Benefit auctions: establishing your base

By James Myers, contributor

Traditional auctions are based on an item or items that someone wants to sell, and the auction is built around those items. Benefit auctions are an entirely different beast. There is no original item, just an idea: the goal to fund a charity or need. From building up a client base to planning how the auction will play out, the process can be quite different than for any other type of auction.

Janelle Taylor, CAI, TIF, is better known to some as the Gala Gal. She’s made a name for herself in benefit auction industry since getting into it in 2002. She’s invested hundreds of hours consulting and put together hundreds of galas and charity events. She’s even written a book on the topic – Auction! The 98 Solutions to Every Charity Auction Challenge.

Getting that solid list of regulars who count on you to perform their annual auction year after year is the ultimate goal, but how can you get there? There are basically two ways to find them: you can let them find you (inbound) or you find them (outbound).

“If you’re sitting by the phone waiting for someone to look for you, you’re at the mercy of Google,” she said, adding that building up a social media marketing campaign and optimal website can take a long time, and even then, you’re going to be one of several auctioneers getting high hits on search.

Despite the competition, Taylor recommends that if you’re doing auctions other than benefit and you really want to push your benefit side of the business, focus your website solely on your auction work.

“If I have an event once a year,” Taylor began, “do I want someone who does all kinds of auctions or do I want to trust my event to a person who does (benefits) only. Your web presence says I’m serious about this.”

Taylor said you don’t have to wait for your phone to ring – you can do the calling yourself. Utilizing an online resource called GuideStar, which is one of the most complete and up-to-date nonprofit data resources, auctioneers can identify prospective clients, city by city. You can see their budgets and professional fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, the database doesn’t tell you who is doing live auctions, which means you’ve got to do some Google searches to narrow them down and make inquiries about whether or not they’ve secured a professional auctioneer for their next big event.

“People get all freaked out cold calling nonprofits,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to. The #1 rule is – don’t think of it as a sales call; it is simply a service call – it’s just investigating your market.”

Taylor says when calling these nonprofits; ask them if they are under contract with another auctioneer or if they are accepting proposals. If they’re under contract, just tell them “that’s awesome” and that you’re glad they’re working with a professional auctioneer.

“That’s all we want is for all the nonprofits to get the best help,” she said. “’We wish you every success. Can I send you a follow up email so you have my contact information in case you ever get into a jam?’”

When you do land a potential client, Taylor said to ask open-ended questions to ensure you’re the right auctioneer for them and they’re the right client for you. The question they’re going to ask you pretty quickly is, “how much do you charge?” Taylor said your answer should be, “what’s in your budget?”

If you normally charge $750 for your services, don’t immediately shut them down if they offer you less – there are many ways for you to get paid without it costing the nonprofit anything, such as bringing in your own items for a silent auction. If they have much more in their budget for the auctioneer than you normally get, don’t immediately take the job, because it could be more than you’re willing to do, such as 10 months of consulting and attending every committee meeting they have.

“The first thing you need to find out is ‘what did you get for that?‘” she said of questioning the nonprofit about what auctioneers did for them in the past. “You aren’t the best match for every client. You are the best match for clients you can provide the best solutions for.”

Check out Taylor’s NAA Conference & Show session where she goes into detail about pre-qualifying clients, envisioning the event, working with committees, helping to get better items for the auction, visiting the venue, live auction planning and new approaches to fund-a-need portions of the event.