Metal Circles Relief,” Housing Works Thrift Shop

August 16, 2018; Barron’s

Successful charity live auctions are a work of theatrical art. Expert auctioneers from the premiere auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s abandon their polite, hushed formality to single out bidders by name, suggesting they would be pikers if they do not keep bidding. Witty and tart-tongued, they wheedle, needle, cajole, and shame the guests in the room into spending absurd amounts, while their peers gasp and laugh along and the charity’s development director holds her breath. Like when you engage a graphic artist who typically works on staid Fortune 500 accounts, these auctioneers light up and lighten up when given the freedom to let loose with their rarified skills and deep understanding of human nature.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s have long assisted the nonprofit sector in various ways, such as lending their professional auctioneers for charity auctions, offering services to museums, and assisting executors and beneficiary nonprofits for valuation and disposition of personal property assets and consignment management.

Barron’s says that Christie’s work with nonprofits is expanding. As NPQ reported last May, Christie’s helped raise $835,111,344 million through the sale of Rockefellers’ wide-ranging collection for the beneficiary nonprofits named by Peggy and David Rockefeller. This was the highest auction total ever for a private collection.

More recently, Christie’s is collaborating with the online charity auction site Charitybuzz to help its clients maximize the impact of their philanthropic auctions outside the “saleroom.” The collaboration creates complementary avenues for charitable giving that can be easily coordinated with the traditional auction process. Charitybuzz specializes in offering “priceless” opportunities for exclusive experiences, luxury travel, and access to notable celebrities and influencers.

Givergy, a Charitybuzz partner, adds digital fundraising channels like interactive silent auctions, online “paddle raises,” and pledging capabilities. By integrating these additional fundraising streams with its renowned auction services, Christie’s aims to help its clients harness community support and create a comprehensive fundraising campaign for causes that leverages both traditional and digital approaches.

The institutions Christie’s works with “are keen to find other ways to raise money,” says Ben Whine, Christie’s development director, museum services.

“We work with a lot of institutions around the country, and they are always asking for ways for us to advise and support them on their charity auctions,” Whine says. “We’ve been able to do that successfully by sending out auctioneers. But museums and other institutions are keen to find other ways to raise money.”

Charitybuzz is a for-profit company that auctions luxuries and celebrity-backed experiences to some 200,000 vetted bidders worldwide. Charitybuzz charges 20 percent to cover its marketing and concierge services.

Galas and the live and silent auctions these extravagant events typically include are expensive and time-consuming to produce, should not be undertaken more than once a year, and are fraught with unknowns like weather, a bigger brand charity in the area deciding to hold its gala the same evening, and other threats. Charitybuzz and Givergy are reinterpreting traditional gala fundraising tactics for the Internet Era. They offer the opportunity to make your auction virtual and expose it to a new set of donors looking for extraordinary experiences.

Some charities, like Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, win big with Charitybuzz, like coffee for a few minutes with Apple CEO Tim Cook at Apple Headquarters in Cupertino, CA raising $610,000. If your organization can source experiences that fit with what the Charitybuzz audience is craving, you can run your auctions throughout the year. This is an especially important opportunity for charities with modest donor constituencies but with access to extraordinary experiences.

A typical charity auction at the Waldorf Hotel in New York may have 500 people attending, but often only a small percentage bid. So Charitybuzz encourages nonprofits to “think about fundraising options outside of just one night out of the year,” he says. “We become a steady source of revenue and it minimizes the risk.”

For Christie’s, a collaboration with Charitybuzz potentially allows the auction house to help its institutional clients raise more money, and “hopefully together and develop a year-round fundraising strategy,” Erwin says.

—Jim Schaffer