Cookie dough, chocolate bars, entertainment books and gift wrap — 20 years ago, the Waldorf school David Sobon’s son was attending had students peddling all of these wares, yet they couldn’t fundraise even $10,000 in a given year.
Frustrated that these “ridiculously painful fundraisers” were being placed on his child’s shoulders, the then-30-something decided on a whim to host his first live auction.
Sobon, a fervent midtowner and social butterfly, happened to be president of the school’s PTA in addition to his advertising job at KSFM radio. He decided to host a gourmet, sit-down dinner to raise money for the school. He invited 100 guests to his family’s winery at $100 a head. He auctioned off 10 big-ticket items, including NBA players’ jerseys and a limo tour to Amador County wineries, gifts he procured through friends and cold calls.
“I figured I would just get up there and auction ‘em off,” he says. “How hard could it be?”
As it turned out, Sobon was a natural with the gift of gab — and at getting people’s money. Afterward, he says a few people approached him to say, “That’s the best auction I’ve ever been to. How long have you been doing this?”
“And I said, ‘About half an hour,’” Sobon chuckles. “I was just hooked. I had so much freaking fun!”
Sobon did similar work pro bono or for minimal money for five years before creating a business plan that eventually turned his passion into a full-time gig.
That plan has transformed into David Sobon Auctions, which he runs out of his Colonial Revival mansion on the corner of 18th and N streets. With a 4-man crew, the company hosts 100 auctions annually in and around Sacramento. They work with nonprofits and for-profit companies alike and charge $5,000 per event, which includes consulting, event planning and auctioneering.
That’s quite the buy-in for nonprofits that may only hold one or two fundraisers annually. But Sobon comes with built-in name recognition, event logistics knowledge and experience. He will lay out the event timeline, flow, location of the bar, sound system setup and anything else to ensure attendees raise their paddles. So far this year, he and his crew have raised more than $3 million for local nonprofits.
Sobon, 54, discusses his strategy and background on a sunny August afternoon on the porch of his N Street gem. He’s a firecracker, bursting with energy. He also loves his community and knows a lot of people.
“I just get into it,” Sobon says. “There’s nothing I like more than meeting people, having fun, getting them engaged and getting them to give.” At the end of the fundraising event, he says he makes sure there’s no money left in the room.
According to Jacquelyn Mills, development officer and director for the Children’s Miracle Network (the fundraising arm of the UC Davis Children’s Hospital), Sobon’s skills bring more than dollars to the organizations he serves.
“He’s helped us raise money, but the amount of awareness he’s helped build … is crazy,” Mills says. “There’s the value that’s quantified and the value that’s priceless. He carries a lot of weight in both.”
Which comes back to Sobon’s strategy. To maximize giving and engagement, Sobon relies heavily on six tactics:
• Engage the board. It takes buy-in and wholehearted support from an organization’s board for an event to be successful and profitable. Sobon spends ample time engaging with board members. Their involvement is so important, in fact, that he won’t conduct auctions without it.
• Mix it up. Sobon has turned down jobs with organizations unwilling to change an event’s format and structure. Sometimes, without a shift away from the status quo, an antiquated format can prevent him from guaranteeing a fundraising goal. “It’s not like I want to turn away business, but I have to have people that are cooperating, that are willing to do things different,” he says.
• Explain the cause. “If the cause is explained, guess what happens? Everyone in the room gives and gives more than they planned,” Sobon says. For example, a $150 donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation can cover the cost of one mammogram. That one mammogram could save a life. So Sobon might prompt the audience with, “How many lives would you like to save tonight?”
• Develop the audience. The most important part of any fundraising gala is knowing the audience, Sobon says. And what separates Sobon from other auctioneers is his intimate knowledge of the Sacramento community — and their budgets. “I usually have a roster of everyone who’s going to be in the room, where they sit and what their (paddle) number is,” he says.
• Get busy. Before the event is in full swing, Sobon is checking the sound system and making sure the details are perfect. Then when people are mingling and drinking cocktails, he’s shaking hands and matching names with faces. “You see these people over and over and over again, and they have an appreciation for my skills because they also support these charities, and they want to see them make more money, so they kind of get excited when I’m the auctioneer,” he says.
• Be fun. “People come to a fundraiser to have fun and to give,” Sobon says, so he doesn’t take himself too seriously. If he flubs a word or name, it will be a running joke for the rest of the night. While Sobon loves what he does, he rarely stands on stage. “I don’t need a podium, I’m going to be running through the audience anyway,” he says. “When I get done, I can be in a tuxedo soaked because I just put so much energy into it.”
The bottom line for any organization is money, and according to Allison Cagley, director of development for the California Musical Theatre, Sobon consistently meets or exceeds fundraising goals.
“He is well known in the community,” says Cagley. “A lot of folks who come to these events are already friends or are acquainted with him. They already have a trust and sense of camaraderie when he goes up to auction.”
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