Galas

Creating a Spectacular Event

What goes into creating a spectacular event? Erich of Spare Key joins us to share how they have transformed their event to be something amazing!

Tell us about Spare Key.

It was founded in 1997 by a south Saint Paul family. They had a little boy, shortly after he was born he was rushed into the ER for emergency surgery to repair a heart condition he was born with. Subsequently what happened, over the course of the next couple of years their son had numerous hospitalizations and surgeries where the recoveries were a couple  of weeks or months at a time. Like a lot of families, the most significant financial commitment was their mortgage. Mom and dad had to spend time at the hospital, they were not at work. It got to the point where they were concerned about losing their home. They reached out to their family, friends, and church, they made sure they had a house to go back to. The sad part of the story, the son lost his life to the disease. A year after his passing they started SK and it’s goal was: provide families the gift of time. If SK does a mortgage payment for a family, they can focus on the kid. 

The program has evolved dramatically, that’s how we started out. SK today is a much different organization. 

You use the event to mobilize the mission, tell us about that.

Events are only as good as what you can connect in terms of your mission and engaging with people to support what you are trying to do. We have a small staff, 5 people, running an organization that supports families in 5 states. We have to find other people who are third party validators. Events aren’t just about the money, although it’s always about the money, events are really about branding your organization, about creating credibility with people who do not know who you are or what your purpose is.

Every time we get involved with an event, each and every time the goal and focus is to tie it back to the mission and our purpose, but also to energize and empower people to be our strongest advocates once they leave that event.

You entertain people at your events.

Yes let’s talk about this, the reality is consumers have choices. Minnesota has 35,000 non profits. There’s a lot of competition out there. It says a lot about who we are as Minnesotans but people have choices. Galas and events are all about choices, if given a choice between going to a gala you’ve been going to and know what it’s going to be… on a cold February night, it’s as easy for me to stay in. Our goal has been to make it tougher for people to want to stay home. We’ve focused on this idea that gala’s are obviously about raising money, but if you don’t entertain your guests, if you don’t keep them guessing and make it feel like a surprise each time while delivering the highest level of customer service you can, they’re not going to come back. 

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Getting the Most out of Your Donors

This week we welcome back Jim Leighton and he shares some of his secrets that has led to success in the fundraising business!

Tell us a little bit of your story.

The last 14 years I was at Children’s Cancer Research Fund. We produced large events in the twin cities. I’ve raised all my money with great teams in the twin cities, but what we are doing in the twin cities, doesn’t have to stay in the twin cities. 

Don’t be afraid of events because events can be a sustainable revenue model. In the development offices across the country people are scared of the word, but let’s not be scared of that word. You can do it effectively. I’ve built programs with sustainable growth.

You can be hired.

Make it RAIN. That’s our goal. There are so many non profits and people ask if there is a mission I’m focused on. My mission is non profits. I’m excited about when people are excited about their mission. I’ve taken one step back and are more of an advocate of the whole industry. 

How much money have you raised over the years?

Ten’s of Millions. Great teams’ I’ve led have raised about 52 million dollars. Impact. The more impact we can have for non profits the better our communities are. Individual giving is what’s going to make the difference in what’s going on in our country and in the world. That’s where we need to focus.

How do you use events to make money?

People need to decide what it is they are raising money for and let’s not be afraid to dream a little bit. My first thing is: how much money do we want to raise. Just because you raised 50,000 last year, that’s not the answer to the question of how much money do you want to raise. If a group can raise their budget what can they do with that? What impact can they have? That’s exciting. An event can bring a community together. One of my catch phrases is be bold. Be bold in our goals and not afraid to go get them. The work to get that money doesn’t scare me and it shouldn’t scare you. I’ll hold your hand and help you get not scared. We will set your goal to attainable and inspirational.

88% of an organizations funding comes from 12% of their donors. 

This is interesting, at the end of the day it’s a very small group of people providing most of the money.

It’s a very small group of people driving most of the money. Now, are those small things important? Those are important, as they become more successful they can give more. You’re at 88% you still need that 12%. When you talk about the 12%, those are event attendees, a lot of them are people that you will get to know through events. Events and major gifts should be holding hands. 

Let’s talk the general strategy.

