BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Connecting with audiences is paramount because many organizations have one event a year where most of their fundraising takes place, so the stakes are high. –Hindman’s Alyssa Quinlan, on the role of a charity auctioneer
Now, at the height of the benefit season, non-profits are relying on its auctioneers to bring in top dollar through live auctions and raise funds vital to their missions through paddle raises, which solicit outright donations.
No one does it better—or with more genuine commitment to the causes being addressed—than Quinlan, Hindman’s Chief Development Officer.
We wanted to know more about what it takes to motivate donors, sometime at the end of a long evening, to focus on what a difference the organization makes and then raise their paddle in support. Quinlan also shares tips on how charities can maximize their paddle raise or live auction results, be it auction order, spotter placement, sound system, and more.
“Honestly, I feel so lucky to do what I do,” she says. “I always say anyone could do it. However, the idea of stepping onstage in front of audiences as large as 1500 guests sometimes may be overwhelming. For me, it’s exhilarating.”
“I love learning about all the wonderful work being done in our community. Whether it’s helping children, seniors, supporting cultural institutions, funding critical medical programs and so many others, I always leave feeling blessed and privileged to have been a small part of the mission,” she adds.
While some auctioneers might goad audiences into bidding or single out an individual, saying that they should bid because their dress screams money, Quinlan raises funds with grace, respect for her audience, and knowledge of the cause she’s there to support. Or as Karen Cardarelli, Executive Director of FACETS, said about Quinlan’s paddle raise record set at the recent Screen Gems Gala: “FACETS was delighted, once again, to work with Alyssa Quinlan of Hindman. She is fantastic at putting a cap on the event with her energy and sincere enthusiasm for the organization. She very quickly made the ‘case for support’ and inspired donors to support us.”
Knowing that most would feel like a deer in the headlights if asked to be a charity auctioneer, we wanted to know how Quinlan got so good at it. Among her reveals: she credits founder Leslie Hindman as being one of her greatest influences.
CCM: Where did you grow up and did you have parents who were interested in philanthropic events?
AQ: I grew up in Kildeer, a northwest suburb of Chicago. My mother moved to Chicago from South Dakota, where she grew up, in search of a bigger city life and met my father, who was originally from Chicago. Even though we lived in the suburbs, my parents made sure my three sisters and I were able to take advantage of all that Chicago has to offer, from museums to the opera to plays and much more.
My parents were very involved in our church in Barrington, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. They didn’t attend many philanthropic/charity events per se, but my mother was always volunteering for something whether it was as the Art Mom at school, at our church, or other organizations.
One of the things I was so impressed by at DePauw University, where I attended college, was that they hosted a big fair every semester where students would sign up for various volunteer service projects. There were huge lines to participate! Between weekly visits to nearby senior citizen homes or mission trips to Bolivia and Philippines, I felt like I got so much more out of volunteer work than anything I contributed.
Tell us about your job at Hindman and the path that lead you back to Chicago.
As the Chief Business Development Officer at Hindman, I travel frequently to our 16 offices around the country. While I can’t think of a more perfect role for me, the auction industry wasn’t on my radar until an introduction to Leslie Hindman from a longtime mentor and mutual friend of Leslie’s, Susan Darby.
Upon graduating from college, I briefly worked for Susan Darby at Smith Barney but then began a role with Peterson Consulting, now Navigant. I loved the idea of traveling for business and getting to work with different companies. One of my first projects was just outside of New York City and during the six months I was there, I could fly home every weekend or fly someone out. I ended up flying someone out almost every weekend because I fell in love with the energy and culture of New York.
I ended up moving to New York in 1999 and got a job in asset management. I worked at 7 World Trade Center until two days before September 11, when I moved to a building a few blocks away for a temporary position. Sadly 7 WTC fell in the aftermath of the Twin Towers collapsing, and once I rejoined my team, the new lease was in Stamford, Connecticut.
Ultimately, I decided to move back to Chicago in 2003 to be closer to my family. Since the financial markets weren’t as strong post 9/11, I ended up looking outside of the industry and someone suggested the auction industry. I said it sounded great, and I would be very interested to do that for 6 months or a year, until the markets turned around! Little did I know that I would quickly become enamored with the pace and excitement of auctions. While I had a LOT to learn, Leslie Hindman taught me everything.
How did you learn to be an auctioneer?
I used to watch Leslie Hindman conduct auctions and one day, she said she thought that I should learn to be an auctioneer. It was one of the most exciting days in my professional career!
We sat in a conference room one day after work, and she brought podium records for me to review. I took a ton of notes, and she told me to go home and practice the bid increments forwards and backwards—on the drive to work, in the shower, whenever I could—because with all that happens in an auction, the bid increments have to be second nature!
I was a nervous wreck the first time I took the podium, and I am sure I stumbled through my first auctions, but our clients and the team were extremely patient, and I was hooked! Back then many more clients would attend auctions in person, meaning a crowded room of buyers was made busier with absentee bids from those not in attendance (there was also a bank of telephone bidders) and team members executing bids via internet platforms.
