In this guide, we are going to teach you a methodology we’ve developed that allows our nonprofit partners to consistently raise more money in their paddle raisers than they have ever raised in the past.
In this guide, we are going to teach you a methodology we’ve developed that allows our nonprofit partners to consistently raise more money in their paddle raisers than they have ever raised in the past.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’m typing this on March 10, 2019. So far this year, The Gala Team auctioneers have performed 13 paddle raisers that have raised a combined $1.6 million for our charity partners.
Here is what our nonprofit partners are saying about our paddle raiser strategy:
"We didn’t even have a paddle raiser our first year and after hiring The Gala Team, we raised over 3 times more for our charity. We were ecstatic to make over $100K in the paddle raiser alone."
-- Rachel McNerny - Colorado Oil & Gas Association
"We raised $40,000 in our previous year’s paddle raiser, and were nervous about setting a goal of $48,000 this year. We ended up raising close to $64,000! We were simply blown away."
-- Tarika Cefkin - Nathan Yip Foundation
"We had our fingers crossed that we would hit the $50,000 mark … we could only sit and watch, amazed and thrilled, as the crowd soared past $50,000. You kept them enthusiastically giving until their generosity reached nearly $100,000! It felt like the audience would not stop giving!"
-- Gino Greco - American Red Cross Rocky Mountain
"We netted over $111,000, more than $40k above our goal and double last year’s net."
-- Samilja Hein - TESSA
"With your help, we raised $115,000 (net) on a goal of $73,000. Last year, this same event raised $40,000. We are overjoyed!"
-- Dave Ryan - Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado
In this guide, we are going to share our process with you.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “if this unique paddle raiser process is so effective, why aren’t we keeping it a secret? Why would we allow random nonprofits and even other auctioneers to download it from our website?”
Our mission as a company is to help nonprofits raise more money and have a bigger positive impact on the world.
Our mission does NOT stipulate that the nonprofits we help must be our clients.
So if people learn from these strategies and raise more money in their paddle raisers, then we’re achieving our mission.
Next, you might be thinking, “Okay, they’re going to share a few things, but they’re going to leave out a few key elements so that we’ll forced to hire one of their auctioneers if we want to truly implement the strategy.”
That’s not the way we roll.
We are going to share the entire strategy with you, and yes, you will be able to implement it yourself to improve the fundraising at your next gala event.
In fact, we’re going to lead off with a very simplified version of our strategy right now.
If all you want is a description of the strategy, and you’re not interested in the philosophy or the specific techniques, then the next 400 words will give you everything you’re looking for.
Here is our paddle raiser strategy in a nutshell:
That’s the strategy that we’ve used to help hundreds of nonprofits dramatically increase the fundraising totals in their paddle raisers.
If that’s all you need, then you are good to go.
However, if you want to learn more about the who, what, when, where, why and how of our fundraising strategy, then read on my friend.
We’ll help you understand exactly how to execute an effective paddle raiser strategy.
A Paddle Raiser is a simple fundraising tool during which you ask the members of your audience to “raise their paddles” to contribute money. They’re not buying anything, not receiving anything (except a tax deduction) -- they’re just giving your nonprofit the money it needs to achieve its mission.
This fundraising technique is also known by the names Fund-a-Need, Cash Call or Special Appeal.
In fact, nationwide, Fund-a-Need may be the most commonly used name for this technique.
We have always referred to this as a “Paddle Raiser,” because of a very early understanding of the administrative difference between a “Paddle Raiser” and a “Fund-A-Need”.
A request for donations to support the general operations of the nonprofit. These funds typically are unrestricted and can be spent on any of the nonprofits needs.
A request for donations to support a particular project, a particular program or a particular capital expense. Depending on the state in which you raise the money and the specificity of your request, the money collected during a fund-a-need may be restricted to the specific purpose you announced to the audience.
However, that’s a technical difference that is not commonly recognized and “paddle raiser” and “fund-a-need” are used interchangeably.
Because the term “Fund-A-Need” is so commonly used, and because we plan to publish parts of this guide independently, you will see the phrase “aka fund-a-need” throughout the document so that readers who join at any point along the way will understand that we’re talking about the same fundraising vehicle that they’re thinking about.
So how does a Paddle Raiser (aka Fund-a-Need) work?
Years ago, when I first learned what a paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) was, I didn’t get it.
I thought, “So wait a second … you just ask people to hold up their paddles to donate money?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And you’re expecting them to contribute tens of thousands of dollars?”
“Yes. Sometimes hundreds of thousands.”
“Are the donors related to the recipients of the money?”
“No, they’re not related.”
“Do the people who are donating the money at least know the recipients?”
“No, they don’t know the recipients.”
“And the donors are not going to receive anything of value in exchange for their contributions?”
“No, nothing tangible. Just the satisfaction of giving and the tax benefits of making a contribution.”
“I don’t get it. Why would they do that?”
The paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) didn’t make sense to me at the beginning, but now that we have conducted hundreds of paddle raisers during events of every size, we have become convinced that the paddle raiser is THE most effective day-of-event fundraiser precisely because the guests do not receive anything of value.
The goal of this Comprehensive Guide to Record-Breaking Paddle Raisers is to help you understand how to set up and execute your next paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) so you raise more money than you’ve ever raised before.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Back when I was confused about why people would “spend” money in a paddle raiser when they weren’t going to receive anything in return.
Like most Americans, I had a very consumer-focused view of all economic exchanges. We live in the most successful consumer economy on the planet. Our consumption is driven by a simple three-part mandate.
At first blush, the paddle raiser sounded to me like a serious misunderstanding of buyer motivations in a consumer economy. The paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) sounded like a retail store in a mall that contained nothing but empty shelves and a cash register.
I couldn’t imagine why consumers would walk into that vacant store, walk past all those empty shelves and deposit money into that cash register.
Consumers crave “transactions”.
They want to pick up specific items, that have specific characteristics and specific prices, and when they pay the posted price (or a discounted price), and get the satisfaction of completing the transfer of ownership.
The reality is that in our hyper consumer economy, most of us get more emotional satisfaction out of the “transaction of buying” than we get from “long-term relationship of owning.”
