How to Raise $2 Million in One Night

2009-may-9-bmc-gala-2801 "That's easy. Start off as a billionaire and buy an airline." - Sir Richard Branson's reply when asked how to become a millionaire.

I felt like I had a similar answer when someone asked how we were going to even come close to raising the $2.1 million we raised last year at our Gala, the hospital's biggest fundraiser. Easy. Do exactly what we did last year but in a lousy economy and we should raise close to $2 million in one night!

My strategy seemed to be working heading into weekend of the event. We had over $1.7 million raised thanks to gifts from individuals and corporations.

But our hopes of breaking $2 million hinged on our silent and live auctions. With the former our strategy was simple. Despite the generous stimulus checks our guests had received earlier this year [not], we knew we'd have fewer bidders and lower bids. Guests would be looking for "deals" not making "donations" when they were cruising the auction tables.

To boost our silent auction returns we focused our efforts on items that commanded the highest bids. And in Boston, that means anything related to the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins. And in that order! Red Sox tickets, for instance, regularly go for two or three times face value, regardless of where the seats are! We also solicited more auction items, going from 200 in 2008 to 263 this year. Yes, we would raise less on each item, but we would raise more overall.

The live auction presented a different challenge. While our Gala had 1,150 attendees this year, it doesn't draw a large, affluent crowd. The bidding on the cars and private jet trip to Bermuda we auctioned-off last year was limited to a handful of guests. And with fewer unique items this year, coupled with the downturn in the economy, the potential for hearing crickets during the live auction had us all cringing.

Fortunately, my boss got a better idea from a donor of ours who bids on those pricey live auction items. Instead of a live auction she suggested a Wishlist Drawing. Here's how it worked.

  • We took six fabulous items from our pool of silent and live auction items and put them into a drawing from which anyone could win if they donated a minimum of $100.
  • The rest of the live auction items went to an exclusive premium silent auction table with other select items.
  • As part of the Gala program, guests watched a moving video on the hospital's Birth Sisters Program and were asked to make a wishlist gift of $650 to support the program.
  • To support the wishlist giving, the emcee unveiled the items in the drawing. For $100 or more you were automatically entered to win six fabulous items (e.g. all expense paid trip to Florida to see the New England Patriots play the Miami Dolphins).

I have to admit I was skeptical that it would work. We were betting that a good portion of our 1,150 guests would fork over a $100 or more to be part of the drawing. Obviously, people attend these events as couples so that halved our pool of potential donors. Still, if 500 people put in $100 that's $50,000. We also knew that some people would do more than $100. The donors we count on every year to raise their hands for the live auction don't really care about the stuff they bid on; they want to help the hospital. They come expecting to give and would do so whether they took anything home or not!

The results from the Wishlist Drawing were pretty impressive.

  • 26 people donated $1000 or more with the largest gift being $10,000.
  • 300 people donated $100, which raised $30,000.
  • Together with the rest of the donors to the Wishlist Drawing we raised a total of $131,000.

I realize there are a lot of auctions that do better than this, especially in a town like Boston. But raising this much from a drawing in this economy was a big surprise for us. It also helped us break the $2 million mark.

The Wishlist Drawing worked for three reasons:

  1. We had a large, committed crowd in the room. It wasn't the richest crowd, but we had loyalty and numbers on our side and the Wishlist Drawing was a great way to tap this energy.
  2. The messaging on our Birth Sisters Program that preceded the drawing was perfect. And don't forget it was Mother's Day Weekend. Watch the video we shared with our guests that evening. One story in particular was sad and touching. I think it really moved people to give.
  3. We provided guests with just enough incentive to participate. When they heard they and 17 of their friends could sit behind the dugout at a Red Sox game, or cruise around in a Porsche Caymen for a weekend, people thought $100 was a good bet.

I often say that the key to fundraising success is a pound of self-interest and a teaspoon of idealism. But I actually think the two ingredients in our Wishlist Drawing were quite equal that evening. We had a great crowd of motivated supporters who cared about the hospital and were further moved by the powerful stories we shared with them. But we also had people there who had quietly sat through many past live auctions who now could join the action and potentially win a fabulous item for just a $100 gift to their favorite cause.

I too wanted to take part in the drawing but being in charge of the silent auction I got busy and missed my chance. But I'm glad we didn't balk at our chance to try our hand at the Wishlist Drawing instead of sticking with our traditional live auction.

Sometimes you have to roll the dice, and this time we rolled a winner.