From there I transitioned to doing charity auctions for many non-profits and learned that although facilitating bids is the same, connecting with audiences was paramount because many organizations have one event a year where most of their fundraising takes place, so the stakes are high.
What do you think the charity expects from the auctioneer and how do you work with the charity to mutually sign off on expectations?
I think charities expect different things from auctioneers, and it’s so important to have conversations early on to understand what the expectations and goals of the evening are.
I always make a point of mentioning that my style is that of an art auctioneer. I have fun on stage, but nobody would confuse me for being a comedian or a magician, which some auctioneers embody!
The number one question I receive is whether or not I call auctions like a livestock auctioneer. When I respond that I don’t, it’s often met with a disappointed look from whomever is asking!
What do you think are particular traits that a person should have to do this very tough assignment?
I think it’s important for whomever is serving as auctioneer that they can set aside any nerves and have fun! Asking people for money is much easier when there is a personal connection to the organization and there is an understanding and appreciation of how far each dollar will go.
Being charismatic, authentic and confident are key.
Is most of your work with paddle raises or are live auctions still as popular as they once were?
The spring and fall are the busiest times of the year for fundraisers and charity events, and it seems that live auctions and paddle raises are still as popular as ever.
Many organizations have moved away from live auction items and opt for a straight paddle raise, where attendees can make outright contributions as opposed to fitting a trip into a business travel schedule. Many people like the ease and tax benefits of making outright donations and letting the organizations take it from there.
How was this impacted during COVID?
While Zoom events were a blessing for organizations to be able to raise money, it is much easier to connect with an audience that you can see as opposed to being televised across the camera into their living rooms like we had to do during the pandemic.
What are some of the most popular items people are bidding on?
People are ready to travel again, so travel packages and unique experiences seem to be the most popular live auction items these days.
Some auctioneers work by intimidation, i.e., ‘Hey, Mr. Jones, you should buy your wife that,’ or ‘Mrs. Smith, you spend so much money on jewelry, you should make a charity donation.’ These comments leave people cringing in the seats. Your work is all about professionalism, clarity, and grace. What do you think are the best ways to motivate people to give?
There are so many fabulous non-profits out there, and I know that when I am attending charity auctions as a guest, a softer sell is a much more effective way of getting me to contribute more versus trying to make anyone feel guilty. I try to be as respectful as possible about people’s personal situations and I recognize that some people prefer to make donations privately.
I am a big believer in helping to set the stage along with the organization about how far guests’ donations will go and why the charity is so deserving of their contributions. There’s nothing better than personal testimonials and videos that highlight all the incredible work being done. when directors and others share their enthusiasm, my job is easy!
Do you ever get stage fright before an auction?
Absolutely! I would be lying if I said I didn’t get nervous before auctions but much less so than when I started auctioneering nearly 20 years ago. Once the mic is in my hand, the lights are shining down on me, and I see the audience looking up at me, my nerves disappear immediately.
I try to channel any nerves into passion for the outcome of the evening! To me, it is a reminder about how much I care about the organization, and that I want the auction to be as successful as possible.
There are so many variables that are out of my control, and for someone who likes to know how things will play out, it can be stressful. However, I spend a lot of time with organizations before ever stepping on stage to make sure that the auction is a success.
What are some of the more interesting items that you have auctioned?
I’ve been lucky enough to auction off some incredible vacations and behind-the-scenes tours. One auction item that stands out from memory was tickets to see the Rolling Stones for a Goodbye Tour for 15 guests, or something crazy, with backstage passes, a box, and more.
You have worked very hard for so many fine charities in Chicago. How would you describe the Chicago donor?
Chicago donors continue to amaze me with their generosity! I am always in awe of how philanthropic our city is, whether it’s corporate donations, foundations, or individuals.
What tips would you give to charities on how best to work with their auctioneer in terms of timing, expectations of money raised, and other logistics?
For many co-chairs, they are tasked with ensuring successful auctions, but it may be the first time they’ve ever done it, so I would say not to be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Between the right sound system, a captive audience, the right order, and more, there are a lot of nuances to ensuring the best outcome for organizations.
I remind charities that at Hindman we would never just list a diamond ring or an important work of art and cross our fingers that it will generate the highest price possible for our consignors. We advertise, contact collectors all over the world, and strive to generate as much interest as possible. The same is true for live auctions and paddle raises: any work that is done before the event almost always pays off in dividends.
What do you love best—and least—about being a non-profit auctioneer?
There is such an adrenaline rush when I am on stage. I equate it to feeling like a celebrity for those few moments before I return to my reality and my more reserved persona. People often come up to me after I step off stage though and respond to something I said when I was up there or share a personal connection to the organization. There are many nights it is hard to fall asleep because I’m reliving the excitement of the evening!
The drawback is having to be away from my husband and two children so much. Charity events often take place on weekends, when I would typically be with my family, but my passion certainly outweighs any downside.
While it would be impossible to total all the funds Quinlan has raised for our community, her dedication and professionalism cause us to raise our paddles in her honor!