Learn How To Get The Most From Your Auctions With Dean Crownover

Auctions can be a fun, and engaging way to both raise money and get people excited about your work. But what do you need to host a successful auction? Today’s episode is a deep dive into auctioneering with the incredible Dean Crownover!  

Dean Crownover, My Benefit Auctioneer, is a Profit Consultant and author with a track record of raising millions of fundraising dollars for his nonprofit clients. He is the author of Paddles Up! My Benefit Auctioneer Reveals Post-2020 Gala Fundraiser Secrets. He shares his secrets for hosting successful auctions and how to keep your audience engaged throughout your event.

Our Favourite Quotes 

(06:12) I want everybody in that room to focus and feel engaged because I always go back to the nonprofit is the hero and who they serve are the hero and we are together with this money making huge changes, right?

(08:28) I think the number one thing that we work on with every client is the reason to give. That is what gets the audience focused. So the education, but really hearing from their clients, hearing the need, why is it we need to give to this animal shelter? Where are they suffering? And tonight how can we help? 

(12:51)  Now, one of the things that I talk about in my new book, Paddles Up, is that let's get the funding need open a week before the event. So I already know kind of where the money is coming in. And sponsorships before were, hey, let's make 30, 40% before we get on stage and make the other 60% on stage. But Covid has taught us, you know, it's probably best to make about 80% in sponsorships before we get on stage to guarantee and then whatever we make up there is a bonus.

Top 3 Takeaways 

  1. Start with a strong run of the show. You want to organize the event schedule in a way that keeps things flowing and find the best time to talk about your mission. Try to plan to talk about fundraising and your more important messages earlier on in the event, because as the night goes on people will be more interested in socializing and lose focus. 
  2. Always check in on your event. Take a look at the numbers throughout the evening. Where are you with mobile giving and pre-gives? Does your audience appear engaged and interacting with activities? If the mood is low and people aren't engaging, then it may be time to find a way to reconnect your audience with your message. 
  3. Don't forget to build trust. Take time with the auctions, don't be afraid to go slow and let people take in the impact they are making that night. Thank your guests and remind them you're all here tonight to work towards the same goal.


Today we discuss auctions with Dean Crownover. Hello and welcome to Driven's fundraising superheroes podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an expert in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you make the most out of your fundraising potential. We specialize in donor, volunteer, and member management. I would love to help you reach your fundraising goals, so give us a visit at trustdriven.com if you'd like to learn more.

If your nonprofit loves to hold auctions or is looking for advice on how to hold your first auction, this episode is definitely for you. Today we speak with Dean Crownover, also known as my benefit auctioneer. Dean is a profit consultant and author with a track record of raising millions of fundraising dollars for his nonprofit clients. He is the author of Paddles Up, where he reveals post 2020 Gala fundraising secrets and shares proven fundraising strategies, including those that emerge for virtual events. During the pandemic, he shares how they can be incorporated into live events, and I'm very excited to have him on the show today. So thank you, Dean, for joining me.

I am thrilled to be here, Sabrina. Thank you.

Thank you. So, you are one of about 200 benefit auctioneers across the US. I believe. Can you explain how you got started in this business? What has been your biggest accomplishments so far?

I came from acting and entertainment, so I'm based in Atlanta, and this is before the big film boom over here. And I did mostly corporate theater, if you will, that's training films, live stuff. I did a ton of commercials. I did anything and everything in acting, including an Elvis impersonator down to a hand model. I mean, there was nothing in this business I didn't do and loved it. Right. I got sent on a job one afternoon in probably in 2008, somewhere in there that said Mulan Rouge should just come out, and a school was having a fundraiser, and I had to wear a purple jacket, ironically. And I had two can girls there who are professional dancers, and we were just eye candy. Our job was to walk around and take pictures, but they said part of the job is he needs to get up there and do the auction because it's a fundraiser. Now. That's the stupidest thing they could have ever done because I didn't know what I was doing. All their money was riding on this, and there were none of the auction shows at that point, so I just guessed, and it went well, and again, having no idea what I was doing.

