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Why Use a Benefit Auctioneer:
Interview with Dean Crownover
Why hire a professional for the fundraising (it’s so much cheaper to do it on our own)!?
Hey – valid question. What a lot of people don’t realize is that auctioneers need to be licensed in many states – like Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama. There are legalities around selling items, even for charity, and you need to be covered. Make sure you know the rules for your state.
What’s even more important for your nonprofit, though, is that a professional auctioneer can maximize the revenue you generate at your event. After all, why put in all the time and effort of hosting a gala NOT to generate the most money you possibly can to support your mission?
And if you ARE hiring a professional, check out Chapter 7 of my book to learn how to hire a benefit auctioneer for your event. You’ll want to know some important details like…
How much experience do they have being a profit consultant?
How much funds have they helped raise?
Who else have they worked with (and were their clients happy)?
An auctioneer can boost the price of your auction items and (hopefully) keep your audience entertained, but are they holistically looking at your whole event and identifying ways to increase funds and revenue?
This is my FAVORITE part of what I do. As a Profit Consultant I look for all areas and opportunities to cover your event costs, increase the amount people give and new ways to create more revenue even before or after the event is over. Then, at your event, I auction-tain your donors from stage to open their wallets and give generously!
Dean Crownover, My Benefit Auctioneer, is a Profit Consultant and author, with a track record of raising millions of fundraising dollars for his nonprofit clients. Jane Fonda said “Dean Crownover is a dynamic auctioneer with the fast-talking pizzazz needed to rake it in!” He is the author of PADDLES UP! My Benefit Auctioneer Reveals Post-2020 Gala Fundraiser Secrets. The book shares proven fundraising strategies, including those that emerged from virtual events during the pandemic,and how they can be incorporated for live events.
More about Dean Crownover at https://www.MyBenefitAuctioneer.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Hello, everyone. This is Hugh Ballou. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Exchange. We have interviewed some interesting people over the last eight years, and today’s is no exception. I want my guest to introduce himself first. Dean Crownover, welcome. Tell people a little bit about you and what you do. Why do you do this? What’s your passion?
Dean Crownover: Hugh, thank you for having me. Excited to be here. I am a benefit auctioneer specialist. That means for galas, fundraisers. I exclusively work with nonprofit clients. I am their profit consultant leading up to their gala and event, and I am the guy on stage who does the auctioning and callout for donations. I have been doing it for about 12 years. Love it.
99% of auctioneers come from a family of auctioneers who do cattle, antiques, and traditional things. I came from entertainment as an actor in Atlanta; that’s where I’m based. I got thrown to the wolves one day to do an auction as part of being a funny Frenchman at a fundraiser. I was just walking around being eye candy. Part of it was I had to do the auctioning. I was hooked.
When I turned it into a business, because I didn’t know I had a business for a while, it is so much more rewarding than acting. Acting is a very selfish thing, if you will, because it’s about me. This, I am an ambassador, a diplomat, a salesperson for a nonprofit. I am helping them help their clients, and I love it. My wife worked in nonprofits forever. Coming home and explaining, we raised $50,000 or $25,000 or $100,000 or $1 million, or whatever it is, helping change lives, it makes my life so happy. It’s so much fun. I found a very rewarding career.
Hugh: Whoa. What does Confucius say? If you love your profession, you will never work another day again. I can feel the passion when you talk about it. We have some misconceptions about your profession, and we will deal with those. Go back to what being a benefit auctioneer is.
Dean: There are about 200 of us who are full-time in the U.S. We are specialists in the auction world. The National Auctioneers Association has a designation called “benefit auctioneer.” It’s basically a specialty. We do lots of classes, ongoing education. For those of us who are full-time and only work with nonprofits, our job is to consult on every aspect, including the newest trends, from A to Z on their gala: revenue streams, run of show, marketing, everything. Our job is to be the nonprofit’s co-pilot. I would say that 90% of what I do is behind the scenes.
An auctioneer like myself is usually booked a year in advance. We work that full year. Most guns for hire, they may be a regular auctioneer, they show up one day and only have one phone call. I have ongoing meetings with my clients. I am so embedded that I know that event backwards and forwards. That is the big difference.
Hugh: I’m thinking of an analogy. Back in the Dark Ages, when I was working through my way through college and used film, I had a film business back in Atlanta where you live, people would hire me to do photographs of their wedding, but they didn’t have a wedding planner. No coordinator. Nobody to run the wedding. They didn’t know what to do next. It’s almost like people who are doing an auction don’t have a wedding planner to tell them what to do or how to build out everything or how to excel at what you’re doing. In a way, you’re like a stage manager in a concert. You’re also the fundraising specialist.
