Bangor Symphony Orchestra, Pivot to Paradigm Shift for Event Fundraising

The Bangor Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 125th anniversary with the 13th Annual Symphony Soiree auction fundraiser in March 2021. Like other organizations, they made the pivot from an in-person event to online. After reviewing the post-event data they plan to keep some of the elements of the online experience going forward. Sarah McCarthy, Director of Development of the Bangor Symphony and Katie Schaffer, long-term volunteer Soiree Committee Chair, have scrutinized their auction results. When comparing it to prior years there are a few key takeaways that will allow them to work smarter and yield higher revenue at future events.

  1. Their Soiree audience is different from their typical Symphony concert audience,
  2. Maximize fundraising by incentivizing overbidding by providing a thank you gift and enabling Bid Extension (anti-sniping),
  3. Offer multiples after bidding concludes to increase final event income even higher,
  4. Online-auction-only eliminates the need for silent auction display tables at the in-person event, and allows for more socializing.

Know Your Audience

The Soiree Committee knew that they had many Soiree event attendees who don’t attend concerts regularly, but still have the desire to keep this important cultural piece of Bangor’s history alive and well. To maximize this knowledge, the Committee took to social media to increase the awareness of the auction. The use of an online auction format opened the door to more bidders, including those who would not normally attend the in-person Soiree event. In the two years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic they sold out the Soiree to just over 200 guests. Online bidding this year saw an all-time high of 254 bidders.

The number of auction items for this year was very similar to past events, however the winning bids were much higher and engaged a broader audience.

Overbidding was a huge success. Overbidding was encouraged with the help of a generous donor. A local convenience store offered a free car wash voucher to any bidder whose final bid exceeded the retail value of an auction item. This special incentive was utilized in the past at in-person Soirees and yielded bids on approximately 25 items to go over retail value. This year, 75 auction items went over retail value. Knowing this might be a potential burden for the donor, the Bangor Symphony offered to pay for the additional vouchers. However, much to the Committee’s delight, the convenience store insisted on donating all the car wash vouchers out of kindness. The total value for the vouchers ended up over $1,200 and became the gift that kept on giving.

Here are few more examples of auction items with final bids above retail value:

  • $50 gift card to a natural foods store had a final bid of $100,
  • $25 gift card to a gift shop had a final bid of $35,
  • Multiple $50 gift cards to restaurants had final bids as high as $90,
  • $50 gift card to a chocolatier had a final bid of $85, and
  • A historic cemetery tour and a walk with an alpaca went for $60 and $150 over value, respectively.

By utilizing Bid Extension (previously known as anti-sniping) the auction items that received last minute bids had the bidding time extended automatically. This gave the previous bidder more time to continue bidding. Bid extension notification is unique to online bidding because the bidders receive immediate outbid notifications. At an in-person silent auction, bidders would hover over their most wanted bid sheets while also wanting to turn their attention to the social activities. With the online auction this conflict goes away and the bids go up.

Be Intentional Using the Online Auction Catalog

Katie and Sarah were very intentional and studied bidding activity as the online auction progressed. Katie was extremely vigilant to use photos that showcased the vibrance of the auction items. The Symphony had several items that were one-of-a-kind or artisan treasures. Below are two examples: a hand painted lamp shade and a sterling silver bracelet.

This Handcrafted Table Lamp with Painted Silk Shade had an image that, although pretty, just wasn’t attracting bids. When photographed as lit in a small vignette, bidding began. See the before and after images:

This Sterling Silver Link Bracelet was originally photographed laying flat on a table. Photographing it on the morning of the last day of the auction on a model, in the sun, highlighted the features of the bracelet and more bids began coming in.

Special attention was paid to the images that highlighted the items. For images that required photos, composition and lighting were carefully considered. To encourage continued interest, the Default image was changed from time to time. Some gift cards were displayed along with beautiful images, like below.

Think of the auction catalog as a showroom and bidders as customers. As a customer, you want to see things that are attractive and organized. As an auction organizer you are in charge of merchandising. Use clear photos that show off the product or service. Also, items displayed on the same row should be curated to go together.

Katie and Sarah watched bidding activity very closely. When the auction first opened, items selected for the first page highlighted the price range and variety of items in the auction. During the final week of the auction, when the “Buy It Now” feature was activated and used by bidders, items were moved off the first page to allow something else to be featured in their place.