And then another actor friend said, hey, I volunteered next Saturday to do a school for a friend, and we were doing it all pro bono at that point, and I can't do it because I got a paid gig. Can you do it? And I said, yeah, that was fun. And it started to grow. And then I started getting calls, and I didn't realize for years I had a business brewing. And then the state of Georgia jumped in at one point and said, do you know you have to have a license to auction? Because not every state is the same, like California and New York, I don't think you have to, but down in the south, every state you have to. And I said, oh, well, what does that involve? And she told me, Go to auctioneer school, which who knew existed, then you go and take a test with the state. So I did it, and then through that process realized this is a real business. And then people started calling and then I stopped acting, if you will, and turned it over to this, which now has been ten years running. And it's been phenomenal because there's such a need for it.

But to answer your second question, the thing I've learned most, you know what it is? I get to see the good in people every night. Every night I'm working, which is ten years in, still amazes me. Even during Covid, the giving was phenomenal. People rally, doesn't matter their political background, economic background, anything, they all get together and because they love the cause, they want to make a huge difference. And I really get to see the good. So before, when I was an actor, it was great, hey, I did this job for such and such company, or I did this commercial, but then you went home and you collected your paycheck. Now I get to go home, and my wife worked in nonprofit for years and go home and go, you know what? For muscular dystrophy tonight, man, we went over a million dollars, or we did this, or even if it's 25 grand, and they've never done that before, you know that they're taking that money and making changes for the positives. So every night I go to bed and I feel pretty good. So that's been actually the best part.

Yeah, you touched on that you had acting experience, but I believe you also have improv experience and just a lot of training, kind of reading the room, working a crowd, which can be really tough for people in Galas, especially if you don't have that background that you luckily do. What advice would you give to organizations when they are trying to keep their audience engaged? Do you find that it's about having like a few tricks in your pocket that you can pull up, or is it more kind of going and reading the room and creating a custom plan for that situation?

The short answer is yes to all of it. Yeah, because I have to say something on the background that turned out to be an advantage, the entertainment background, because most auctioneers of any kind usually come from families of auctioneers, right. So they learn we're talking auctioneers who sell items and antiques and real estate things like cattle. But I'm one of the very few who came from entertainment, who had no understanding of what that life was like. So I didn't know anything, which actually worked very well because I relied on my entertainment chops to get the crowd engaged at first, to do the improv, the tricks, to get them to feel. And I still do this to a degree, I want everybody in that room to focus and feel engaged because I always go back to the nonprofit is the hero and who they serve are the hero and we are together with this money making huge changes, right? So yes, I've had many rough audiences, but the rougher the better in some ways because what is known as talking through the noise because I know that they're listening. That was early in career. If they're talking and I'm trying to figure out how to bring them down, but I'm talking to that person and I know they're going to give at the end because there's always a point they're quiet.

So to answer the second question, I have tricks. But here's when I work with a client, they book me about a year in advance and so 90% of the job is all the meetings leading up to because I'm very, very embedded from run of show to marketing to everything I consult on all of it. That's really the big part of the job. So the things that we talk about that will make the engagement, make them focus and actually be quiet and watch run of show. Run of show is the most important and that differs from each event. But there's three or four run of shows that kind of templates, that kind of work because you want to put your fundraising and your messaging earlier. Because in my business, we say two drinks good, three drinks bad, meaning that a couple of drinks, they're feeling good, they're feeling buzz, they're engaged, they know why they want to give three drinks more. They're zoning out, they don't care. Right? So we want to get them early enough where they're feeling good, not too early. Or middle sound system, I have it in my contract. What kind of sound system we got to have?

You have to have a professional sound system because you want to be able to turn it up to eleven to go above them if you need to. Right? Because we want 360 sound in that room, not just speakers in the front, speakers in the middle, speakers in the back. Because the people in the back talk, we want them to feel like they're in the front. So we want to make sure that sound is all the way around. I think the number one thing that we work on with every client is the reason to give. That is what gets the audience focused. So the education, but really hearing from their clients, hearing the need, why is it we need to give to this animal shelter? Where are they suffering? And tonight how can we help? So when we have all these things working in harmony, it makes the job so much easier up there, but it also makes us more money. And to me that's always the bottom line because I need them to have that extra money to go and do what they do. Because I've got the cushy job, I've got the glamorous job.

We're talking the nonprofit guys, overworked, underpaid, on the front lines, making the true difference. I want to make sure they're armed with what we can get them.

