How many live auction items should you have at your fundraising auction?

Ever wonder how many live auction items you should have at your fundraiser? This many | Sarah Knox Fundraising Auctioneer

Today, I want to focus on something easy. I am often asked how many live auction items you should have in your live auction. 

In the past, auctioneers recommended having 8-12 auction items, but over the past couple years the intrigue of the live auction has faded and with the rise of the Fund-A-Need, it has become the primary source of revenue for most of my clients. 

The number of Live Auction items I recommend having in your Live Auction:



Because your guests don't have the attention span for any more than that.  

I have found that after 6 items, you begin to lose your audience's attention. You may engage the few people interested in those last items on your list, but other than that your guests are tapped out. 

Why this is important? 

For most of my clients, the Fund-A-Need is conducted after the live auction. And you want everything in your program to support your Fund-A-Need. Sometimes it is even more profitable to have the Fund-A-Need before the Live Auction, which is a topic for another day. For today, I want to focus on how the live auction can build momentum up to the Fund-A-Need.

What's the big deal about the fund-a-need? 

The fund-a-need is where most of my clients bring in the majority of their revenue. It is when they can involve everyone in the audience and welcome them to join in on the incredible work their organization does. If you want to learn more about that, please watch my videos from last week and the week before to get a very thorough overview of how to have a profitable fund-a-need.  

You actually lose money by having too many live auction items

You do not want the live auction to run too long because it will only engage a small percentage of your audience, and the rest of your crowd will eventually tune out and you will have lost their attention for the Fund-A-Need where they are mostly likely to give.

While I make sure my live auctions are fun and exciting and that everyone is in on the fun by making jokes and playing with the audience, after a while it becomes a lot of the same. You do not want your auctioneer to take away from the work your organization does.  

By including 4-6 live auction items in your program you will: 

Cultivate Competative Bidding

By having fewer items in your live auction (this is actually true of your silent auction too), the few items you have will go for more than they would have if you had more items in play. I have many clients who cut their live auctions in half and made the same amount of revenue (if not more) in the live auction and made even more in the Fund-A-Need. 

Create Momentum

This is a stop while you are ahead mentality. The live auction is fun and exciting and I get everyone laughing and playing along. You want to stop at the height of your energy and conduct the fundraising appeal or Fund-A-Need. People become swept up in the energy and are ready to give at this time. 

Build Trust

This is probably the strongest argument for having the live auction before the Fund-A-Need (again, you do not have to do it this way). As the auctioneer, I am an outsider. Your audience does not know me, and therefore they don't trust me. I have no credibility with them at the beginning of an event and therefore no authority to ask them to give money. After about four or five live auction items, we've gotten to know each other pretty well. I approach every auction with authenticity and quickly build a rapport with my audience. This means when it is time to do the ask, they trust and respect me and are more comfortable opening up their pocketbooks when I tell them to. 

Ever wonder how many live auction items you should have at your fundraiser? This many | Sarah Knox Fundraising Auctioneer



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! 

How To Have A Successful Fundraising Gala Without Planning an Auction

Did you know this is possible? I know, it pains me to say it as an auctioneer, but you can have a successful Fundraising Gala without having any auction. I know what you are thinking! Surely, she can't mean NO auction. She must be talking about Silent Auctions. Nope. I mean NO auctions. No silent auction. No Live Auction. You can just have a Fund-A-Need (sometimes called a special appeal/cash auction/giving moment) and have a very successful gala.

When auctioneers started conducting Fund-A-Needs, it was because they noticed that after their live auction of 8-12 items, there were some bidders who bid thousands of dollars, but because they didn't win the auction item, that money was lost. So instead of losing that revenue, they would do a catch all ask to try to capture that money from donors. 

Fast forward 10 years.

Now, the Fundraising Appeal/Fund-A-Need portion is the highest revenue generator for most of my events. In fact, I have clients that don't have an auction at all, they just have a Fund-A-Need and it is wildly successful. 

With the right strategic preparation and planning, your organization can have a Fund-A-Need or Special Appeal that will engage the majority of your audience and allow them to partner financially with your organization in the amazing work that you are doing. 

How to make your Fund-A-Need successful: 

1. Pick a specific need within your organization

This is important because it helps you set a specific goal for your fund-a-need and it allows your guests to have something tangible that their funds will be going towards.   I know your organization does many wonderful things to further your mission, but your donors want to be inspired and given a specific way that they can help your organization. 