You may have craved a new pair of shoes, and when you first brought them home, you were excited and amazed and couldn’t wait to wear them. But how long does that feeling of excitement last? A few days? A few weeks?
Very quickly, you start dreaming about “buying” another pair of shoes, and you won’t be satisfied until you have them.
That’s how our consumer economy works. We’re a nation full of people who get most of our satisfaction from the brief transaction of purchasing.
If we recognize this reality, it will help us shape our paddle raiser to ensure that our donors get that transactional feeling they’re craving. They’ll donate far more money if you allow them to feel the way they’re used to feeling rather than trying to fight against the transactional mindset that has been ingrained in them since birth.
This “transactional thinking” is a hard pill for most nonprofits to swallow because we desperately want our donors to have a “relationship” with us. We want them to understand our mission, prioritize the problem we’re trying to solve, and support us because they share our values and our commitment.
These are deep-seeded, long-term relationships that are, by definition, the antithesis of “transactions.”
The reality is that both things can be true. It’s possible to have a great relationship and a transaction at the same time.
Think about great retail brands, such as Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. They are perennial leaders in customer loyalty because they build relationships with their clients based on products, services, values and priorities, and those customers respond to that relationship by seeking more “transactions” with those brands.
Wouldn’t it be great if your donors loved your organization for its mission, AND also really enjoyed the repeated transactional satisfaction of making donations?
A second important factor in conducting a successful paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) is to allow people to “achieve status” during your event.
Wealthy people sometimes donate huge sums of money in exchange for having their names permanently affixed to buildings or to have scholarships named after themselves.
When I was young, I didn’t understand what it meant to have that type of wealth (still don’t), what motivated those people to give, why having their names on buildings was important to them and their families, or what change they hoped to accomplish with their money, etc.
I still can’t say that I completely understand the complex motivations of participants in capital campaigns and other major-giving initiatives, but I do recognize that most of this fundraising is “transactional” at its core.
The charity gets the money -- the donor gets the “status”.
We will return to this concept later in our conversation about paddle raiser strategy, but it’s important to recognize that “status” is a vital component of our consumer economy, therefore it needs to be a vital component of your paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) strategy.
We’ve met many nonprofit leaders who were reluctant to do a paddle raiser, because they felt that their guests were too humble and too discreet to raise their paddles publicly to donate money.
They would say, “our donors are very modest people. They don’t show off their wealth. They would prefer to do their giving in private.”
Your donors may be the exceptions among the hundreds of millions of citizens of our consumer economy, but we suggest that you may be overestimating the humility of your donors, and that overestimation can cost your nonprofit a lot of money.
Here are some facts that are likely true of your wealthy-yet-modest donors, whom you believe would not want to want to raise their paddles in public because they do not want to reveal their wealth.
Your donors are not “flashy”. They don’t walk around with big wads of cash in their pockets. They’re not all bling-ed out in jewelry. They don’t brag about their money or make a big production about how much they give to charity.
Yet, they still display their status in many ways -- and most of that display is achieved through “consumption”. We know they’re successful because of the job titles on their business cards and the creature comforts they’ve purchased for themselves.
No matter how modest they are, your guests probably have a bigger appetite for displays of status than you give them credit for. And when you deprive them of the opportunity to attain status at your event, you do so at your own peril.
That decision can cost you tens of thousands of dollars.
More on that later.
Fundraising campaigns on public television and public radio truly adhere to the consumer mindset, because they promise donors small prizes if they donate at particular levels. They might say, “Please make a contribution of $35 and we’ll send you a gift worth $5.”
In our opinion, that’s taking the consumer transactional approach a step too far.
We’ll get into this in more detail later, but we believe your paddle raiiser should absolutely, positively NEVER EVER offer your guests ANY physical gift in exchange for their donation.
Sometimes charities will say, “For every person who donates at the $500 level or higher, we’re going to have someone rush over to their table and give them an [insert small gift].”
Although this is a form of “status” because you’re drawing attention to the donor (which is good), the fact that there is a physical gift involved makes this a mistake that can cost your paddle raiser a lot of money.
Offering a physical gift in exchange for a donation, converts your paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) from a “transaction” (which is good) into a “purchase” (which is bad).
You want your guests to have the “transactional” experience that they crave, but you do not want them to make a “purchase” during your paddle raiser.
What’s the danger of a “purchase?”
If you get your guests focused on a “purchase”, your audience of consumer-economy natives will immediately and subconsciously think about whether the “item” is worth the purchase price. They can’t help thinking this way, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They have lived their lives in this consumer economy, and they are experts at making purchases.
Naturally, the answer to the silent subconscious question “is this little gift worth $500” will be “no” -- of course, the object is not worth the price. It’s not intended to be worth the price. It’s just a thank-you gift. But the fact that a physical items exists at all, will trigger a consumer purchase evaluation that is hard to overcome.
Our recommendation is that there should be no trinkets, no teddy bears, no flowers, no blinking necklaces, no gifts of any kind (other than tax benefits) for your paddle raiser donors.
More on that later.
We’ve discovered that when you take all of these concepts and you include them in your paddle raiser strategy, you will create the momentum for a Tidal Wave of Giving!
Our paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) strategy is a convergence of techniques and psychological triggers that have helped our clients give until they’ve achieved record fundraising results.
In order to do a paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) at your event, you must first make the decision to do a paddle raiser at your event.
That sounds obvious and circular, but chances are you have many stakeholders who must be appeased.
There are often one or two strident voices on your board of directors who will argue that a paddle raiser is gauche, undignified, puts undo pressure on the guests, creates awkwardness and/or [fill in the blank with some another objection].
They will try to stop you from including a paddle raiser in the program.
We can’t argue against any of their specific objections.
Maybe it is gauche; maybe it is undignified; maybe it does put undo pressure on the guests; maybe it is awkward and maybe all of the objections are valid.
But none of that matters.
Every argument against a paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) is evidence that you’re probably making the #1 most expensive mistake nonprofits make that sabotages their fundraising efforts -- Don’t say “No” for your donors. Let them make their own decision.
