February Frenzy

Determining Donation Levels for your Fundraising Appeal and Securing a Momentum Donor

Fund-A-Need Basics: How to determine your donation levels and secure a momentum donor for your fundraising appeal | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

Determining Donation Levels for your Fundraising appeal.

First, you need to decide how many donation levels to have. There are a couple amazing mobile technology companies I get the pleasure of working with, but there is one called Auction Harmony based in Minneapolis who I think just has the most beautiful donation display on their Kindle Fire Tablets. There are 9 spaces. That is for 8 donation levels and one "other" section. This is a great rule to follow whether or not you are using technology for your fundraising appeal.  

So how do you determine your levels?

The first way, is by assessing who you have on your guest list and determining their donation levels.

If your organization has never received a donation over $5,000, you are not going to want to start your initial donation at $20,000. Does that make sense?

Securing a momentum donor 

You are going to want to identify a few donors who have potential to be your highest level donors and approach them about being momentum donors during your fundraising appeal

If this is not your first fundraising event, you can probably get by with looking only at the records from previous events. Who has given a large amount in the past? These would be the first people I would talk to. However, you are also going to want to consider donors who gave at other times throughout the year, because they clearly care about your organization, and you could provide them with an opportunity to inspire others to give by being a momentum donor. 

I understand how hard these conversations can be to initiate, but trust me when I say it is worth it and you will probably want to queue your major gifts officer in on this because they are skilled at having these conversations. You will want to thank the donor for their previous contribution. Then you will want to make sure they are planning to attend your event and explain the amazing project your guests get to fund at this year's event. Explain that you are going to fund it in one evening, and that it's going to be exciting and create a ton of energy, and ask them if they would want to be the hero to set the tone for the evening. Be transparent about your goal and include them in on the strategy and how impactful a momentum donor can be. It is so exciting for the audience to see that first hand go in the air quick which sets an expectation and excitement over generosity. This donor has the unique position to be able to create that, if they an commit to giving at a specific level that you decide with them in the meeting. Then it is important to ask if they would like to be recognized by name and make sure you communicate that to your auctioneer in advance as well as tell them exactly where the donor is sitting so they recognize it when the hand goes up! 

Frame this as an opportunity to start something amazing. Because you are reaching out to donors who have given in the past, your success rate should be fairly high. 

After you've had a couple of these conversations and have determined what the highest amount someone has committed to in advance, that is a good place to start. Hopefully you have a couple of people at the first couple of donation levels to get the show started. Once other potential high level donors see the applause and energy around this donation, it is likely you will receive a match at these levels.

Say your highest commitment is $10,000, I would recommend making that your highest level. Then go down 7 more levels after that: 


The reason, you ideally want to start where you have a committed donor is because when you start too high and have no donors, it kills momentum, which kills energy which discourages giving in other levels.

Fund-A-Need Basics: How to determine your donation levels and secure a "momentum donor" for your fundraising appeal | Sarah Knox Fundraising Benefit Charity Auctions

The fundraising appeal is a momentum game.

Every part of your program should be strategically leading up to this point of engagement, then BOOM! You get a donor right away and it is a domino effect. More hands fly in the air or everyone whips out their phones to secure their donation and see their name on the screen. 

If you don't have a starting momentum donor and have no idea where to start, try starting at 10-20% of your total goal and break it down from there, again I highly encourage you to brave these conversations. They may feel uncomfortable, but focus on the donor and it will take the pressure off you and make it more exciting for them to commit. You will be so glad you did this!

This should give you a good start on determining donation levels for a profitable fundraising appeal. If you have any additional questions, please share them below. I would love to answer them. 

How to Pick a "Need" For your Fundraising Appeal

How to pick a need for your Fundraising Appeal at your fundraising gala | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

Today we are going to cover How to Pick a "Need" for your fundraising appeal

This is often why we call it a "Fund-A-Need" at events. 

