Inject Life Into Your Live Auction With Donor Plants

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Donor plants are the people that you ask in advance to jump up at your gala’s live auction, raise their hand high, and start (or advance) the bidding.

Plants are essential to create energy and set the pace for other attendees to follow, and since the fall gala season is rapidly approaching, chances are good that this is timely counsel as you plan for your big event.

The Context

A popular fundraising gala idea is to plan a charity auction as the main event. Live auctions work great with galas because guests can bid on their favorite items. Plus, your emcee or auctioneer can keep everyone upbeat and energized. It is at live auctions where plants can help you raise more funds.

(I know that some of my readers prefer a silent auction and that might be a fine choice, but silent auctions don’t work for plants, so there’s that.) 

Finding Plants

Plants should be obtained from your current donor base, focusing on those donors who have wealth capacity as identified through prospect research.

Many plants are identified from the attendee lists of past events, the ticket purchasers, table sponsors, and auction bidders. Carefully comb your records.

You should ask the prospect to serve as a plant BEFORE the event, and get their agreement as to the exact range of their bidding. More on this in a bit.

Donor Research

Once you have identified the plant prospects, you must next complete prospect research on each one to determine their total giving, first gift, last gift, largest gift, interests, last contact, relationships, employment, date of birth, and other gifts to charity so as to pre-qualify your chosen prospects. The research will show you if they are a right fit to be a plant.

How to Have The Conversation

Once you identify a prospective new plant, call them and ask them if they’d meet you for a coffee. Keep the meeting informal, but let them know clearly that you’re asking for the meeting to get their advice about a new approach to grow the live auction. Do your best to avoid having the conversation over the phone. It’s just better to ask for engagement and support in person.

If you already have plants at your gala auction, I recommend increasing the number each year by at least 50%. If you have two plants now, aim to secure four by next year, and keeping adding them for subsequent years. In one recent gala, the auction goal grew from $80,000 to $115,000 by adding three new plants! In this case, the plants gave between $5,000 and $15,000 and the plant candidates were taken from past event attendees ticket and table sales. Further, each one was researched to assure that they had the capacity to give at a higher level.

Raise Your Hand High

Plants set the giving point for higher giving right at the start of the auction, but they should also jump in at giving lulls or plateaus. If the first person that bids, gives $5,000, then the bar is set and goes up from there. But you should know your attendees well and what their potential to give is. If $5,000 is too high, start with an amount that is right for your attendees. The plant should engender engagement and action. The auctioneer should know who the plants are so that he or she can turn to them if there’s a lull in bidding.

Corporate Leaders

One recent nonprofit grew their plants by turning to their corporate council which had been under development for two years just to serve this purpose. This nonprofit has seven active local companies on their corporate council and they strive for two reps from each company. The nonprofit honors one company per year and that company sponsors tables. The company executives agree to serve as plants for the auction. This strategy grew their gala from a net return of $350,000 to $610,000 in one year.

In researching for this article, there was a dearth of material written about donor plants. If you have resources on this subject that you can share, I would appreciate that.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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