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Would an auction be distasteful at a charity event during the current crisis?

Pre-Covid, I’m sure a good number of people would have attended a lavish dinner or black-tie event at some point in their lives in aid of a charity. Raising money for a good cause, events of this kind are a good excuse for a party, and allow those in the public, private and third sectors to network and build relationships.

During such events, it’s not uncommon for the host charity to run an auction, as yet another way to maximise income to their organisation. Most auction prizes are ‘money can’t buy’, exclusive excursions or keepsakes that have been donated by generous supporters and businesses. Those with the funds to do so continue to outbid each other until only one donor is left standing. There’s no doubt that the charity benefits as auction prizes can end up ‘selling’ for thousands of pounds.

However, since Covid, and given the current cost-of-living crisis, could auctions be at risk of bad PR, and be seen as a distasteful exercise that simply allows rich people to wiggle their overflowing wallets at each other?

Woman auctioning off a painting

You could argue that, even if wallet-wiggling is at the root of any auction, the outcome would still be the same: significant funds for the charity in question. Isn’t that the point of any charity event?

At many charity dinners—though not all of them—the room is commonly filled with high-net-worth individuals who appreciate that they’re there to part with as much of their money as they feel comfortable with. Perhaps, in a setting such as this, a charity auction would not be seen as distasteful, as everyone in the room can afford to take part, should they wish to. The problem occurs when the backgrounds and finances of guests differ at an event. A charity auction in this scenario, where only a small portion of people in attendance can parade their wealth, could appear distasteful. It’s particularly bad taste if the charity’s cause is linked to disadvantage and/or poverty in some way. If this is the case, an auction where bidders throw thousands of pounds out in pledges, simply to beat the next wealthy guest, could come across as a bit of a kick in the stomach to guests who may have to make some very difficult decisions on a daily basis, simply to survive. In this situation, a charity auction could appear out of touch, tone deaf or downright offensive—even if the charity stands to gain significant funds as a result of the auction.

The fact is, charity donations across the board have dropped…from very wealthy to not-so-wealthy donors. People are still donating their time to help, but in the current financial climate, only a lucky few have enough disposable income to consider giving it away to those less fortunate. According to 2021’s Giving Report, one in seven donors are set to cut back on their charitable giving, to ensure that they can pay their escalating bills. And, given that donations made a few years ago would be worth more then than they would be now, due to higher inflation, the landscape for charities appears very bleak right now. Even if a charity auction or a lavish event would seem tasteless at the moment, if it was set to raise much-needed funds, would third sector organisations still go ahead with one?

Auction gavel lying on a pile of money

It’s quite the conundrum for charities to consider. Funds are everything at the moment—as I suggested in this article, if charities fold and can’t help the needy, what hope is left? Charities are our country’s last bastions of support.

In-person charity events have only just begun to gain traction after they moved online during the pandemic. There are restrictions and limitations to fundraising online (fundraising offline has its challenges, don’t get me wrong, they’re just not the same ones), and I know that many organisations were pleased to be able to strengthen their relationships with their committed donors and the wider public once restrictions lifted. Not to mention the hire income these events poured into the hospitality and leisure sector, which were also hit hard when Covid was at its peak. Everything has a knock-on effect, and none of them are good at the moment, unfortunately.


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