First, let me do a super brief history of the fund-a-need: 

Once upon a time, people had fancy pants galas and they brought in an auctioneer with a cowboy hat and bow tie who looked sharp as hell who sold 10-12 auction items. This meant 10-12 people got to be donors for the evening, and the other 478 people were chumps who just got to eat a chicken dinner and enjoy the open bar. Then one day, the auctioneers said, "hey, we're missing out on some money here, because the losing bidders still have some cash in their pockets." So after their auction, they would say something like, "hey, if you didn't win anything, you can still give money." And the fund-a-need was born. Fast forward 10-15ish years, the fund-a-need is the bread and butter of every event.  

Now, you should also know MY personal fundraising philosophy.

I believe that every single person wants to feel impactful. They want to know that at the end of their life, their existence made a lasting difference in our world. I believe it is our job as fundraisers to give them that opportunity. The opportunity to make a meaningful difference. When we begin to look at fundraising through this lense, it becomes just as important as the work you do directly through your organization, because it allows us not only to serve the people (or animals, or environment, or whatever it is you serve), but it also allows us to serve your donors, but giving them a genuine opportunity to make a meaningful difference.

With that in mind, why should you pick a "need" in the first place? Why can't you just raise "as much money as you can" towards your general fund? 

This is a great question that I get all of the time. So let me address it.  

Your guests are more likely to give if they can tangibly understand who or what they are helping. You may do great and amazing world-changing work, but if your guests do not understand what they are funding, they will not give. It's that simple.  

Let's simplify it for them so they don't have to think about it. All they have to do is raise their hand. 

Select a "need" that is inspirational.

If you can make them cry, that's perfect. Inspirational may seem obvious, but it is a key characteristic to conducting a successful fund-a-need. If your need, isn't that "sexy" try looking at it from a different angle. I had a client two years ago, who had to build a bathroom facility in a Haitian Village they serve. Toilets are definitely not sexy, but rather than focusing on all of that crap, we focused on human dignity. We focused on the jobs it would create to build these bathrooms. They shared stories of what it was like to go to the bathroom in that village. Using a toilet in private is something we all take for granted here in the US, but they showed their audience that they could provide a sense of dignity to the people of Haiti. Because of this inspirational take on the least sexy subject ever, they were able to build the bathrooms. And when the hurricane hit the following fall, it was the only facility left standing, which was a testament to the heart and quality they put in to this project, which made it even easier the following year when we had to rebuild the dormitories for this community.

Fund-A-Need Basics: How to pick a "need" for your fundraising appeal at your charity auction. Connect better with donors by finding a need that meets this criteria

Give them a "need" that is financially transparent.

They should understand where their money is going and that it is going to directly impact lives or make this world the kind of place they want to live in. The majority of your guests have a limited amount of resources. If this is not you, you are #blessed. But for most nonprofits, you know that charitable giving is competitive, and you have to prove to your guests that you are going to use their funds wisely.  I'll use the potty example again. This organization is 100% volunteer run out of someone's home, so they were able to share that. The donors knew that all of their money would be an act of love as they provided a sense of dignity to this Haitian Community. You are probably not a volunteer-run organization and that's okay, because you are able to commit more time and energy to the work you do. I encourage you to find a project or a need that will use 100% of their gift towards affecting change or solving a problem. Then reassure them that their money will be going directly to this project. It doesn't take much here other than something like, "100% of the money you give tonight will go directly to fund scholarships for young women in the Congo." And then follow up with them with updates about the young women they impacted. This is their reminder that they did well and that their contribution made a difference.

Your "Need" should be achievable.

This means that you need to fund it in completion that evening. Assuming the number of attendees you plan to have stays the same year over year, shoot for a project that is approximately 10-20% more than you raised last year. I will circle back to the bathroom example. They decided to fund it by breaking down the costs of the facility. I don't always recommend it, but with building projects it makes the giving super tangible. The frame and roof will cost $10,000, the labor will cost $5000, the sheetrock will cost $2500, the tile costs $1,000, a toilet costs $100, etc. For this group, since they did not have a "momentum donor" which I will talk more about in detail next week, I would try to find 10 people to fund the frame and roof at $1000 a piece and go from there. It works for this group. What I would generally recommend is being clear about the cost of the project as a whole and starting higher at $5,000 and go all the way down to $25 explaining that $25 will fund a day of work for one person, so that those $25 donors know how impactful their donation is.