Exactly. Having a background in film and television, I can agree, like a lot of people overlook the actual sound system and their venues. And like I've been to events where it just wasn't set up properly or it was totally cutting out because it was too loud. And it takes away from the experience because if people are having a hard time hearing you, they're going to just zone out.

If they can't hear you, they can't give is the rule. I remember once walking in and what did she say? This is early in my career and before I started relying on my contract and the sound system. And she goes, well, you can just do the walk through now. You can just yell, right? I said, no, that'll kill my voice. There's been times where the sound system died and I had to do that. That's different. The show will go on. I don't care how sick I am, I don't care if the sound dies, something, I will make that show go on. Right. But the setup, we have to have the best sound because it makes it easier for everyone.

I'm curious to know because you talked a lot about how people give, which is super important, but are there other measures of success that you tried to keep an eye on when you're working in events?

I do look at the crowd, their engagement. I stand in the back of the room before it's my turn to go on because I'm watching the crowd respond to what's going on on stage. Right. When we get to the point, and it's a generic term, and you probably use something else, but it's called the "paddle raise" or the "fund they need" is the generic term. It's where they're just raising their paddles to give them a certain amount of money, where the whole room is working together to reach a goal. And it's just pure donations. We're not selling anything. Right. I put it before the live auction and the set up is normally a short video about the organization or about the testimonial person we're about to have. And then the live testimonial, that's the normal template. It all varies a little bit. So when that person, a client of the nonprofit, comes up and gives their story when I watch that audience and if they all quiet down and they could have been as loud as possible and I will see them all come down because they're focused in that two to four minutes, five minutes.

I sit back there and I go, that is kind of a measure for me. And I go, we got them. They want to give. Or if they're zoning out and I'm sitting back there measuring, going, I'm going to have to go up there and do a certain amount of things to make them focus. I would say of the time during that testimonial they're focused. Now, at the same time, I am looking at the numbers. I'm always on mobile bidding looking at, okay, where are we with pre-gives? Where are we in the silent auction? Where are we with the games and activities? Those are not the biggest money makers, but they're important. It just gives me and my client, because we're constantly talking through the whole thing, kind of an idea, okay, where are we in the giving? Because the numbers at the very end are what's more important and coming out of virtual and Covid. Now, one of the things that I talk about in my new book, Paddles Up, is that let's get the funding need open a week before the event. So I already know kind of where the money is coming in.

And sponsorships before sponsorships were, hey, let's make 30, 40% before we get on stage and make the other 60% on stage. But Covid has taught us, you know, what probably best to make about 80% in sponsorships before we get on stage to guarantee and then whatever we make up there is a bonus. Right. So all those numbers I already have in my head, and then when I get up there, I keep a little tally and I have clerks on the side who are giving me a constant tally. That's a very long answer, but it's really about watching that audience and seeing where they're focused and if they are engaged. And sometimes I see the tears during the testimonial and I really know, yeah.

The face can reveal everything. If you got them, you'll know, I'm.

Guessing and it's a good got them. It's not like a used car salesman, oh, I got it. It's not that. It is, man, these guys are really focused on this cause and I'm there to motivate the next part.

Oh, exactly. When you're actually doing the auctions and bidding, do you find sometimes people get lost in, like, the numbers? How do you keep them engaged during that portion of the event?

So during the two parts for the funding, I don't let them know where we are. A lot of mobile bidding software, as you probably know, can put the number on the screen as the money is coming in. There are ways to do that. I don't like them to know that we stayed a goal, but I never let them know where we're at because I want them focused on the level they want to give at I've seen if you reach your goal and you see it up there, they stop giving, right? I don't want to do that. We also set the goal really low. So if I know the room can do 60,000, we'll say, ladies and gentlemen, we want to raise 30,000 plus in five minutes. And I've got clerks on the side who are adding it up and showing me at any time, anytime I need to know where we're at. But when I come back up and when we're done for the funding need and I'll go, ladies and gentlemen, I've got terrible news. You did not raise $30,000 in five minutes. Now, if they were paying attention and we got 3 10 thousand dollars gives, you know that I'm kind of lying here being theatrical, but most of them don't remember that even in that short amount of time they're so engaged with what's going on.

