in the hopes that it will pick the pace of the bidding back up again. Instead, what usually happens is that they spend a good 30 seconds telling everyone exactly how much more they are willing to now do, and it results in no additional bids. Maybe one additional bid. The solution is to get the donor to agree to come up on stage at the beginning of the lot, and announce all of these changes before the bidding begins. It makes them look better, and it yields better results.

Likewise, the decision to keep the details of a Fund-a-Need out of the catalog and secret until the night-of an event yields similarly poor results. Donors need time in advance to decide if the Fund-a-Need is going towards something they believe in, and if so, they then need to decide how much to donate. Once they have reached that logical decision in advance of the actual Fund-a-Need it is possible to get them caught up in an emotional moment and have them pledge more. But first you need their buy-in, in advance.

There is no logical reason to keep a Fund-a-Need secret from the crowd you hope to fund it. Pre-event messaging is key to getting bidders in the room prepared to support a cause. No better messaging exists than telling people how they can change the world for the better by simply giving you money when they come to your event. It means you have to figure out your message in advance, and then communicate it clearly. It means you have to engage your bidders in advance of your auction and discuss what you hope to raise money for to get their commitments in advance. It means you cannot rely on the heat of the moment to convince a group of people to go from zero to $1,000 each. But you can get a group of people to go from $500 to $1,000 each – especially with challenge grants.

Challenge grants are the one exception to this rule. It is fine to surprise a crowd with a challenge grant, because the goal of a challenge grant is to get people to give more than they intended – not to give where they hadn’t intended to.

So the next time you have a donor who is tempted to change their auction lot mid-bidding, encourage them to simply be up front with their addition. If need be, remind them that there are bad surprises in life, too: like finding out that you owe the IRS more than your accountant told you. And it is always better to manage expectations up front – when it has the chance to positively impact results.


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