I’ve never led an auction before. The idea of standing in front of people improvising and bantering for money terrified me.

You might ask, “But wait a second, Alia. Aren’t you a fundraiser?”   Yes, but not that kind of fundraiser. I’m usually more behind the scenes. Until now.

I’m on the board of the Bushwick Starr, an incredible fringe theater in Bushwick Brooklyn. They hosted their fall gala last week and the organizers turned to me — with all my fundraising expertise to… lead the auction.

I care so much about this theater, my first question was, “don’t you have anyone better in mind?” When they looked at me blankly, I knew I had to take up the charge.

I called three other people who had led similar auctions for theaters. I interviewed them and learned everything I could about what can go right and what can go wrong. I talked with the board, and had well-intentioned plants stationed throughout the room. I created a script — with plenty of places for improvisation. I practiced.

And what did I learn? Fundraising principals are fundraising principals regardless of format.

  1. Inspire your donors with stories of how they are making a difference in their community, in their school, in their theater. The more tangible and alive you make these stories, the better. Right before the auction, we featured artists who performed a few pieces and gave testimonials on behalf of the Starr.
  2. Make it fun. Donors are wanting to change the world, not hang their heads. I called the auction a game. Everybody had a fun star-shaped paddle to wave in the air. I leaned on a co-conspirator — Flaco Jimenez — who was on stage with me to add some comic relief.
  3. Urgency is key. Outlining a goal and a deadline for the auction was important.
  4. Transparency is key. Letting donors into the process behind the auction and why we chose to raise money this way helped break the ice.
  5. You can never beat a match. Keanu Reeves offered to match gifts that came in at a certain level. That’s always a winner. The crowd chanted Matrix, Matrix, Matrix as they raised their paddles.

Of course, sometimes the medium changes the tactic. But my experience at the gala emphasized how similar fundraising work is — both in the front of the house and the back. Plus, we raised a lot of money to support cutting edge theater.