I bet you didn't think I'd use a bathroom project as a good "need" to select. I'd love to hear what you have funded in the past! Let me know in the comments. Also, if you are working on framing your fundraising appeal right now and are trying to decide which way to go, share that and we can work as a community to give you feedback and ideas! It's all about how to inspire your donors this year! 

2 questions to ask before you put an item on the Live Auction

2 questions you need to ask before you put an item on the live auction | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

I want to introduce the 2 questions you need to ask before you place an item on the live auction.

Hopefully you have gone through my posts from last week featuring how many Live Auction Items you should have, the 5 live auction items you should look for and mission-centered live auction items. Now, once you have identified items that would be great options for the live auction, there are 2 questions I want you to ask yourself:

1. Is this item exclusive?

Meaning could your guests get this item anywhere else?  

This is honestly one of the biggest issues I see with selling vacations on the Live Auction. Most vacation packages offered are nothing special. With the internet, most people can easily curate their own dream vacations for way less money than the "estimated value" of the trips on the auction. 

Make sure the items on your live auction have a sense of exlusivity because that will encourage quick and competative bidding. They need to know that they have to raise their hand to bid or they will actually miss out on this item.  This is why meal experiences tend to be some of the highest selling items.

If you are worrying about having the right connections to obtain "exlusive" live auction items, refer to my post on mission-centered Live Auction items to find some inspiration. I passionately believe that most "exlusive" items are the ones that will cost you nothing to obtain. I'll get into my beef with consignment live auction items another day, but just know that I'm not a huge supporter.

2. Does this item have a broad appeal? 

Does this item interest many people in your audience?  

Technically, you only need 2 people in your audience interested in your items to make it an auction, but the more you have the faster and higher those bids go up.  

This is important for a couple reasons

It creates competitive bidding

The more people that the item appeals to, the more people will bid. It's as easy as that. Supply and demand.  

It keeps more people engaged

If you have been following me for a while, you know how I love to use the live auction to build momentum up to the Fund-A-Need, and if you can curate a live auction lineup that appeals to as many people as possible in your audience, the more effective you will be at engaging your guests and building that momentum.

When the answer is "yes" 

If you create a live auction lineup that is both exclusive and has a broad appeal, you will see record breaking numbers in your live auction. This is a simple but effective tool that will increase revenue at your fundraising event.

2 questions you need to ask before you put an item on the live auction | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

Mission Centered Auction Items

Mission-centered live auction items are great because they will remind your gala guests about the amazing work your organization does and they will raise a ton of money. | Sarah Knox: Fun female auctioneer for fundraising, benefit and charity events

Today, I am going to cover one of my favorite things to talk about: Mission-centered Live Auction Items.

What is a mission-centered live auction item?

A mission-centered live auction items is an item that you curate through your organization that represents the work you do. 

Why are these items important? 

Integrating Mission-Centered items into your live auction, creates momentum around the work you do. The live auction can get a little off track from your mission. As an auctioneer, I have phrases and tools to remind people about the purpose of the night, but I have yet to find a tool as powerful as adding in one or two (or 5) mission-centered items into the live auction.

Also, if you've build meaningful connections with many of the guests in your room, they are interested in the work that you do and these items have a broad appeal, meaning that there are a lot of people in your audience who will likely be willing to bid on them. This bids the price up, raising you a lot of money.

This is a great opportunity for you to show off some lesser known areas of your organization. I know that you have so many different programs going on within your organization, but your guests may not know that. This is an opportunity to talk them up and support them in a festive way.

BONUS: Usually these items cost you absolutely nothing to pull together, but they tend to cultivate competitive bidding and raise a ton of money.