So I'll go, but you did raise $74,500. So the room goes nuts and then we go into the live auction there. It's pretty easy because you're just raising your paddle at a certain level. Now we're $1,000, now we're 15, now $2,000 for this trip or whatever. Most people are following that along. But in my career I have found at Galas, over 50% of people have never been in an auction. I had a woman that I could tell was of means and she wanted this item and it was a high end item. I work the prefunction outside with posters of all the items and the funded need and I'm answering questions, hey, if you got any questions on these trips or whatever and she goes, oh, I really want that, but I'm not going to bid. I'm afraid of getting ripped off because I've never been to an auction. Which is a fear, it's a true fear because they talk so fast. It's called the chant. I don't do that. I don't have to do that. I talk very slow. An hour, 1000. Hey, 1500, let's go to 2000. And I looked at her during the event and I would point at her and she started raising.

She bought it for ten grand that nonprofit got ten grand that they would not have gotten. Yes, the audience can follow, but I have to really follow and make sure everybody feels very good at where they are bidding or giving. Did I answer the question or did I go off the site?

No, you did. I guess it's very similar to how you fundraise on a day to day, how organizations fundraise on a day to day, because it's building trust. When you're putting everything forward, you're letting them know like, hey, we're all here, we're all on the same page and we're all here to do one good thing together. So I think that's a great way to approach.

To approach actually, that's a great way to put it. People will come up to me afterwards because again, I'm very aware that the nonprofit is the star and that's very important. That's ego check and the things you say and do, you're a diplomat for them, you're a salesperson for them. Right. People will come up to me afterwards and go, man, you really did great. You wrote it. I go, no, you did great. We were all in a boat together. You're the guys who gave, I'm motivated, I let it, but you're the guys who made the difference. And I always say that back because the goal is to make them patrons for life for this nonprofit. That's the true goal. I want to give a monthly I want them coming back to this event every year and hopefully they'll see me every year. So we have to have a certain amount of trust. And I have a bunch of audience members that go to several events, different nonprofit, so who I see constantly. And I've got to keep that level of trust no matter who the nonprofit is.

Oh yeah. Every interview I do on fundraising, every person does the same thing, trust. You have to build trust. Just be honest, be authentic and build trust. And I think the example you gave of the woman coming in is a perfect example. If you feel like you have to be on guard, it's going to totally ruin the experience. So it's amazing that you are able to kind of have that bond with her.

And I don't know my younger years, if I would have picked up on that vibe, that's where getting older and getting more experience helps because she didn't say it, but she said, I don't trust it. But I could really see she wanted to do it and it was just a matter of holding hands and if that's what it takes, I'm going to do it. One of your questions was about the audience and what are to get them engaged? Education, not just from the auctioning point of view. I'm a huge proponent of the two ease engagement and then education on what it is this nonprofit does in every form we can. And that education. Yes, sometimes it comes over to how do you bid. But really I find that even the best supporters of your nonprofit don't know everything about what you do. Part of our job is to pull different facts from different programs that don't get the big spotlight on them normally and to give a little bit of ray of sunshine on that because that could be the difference between somebody giving 500 or 1000 because they hear a little food for thought.

And so education is a huge part.

Yeah. You have to be constantly learning, always. I'd love to hear more about some of the strategies you use to fundraise what is the golden ticket strategy and how have you used that to help raise money.

So when the golden ticket is in a sense it's a raffle or a drawing, it's a high end raffle about $100. So there's a $250 version that's higher end, but most of them are $100. And you just have to look at your audience to see what they can typically afford. So typically 20% of the people in the audience can afford the live auction. So that alienates 80%. Now, 100% can give them the funding need, but they're not buying anything. They're not getting anything except for love, which is great, but I'm going to walk away with something. So this is how the golden ticket was invented. High end raffle, $100. But the prize is something very high end, like a fabulous trip. But the way it started was whatever the live auction items were, let's just say there were five live auction items. Dinners, trips, a thing of some kind. The winner got to pick one of those items. That was the traditional golden ticket. So before you sold it, the whole live auction, you'd pull a number. Sabrina, come on down. You tell me up on stage, which of these items do you want? We got the Belize trip and we've got the Kentucky Bourbon Experience.