You have to have a strategy and the strategy has to be there before we get into the ballroom or brewery. It has to be able to tell a story. I think production is important. The real work is after the event. That’s when we start to build those relationships. I am going to introduce you to something:

  1. Produce: Produce a quality event. It doesn’t need to be a high end gala. Make it comfortable, inviting, and fun. Able to tell a story and convey why there is a need in the organization. 
  2. Prospect: Before the event. Get your guests names. You don’t know who your donors are going to be. At least an email, get that information. You want that information in advance, at least before the show. The earlier we get it the more work we can do. 
  3. Prepare: Once we have the event and I have more information. We now strategize. Who were the top ten percent or top five percent. 
  4. Pursue: Now we are going out and getting coffee and meet these people. Find out what is their motivation. Don’t ask for money for a while were going to get them more engaged. Let’s get them quickly in the next couple of months to the organization to experience the impact. Immerse yourself in the mission. 
  5. Prosper: This is where those words turn not just into a single donation but a life long partnership. A lot of these donors will become partners. 

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Using Event Design to Make a Difference

David Stark is an event veteran who uses design to make guests feel moved. How does he find inspiration? How does he give back?

Tell us your story.

When I went to college, I had no idea that there was an events world. I had no idea that this kind of career existed and that people do this. I studied to be a painter. I had every intention of being an artist and making paintings and sculptures and having shows in galleries and museums. That was always my goal from the very early age. I graduated from school and I went to graduate school and about 30 seconds after I got out of graduate school, I realized that I actually hated being in a studio by myself. The act of being alone painting was something that kind of made me a little bit crazy. I would get on the phone and I would call anybody that would possibly talk to me. I’d have a paint brush in one hand and I’d have the telephone in the other hand. I would talk my way through. What I realized in that process was that I actually like to collaborate with people. Transitioned from being a fine artist, working by myself to working with a group of people. More brain power created better stuff or more stuff or bigger stuff. I originally got involved working with flowers as a way to support my painting. That was really the way that I inched in. Working with flowers was a creative solution to waiting on tables to support my artwork. It felt akin to painting and it felt artistic. Somewhere along the way I realized that flowers were just one of the tools in the toolbox it wasn’t really right for every single occasion, but we’d work on these little events and that would lead to a slightly bigger event, which led to a slightly bigger event. Along the way I realized I’m really doing this, so let’s just do it. I approached what we do, like making a painting. So my approach has not changed. I’m still the fine artist deep down, but I do that for people. I do that for milestone occasions for individuals or corporate events or non-for-profit events where we’re looking to raise money for really incredible causes. I apply that same kind of art training and art making to those experiences.

Where do you get your inspiration? 

Everywhere. I don’t look at a lot of other people’s events for inspiration. Not that I’m not interested or not that I’m not curious, but I actually find that my ideas come from culture. My ideas come fromseeing art, going to the theater, going to movies, hearing music, being part of fashion experiences. Seeing the world of culture that’s around me, that is much more gratifying than adapting somebody else’s idea that they did for an event. I really stay focused on exposing myself to what’s going on in the world and having an ear and really truly being interested in what’s going on out there. It’s not always very immediate where the idea comes from.Sometimes I see an exhibition and I’m moved by it and I put it into the back of my brain. Then three years from now the right event comes up and all of a sudden that thing that was in that pigeonhole in my mind comes out. Sometimes it’s an immediate response to something. For me traveling, going to see stuff, being out and about, that’s where it all happens. Inspiration hits when you least expect it.

What’s the craziest or most unique thing that you’ve ever designed? 

Things that I’m really proud of as an organization is we’ve done a lot of work in the non for profit space and for non for profit galas and we make a big distinction between the difference between decorating and telling a story. I think that our job when we create these installations and the decor is of course to make a room look a certain way and make people feel a certain way within that room. Ultimately I feel like my job is to create a safe set that tells the story of the organization. We do that in a lot of different ways.