2. Work your program around the need you are addressing that night

I am a fan of keeping programs short and sweet, but making sure every minute of the program is focused and intentional so that you can keep your guests' attention the entire time and ensure that they are fully engaged when we present the Fund-A-Need.

A program formula I like is:

  1. Welcome (by emcee, president or board chair)  2-5 minutes
  2. Brief Overview of Organization and Mission for new guests 2-5 minutes
  3. Brief overview of what has been accomplished in the past because of the donors in the room and an introduction of what is next for your organization (the need of the night)  10 minutes
  4. Brief Testimonial of someone your organization has helped  (ideally a video testimonial so you can control the time and the attention of the audience) 2-5 minutes
  5. Fund-A-Need/Special Appeal by auctioneer 10-15 minutes
  6. Thank you to all the donors in the room and the specific Sponsors by President/Executive Director/Board Chair/Etc 10 minutes
  7. Entertainment/Raffles/Housekeeping Announcements

This all takes less than an hour and you should start the program as soon as the salad is cleared so that people can eat dinner while listening. If people are eating, they won't be as tempted to talk to those around them and you will have their full attention

Every event and organization is different, so this formula is just a guide to get you started. Schedule a consultation with me to discuss how you need to order your program for optimal success. 

3. Tell a story behind your need

Storytelling in nonprofits is widely talked about these days. We all (hopefully) know that storytelling is important and that is because stories emotionally engage potential donors. 


If you are raising money for medical research, don't bore your guests with statistics and science. While, I think that stuff is super interesting, it takes a lot of energy to listen to and process. Instead, tell a story about someone everyone in your audience can relate to. Perhaps a mother, or a child. A story humanize the need which inspires action.

If your school is raising money for technology, don't talk about the apps and programs (no one cares or understands), instead talk about the teacher who was able to make a breakthrough with a struggling student because she integrated technology into her lesson plan. Every parent can remember a time when their student struggled with something and would give anything to help them get it. 

Brainstorm this. There are so many great resources on nonprofit storytelling. As a part of my tailored consultation, I can help you decide what stories will make the biggest impact on your Fund-A-Need. 

4. Inform your donors before the event

Some of the most successful Fund-A-Needs I've conducted have engaged the donors before the event. The invitation featured a story of someone impacted by their organization (specifically the cause at hand). Their email reminders had another success story. They shared videos on their social media feeds. So when the donors showed up that night, it was not their first time being exposed to the need or the organization's capabilities. They had been courted and prepped and were ready to be invited to partner in helping with the organization's mission. 

If you want to see if dropping your auction is the right choice for your fundraising gala or you want your event to be more focused and engaging in general, schedule a Call with me. 

Biggest Fundraising Auction Trend of 2016

What is the biggest trend?

The biggest trend I've encouraged this year has been (drumroll please)...

Fewer live auction items.

What's happening?

For years I've been consulting my clients that that the sweet spot for number of items in a live auction has been 6-12. Usually organizations have fallen closer to 10-12 items, but this year I've changed my tune. While up to 12 live auction items may have been beneficial for raising money in the past, now the donor climate is changing.  

Over the past several years, we've seen a rise in the success of conducting a Fund-A-Need at each event. The Fund-A-Need is a sort of live crowdfunding where everyone in the room gets the opportunity to make a difference by giving what they can. Usually (not always) the Fund-A-Need happens after the Live Auction. While Live Auctions can be fun, if they run too long, they get old and you lose donors' attention. The handful of bidders interested in the items will stay engaged, but the other 95% of the potential donors in the room will be distracted and become mentally "over it." 

While you are gaining a couple thousand extra dollars by adding additional live auction items, you are sacrificing potentially tens of thousands of dollars in the fund-a-need.  This is one of those cases where time is money, almost literally.

In a time where crowdfunding is wildly popular and effective, especially with the ever growing millennial donors, it is important to do everything in our power to engage the majority of donors when conducting the Fund-A-Need.

What is the right number of items? 

This year I have been encouraging my clients to stick with 4-6 items in their live auction. This is the perfect amount to get the audience's attention and raise some big bucks with out it going too long and loosing the attention of donors who aren't bidding but could be potential Fund-A-Need donors.

My clients have seen tremendous success with cutting their number of live auction items in half. Even with only half of the live auction items, this spring has been full of record-breaking events. Fewer items means they become more competitive so the items that ARE in the live auction tend to bring in more revenue than they would have otherwise. Plus donors are still fully mentally engaged during the Fund-A-Need which means more people participate. More participating donors means more revenue for your organization. 

If you'd like to learn how to make more money at your next fundraising event, contact me via the form in my sidebar ->