There ARE Events where a Volunteer Auctioneer is the Best Option

If you are planning a fundraising event for your charity, school, or non-profit organization, you probably have discussed the possibility of hiring a professional auctioneer for your event. There are 250+ charity auctioneers in the U.S., as well as thousands of traditional auctioneers who earn their keep in a variety of auction categories, such as livestock, antique, art, auto, and estate auctions.

The reality is, MOST charities will choose a volunteer to do their auction for several reasons:

  • There is no budget for a professional auctioneer – your budget may be low, and there seems little room to afford a professional auctioneer.
  • There are very few professional auctioneers available for my event date – there are 1.5 million charity events each year in the United States, and only 250 charity auctioneers; do the math, even if each one of these auctioneers performed two events per week, that would be approximately 25,000 events, less than 1% of all charity events being held each year!
  • You are selling very few or no items in live auction format at your event – It seems overkill (although not always the case) to bring in a professional who will spend only a few minutes up on stage.

But there ARE times when using a volunteer auctioneer makes sense for your event. The rest of this article presents these situations for your consideration, as you decide whether hiring a professional auctioneer is right for your event.

Small Crowd, Small Budget

Notice this category has two qualifiers, and they are mutually inclusive for this discussion. There are many smaller fundraising events with BIG ticket donors and BIG ticket items that make sense to hire a professional auctioneer. However, if you are hosting a smaller event, AND you have a smaller lineup of live auction items both in terms of value and quantity, it is probably not worth investing in a professional auctioneer. 63% of the charity events have gala budgets under $50,000. Some of these charities have potential for much larger revenues, but need consulting and expertise to get to the next level. This is a GOOD reason to hire a Benefit Auction Specialist, who can provide year-round consulting for your event on topics such as donor development, item acquisition strategies, volunteer training, committee workshops, and event planning. For those of you that do not have access to a Benefit Auctioneer Specialist, using a volunteer to handle this scenario is probably the best option for your event.

Personal, Impersonal

With smaller crowds, it is likely the event involves a close community of friends, family, and neighbors. Donor development is not really the strategy used here; the community in which this school or non-profit resides naturally dictates the audience who attends your event. I have seen events like these that work well with a well-known person inside your community that can relate to the audience on a personal level. That intimate knowledge is valuable, and you can leverage this for the live auction in an effective way. Conversely, bringing a professional auctioneer into this same crowd who has no knowledge or relationship to your cause could be a challenge. There is history between the volunteer and the audience that inherently can be leverage; and only by those who live inside that community circle. Would a professional auctioneer still work in these situations? Absolutely, but this auctioneer must be the type that invests in your cause more than just showing up the night of the event. It takes a lot research and meeting of the constituency to build the right knowledge and rapport to engage this type of crowd at a level that will result in meaningful incremental results by hiring a professional auctioneer.

Plenty of Time….

In many smaller events, there are only a few fundraising elements involved that add up to your fundraising timeline. A fundraiser with a silent auction and a few raffles, plus a live auction, could be okay for use of a volunteer auctioneer.

Fundraising events can be long nights for your guests, and statistics show guests are leaving 30-45 minutes earlier than in the past. The fact is, fundraising events have become too long, people get bored or tired, need to relive the babysitter, etc. Once you lose the crowd, you lose your donor momentum. Combine this with the fact that the live auction is traditionally held near the end of the night, and you have a recipe for poor results.

In a shorter program with fewer elements, you can afford to use a volunteer auctioneer. Studies show volunteer auctioneers average 5 minutes per item sold, and if you have 10, 20, or even more items to sell at the live auction, the amount of time spent on the live auction will lose your crowd. The majority of your audience typically will become disinterested after about 30 minutes during the live auction, and ultimately become a distraction to the rest of your crowd who is trying to still bid. A professional auctioneer will average 2-3 minutes per item, saving you valuable time on your program, and keeping you from losing fundraising momentum.

Each type of fundraiser is different, so the right amount of time for your event will depend on many factors. Having someone who is high energy perform your live auction will keep the crowd engaged, entertained. Be certain your volunteer auctioneer has this skill set, or you will bore your crowd to death, and lose bids and resulting revenue as a result.

There’s No Business, like Show Business!

Another potential reason you can pass on hiring a professional auctioneer is if you have already hired or plan to hire an emcee that has an entertainment background, such as a comedian, a magician, a singer, or a celebrity. Many of these individuals have been known to ‘dabble’ in live auctions, and you can leverage this entertainment value by allowing this person to be your auctioneer.

There are potential pitfalls however. First, a long program with the same person on stage can be hard to sustain momentum over a 4 hour+ event. Most of these entertainers are used to performing anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour, but rarely over a 4-hour period. Having a new face, and a new voice up on stage during the live auction provides fresh momentum for your event, assuming you auctioneer has the energy and entertainment value required to sustain it.

Second, be careful using a celebrity for your live auction. Each of us have a comfort zone; whatever we are comfortable doing or talking about is easy for us to remain calm and in the moment up on stage in front of a large audience. When under duress, we will typically find our way back to that comfort zone. Imagine a comedian who starts the live auction. As bidding and the resulting commotion of the event transpires, your comedian may revert to comedy many times during the live auction, because that is what he or she knows. But statistics show that every minute spent during a fundraising event NOT raising funds, is a minute closer to lost momentum. Celebrities who deviate from the script can lose that momentum, sometimes resorting to off-color humor, banter with members of the crowd, or even aggressive behavior the might offend some donors in the crowd. The danger here is not only about the immediate live auction results, but also potential loss of donors who will never return to your event due to perceived slight by someone up on stage representing your cause.

In summary, don’t be afraid to consider a volunteer auctioneer in certain situations. Know the potential consequences in each scenario, and if you are uncertain, speak to a Benefit Auction Specialist. They can help you assess your event and whether it makes sense to hire a professional.

Of course, there are situations where an amateur can create havoc at your auction….see this auctioneer commercial for a good laugh!

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