I was recently talking to a potential client — we’ll call him “Bob” — about how he could improve his school’s auction. It’s worth saying, he called me for advice. The event had hit a plateau and needed help. He was very receptive to most of my recommendations, but then we hit a snag. See, I mentioned he should look into Event Management Software (EMS) to increase the efficiency of his auction. Translated: I asked Bob to spend some money. Actually, I asked him to “consider spending money.” Even though it wasn’t even real money at this point, it was enough to make him squirm.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many nonprofits that understand the benefits of a good EMS and look at it as an investment and key element to their auction success. Bob just could not get his head around the big picture. To him, it was an expense the school could not afford. “We are a small school trying to RAISE money, not spend it,” he said, more than once.
Some facts about Bob’s auction: $65,000 gross receipts in 2004, 175 silent items/22 live items, 270 attendees, 4 full-time committee members, 20 auction night volunteers, nicely catered buffet dinner held at a local hotel.
However, it’s my opinion that not all of them can/will survive long term. The auction donor pie can only be cut into so many slices. Like any segment of business, auctions are becoming more competitive, and only the strongest will survive.
Run your Auction Like a Business
Accept for a minute the idea that your auction is a business and imagine you are planning a 20% off grand opening sale at your new location. You need to acquire 200 “things” to sell, properly display each item, staff the event, invite a bunch of potential buyers to the sale, convince them to buy your stuff, and then handle $65,000 in sales. Doors open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
What are the differences between this “business sale” and a “benefit auction”? Not many, but the small things add up. Things like the staff at a benefit auction is generally an all-volunteer force. Instead of discounting stuff 20%, much of our success will be based on how many people pay more than an item’s value. And, of course, we will only be “open” for 5 hours.
Another difference is the fact that the business is certainly using an electronic cash register/computer and some type of business software. It would be crazy to attempt a sale of this size without it. Yet auctions every week give it a go. The results are often not pretty, and there is no “do-over” the next night with an auction.
Making the Case
So how do we make the case for purchasing a good EMS? I think, as with most technology, it comes down to time and money.
- Assign a value to your time and the time of your volunteers. Try $10 per hour. Once you calculate how much time is spent on the auction (just ask your family next time you see them), and put a number to it. It will be scary at first, but you can better justify the need for something that will reduce that strain once you track your hours, and the time spent by volunteers.
- Look at your auction checkout procedure. It oftentimes tops the list of "Things That Go Wrong at Auctions.” Ask a few guests for an honest review of the procedure. How long are the lines? Mistakes made? Item checkout can almost always be improved with some technology.
- How organized is your auction office space? Good software eliminates a good deal of the clutter by helping categorize the hundreds of items as they come in.
- Streamline your data entry. How long did it take you to write out all the item descriptions? Set pricing? Increments?
- Do you have accurate reports after the auction to evaluate the details?
If you are currently looking for event management software, there are several things you should consider before purchasing: Does the software handle all the details of your auctions? Everything from item procurement to event night checkout and post-event reporting? Will it support multiple types of auctions, such as live, silent, bidding frenzy, festival of trees, etc.? Does the software handle more than just auctions? Wouldn’t it be great if you could use it to plan your summer golf tournament as well, or your yearly gala? Will the software integrate with the fundraising system you are already using? Are regular updates/upgrades available? Does the company offer excellent technical support? What about event night support? Finally, ask for a demo of the software so you can see it in action.
The bottom line is this: you can either embrace the benefits of modern technology and what it will do to ease your workload and help your organization, or you continue to work ridiculous hours, buried in paperwork, burn out your volunteers, inconvenience yours donors, and alienate your family. Ok, that may seem extreme, but you get the point.
Time to work smarter, not harder. And I say the sooner the better.