Bids rise throughout the auction, however only the highest bid wins and is awarded the auction item. Some people who were outbid are willing to pay the winning bid amount. Also, some donors are willing to donate multiple items. How do you capitalize on that? One successful example of this was a historical tour of a local cemetery.

Bangor Historical Society Private Guided Tour of Mt. Hope Cemetery is a special place. Take a guided tour of America’s 2nd oldest garden cemetery and the final resting place of Bangor’s most prominent citizens. From lumber barons to brothel owners, Civil War heroes to notorious gangsters, learn the rich history of the Queen City while taking a leisurely stroll through the beautifully landscaped grounds of Mt. Hope. Ryan Hews who has years of volunteer experience with the Bangor Historical Society will be your tour guide.

The donor had offered one tour for six people, and there was a flurry of activity until the item was won at the close of the auction. Sarah asked the donor if he was willing to increase the number of tours and the answer was a resounding yes! Additional tours were sold, amounting to $450 more in revenue.

If donors, in particular restaurants, offer a $100 gift certificate, invite them to consider donating two $50 gift cards. In doing so, it brings more people to their business and when bidding on the item goes over value, which it probably will, it brings more revenue to your organization.

Space is Money

Over the 13 years of the Bangor Symphony’s silent auction, it has grown and the organization has had to rent spaces large enough to accommodate 20 6-foot display tables, guests, a performance, and more. After using only the online auction feature this year it is apparent that bidders are quite content bidding online. Raising just as much money without the hassle of set up and breakdown has led the Committee to decide to keep the silent auction online even when it returns to hosting in-person events. Online bidding boosters such as Bid Extension (formerly known as anti-sniping) paired with Proxy bidding give bidders more tools to control their bids. The outbid notifications let bidders know immediately when they are outbid, prompting them to consider making a higher bid. In the past, with bid sheets and pen, the bidder would only know if they were outbid by coming back to look at the physical bid sheet. Online bidding is much more efficient for the bidder. Additionally, when the auction ends online there is no need for Committee members to spend time inputting final bids into Auctria. Final bid notifications go out automatically and then it’s a final wrap-up for payment collection, all handled remotely, through Auctria.

For the next Soiree, the Bangor Symphony hopes to hold the event in the smaller, on-site performance space known as the Bangor Arts Exchange, where their offices are also located. It is one of the original sites where the orchestra first performed in the 1890’s. They will get to celebrate in their own space, allowing bidders to donate and bid from inside and outside the ballroom doors.

Paradigm Shift for Next Year’s Soiree

Katie and Sarah have reviewed the numbers and the results point them to an online auction to be paired with an on-location Soiree. This gives the Symphony and their event attendees the best of the best - the opportunity to socialize freely and an opportunity to bid to the top. Everyone wins!


Bangor Symphony Orchestra

A very special thank you to Katie and Sarah for sharing their experience and best practices for event fundraising.

The Bangor Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1896, making it one of the oldest continuously operating orchestras in the U.S.

The Symphony owes its start to Abbie N.Garland, a popular Bangor piano teacher and composer, who — at the age of 44 — decided her town needed a symphony orchestra.
The first year, she managed the organization with the help of Symphony Conductor Horace Mann Pullen. The second year, she recruited musicians and the third year, she sponsored the Symphony’s subscription sale. She also worked tirelessly to educate the public about Symphonic music and to create enthusiasm for unfamiliar pieces.

The Symphony played its first concert on November 2, 1896, in Bangor City Hall. Horace Mann Pullen conducted the 16-member orchestra in a program featuring Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

Today, the Symphony’s 70 musicians present classical concerts and pops concerts; The Nutcracker with the Robinson Ballet; annual Young People’s Concerts, the BSO Maine High School Concerto Competition, the Maurice P. King Master class, and educational and wellness outreach programs.

Since 1896, ten Music Directors have held the baton for the Bangor Symphony Orchestra — and many guest artists have brought their talents to Symphony performances.

Bangor Symphony Orchestra is celebrating 125 years and with continued support from the community, hopes to perform at least another 125 years. With Katie and Sarah heading up the Soiree, this important fundraising event will continue to be an integral part of the history and future of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra story.