When a nonprofit already has a development person or fundraising specialist, do they need you? Do you work in tandem with that person?
Dean: That’s my favorite client to work with. I work hand in hand with the development team. Because I’m the guy on stage, they’re not going on stage. The difference is, I am working 80-100 of these a year. Most nonprofits are doing one big gala and a couple other fundraisers. The experience load I have is much bigger, and I see all the trends. Because I see so much and do so much, and I can tell you what’s selling or what kind of emotional story, because that’s very big, that we’re telling. My job is to work with them and tell them what’s hot. What are they missing? What can we take that’s working and make it better? I love working with my development teams.
Hugh: The best leaders I work with are the people who are already good leaders. They are good and know what else they need. I have been to galas, and I know the organization just called in an auctioneer at the last minute as a gun for hire. What you do is more valuable.
We hear the word “nonprofit,” and we start in this scarcity mindset. We think we can’t afford that. In some sense of the word, you can’t not afford to do this. Why should someone hire you? Does it pay off?
Dean: When somebody asks me that, the first thing I say to them is, “You can’t afford not to have me.” You’re absolutely right. It’s a specialty. Most people don’t know they can hire this because they don’t teach you in high school or college how to book an auctioneer or a consultant because nobody knows we exist. About 10 years ago, we were really scarce. Now we are pretty mainstream. The nonprofits I work with understand immediately, “We understand the value of hiring someone like you,” because I work- In addition to the nonprofit, there are meeting planners and gala planners who specialize in nonprofits. I work hand in hand with both parties to make it happen. I can ask for one thing to pay for me.
By the way, if you want to book a benefit auctioneer, get a sponsor to pay for them. A sponsor will take care of it. I am the only person you hire, not the venue, not the food, not the band, who brings in money. I’m it. We’re relatively- I’m not going to say “cheap” because I am not cheap. My ROI is pretty high for a nonprofit.
Hugh: That’s return on investment. When people give money, it’s return on impact. You can spend ROI, but that’s a good thing to know. I am a recovering Scottish Presbyterian. We don’t want to spend money, which fits in with nonprofits.
You said you’re part of the mainstream. I have been working with nonprofits for over 30 years. This is the first time I’ve heard of a benefit auctioneer. Let’s help get the word out there because this is really needed.
Auctioneers must go to auctioneer school because you all talk fast, right?
Dean: This is really important when you are booking. 24 of 50 states, you have to have some kind of license as an auctioneer, or it’s against the law for you to use someone who is not a licensed auctioneer. Do check with your state or your county. States like New York or California, it’s county by county. In Georgia, you have to be licensed. So check that.
Do we have to talk fast? No. Here’s why. A traditional auctioneer who is selling estate things or cattle makes an income by a percentage from the seller and a percentage from the buyer. They want to sell 100 items per hour. They talk quickly to make that sale and move to the next one. Benefit auctioneers don’t work that way.
Hugh: Can you model each way of talking?
Dean: I’m going to be very honest. Yes, we go to auctioneer school. We learn the chant. We learn a lot of legalities. The chant is where you have a lot of filler words in between what you’re asking for. [Demonstrates auctioneer speak] They are talking quickly for rhythm, but it’s to move things along. I don’t have to do that because I am selling 5-7 items.
Most people have not been to an auction. I will give you a great example. I was doing this auction. This woman, who I could tell was of means and loved the nonprofit (it was an animal nonprofit). I work on the floor before we go into the ballroom near posters where the live auction is, and I am answering questions. I am introducing myself. She comes up to me and goes, “I really want to buy this item. I have never been to an auction, and I don’t trust what auctioneers might do.” That’s very enlightening. I asked her, “What do you mean?” She says, “They talk too fast. I don’t know where the bid is going to be. I’m afraid I’m going to get ripped off.” I say, “I don’t ever do that. I go very slow.” In the room, “We’re at $1,000. Now who will do $1,500?” [Much more slowly than the chant]” I taught her a little bit. She goes, “Eh, I don’t know.” She bought that item for $10,000. I would turn to her and go, “Now, we’re at $2,000.” She would wave. “Now, let’s go to $2,500.” I go slow.
I compare my audiences, who I love, because they are supporters, at some of these events that have open bars, they are sort of like drunken kindergarteners. I have to talk slowly and precisely so they understand where we’re at. I want everybody to feel good about giving and buying. That’s one of my superpowers: understanding and controlling an audience.
Hugh: The bottom line is building good relationships, isn’t it?
Dean: As I always tell my clients, the #1 objective is not for them to be a patron that night, but it’s for them to become a patron of your nonprofit all year long. That is my bottom line. That nonprofit is the hero, not me. I might dress in the fun jackets because I’m fun on stage and make people feel good. When we leave there, I want that patron going, “I never understood this nonprofit. I want to find out more. How do I give all year long?” That is my bottom line.