How often do you hear sentences that include the phrases:
These phrases indicate that your stakeholders are normal human beings who struggle with a very normal human condition. It’s called the “Fear of Asking for Money.” There’s no reason to be ashamed about this malady, because billions of people suffer from it.
Employees are afraid to ask for a raise, salespeople are afraid to ask for the sale and nonprofits are afraid to ask for money.
Here is an animated explainer video about a study that was conducted by researchers at several prominent universities. They wanted to determine what would happen if you made a giving opportunity clearly visible and available (e.g. Salvation Army ringers outside stores), but in one case you made a verbal “ask” for support while in the other case you stayed silent and let the passers-by decide for themselves whether they want to give.
The conclusion of this study was that the human impulse to give is so difficult for your donors to suppress that when they are “asked” for support, they give.
When people were not asked, they could resist the impulse to give and walk right past the Salvation Army bell ringer. But when the bell ringer made a verbal “ask” for support, donation levels shot through the roof.
Despite the reality that “people give when asked”, most of us remain truly uncomfortable about asking for money.
Women’s success coach Kathy Caprino described this mental hurdle perfectly in a 2012 article titled “Why Asking for Money is so Hard.” She was talking about the difficulty female business consultants have in pricing their services, but her description applies equally well to nonprofits.
Asking for money brings up thousands of insecurities and doubts. We’re scared to look money in the face, command it, control it, and to put ourselves out there.
Folks tell me that when they ask for money from clients or customers, questions swim inside their heads about their value, impact, and “appeal.” They fear that asking for money is the opposite of being “pleasing” to people, and will be a huge turn off.
At the root of this money challenge are shame, doubt and insecurity: Am I good enough? How can I put a value on what I offer? Will there be enough people to pay this? Will they come back? Did they think my work was a good value? How do I fare against the competition? Did I give them great results?
That’s a business consultant’s perspective, but isn’t the nonprofit perspective the same? When you ask for donations, aren’t you making a value proposition about the worthiness and impact of the work you’re doing?
Aren’t you putting yourself out there to possibly be rejected?
What if they think your nonprofit is worth only a fraction of what you think it’s worth?
Those are all normal human fears, but you have to get over them.
You can’t let your personal fear of asking for money get in the way of your organization’s duty to “give your guests” the opportunity to donate money.
Did you hear that?
The pressure is not to “beg” for money.
The pressure is to make sure you’re giving your guests the opportunity to give.
Here are the indisputable facts about your event.
We’ve worked with hundreds of charities who were terrified to implement their first paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) or to make a significant change in their paddle raiser structure, only to discover that on the night of the event, the audience was eager to give and dramatically exceeded the nonprofit’s expectations.
Years ago, I read a book called “Going for Gold: The History of Newmont Mining Company”. This book described a relatively new concept called “invisible gold”.
When most of us think if gold mining, we imagine an old guy with a pick axe in an underground mine chipping at a gold vein in the rock walls. Or we imagine someone standing in the shallows of a river dipping his pan into the water and sloshing it around to get rid of the sediment and reveal the gold.
The book, “Going for Gold” explained that most of the visible gold had already been discovered, but Newmont Mining’s geologists concluded that microscopic “invisible” gold might exist in places where certain natural elements were present.
So miners started picking up tons of soil, feeding it through an assay process and discovering that yes, there was indeed invisible gold that had bonded together to form visible gold dust.
When I read this book, I immediately thought of the paddle raiser and how often the leaders of nonprofits are shocked to discover that tens of thousands of dollars of “invisible gold” had been sitting in their audience year after year, and all they had to do was ask for it.
We go deeper on this subject in our video below.
It’s the day of your fundraising gala and you’ve spent months planning, organizing, coordinating and executing. You’ve had many sleepless nights, you’ve worried over every details, and now, finally, everyone is in the room.
Then something starts to happen.
It’s happening noiselessly and invisibly. It’s very likely that you’re not even aware of it. Your audience is going through a mental shift.
They walked into the room planning to make a donation of some type, but as they sit in their seats, they’re unconsciously changing their minds.
Now they are NOT going to make a contribution to your organization, and they’re not even sure why they’ve reversed course. They’re just no longer in the mood.
Too often, nonprofits inadvertently commit two mood-killing offenses:
In the business world, salespeople learn to make something called an "Elevator Pitch". It’s a short persuasive statement about you and your organization that explains what you do, sparks curiosity and helps you set a next appointment with that person -- all in less than 30 seconds.
Nonprofits should think this way about their fundraising events.
You have a captive audience, but your audience has a limited attention span. If you can quickly tell them what you do, the impact you’re having and the need for support, they will gladly donate money.
But if you take too long, you will exhaust their patience, and you will push them “out of the mood” for fundraising.
Our experience, over the span of hundreds of events, suggests that you should have no more than 3 speakers and 2 videos during your entire event.
Your distribution of speakers and videos could be:
That’s it. Six major touch-points delivered by three different speakers and two videos. Keep it short and sweet, and you will raise more money while giving your audience a more enjoyable experience.
You don’t have to keep beating your guests over the head. Be brief, be clear, then ask for the money, and they’ll gladly give it to you.
Then you can release your guests to enjoy the band, the dancing, the casino night or whatever other entertainment you’ve arranged to reward their attendance and their generosity.
Your fundraising event is about to start. You can feel the electricity in the air. Your volunteers and staff are armed and ready for guests to arrive. All the details are perfect and ready to go.
All of a sudden, there’s a rush of people at the door. The line to check-in is long. Guests are getting antsy and are anxious to enjoy that first drink. This is not the first impression you were hoping to give your guests and potential donors.
A rush at the check-in station is common.
The bulk of your guests will arrive 10 - 15 minutes after your official start time (e.g. your invitation says cocktails start at 5:30 p.m.) and there are typically 2 - 3 big rushes for the next 45 minutes thereafter.
The check-in line can get ugly fast, preventing guests from kicking back and having a good time as soon as they arrive.
You want to make sure the check-in process is quick, efficient and seamless.
Here are a few tips for doing just that:
Go Electronic: Looking up names on a piece of paper slows things down drastically. Keep your guest list on a computer so you can search for guests’ names quickly without having to flip through a bunch of papers to find someone.