And this and this. Which one do you want? The one you pick goes away and I sell the other four. You don't pay anything extra. It's all yours. Then when Covid hit, that was the template for years. When Covid hit, live auctions went virtual. As one of the first to go virtual on the East Coast, I think I went that week, March 13 20th. Somew here in there and back when we didn't know what we were doing, we could not get live auction items. They were very hard, and obviously people weren't traveling. So this consignment company, HGA Fundraising, and you know what consignment is? Consignment is where they have all these great trips, and the client pays what's called a reserve price, and it's called $1,500. And you get this trip. Now, you pay them the $1,500, but if you sell it for ten grand, you keep everything above $1,500, right? So that's a typical consignment. They took a bunch of their products, their high end products, and put them together, put five of them. So the golden ticket now became, you pick one of these five, the winter, and then if we had separate live auction stuff, we auctioned those off, right?

So that really saved the day during Covid. But then in the last year, it's morphed into one high end item. And let me give you an example of the power of the money. I have a great client, Rainbow Village here in Atlanta, and they bought a house in Mexico with a full staff, chef, all that. I think the reserve was six grand. That's a little higher than I normally like. I like around two grand or less. But regardless, what Virtual taught us is that you can sell the golden ticket weeks in advance. Now, they usually only have 300 people in the room prior to Covid and prior to virtual. They were just dependent on how many tickets could you sell in the room now and what is the new best practice you can sell to anybody in the world? They do not have to be in that room to win as they did before. They made gross $22,000 on that house that was in the room sales and prior. The woman who won wasn't even in the room because when I pull the name, I usually try to get her on the phone if they're not there and tell her she won.

And that is always fun. But they netted 16 grand. If they picked an item that was two grand, they would have netted 20. But still they were thrilled. So this $100 a ticket, golden ticket has been around for years, has now morphed. And I got to tell you, I've got clients who are already coming in to the event going, man, we sold ten grand worth. So when in doubt, always do a golden ticket. Even if you don't have a strong live even if you're not doing a live auction and you're just doing that and the funded need is going to set you so much more in the black. It's a great tool.

Oh, it sounds like it's been like a game changer for sure.

Yeah, because it's so easy. I have to say. Check your gambling laws or your drawing laws, like where I am in Atlanta, you have to go through the sheriff's department and most nonprofits pay $100 to get the license. Some states can't do it. It really depends. So do check on that.

Yeah. Everyone needs to make sure that all your bases are cost for liseners in Canada. Definitely check in with our government as well before we go today because we are coming up on time. I would love to give you some space to share some of the things you're working on and maybe give our listeners more information on your books.

I have a school teacher's schedule in a sense that mid January to early June is booked nonstop. The summer is sort of off and that's where I either start writing books or look at goals for clients and what's coming up. And then the fall starts early August through mid December, so that's non stop. Then a winter break and over the last break, last winter break. So January of this year, I wrote my book, Paddles Up, and it is all about the revenue streams and the best practices that came out of virtual and coming from covet because everybody was making the best of a bad situation. But then we realized, or I realized for sure, hey, these best practices we can do on stage. I started doing stage events last August and have done no virtual since August. They've been all nonstop live. And I heard Anka on your podcast in May and I've not met her, but she was dead on on the hybrid and all the things she was talking about. Now they've morphed to live, and I've brought a lot of those over. So the book is a short book. It's 80 pages of non fluff, non filler.

It is all here's what you do, and I want to give it to any nonprofit that wants it. Just go to Paddlesupbook.com Paddles with an S upbook.com and download your free PDF copy. You can go to Amazon and buy a hard copy if you want it to, but I want to give it to any nonprofit that wants it. This is information that they could literally start using tomorrow. It's not about me. There's nothing about me in it. It's just about here are the new best practices. There's a whole section on Golden Ticket, by the way, a whole section on the Fund to need best Practices, everything we talked about. So I want them to prosper because I cannot help every nonprofit. I wish I could. I can't. So this is my way of kind of helping those that I can't work with.

Well, a big thank you again to Dean for joining me on the show, and I thank you for all of those listening. If you want to get access to Dean's book, I have linked that in the description as well as a link to his website. If you'd like to work with him on your next live event, and if you'd like to learn more about us at Fundraising Superheroes, like I said in the intro, you can give us a visit at trustdriven.com there. You can learn a little bit more about us and access past podcast episodes. Thank you so much for listening, and we'll see you next time on the Fundraising Superheroes podcast. 

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By Trust Driven on

Podcast Oct 5, 2022, 12:00 AM

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