Here are some examples of Mission-Centered items I've sold:

VIP High School Theater Experience

I loved this one! This was for a local high school. We were doing an auction for their performing arts programs and only had 4 live auction items, so they needed to ensure they picked items that would sell competitively. For this item they sold:

  • 2 Front row tickets to their annual HIGH SCHOOL musical
  • They provided valet parking
  • They recruited a well loved local restaurant to not only donate a dinner, but also provide them with a reservation so they could make the show on time. This may not seem like a big deal, but to this community it was a HUGE gesture because this restaurant is a neighborhood favorite and NEVER takes reservations.

This was such a fun one to sell. It cost the school $14 total (the opportunity cost of 2 tickets), but raised a whopping $2,100! Every single person in the crowd was there to support the high school's performing arts program, so it started off with a lot of competitive bidding due to it's broad appeal. Then it was able to sell high for it's exclusive experiences, including valet parking (important at a school where there is primarily limited street parking available) and the dinner reservation.

Sponsor a refugee business idea

I work with an international refugee relief organization who ran with the idea to have an entirely mission-centered live auction (which paid off so well), but I am just going to share one of their items. 

They work with a refugee camp and one of their ideas to improve the lives of the refugees was to ask the youth/young adults to share an idea that would serve the people around them. They received 800 ideas from young adults in this camp alone, flooding them with ideas for businesses and ways to bring joy to the people in their communities. For their auction, they selected 3 ideas and gave their guests the opportunity to sponsor them.

  • One person wanted to start a poultry farm so they could provide a larger variety of food and train others to make a living off raising live stock
  • Another person wanted to open a salon where they could train other young adults to make a living as a stylist and then go forward and provide a service to the people in the camp that will make them feel beautiful
  • The last idea was a language center so young adults could come together and teach each other their languages so that they could have the best opportunities for success

Each of these ideas were going to cost between $500-$800 to fund and make happen, so the organization was hoping to see them sell for $1,000 a piece. I sold this "auction chicken" style where I had everyone stand up and bid $0, then raised it to $25, $50, $100, $200 up to $1,000 where there were still about 30 people standing in the room. We kept going until there were only 3 people standing. Each opportunity selling for $5,000. We raised $15,000 in 5 minutes without a physical item. It was all about helping these young adults make their community a more joyful and beautiful place.

Private Facility Tour

I've mentioned before my work with The Wildcat Sanctuary. I like to reference them because put on a very mission-centered gala that has so much energy and support for the work they do. Their facility is not open to the public because that is what they believe is best for the animals they rescue, so at their auction they had several different items revolving around a private tour of the facility and their opportunity to see the cats up close

One of the opportunities was to tour their sanctuary in the winter when it is covered in a gorgeous blanket of snow and enjoy a beautiful dinner with a couple friends. Then you would get to watch one of their White Tigers paint a picture with their beautiful paws which the winner would get to keep.

I believe this item sold for $1,600, but then they offered two more opportunities, which trippled their revenue on this item to $4,800. Nearly $5,000 for an item that cost them close to nothing to offer! 

This is why I am so passionate about these items!

You do such amazing work and when I work with my clients, I just want to scream their efforts from the mountain tops, or in my case, the stage. These items give me this opportunity! You would be surprised how generous your guests can be. They want to know their donation is making a difference and this is the perfect way to provide them that opportunity.

Mission-centered live auction items are great because they will remind your gala guests about the amazing work your organization does and they will raise a ton of money. | Sarah Knox: Fun female auctioneer for fundraising, benefit and charity events

How to come up with mission-centered items?

Visit this post and as you go through each question, ask yourself "how can I find an experience within my organization that fits in this category?" This will help you brainstorm so many items. 