Be Present at Registration: Whoever put the guest list and/or table assignments together needs to be present at registration to answer questions and even authorize unexpected things that inevitably come up. You can have this person stationed at the “troubleshooting” station at a small separate table at the end of the main registration. Whenever there is a complication with a guest check-in, your staff should send that guest to this person to troubleshoot.
Prepare for Changes: You must be prepared for a lot of changes and questions at check-in. People may show up who aren’t on the guest list, even if they say they’ve already registered. Make sure your check-in staff never makes someone feel bad for not being on the guest list, as you never know if it’s your mistake or theirs. Make the person feel welcomed and simply direct them to your designated “troubleshooting” station where their check-in can be handled without fuss. Never say to a guest, “You’re not on the list,” and make them feel bad. Rather, say, “Could you go see my colleague Judy at station 10? She will make sure you’re entered properly in our files.” Then Judy can handle the registration and make that guest feel welcomed and wanted.
Have Extras Ready: You’ll want to have things like extra bidder numbers available, as well as anticipate the need for extra seating for guests who show up but aren't on the guest list. You also may find that sometimes a person says they’re attending on behalf of another guest – this happens often when corporate sponsors purchase a table and the attendees change last minute. You can anticipate this by categorizing people by corporate sponsor so you know where to seat people when they show up.
Don’t Bog Down Registration: The registration process isn’t time for you to collect detailed information about attendees. The most you should collect is their name, email and credit card information (you must collect payment info – that will help with a speedy check-out at the end of the event). Do not spend precious time collecting physical mailing addresses and other non-essential information. It just bogs down the registration process and irritates guests. If you really need to collect more information, notate with a sticker on bidder numbers that you need additional information from that guest and have your registration staff send them to a completely separate table for this information after they have completely checked in.
Provide Ample Registration Staff: You want an ample number of staffers at the check-in desk. Put your fastest, most talented people at the front stations so they handle the bulk of the registration traffic. You want your guests to see the most efficient people working the front stations. You also want your most charismatic staff at the front stations too. For many guests, this will be the first event-related person they speak with so first impression definitely matters!
Direct Flow: Have one of your staff members directing traffic to ensure all check-in stations are in full operation. It’s also good to have a staff person directing traffic away from the check-in table to keep the area clear and free from bottlenecks. A good strategy is to put the bar away from the check-in desk as people tend to go to the bar as a first stop after check-in. Also, have an area where guests can either hang or check-in coats, and keep that area separate from the check-in area to avoid clogging the check-in area further. Remember, too many guests lingering in the check-in area can leave arriving guests mistakenly thinking there is a huge line, when there really isn't a line at all.
Pre-Assign: Pre-assign as many things as you can in advance, including paddle numbers, seating assignments, etc. Put your bidder numbers and table assignments in numeric order. Once someone is assigned a number, it’ll be easier for you to grab his or her paddle and seat assignment based on a numeric system vs. alphabetical search.
Remember, whatever saves seconds, saves minutes, and whatever saves minutes, saves hours. Come up with an efficient check-in system and your fundraising event will run smoothly from start to finish!
Remember earlier we said that “transactions” are okay, because that’s what people in our consumer economy are used to, but you do not want your paddle raiser to include an actual “purchase”.
The reality is that just about every other fundraising opportunity in your event is a “purchase” of some type.
Your donor buys two tickets to attend your event and receives two seats - this is a purchase.
Your donor wins a silent auction item and receives the silent auction item - this is a purchase.
Your donor contributes $20 to the wine pull and receives a bottle of wine - this is a purchase.
Your donor buys a raffle ticket Receives a “chance” to win to win the raffle prize - this is a purchase.
Your donor has the winning bid on a live auction item and receives the live auction item - this is a purchase.
In just about ever fundraising opportunity at your event, your guests are going to have a regular “purchasing” experience. You may expect that they’ll give more or spend more because they love your nonprofit, and yes, they might do that in a limited way. However, the reality is that in any type of “purchase” at your event, their spending will always be tethered to their perception of the “value” of the item they’re purchasing. The Paddle Raiser is something different. The paddle raiser is a “transaction” but it is NOT a “purchase”. We want to make sure we keep it that way.
As the organizer of your nonprofit’s fundraising, you are well aware that the day-of-event fundraising doesn’t just happen on the day of the event. You invest months of effort to prepare for the event, and it can be exhausting.
Of all the options, the paddle raiser is the simplest.
Here is a comparison chart:
The paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) is super easy!
Low Overhead: You don’t need to acquire any items to do a paddle raiser. There’s no asking companies for donations or dealing with items on consignment.
Keep Every Penny: There are no costs to doing a paddle raiser, so you keep every penny for your organization. Nothing goes to a consignment firm. You don't spend any money on materials or bid sheets, or feeding your volunteers, etc.
Low Effort: Not only would you not have to collect items in order to raise money (like an auction), but also you don’t have to do much to administer a paddle raiser. No preparing bid sheets and coordinating how to get each item to the auction “winner.”
Tax Breaks: Unlike purchased auction items, donations at a paddle raiser are completely tax-deductible. If you’re doing a paddle raiser for a school or educational program in certain cities and states, your donors may eligible for a childcare tax credit (check with a local CPA or tax attorney to see if your state has such a program).
Too often nonprofits leave their paddle raiser until the end of the night. After every speaker, and every video and every other thing that can happen, finally the paddle raiser begins, but it doesn’t go well, because a quarter to a third of the audience has already tipped and the rest of the audience is exhausted.
We believe that 9 p.m. is the witching hour for fundraising. Click here to watch an animated explainer video about the importance of getting your fundraising done early in your event.
While we’re aware that the actual circadian rhythm of your particular audience will be determined by the ages of the participants, the day of the week and the city and/or time zone in which you live, we believe that 9 p.m. is an important marker because of basic biology.
If your cocktail hour started at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. then by 9 p.m. your guests have been at your event for 3 to 3.5 hours.
You do not want your paddle raiser to compete with all of that, because your paddle raiser will lose. Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation with someone who really needed to pee? It’s a losing effort. :-)
Make sure your paddle raiser is earlier in the night, when everyone is energetic, focused and ready to engage.
