Updated: Mar 15
Someone asked me once “what was one of your greatest management challenges?” They expected me to speak of a 100-person project that spanned coast to coast and ran for more than two years. But my answer was, “Chairing the auction at my children’s school.”
When they were young, my children attended an exceptional private Montessori school. (One of those where you put your application in as soon as you find out your pregnant.) Since my oldest child started there at eighteen months, I volunteered on the annual auction, taking on increasing levels of responsibility each year. Organizing a piece of the auction felt straight forward; my “day job” was managing large scale strategy, change management and IT projects for major corporate clients. Across the years, the Director of Development observed my ability to plan and execute.
Then came the invitation to lunch with the Board of Trustees President and the Director of Development. The question on the table, “Will you be the chair of the auction?” I said yes.
Historically, the annual auction raised over $300,000 and attracted 60 – 80 parent volunteers. No worries, my client projects were measured in millions and I loved large teams. This would be doable.
One more minor point, the auctions for the past two years had broken fundraising records but also created hurt feelings and simmering resentments with a number of parent volunteers. During the lunch conversation, the Director of Development and Board President requested I strive to create a strong sense of community in that year’s event. Okay, I was accustomed to guiding clients through difficult change, surely, I could build a sense of community. I was the one at work that “got things done” and had great client satisfaction scores.
The Adventure Begins
Challenge 1: Recruiting Volunteers
In my daily corporate role, I was regularly involved in recruiting. Identifying positions, working with the recruiting team, and benefiting from support of an amazing human resources team. I was also recruiting people to join a company with a top reputation, highly competitive pay, and great benefits.
Contrast that with:
No pay or benefits
Limited support tools
Challenge 2: A New Twist on Management
At work, I strived to be a compassionate and approachable manager. At the same time, I was the boss. The team working under me knew I had some level of influence on their future. I would write their review which would affect their pay. I would provide input at promotion meetings. I would determine future project opportunities.
Contrast that with:
They were volunteers.
They were free to leave at any moment.
I really had no impact on their future, unless they were hoping to be the Auction Chair next year.
Challenge 3: How Things Get Done Plus Limited Tools
At my company, we had well-defined processes and top-quality tools supporting our work environment. My corporate teammates and I were taught specific ways to complete tasks and were equipped with great technology. Our culture was clear that we were expected to do things the “firm way.” We operated from the same page and played by the same rules.
Contrast that with:
Volunteers have a lot of latitude to do things their way, they are volunteers. There is limited ability to demand that they do things specific ways.
Our resources were limited, computers were old, support team members were also volunteers.
Two volunteer resources almost always meant two opinions on how something should be done.
The Lessons Were Amazing
Find the individual gifts – I learned to look more closely and spot the talents of each person. The Mom who used to be a CPA and had a gift for numbers. The Dad who loved computers and worked miracles with the aging parent's club computer. The Mom with a background in graphic design and incredible talent to create invitations, programs and t-shirts. The husband and wife team who owned their own interior design firm and knew how to design the perfect venue layout.
Recruit by Listening – I learned to listen closely and hear what people were excited about working on for zero pay. Sometimes it was recognizing the person who wanted to apply their organization skills and inventory the donations. Another prospective volunteer shared their passion for photography and shot amazing photos along the way.
Amplified Persuasion Skills – I had prided myself on my ability to help others see the value in new ideas. As auction chair I had to exponentially amplify the art of persuasion. It was essential to find the motivation factor for each person. Knowing what inspired them allowed me to connect the requested actions with their personal why.
Constant Small Thanks and Regular Celebration - During the “year of my auction” I approached each parent with a new lens. The lens of “what can I thank you for today?” When picking up children from after school care, I tried to see each person and recognize their recent contributions.
“Thanks for stopping by and picking up the gift certificates from the French Café restaurant”
"Thanks for helping to call all the parents in your child’s class to remind them of the class project.”
“Thank you for creating the amazing center piece designs – they are so fun and perfect for the theme.”
When the auction committee members came together it was essential to celebrate them as a group and highlight the recent milestones accomplished by the team. The celebrations provided the opportunity to recognize key team members and share their contribution with the entire group.
Create a first layer of talent
I recruited two people to be my co-chairs and they became my lifeline. These two people were in my life because of our previous experience working together and helping each other. They brought skills and talents that made them ideal for their co-chair roles. We trusted one another and we pooled our experiences. I felt supported and knew that I wasn’t facing this monumental task alone. We were a dynamic trio.
I’m glad I said yes to chairing the auction. It was a hard year filled with long hours, technology challenges, and a lot of work. But I became a better leader.
Lessons I learned chairing the auction followed me to the office and I was more effective.
I had greater awareness of the talents of my team.
My listening skills improved
I was better tuned in to what mattered to my clients. I did a better job aligning their needs with our work
The daily “thank yous” to my team members increased and I scheduled more celebrations for the team
I remembered to surround myself with people I trusted and let go of doing it all by myself.
Wondering how the auction turned out? We raised just over $296,000. It was $30,000 less than the prior year. The Development Director was ecstatic. We retained 100% of our volunteers. She had zero visits to her office from people complaining about “the auction.” People commented on how much fun they had that year.