The 5 Items You Need on Your Live Auction

5 items you need on the live auction at your fundraising gala | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

It's important that your Live Auction has variety

If your live auction is all trips, they will not sell well. If you have 6 trips, it is unlikely there are 7-12 people in that audience who want them enough to bid them up. It's basic supply and demand. Not to mention it gets super boring for everyone involved

Here are the 5 items you should include in your live auction (in order of importance) 

1. Unique Experience

This is something they can't get anywhere else. This is super important for any crowd, but especially if you are hosting an auction for millennials because research shows (and in my experience), they are more likely to bid on an experience than on a physical item. The great part of this is that most of the experiences you can offer, require creativity and not money to produce. A couple examples that I have sold are: 

Sleepover/Lock-in at the Children's Museum. Opportunity to conduct the professional Orchestra. Unlimited access to 30+ collector cars for an entire summer. A tour of Jay Leno's private garage. Tour of a Private Wildcat Sanctuary. The opportunity to fund a refugee business. Beekeeper for a day.

2. Dining Experience

These sell so so well! People love great dining experiences. Usually the actual retail value of these are under a thousand, but they usually sell for several thousand dollars. 

You can approach this several ways. 

A Chef dinner in-restaurant experience. This is really amazing if you have a new and hot restaurant that has been getting rave reviews and reservations are hard to come by. A Chef dinner for 8-12 with wine pairings. This should a special menu created for this experience, interactions with the chef and be a very special experience. I have sold several where the guests would be in the kitchen or the wine cellar for the meal. This is a several thousand dollar item

Dinner in a prominent person's home. This experience would be if your founder or a public figure wanted to host a dinner party in their home. They could cook themselves or bring in a chef of some sort to their home. Guests love getting quality time with people who are usually quite hard to get an audience with.  

Dinner Party in the winner's home with a personal chef. This is where a chef (professional or a passionate amateur) would come to the winners home with all the food and prepare a meal for 8-12, including adult beverages, and then they would clean up. I have seen this go for thousands of dollars at small events where a teacher or board member is the chef for the night. It doesn't need to be a professional. It just needs to be a likable personality who can cook a good meal.

5 items you need on the live auction at your fundraising gala. You MUST read this before securing live auction items for your fundraiser! | Sarah Knox Fundraising Event Auctioneer

3. Trip

This could be a local trip or a fabulous dream destination. Either way, people love a get-a-way. Truth be told, local trips have been selling much better over the past couple of years. I'm based in Minneapolis and it is not uncommon for a cabin on the North Shore for a weekend to sell for more than a week long trip at a luxury villa in Mexico. 

Donated airfare is hard to come by these days, so don't let that hold you back from putting up a great trip. In my experience, the airfare doesn't bring much more revenue to an item, so go ahead and sell the trip without airfare.

My only rules for selling trips:

Must have open availability or at least flexible availability. Meaning, it is available for more than just one week out of the year. 

No Time Shares.  This falls in the same spirit as the first rule, but also they are just a pain in the neck to coordinate. No one wants to buy your timeshare. It's not a good donation. Just don't do it.

4. Sports Experience

This could be a wide variety of things. Great seats to a highly anticipated game. Meet and greet with players. If you received a ton of random sports tickets, you could package them all together in a "Year of Minnesota Sports" package. If you have signed items, make sure they are from athletes people care about. Michael Phelps signed photo = Great! A B-String Athlete who no one has ever heard of = Bad.

5. Alcohol Experience

This usually hits a broad appeal. This can also tie in with the meal experience. Brewing or winemaking experiences are fun. I've also sold many "Walls of Wine" where the board members and liquor stores all come together and donate a bottle of wine and you can sell it as a collection to the winning bidder. It offers a broad appeal which makes this a good item to start or end the Live Auction with.

DISCLAIMER: If your organization has any affiliation with addiction or you are a religious organization that does not condone alcohol consumption, this item is NOT for your group. There are so many more amazing items you can add to your live auction to ensure it is varied and engaging without including an alcohol-related item.

What do you think?

How does your current Live Auction line up compare? 

I hope this gets your juices flowing so that you can be ready for brainstorming some great ideas for your event!