I know that this piece of advice sounds counterintuitive because challenging your audience to stretch seems like a good idea. The challenge is that if you’re going to announce a goal at the very beginning of your paddle raiser, you’d better be super duper extra duper confident that you’ve picked the right goal.
Let’s say that the company that’s handling your check-in, check-out has a fundraising thermometer they can put on the screen, so the entire audience can see exactly how much money has been raised and how close they’re getting to the goal.
That sounds great, in theory, but the reality of fundraising thermometers makes me feel like Edna the Super Hero Uniform Designer from the movie “Incredibles”. Take 45 seconds out of your day to have a laugh. Watch the “No Capes!!!!!” scene from “The Incredibles” in which she emphatically points out all of the super heroes who have met their demise because of their capes.
That’s how I feel about fundraising thermometers.
No thermometers! :-)
The one big upside about announcing a goal and using a fundraising thermometer is that you get the audience very focused on the goal.
Getting the audience focused on a financial goal can be powerful, because groups of people do get motivated when they see a visible finish line.
By checking the thermometer, the audience will always know “exactly” how much money they’ve raised as a team, which is good. Audiences like to be able to keep score.
As the fundraising gets closer and closer to the goal, you can inspire more people to raise their paddles to become part of the team.
You can plan a great celebration when you reach the target (e.g. “We did it!!” on the screen along with cheering and clapping and music) which will give the audience a great sense of accomplishment.
Those are the upsides, and they sound like compelling reasons to use a fundraising thermometer. However, we believe the downsides far outweigh the upsides.
Here are the downsides.
Sharing a fundraising goal such as $100,000 or $150,000 or $200,000 can feel pretty intimidating to your audience. The people who were planning to give $250 or $100 might feel that their gift is so minuscule that it won’t make much difference, so they immediately feel discouraged, and unimportant.
If you don’t get a few big donations right at the beginning to take a big bite out of the goal, the whole audience starts to get discouraged.
Let’s say that you raised $85,000 in last year’s paddle raiser, and this year you’ve set a goal of $100,000. You announce that goal at the start of the paddle raiser and put your fundraising thermometer on the screen.
Your audience members give generously, and exceed last year’s total, but the donations peter out at $92,000. So they did $7,000 better than last year, which is reason to celebrate. But there is no celebration, because the thermometer on the screen is showing them that they’re still $8,000 short of the goal.
Now everyone in the audience who stretched to their highest total ever, feels as if they’ve failed.
On the other end of the spectrum, what happens if you set your fundraising goal too low, and halfway through your paddle raiser, the fundraising thermometer on the screen screams, “Goal Achieved! You did it!”
But you’ve still got four levels remaining?
Everyone who has not yet given is suddenly off the hook. They don’t need to continue to contribute, because you’ve already achieved your goal.
You can try to coax them forward saying, “Hey, we’ve reached the goal, but let’s see how much further we can go.” But this will sound somewhat hollow to the audience. The challenge has been met, so there’s no reason to keep giving.
We believe that the benefits you gain from telling the audience a goal at the very beginning of the paddle raiser, are not worth the risks that you invite.
So does this mean that you should never set a goal? Of course not. You just shouldn’t set a big goal at the beginning. Instead, just start your fundraising, and plan to use dynamic incremental goals. For example, let’s say you had 7 people at $1,000, you could set an incremental goal of $10,000 at that level and try to persuade three more people to contribute $1,000 each.
Or let’s say you have 15 people at $500, you could ask for one more person at $500 to get to an even $8,000.
As you go through your paddle raiser, you’re allowing the natural pauses in the donations to create incremental goals. When the audience stops just shy of a landmark, it’s easy to ask them to stretch just a little bit more to reach it.
If you’re at $90,000 heading into the $250 level, that’s the time to announce to the audience that you have an overall goal of $100,000, and challenge them to try to reach it.
If you get 24 people at $250 ($6,000 total), and 40 people at $100 ($4,000 total), you’ll reach the goal.
When you’re close to the end, and close to your big number, that’s the time to make an announcement to the audience.
Sometimes it does feel cool to see those fundraising totals on the screen for everyone to see, and that alone might compel you to use a fundraising thermometer.
But there’s another option. You can make a series of slides that announce that the audience has exceeded different levels.
For example, you could have slides that says:
When the total fundraising exceeds once of those levels, you can put that slide up and have a brief celebration with the audience, then continue with the paddle raiser.
Please note that your slide should NOT say, “We just achieved our goal of [insert amount]!” Instead, it should just announce the threshold that was exceeded.
The best candidate to become your “Lead Donor” is a person who supports your organization in a big way every year. This is typically a person writing a five- or six-figure check to your charity each year.
You want to have a conversation with this person ahead of time and ask if he or she would be willing to serve as the “Lead Donor” in your paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need).
As the “Lead Donor” of the paddle raiser, the person's job will be to raise his or her paddle at a pre-agreed level, such as $10,000.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The Lead Donor must be a real person making a real contribution. Anyone who can afford to donate $10,000 during your event is known to the other wealthy and connected people in the room, so when he or she raises that paddle, it produces real leadership and inspires others to join in.
If you try to fake a Lead Donor, not only is that unethical, it’s also ineffective. Some random person or staff member raising his or her paddle at $10,000 will immediately ring as “untrue” to the other wealthy people in the room, because they know who has that capacity and who doesn’t.
So always play it straight. You need a real contributor to step up as your Lead Donor.
KNOW WHERE YOU’RE STARTING - A Lead Donor allows you to start off the paddle raiser with the certain knowledge that a big donation is coming at a particular level.
That knowledge will tell you where to start the paddle raiser and how to keep the momentum high. Without a Lead Donor, you’re starting in the dark, and you might start too high.
Have you ever been at an event during which the auctioneer said, “Anyone want to donate $100,000?”
“How about $50,000?”
“How about $25,000?”
“How about $10,000?”
Finally a bid comes in! But those first three levels were excruciating and completely ruined the mood for the whole audience. Those first three levels basically taught the audience that it’s okay to sit on their paddles and no contribute -- the big donors are doing it, so there’s nothing wrong with the small donors doing it, too.