I think the biggest example of our work is for the Robin hood foundation.It’s a New York based organization that looks to eradicate poverty in New York city and they’re taking the rich and they give to the poor. It’s not about giving, it’s about empowering and it’s about creating access. The thing that’s important to establish is it’s very large. So it’s a seated dinner for 4,500 to 5,000 people. They come to dinner, they have cocktails, there’s the big presentation, there are films and then there’s a big giant concert after with the likes of the Beyonce’s of the world. It’s at the convention center in New York, which you know is a vast, vast, not incredibly attractive space that we need to turn into something, and you have lots of choices, right? Like one choice is, you make it something that’s really beautiful. That could be a choice. But I always feel like my job here is to actually tell the story of Robin Hood. Several years back we created an idea where in partnership with Robin hood, we sought out $1 million worth of donated items that people in the programs needed. Some of that was pretty self explanatory, it’s food, it’s clothing. Other things were really surprising and moving: alarm clocks, you and I take it for granted. We have an alarm clock and what does that do for us? That gets us to work on time. It gets us to a job interview, but if you don’t have an alarm clock, it’s a little harder to do those things that we take for granted. We made a giant installation out of thousands of alarm clocks that went to people that needed the alarm clock. So all of these items were donated and then they went directly to the programs after. From a design standpoint, what’s tricky about that is you can’t nail into it. You can’t screw into it. You can’t mess up the item because it needs to have a sure life after. So we’d have to come up with all kinds of ways to make these 30 foot tall set pieces where we preserve the integrity of the item in the first place. Very proud of the fact that it was.

A. Very great way of telling the story of all of the different programs that Robin hood is involved with. 

B. We were able to rally the community to donating these things. 

C. They went to the hands and the hearts of the people that needed the most after. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me really excited about being in the events world. I throw a great wedding. I love that too, the milestones of one’s life are really important to celebrate. Things like the Robin hood foundation where we can really be making a difference is something that I think always remains dear to me and my goals when I wake up in the morning. 

You’ve made a great point here in that it’s very easy to get distracted with the mechanics of things when first we need to determine what is the purpose of it, why are we doing it? Right?

Yeah, I think so. I think the why is the key and then the how of course is a big part of that. We extend that to everything that we do. You guys are in Minneapolis and one of my longtime great, great friends are my pals at target. I realized last week that I’ve now been working with Target for 20 years and we also had the occasion last week to create a big event with target in partnership to honor their 20 years of design for all, it’s been 20 years of their designer partnerships. It’s designed for all. That was a great honor to be part of that and having such a journey with them for so many years and then having to really apply the beautiful thinking that really happens behind the doors of Target to what the intentions are and then illustrate that by what we do with the material. It’s both a challenge and it’s great fun. It’s really satisfying to be able to be thinking so conceptually about this stuff. 

Target invented the pop up store. Target invented these designer partnerships. There’s a tremendous amount of trailblazing and visionary thinking that have gone into the history of style and many of those things have now been copied by others and everybody brings their own spin to it. The original impetus was really about providing access to great design for everybody. Target is rereleasing product from 20 of the designer partnerships over the last 20 years. Aat the event that we did, we had the occasion to look at that history and see all those products together. One of the things that was mind blowing to me is how fresh it all looks today. Something that was created 20 years ago looks like it was just created last week. 

Tell me about, do you have any mantra you live by? 

One is one that my parents taught me from an early age, which is that I could do anything that I set my mind to do and I do really believe that to the core. The other one is that it’s just quite all right to break the rules as long as you do it really, really fabulously.

Any advice for newbies starting out?

Work really, really, really hard and no matter what the scale of the event, approach it as if it’s the biggest, most important thing in the world. The special events business is very, very difficult, right? People see the photographs and they see the celebrities and they see the glamour of it all. But at the end of the day, it’s a very, very difficult business. Part of the thing that’s important is to recognize that the hard work that you put in is an investment. You can work really quite tirelessly and you can not necessarily see where it’s going to get to but I promise you if you invest the time and the energy and the love and what you’re doing, it does eventually pay off. Give it your all be present, meet people, follow up with them, continuously create new relationships, and when you do give those relationships, they’re all, honor them with the same kind of devotion you would give to a friendship. Ultimately that pays off on the business landscape front as well. 

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Pet Peeves: Not being nice to everybody 

Pet Peeves: Floor plans not to scale

Super Power: Very very calm

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Why is the Inc 5000 Event so Successful

We are joined by the VP of the Inc 5000 Event Breana Murphy. Tell us about you!