Hugh: That is so valuable. It’s not a transaction; it’s a relationship that is at the heart of this. When you’re interviewing auctioneers, should you just look in your town? Should you look outside of your area? What are some things to look for?
Dean: Excellent question. Is there a benefit auctioneer specialist in your town or area? You could find that out if you go to The National Auctioneers’ Association website, which is Auctioneers.org. You can find a list.
First of all, you want to find a specialist. If they are in your area, great. In Atlanta, I was the first person in the state of Georgia ever to become a benefit auctioneer 12 years ago. I was shocked nobody had ever done it prior to me. Now there is a ton of us. Find that out first.
Find out if they need a license in your state. That’s very important. Do they hold the benefit auction specialist designation from the Auctioneers’ Association? That means they are qualified to be your consultant, which is the next question you need to ask them.
Are you a hired gun who just shows up that night, or are you going to consult? For instance, I have written a guidebook, and I have written another book. I send my books to them. I have ongoing communications with them. Teaching is my job. Find out if that person does that for them. Will they hold your hand? Are they going to help when you need it, or will they be on the other end of the phone? It feels like I take phone calls at all hours of the night when people are stressed. Do they only specialize in fundraising auctions? These are the types of questions you have to ask.
How long have they been doing this? How experienced are they? How many are they doing a year? Experience compounds. A new guy has to get in there, too. They may be trained, but they don’t have the experience yet.
Hugh: Is it good to ask for referrals as well?
Dean: Absolutely. Especially when I was first starting, now, I’m lucky because my name is out there. I have a very good reputation. Before, when they don’t know you, you will get most of your referrals as an auctioneer from the audience. When they see what you do, they come up to you afterwards and say, “I am on a committee for a nonprofit, or I work for a nonprofit. We’re having a gala. Let’s talk.” That’s your #1.
Nonprofits talk to each other. I have heard some bad stories… The worst, it’s my favorite story. “We had a board member be our auctioneer, but he got drunk before the event and berated everyone, and it was horrible. We need a professional who won’t do that.” That’s a lot of what happens.
Hugh: Wow. I have so many questions. I’m glad to know about you. This is a gold mine of data. We do a lot of things wrong in the nonprofit world. I teach this stuff, and I still do stuff wrong. We help nonprofits build their core competencies and find competent people to work with. Auctions happen at galas, but do they happen in other occasions as well?
Dean: You can use it at any kind of fundraiser. I want to be real clear: The #1 revenue stream is called the paddle raise or fund a need. It’s a generic term. Live auction is #2 or #3. Sponsorships are #1 overall. At an event, it’s the paddle raise. It’s a very structured way that we ask the audience to donate. It’s my specialty. It’s where we have a testimonial, maybe a video. We explain why it’s so important. It’s about emotion, giving. Then I ask at certain levels. That is the #1 way to make money now.
I have been brought in not to sell anything, just to do the paddle raise. That is becoming more popular now. It’s just the paddle raise and nothing else.
Hugh: That would be at a gala?
Dean: I have done it at galas. I have done it at meetings. Mostly it’s a gala or fundraiser of some type. I have been brought to homes for people who love their nonprofit. Just do something private. In fact, I am doing one this weekend, where the benefactors are the Special Olympics of Georgia and St. Jude’s Hospital. It’s a bunch of country club members who every year get together at their country club, throw a huge gala. They are not a nonprofit; they just want to give. They divide the money up between these two nonprofits. There are all sorts of versions of what I work.
Hugh: I have been to auctions where it’s just an auction. There were some really fun items, like a Viking cruise. Viking got to present, and they donated tickets at a very high price. There were some other donated items in there. It was around having fun. It was hor d’oeuvres and drinks and the presentation, which people really liked. I was taken aback because it was pretty out there as far as taking a cruise. It was a sales presentation, but people expected that. There was a lot of interest in that. We just had one of the fast-talking auctioneers. That was a transactional event.
You’re there to help people hold the paddle up. You have a book called Paddles Up! Tell us about the book. You offer it to free to people watching today.
Dean: Yes, I want all nonprofits to have it. it’s a very short read. It’s like 80 pages, but it’s full of information. When COVID hit in March 2020, I had literally 24 hours to switch from a live event to a virtual event. Luckily, I was camera trained in my previous life as an actor. We had to get many other things switched over. So did every auctioneer, benefit, nonprofit. For the next year and a half, it was all virtual galas.
What I learned was there were some great best practices to come out of virtual to apply. Last August, I started doing live events again. They were about half the audiences because we had to space out. I learned so much from virtual that I started applying it to my live events and consulting. It was so much information, more than I thought it was going to be. I had to write a book about it to give to my clients instead of repeating it all and not wanting to forget anything. I turned it into a book, and now I give it to nonprofits.
