Stacking the Deck

on in Fundraising

The auctioneer gave a beautiful, rousing speech about the nurturing children receive under the organization’s care. A parent offered a heartfelt thank you from the stage as they discussed their journey. And then the call for bids started – at $5,000 – with no takers.

The reason? No-one wants to be the first to stick their neck out and be exposed as the lone believer. Everyone is watching to see who’ll take the lead.

Which means that if a nonprofit hasn’t stacked the deck with a few bid-starters – they’ll be out of luck in a very embarrassing public display of “chicken.”

Not good for the cause, for the agency’s reputation, or for the kids. 

The impulse to look around to see who else is on the bus is practically universal. Yes, there are some donors who want the recognition that comes of being #1 – but many more want the reassurance that they’re part of a movement of like-minded souls.

This motivation is especially compelling in a public event like a charity “cash call” – when it’s painfully obvious if those in the lead have a multitude of followers or if they’re out on the ledge all alone.

The answer is to stack the deck. To ask your most loyal stalwarts to not be afraid to start the stampede – by holding that auction paddle high at the agreed-upon opening bid.

This issue is also at play in fundraising interactions beyond auctions. Donors often want to know they’re not the sole fan who’s willing to put their money where their mouth is. That’s why challenge grants are so powerful – for the challenger and those meeting the call. It’s public proof that this is a group effort, a true barn-raising and not a herculean solo lift.

That’s the insiders’ job: to be the bread-starter, the ingredients that start a chemical reaction to get the dough to rise.

Explained this way, it’s a very reasonable ask for board members and others in the inner circle. “Will you provide the spark that gets the fire to burn – with an opening bid?”

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