I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. I started in Marketing, I’ve worked in Media my entire career. I’ve worked in the corporate marketing department, and I grew up there, we put on varying types of events. We did roadshows, tours, pop up stores.  I was there for 10 years. I worked for rolling stone and did stuff on the festival circuit. Then I ended up here as a freelancer. Was recruited by a friend of mine who worked in the industry and she needed someone to help produce the Inc 5000. This will be my 16th 5000 next year.

Tell us about the Inc 5000 event.

The Inc magazine is the premier magazine that services small business magazine.  Every year we publish the Inc 5000 list, the fastest growing small businesses in America. It’s a three day event that celebrates their achievement. It’s not easy to make the list. The folks there are people really excited to come and celebrate their achievement and be recognized for their hard work. Its rooted in content. Everything about our event starts with the content and how we can better empower our audience and readers.

1 day pre conference

2 day conference

1 day gala event.

Tell us about the conference.

The attendees are people who have made the list. Business owners. The speakers are generally other founders. We try to put on the stage notable founders, Mark Cuban to Ben Chestnut, people who have had remarkable success. Or we also do teachers, people who are inspirational. Our audience is across the industry so we don’t cater to any specific industry.

How many attendees?

Just shy of 2000

Where is it?

We move and try to keep it in resort areas. We are in San Antonio this year, coming up it will be in Scottsdale, then Palm Springs.

When it comes to the event, tell us about your process.

There’s two parts, multiple actually. We have the logistics side and the content side. Last week I sat down with my editorial team and my programming team and we brainstormed who will be the big names, who will be interesting, who will make impact, who is relevant, we made a laundry list of people we’d like to go after. That’s on the content side. On the logistic side, the floral plan, anticipating if we have enough rooms, our setup how we like it, keep our sponsors in line.

We have a lot of return sponsors because we deliver a lot. We give them a lot of ROI on their investment. If they keep coming back we are doing something right.

Tell me about the design.

We redesign. Every year we try to inject something new. What we did this year that was successful and unique was a session in the round. We do concurrent sessions and gave the options of really small pointed conversations with business leaders. 30 minute topics with a maximum of 10 people per table. Then they switched and moved tables. Or they could do a breakout session.

It wasn’t just providing them with keynote, it’s interactive.

And that is probably the note we get back most. How can we provide more networking opportunities and that is something we strive to do. We do a kick off networking before our opening session. We do purposeful networking. We do an in depth survey to drill down the content pieces. They are there to be inspired and they want to meet other people.

It’s lonely to be an entrepreneur. You get them in a room it’s amazing they start solving each others problems.

How much does a company need to grow to make your list?

There’s not a set number, you have to be in business for at least 4 years and you have to have over a million in revenue. The growth percentage ranges. Some grow 3000%.

Do you include the room and other things with the ticket?

The ticket is just itself. The marketing department handles that. We have a room block, almost 800 room nights reserved. We have a portal where they can book and get a discounted rate. We do not arrange for travel or pay for hotel.

Tell me about when you are doing the coordination and working with hotel, are you negotiating directly with them?

I work with an organization that I connected with a few years ago. Hotels for Hope. They help us negotiate the room block. I work with them because my contact there is amazing and because the process of managing that block is hard and I have a small team. That process is made turnkey with working with them.

What do they do?

Part of their commission goes to a charitable organization.

When it comes to pricing your ticket, have you had to move it around?

It has stayed, we have separate consumer marketing team that handles that. The price has been pretty consistent year after year. We have to keep in mind inflation. The industry average is 10% i do my best to negotiate that. But food goes up by 10%.

Tell me more about your programming.

I have an executive producer, I’ve worked with her for six years. We sit down and do a draft agenda. We do a lot of planning with our editorial team. We look at who is making waves or has something new coming out, something that will be relevant and topical. We start with key names we want to put in and we try to round out the content and make sure we hit all the notes. Talk about money, company culture, human resources, economically, we empower them to grow their businesses.

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Live Auction Tricks that Actually Work

Tell us a little bit about you, how does someone get started?

Most people that become an auctioneer grow up in the business. All the auctioneers that work for us, most of them have a family member that was involved. My dad became an auctioneer in 1978 and I had no plans to go into the business. I went to Wilmer high school graduated, went to Hamline University and have a degree in communications. I was working for WCCO tv in college and out of college.