PEER PRESSURE AT THE TOP - Your top donor will sometimes inspire other wealthy people to surprise you with donations at high levels.
In roughly 10% to 15% of the paddle raisers that we’ve conducted, there have been surprise donors who have given at the top levels. For example, we asked for donors at $10,000, expecting that our lead donors Joan and Jerry Miller would raise their paddle. But we and the nonprofit were pleasantly surprised when two other paddles went into the air.
Two of the Millers friends/business associates/fellow board members decided to match their contribution, and suddenly we had $30,000 raised at the $10,000 level.
When your Lead Donor is a well-known and well-respected member of your community, his or her donation by itself can create some positive peer pressure that leads many other donors to join in at high levels.
VALIDATING YOUR VALUE - Your top donor validates your organization. When you ask the audience for donations of $10,000, nearly everyone in the room is thinking, “Are they crazy? $10,000??? I can’t afford that! Is this organization even worth a $10,000 gift?”
Then your Lead Donor’s paddle goes up, the $10,000 donation is announced, and the value and importance of your organization is reinforced to the entire audience.
The Lead Donor’s gift says many things:
MAKE ANCHORING WORK FOR YOU - Most people LOVE to buy things that are on sale. When we see a sticker that says, “50% off!” or “60% off!” we get super excited.
Why do we feel that way? Because we get “anchored” on the higher price.
When they tell us the original price was $100, but we’re able to buy it at $40, we fall in love with the discount, without really questioning whether the original price was falsely inflated.
Anchoring is a real thing and it happens to all of us all the time.
This is how anchoring has a positive effect on a donor in your audience.
Let’s say Fred is at your event and has been moved by the stories about the impact your nonprofit has had on the lives of so many. Fred was initially thinking that he could afford to donate $250 to your organization, but after seeing your emotional video, he started thinking that maybe he would donate $500.
But $500 is a real stretch for him. He can afford to make the contribution, but he’s never given that much to a charity before. He’s more of a small gift kind of guy.
This is where anchoring steps in to help.
As you proceed through your paddle raiser, you’ve got donors at $10,000, $5,000, $2,500 and $1,000. All of those gives serve to “anchor” the rest of your audience on higher dollar amounts, so all of a sudden, $500 doesn’t seem so big to them.
Anchoring makes it easier for your guests to give slightly more than they were planning to give.
Teamwork is the missing ingredient in most paddle raisers.
As an individual, you decide you’re going to donate $500. So when the $500 level is announced. You raise your paddle, the auctioneer reads off your paddle number, and that’s it.
You’ll pay the $500 when you checkout at the end of the night, and you’ll get a thank-you letter in the mail two weeks later.
Even though you were sitting in the middle of a crowd when the paddle raiser was happening, the reality is that the experience of a paddle raiser is actually very isolated. You’re alone in that crowd.
It’s sort of like the difference between being on an airplane and being in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway. In both cases you’re surrounded by other people, but they’re not the same, are they?
Would you agree that you generally feel way more connected to the other passengers on the plane than you feel toward other drivers on the road?
On the plane, we all got on together; we’re all going to the same initial destination; we’re standing in the aisles together while boarding; we’’re helping your neighbors when they need help with their bags; we’re breathing the same air; we’re being served by the same flight attendants; we’re standing in line for the restrooms.
There is something about being on an airplane that turns all of us into a group of acquaintances. We’re not “friends” with our fellow passengers, but we’re a couple of notches warmer than complete strangers.
But in our cars, on the highway, we are complete strangers! We don’t make eye contact with anyone. We’e reach breathing our own air, listening to our own music, going to our own destinations. We don’t know anyone else on the road, and we don’t want to know anyone else on the road. We’re just occupying the highway with them for a certain distance, because we just happen to be traveling in the same direction at the same time.
Too many paddle raiser audiences are like crowded highways. Lots of strangers with no unifying connection.
We want to turn your paddle raiser into more of a plane ride, where people feel that they’re in it together, and they’ve got to work together.
It’s important to create a sense of “team” during the paddle raiser, and we’ve created a video to explain a simple way to do just that.
Have you ever heard an auctioneer start off a paddle raiser by saying, “We’re trying to raise $100,000 tonight"? Is there anyone who would like to write a check for the whole amount, and we can all go home?”
The audience laughs. The auctioneer laughs. Everyone is having a good time.
But is that the way you want to start your paddle raiser?
Do you want to start off by making a very insincere request?
Do you want your audience to think that the goal is to get the paddle raiser “out of the way” so everyone can go home?
And what happens when no one raises their paddle with a commitment to write a check for $100,000?
The auctioneer says, “How about $50,000? Anyone want to donate $50,000?”
“How about $25,000?”
“How about $10,000?”
Finally, one person raises his/her paddle and the paddle raiser begins.
But what’s the impact of all those levels with no donors? We believe that when you start too high and ask for levels at which you have no donors, you’re just training the whole audience that it’s okay to sit on their paddles and not participate.
If the big donors are refusing to give, it’s definitely okay for small donors to refuse as well.
We don’t want to train the audience to sit out of the paddle raiser, so we recommend that you start the paddle raiser exactly one level above the level at which you know you will have your first donor.
What if you don’t know the level at which your first donation will come? Then use last year’s paddle raiser as your guide. Start one level above your largest gift from last year.
When you start your paddle raiser too high, you undermine the seriousness of your paddle raiser. Let’s say you start at $150,000 and hear crickets?
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a simple formula that would allow you to predict exactly how much money your audience “should” contribute during your paddle raiser?
Of course, that sounds impossible.
If you’ve been in the fundraising business for any amount of time, you’re aware that every event is different.
Every cause evokes a different emotion in the audience; every audience has a different financial capacity, and the blend of the messaging, emotion and capacity on that particular night creates the unique fundraising fingerprint of that particular event.
All of those things are true, but over the span of hundreds of events, we’ve recognized that galas have characteristics that give you some idea of how much money this particular audience on this particular night might be able to generate.
So what if we told you that there IS a formula that we believe can help you anticipate the amount of money that your paddle raiser might raise.
LET’S NERD OUT ON SOME MATH
For the next page or so, we’re going to get nerdy about math.
Don’t be scared.