A great example is when you open the paddle raise, now that everyone is using mobile bidding, open it a week before the event, and keep it open a week after the event. Collect money from people who cannot be there. There are little things now that are making thousands of dollars extra.
If they go to PaddlesUpBook.com or my website MyBenefitAuctioneer.com, free copy.
Hugh: Absolutely. MyBenefitAuctioneer.com is also a fun place to be. When people go there, what will they find?
Dean: Information about me. Videos, that kind of thing. My blog is in there. A lot of podcasts I have been on lately. The book. All about what we’re talking about today. What is a benefit auctioneer? How am I different? What am I going to do than your normal auctioneer? I push consulting quite a bit because that is 90% of what I do. 10% is on that stage. If we have built this thing right, and we put everything in place, it’s not 80/20, it’s 90/10. Everything runs pretty smooth that night, and I take pride in that.
Hugh: I’m glad you found us. I don’t know how you found us, but I’m glad you did. This is very useful information to have. I’m glad we have listeners out there who are listening to every episode because this is a gold mine of information.
Another thing I have seen is you go to a gala with a silent auction, and there is the live auction. Do those work in tandem? Is it a good idea to do both?
Dean: The three big moneymakers are the paddle raise, live auction, and silent auction. When everybody thinks of these, if you are not part of the development team, because they know where the money is now, most people think it’s all about a silent auction. That is one of the least performing revenue streams. It averages 50% fair market value. If the item is worth $100, you’re lucky to get $50 for it at your gala. It has diminishing returns. It is a lot of work to get those items, store those items, travel to your venue with them, and display them. People are tired of buying stuff. They want to give now. In the last 10-15 years, it has really shrunk.
I am a big fan of a mini silent auction. It’s still important. I’m not saying get rid of it. Only about 20% of any audience can afford the live auction. That is a big-ticket item for the most part. The silent auction allows everybody else to play.
But there is only one revenue stream where 100% of that audience can participate, and that is your paddle raise. We are asking from $1 up. How much can you donate? Can you donate from $1 to $1 million, anywhere in between? Everybody can. Everybody can afford $25, $50, $100.at minimum. That is the one revenue stream that everyone can be in the same boat and feel like they are changing lives. That is the bottom line. Doesn’t matter whose life we’re changing. It could be an animal, a kid, an adult, doesn’t matter. That is who we’re changing through this nonprofit.
When I talk to a client, I say, “Please change your mindset. The silent auction, we will talk about it a little bit. I want you to put less energy into that. It’s about the live auction, and it’s really about that paddle raise.” That is your winner.
Hugh: Awesome. I never heard of the paddle raise. If you do go to Dean’s website, MyBenefitAuctioneer.com, he specializes in helping nonprofits raise money in the variety of ways he just talked about, but also building value, relationships, and long-term strategies.
Dean: You talked about relationships. I am friends with my clients. I have been with some of them for 10 years. I take it personally if I’m not hired back because- Not everyone I can be hired back because dates change, and another client may take my date. There is a small amount where they didn’t need me, or I didn’t work for them based on their audience and what type of event they are doing. I have a pretty good return rate. It’s simply if I am available that date. I love working with my nonprofits. I love becoming friends with them.
Hugh: That’s so important. You’re part of the team without having to be on staff. It’s an extension of the culture. Understanding the value of what we’ve called development, it’s the financial strategy, and it’s building sustainable, recurring revenue.
We have used this time really wisely, Dean. I have learned more than anybody.
Dean: Thank you.
Hugh: It’s been very valuable to me. You can find Dean at MyBenefitAuctioneer.com. There is a Contact tab there. You can book a free consultation and get the free book. I don’t know why you wouldn’t go there. We don’t do a call to action in nonprofits, but we do emphatic statements.
As we’re ending this, what do you want to leave people with?
Dean: If you want to take your gala to the next level, which means to me, trying to raise more funds, because let’s face it, anyone working in a nonprofit is overworked and underpaid. They want to help their client. If anything, know there are people like me out there where we are your help.
I said I’m your diplomat and your salesperson and your spokesperson for the nonprofit. That’s all true. But I forgot “psychologist.” I will get calls from my clients just venting. That’s okay. I want to let them know it will be okay. I had a call where someone had messed up a few things in her personal world, but I talked her off the ledge. We just talk. That’s it. Know that there are at least 200 of us out there. We are there to help you help your client.
Hugh: Dean Crownover, thank you for being our guest on The Nonprofit Exchange today. This has been very helpful.
Dean: Thank you, this has been great.