Then my dad had a heart attack and a stroke. He had a stroke the morning of my wedding. I left my job at WCCO and went back to our family business. My dad wanted my sisters and I to go to auction school, the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City Iowa. We all went there, I went in 1994 and in college, I started doing these events when I was 19. I had no money I was living in St. Paul. People found out this kid in Drew Hall at Hamline University had his license. I was 20 years old and I was doing little events to raise money. By the time I graduated from college I was doing 30 of these a year in the early 2000’s. Then it went from 30 to 50 to 90 to 150 and today this year our company will do 300 all over the country.

You fell into it in a way?

I did fall into it. I will tell you a fair amount of growth and success we’ve had is a little bit of God given but also who we are. You have to have a heart for non profits to be successful in this. You have to care about why this is important to the community. You have to care about what it will do for people. It is hard to be successful at what I do if you stand on a stage in front of 1000 people and don’t have empathy for what your raising money for.

Yes you have to be excited about the vause or you can’t do your best job.

The business today is so different than what it was 5 years ago and 10 years ago. The audience can sense if your not authentic. They can sense if you’re there for a paycheck. They can sense if you haven’t done your homework. You can’t just be standing on the stage going through the motions. I tell the auctioneers that work for us all the time is the real key is can you build a bond with the audience. You are building a bond and they are saying I trust this person cares I know what the money is going for. Today, the two portions were involved with, the live auction being one and the fund to need giving moment being the second portion. The second portion is raising 80% of the revenue. I tell people, if I’m on an airplane and somebody asks what I do for a living, my lead answer is I own a company that consults and advises and facilitates giving moments for non profits. So much of the revenue is from people pledging financial support, not me auctioning items.

Maybe you can speak more to someone who doesn’t understand the difference between the live auction and fund to need?

I wouldn’t be here today if the fund to need hasn’t’ grown to what it is. About 20 years ago in the industry, people would do the events, raffles, silent auctions. They identified there are so many people in the room that don’t win or don’t care if they get the wine basket. You have to create an opportunity for guests to pledge financial support. That’s the moment where the MC or auctioneer stands up and makes a case why you should donate to the mission of the organization and people pledge financial support. For those of you listening, if you don’t remember anything I say remember this, do a fund to need and focus 90% of your energy on mission based giving where people can pledge financial support. I think years from now it is absolutely the future and direction of fundraising. It is the total key. The big thing now is a lot of people are not driven by buying something, they don’t care. They’d rather write a check to build wells than purchasing a night on the town.

We have been talking about the shift in millenials and how different the mindset is of giving.

Before the end of the show I will highlight there still are live auction items that are selling really well. There is one interesting that’s happened, last year congress made some tax changes on the deductions you can make. We have seen an uptick in people spending money in live auctions because now there’s a limit to how much you can donate to a non profit to have a tax consequence. Dinners are the best, in home dinner with a chef is the best item, and how we’ll sell those things for $7,000-$15,0000. Some people are wanting to give 15 thousand but in this case I’m giving and getting a dinner.

To your point about millenials, the big change that we’re seeing with younger people aging into the marketplace, this is probably the second most important piece I’m observing right now in the business. 15 years ago this business is about seen to be seen dress to the nines, what is the new hot ice raffle bar etc. What’s the new trick and gimmicka?  The new change is millenials want to think and feel this is important. It’s not what’s the hot new thing, people still like to be entertained, the biggest thing for younger donors is, is there there behind it.

Sometimes people show up to have a party and it’s hard to weave mission and fundraising in that.

Not only is it hard but sadly, the planners have miscalculated what they’ve created has put downward pressure on the fundraising environment. They’ve actually created an environment that is more difficult to raise money because they believe it should have been about a party or something unique or cool.  My wife, when we were dating, she’d come and sit down, I’m going night after night, she’d sit down and in the first 20 minutes she would say I totally get it, I get why this is important. She wouldn’t know about the organization but based off the opening the show, how they communicated she would know. There were other nights where she would sit for an hour and say, I don’t get why people care. The mindset of the donor changes throughout the night.

When people come to these events you can tell the ones that came because they wanted a party vs the ones that are there to have fun, but they are there for the cause. I want to get back to the statement about how the planners can make it more difficult to raise money. What are things they can do to make it easier?

We now know, on any given saturday night that we will raise more money at 8:20 than 9:05. You will raise a significant more money, they are more engaged there mindset is more clear, their buzz is a little bit better. It is significantly easier to raise money earlier. Timing is a really big thing, the time at night. One of the greatest mistakes you canmake is getting into your fundraising too late.