We won’t stay in this mode for very long, but when you learn this very basic mathematical distribution model, you will understand why it’s possible to predict the performance of your paddle raiser..
In the middle of the 20th century, an American linguist named George Kingsley Zipf, noticed something statistically interesting about the English language.
Zipf observed that when you study any large body of words (e.g. a book), the most commonly used word will appear roughly twice as often as the 2nd most commonly used word, and roughly three times as often as the 3rd most commonly used word, and four times more often than the 4th most commonly used word, etc.
Zipf had stumbled upon an odd correlation between the word’s ranking (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th) and the frequency of that word compared to the top word.
To try to make this more clear, here it is as a bullet list:
So this means that if you broke down all of the words in any randomly selected book and determined the 12th most commonly used word in that text, the #1 most commonly used word would appear roughly 12 times more than that 12th most common word.
It’s an unusual correlation and the crazy thing is that this isn’t unique to the English language! After Zipf made this observation, other scientists tested other languages, and they discovered that this correlation between the rank of a word and its frequency was true of EVERY language on the planet.
Soon scientists in other disciplines started testing Zipf’s Law against other data sets, and discovered that this correlation between rank and frequency holds true across a wide array of economic and population distributions, including city populations, annual incomes, the sizes of corporations, website traffic, earthquake magnitudes, last names, the sizes of mutual funds, and the list goes on and on.
For example, in the United States, the populations of our largest cities conform to Zipf’s Law. According to the 2010 census:
This pattern for the distribution of city populations has been observed all over the globe (with some exceptions in Africa).
If you want to watch an entertaining video about Zipf’s Law, please click here to watch a Youtube video.
If you want to read a research paper about this phenomenon, please check out “Zipf’s Law for All the Natural Cities around the World”. In this paper the researchers state:
We extracted about 30,000 natural cities in the world …. distributed among five continents, and over 230 countries. We ran three separate tests for each set of cities … We found that Zipf’s law holds remarkably well at the global level for the 30,000 cities”
Given the broad reach of Zipfian Distribution and the degree to which scientists all over the world have tested it and proven that it is a reliable pattern that shows up in datasets of all types, we decided to apply it to paddle raisers to see if it could reliably predict the “Expected Fundraising Outcome” of a paddle raiser regardless of the size of the event.
And, lo and behold, we discovered that, yes, Zip’s Law will allow you to make a reasonable prediction of the minimum value of your paddle raiser.
A typical paddle raiser distribution will give you x donors at the top level and 2x at the 2nd level, 3x at the 3rd level, 4x at the 4th level, 5x at the 5th level and so on. [NERD NOTE: This is actually Zipf’s Law in reverse -- each paddle raiser level is a multiple of the top-level, whereas in true Zipf’s Law each level is a fraction of the top level. But the math still plays out]
Let’s say you have 400 guests, and you have one person at your top level of $10,000. Zipf’s Law suggests that you should expect your volume of donors to look like this.
That’s a total of 28 donors and $36,200 in paddle raiser revenue. If you divide the total raised ($36,200) by the number of people in the room (400), then you get $90.50 per guest, which is an okay paddle raiser. We believe that anything north of $75 per guest is a “functioning” paddle raiser.
However, engaging only 28 people out of 400 is not very impressive.
But what if you were able to get two people at the top level? It would lead to this distribution:
That’s a total of 56 donors and $72,400 in paddle raiser revenue. If you divide the total raised ($72,400) by the number of people in the room (400), then you get a much better $181 per guest.
This is a good paddle raiser, but we believe that what Zipf’s Law is showing us is that this pattern describes the minimum you should expect from your paddle raiser. If you employ proper strategy and structure, you can dramatically increase the number of donors at the lower levels and give a significant boost to your fundraising.
When applied to paddle raisers, Zipf’s law seems accurate for the top levels, but it dramatically underestimates the potential of the lower levels.
If we look at the first example again, where you had 1 person at $10,000, but this time, instead of following Zipf’s Law all the way down, we engage more people at $2,500 and below, you could see a distribution that looks like this:
So that’s 119 people contributing $63,000, which is $157.50 per person in your 400-person audience, and that’s without finding a second person at $10,000 or two more people at $5,000. Those higher dollar donors are harder to find. But your audience is full of people who can donate $2,500 or less.
So how do you know if your event is the right type to host a paddle raiser? You have to decide if a live auction is the right type of fundraising vehicle for your event.
To determine whether a paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) is appropriate for your gala, you should first determine the primary focus of your event.
To determine if a live auction is appropriate for your gala, you should first determine the primary focus of your event. Is your gala supposed to be primarily:
Each of these ambitions is an important ingredient in every fundraising event, but leaning too heavily on any one of the “Four F’s of Fundraising” tends to have a negative impact on the other three.
So it’s important to have a clear understanding of the “type” of event you’re hosting so that you know exactly which of the Four F’s you want to emphasize and then make your decision about whether a live auction would be appropriate.
Your event is a fundraiser when the primary purpose of the event is to raise as much money as possible. A live auction is generally a good fit for this type of event. With a pure fundraiser like this, you’re leaning on your board members and your sponsors to fill the room with people who have resources. Your live auction will offer them unique packages that they can’t easily obtain elsewhere so they’re happy to bid on them at your event, which will help your organization raise money.
Your event is a Friend-raiser when the primary purpose is to introduce the organization to the audience in hopes of recruiting more volunteers to your mission. With this audience, the commitment of their time is more important than their financial contributions. As a general rule, teachers are not a great source for fundraising, because they don’t have any money! They have plenty of passion and goodwill, but they lack the cash to financially support you, so an audience full of teachers won’t produce much fundraising revenue.
UNLESS --- you’re an organization like Susan G Komen’s annual Race for the Cure. When the Komen organization throws a Friend-raiser and recruits 20 teachers to run or walk in their annual race, those teachers become passionate advocates who often have a deeply personal connection to the mission. When they ask their friends and family to pledge money, everyone responds with great love and generosity and these teachers raise $2,500 each, and Komen makes $50,000 as a result of its Friend-raiser. Another example of the effective use of a Friend-Raiser: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) is an organization that serves one of the most vulnerable populations in our country – children who have been abused or neglected and are now in the court/foster care system.
CASA organizations need to raise money, but they also need to recruit volunteers who can get trained and become CASAs, because there are far more kids who need a CASA than there are CASAs available. So a Friend-raiser that shares the need, the mission, the strategy and process of getting involved, might persuade 20 or 30 new people to seek out additional information, and that would be a tremendous success for the CASA organization.
A Fun-raiser is an event in which the primary purpose is to throw a great party and ensure that everyone has “Fun”. Examples of these types of events would be fundraising concerts, fashion shows, 5k walks/runs, or any other event where the fundraising is primarily achieved through ticket sales, sponsorships and pledges. Your attendees are helping you raise money just by being there, so you wouldn’t ask them to also participate in a live auction.
In a Fund-Praiser, the goal is to honor a titan of industry who has made a large impact on your specific charity or the societal problem that the charity is trying to solve. Your honoree might be a builder who has made a commitment to affordable housing and who has employed previously homeless people on his job sites. With a Fund-Praiser, your honoree may purchase two or three tables, and his fellow titans, who admire him and want to support him, will also purchase tables. And his major vendors, who want to show their appreciation, also buy tables. During the event, these titans may try to outdo each other in the live auction. In that case, honoring a significant member of the community and encouraging him or her to invite their friends will raise far more money than a typical fundraiser.
The argument that “our guests are too modest to raise their paddles” is often true.
Most successful people are not ostentatious about showing off their wealth, and most do not try to draw too much attention to themselves.
But we have to be careful to not make the mistake of thinking that “modesty” is a lack of desire for “status” because that’s not true.
Modest people aren’t braggadocious show-offs, but they absolutely do enjoy the “status” they’ve earned through their success.
Status and modesty are not mutually exclusive terms.
Having “status” and being a “show-off” are not the same thing.
Many nonprofits erroneously confuse these two concepts. They conclude that their guests “are too modest to seek status, so they won’t want to raise their paddles.”
Of course your donors want status, and of course, they will raise their paddles to achieve it, but only if you can remove the “showing off” aspect of it.
If your paddle raiser causes them to feel that they’re showing off when they raise their paddle, then they won’t do it.
The only way to get modest people to participate in your paddle raiser is to make it 100% clear to them and everyone in the room, that there is no other option. There is no other way for them to participate in this paddle raiser except to raise their paddles, so when they raise it in the air, they can experience the status that comes with making that commitment, without feeling that they’re showing off.
Here’s a couple of scenarios that describe this phenomenon in other settings:
Let’s say that you’re attending a 3-day conference for leadership training. On the first day of the conference, the presenters introduce themselves, go over the agenda, and then say, “Is there anyone here who would like to stand up and tell us about themselves and the challenges they’re facing at work?”
We all know that the super extroverts in the room will leap at that opportunity. In a room of 30 people, there are three or four who immediately raise their hands, and when called upon, they each stand up and talk about themselves, their work history and the challenges they’re facing at work.
Most of the people in the room are far too modest and far too “attention averse” to voluntarily stand up and say anything, even though most of the people secretly have a desire to share their own stories.
Now imagine that same conference, with the same attendees, but a different call to action. What if the presenter said, “Okay, we’re going to be here together for the next three days, and I know we have a room full of people with diverse professional experience and a wide array of daily challenges. Let’s go around the room. I’d like each of you to stand up, introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your career and share your biggest challenge at work.”
Now the modest person who would never voluntarily stand up and speak is thrust into a different situation. Since everyone is “required” to stand up and say something, it’s no longer showing off, or trying to grab the attention. There is no choice. When it’s her turn, the modest person will stand up and speak. And as she shares her story and her challenges, she gains status in the eyes of her peers.
That status is an important part of our personal and professional lives, and the organizers of that event just created a way for everyone to achieve status without feeling as if they were showing off.
Your guests are begging for you to give them that type of “cover” during your event. They won’t stand up and make a spectacle of themselves, but if take away all of the more discreet ways of making a donation, they’ll be able to safely raise their paddles and gain “status” without feeling like showoffs.
Here’s another example:
You go to a basketball game and the “kissing cam” song start to play. The jumbotron shows the camera zooming in on random couples around the arena, and whenever the camera lands on them, they smile, they blush, they kiss, they blush some more and they laugh.
It is clear that nearly all of the couples are very modest people. Of their own volition, they would NEVER kiss in front of 20,000 people.
But when the kissing cam is focused on them, they’re not being show-offs, they’re not attention seekers -- they’re just complying with the rules. It would be rude and disrespectful to their significant other if they refuse to kiss.
These modest people have been “forced” to kiss, and they’re smiling and happy about it. For years, they will tell the story of the night they went to the game and the kissing cam focused on them, and they were so embarrassed, but what did they do? -- They Kissed.
Modest people will not voluntarily participate in your paddle raiser if they feel that participating is a form of showing off. But when it’s the only way for them to contribute, and you’ve made it clear that you truly need the support, they will gladly participate because you’ve done them the favor of removing the showing off component of it.
When the organizers of a fundraising event think “our guests are too modest to raise their paddles”, they’re likely to do one or more of the following.
All of these are passive fundraising activities that avoid making a direct ask for support.
Please don’t be afraid to ask your donors to contribute to your organization. They are probably more willing to give than you think they are.
It can be difficult to know whether your paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) was effective because every audience and every event are so different.
But over the span of hundreds of paddle raisers, we have determined that your paddle raiser needs to generate at least $75 per guest in the room, to be considered a basically functioning paddle raiser.
If you raise less than $75 per guest, then you should implement some of the strategies in this guide to help boost your fundraising.
To conduct an effective paddle raiser, you must assign paddles at check-in.
If you’re using a company such as GiveSmart, Auction Event Services or Bolder Events to handle your check-in and check-out, then they have well-tested and proven processes for assigning paddle numbers to your guests.
If you’re not using a professional company and are instead handling check-in and check-out yourself with the support of volunteers, then you should use one of the following techniques:
We believe that the Stack of Numbers Approach is the most efficient way to manage your check-in, but whichever option you choose, you just want to make sure that your team knows the game plan and what to do if a guest’s name is not on the list.
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