The second big thing is it has to be mission focused. Does it really make a personal connection about why this is important. Design your showflow so it leads in right before the fund to need, are they sitting in their seats and are they able to say I get it. There has to be clarity in messaging as well. A lot of event planners will set it up but do not connect the dots on what it means and what it will do.  Talk to people in advance see the momentum donors. When I am standing on stage and trying to raise money, 99 times out of 100 when I am asking for a large sum I know one or two people will give. They are called seeded or momentum gifts. If you don’t have that in place, people don’t want to be the first one to raise their cards, but after 2 or 3 people do it they’d be happy to do it. You have to alter the mindset, if 2 or 3 people give 25 thousand dollars there’s 600 people sitting in the room and they think more about there donation. Create the perception there is organic enthusiasm around what you are raising money for.

The program length is critical, tell me what’s the perfect program like?

Almost everyday we get a call from a new perspective client. I’m handling these calls and I’ll tell people now, we will roughly know how you will do three days before your event. After we look through the shoflo, we know who is in a more tricky spot and whos going to be in a great spot. The right length of the program, if you can make it about an hour and fifteen minutes I think that is helpful, that’s assuming a fifteen – twenty minute break for dinner. You have to build in time for the live auction, air on the side of caution.

How many items for a live auction?

It depends, it’s changed, the short answer is fewer today is better. There are nights now where we are doing two or three items because the fund to need has grown, it is rare in the midwest to see events with other 500 people with more than 9 live auction items. A general answer would be someplace 4-7 live auction items depending on the size and history of your event.

Often times we will raise more money with fewer items. You’re not creating competition within itself for the items, and the environment and energy around the live auction is usually higher. The other thing we are evaluating is if the fund to need giving moment is coming after the live auction, I’m looking at how much money and energy is there in the room, because those two items are contingent on eachother.

You’ll laugh when I say this, there are so many nights that I walk out and think, why did people ever hire me when I was 23 years old?  In the moment, the decision you are making and experience helps, you have to be intuitive and thoughtful, you have to be data driven. In the moment many clients don’t realize the choices and decisions the auctioneer makes makes a $7500 difference in the moment.

The other piece, if you ask me aside from mission based giving and fund to need, if I said where’s this business at five years from now, I would say it’s not based on just how much money we raise night after night. That’s a big mind shift. It’s a shift about how we are thinking about this. We also have to make decisions based on how to keep donors more active and involved and keep those relationships strong regardless of the financial gift they make that night. The big thing is the auctioneers I hire, they have to be mission focused, look at the big picture, and they have to make people feel valued and appreciated. It can not be driven by did we top last year’s financial goal. Now there are so many non profits, the real question is can you keep your donors longer than anybody else. It can’t be a revenue equation, it has to be a relationship equation that is built on trust, accountability, communication, and authenticity.

The other thing that surprises you over the years, there’s nights where somebodies giving $100 and maybe that’s all they can give or used to giving. Then six months later they will gift a farm to them. Sometimes these relationships that are based on a $100 gift, the long term upside to sincerity and thankfulness is a big deal.  

I’ve seen some of your tricks, what tricks do you have?

When you have a double item you can sell twice, it’s super helpful. A lot of committees don’t understand how complex and in the moment that is for the auctioneer. A lot of times when I am doing that I can’t sell that second dinner unless I’m at x amount for an example. Then I have to get both of these people and keep them both with me. As they are bidding you have to gauge their interest. You have to stop before you lose the second person. It’s a lot of dynamics and in the moment.

A really helpful trick or experience is, so much of the value of these items has nothing to do with the item, it’s the relationship around the item.

How should an auctioneer be charging for their services?

Some charge a flat rate or a commission fee. A flat fee is better in the nonprofit world. I don’t want people to think we are giving different advice based on our compensation. The fees across the country vary, and they’ll change. A lot of auctioneers will prorate their fee based on their revenue. I also tell folks whether they hire us or somebody else, I encourage them to grill the auctioneer before they hire. If you spend a half hour asking the tough questions you’ll figure out who the right fit for you are. You should interview a couple two or three. The challenge depending on the size of your event, we schedule a year or two out so you have to be really on top of that.

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