The Wonderful Madness of Putting Together a Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction

Some time in December of last year, I had the idea of putting together a Big Event for Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary. Something that would get the attention of potential corporate sponsors. Something we had never done before.

I vaguely thought about silent auctions. This Big Event needed to be a fundraiser, and those surely raised a good amount of funds, right? And, well, if people were going to be bidding on items, then maybe we should feed them, too? Amiright?

Hence, the brainstorming for Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary’s First Annual Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction began.

In high school I planned school fairs and ran student council meetings and was responsible for publishing the literary magazine. All small scale responsibilities. I’d never attempted anything this huge before.

But as I tell my new volunteers at the ranch, I believe in trial by fire. I believe the best way to learn anything is to just jump on it and DO it.

Thus this Big Event quickly turned into a Holy Crap I’ve Bitten Off Too Much Than I Can Chew Event and then right into an I Need A Committee Stat Event.

And so 90% of planning this event was me doing this:

and this

and especially this

And as I sit here, three days post-event, I am so in awe of how everything somehow came together.

At the end of January of this year, after brainstorming for a month or so, I started talking to venues. And when I say venues, I really only mean I decided within a matter of instants that the one and only place Tierra Madre would have its first benefit dinner and silent auction was the Carefree Resort and Conference Center. The place screams Wild West. Behind Black Mountain in Carefree and nestled among gorgeous Sonoran Desert scenery, the place is truly spectacular.

I made an appointment sometime during the beginning of February and headed up there to talk business. When I sat down with Emily, the event planner who was working at the Carefree Resort at the time, we were in their Opera House, which seats something like 500 people and has high ceilings, an enormous stage, pillars on the sides of the room, and an overall elegant atmosphere.

“For your first event, I would start small,” Emily gently told me back in February as we sat in the Opera House and I looked around with stars in my eyes. “You’d rather have a few extra people crammed in a small room than an enormous room with not enough people to fill it.”

She talked me into walking back through the main building into Mesquite South, a small banquet room, so we could look around. I somewhat reluctantly agreed upon the smaller room, and over the next week she worked out a deal with me so that we only had to pay a $100 deposit upfront, then pay the full balance on the night of the event. I picked out a date – August 8th – for no other reason other than the fact that I didn’t want to miss hanging out with my sister on her birthday on Saturday, July 25th and Saturday the 8th was the next available date after that.

I told all my staff and volunteers we’d saved a date. It felt like I’d just announced I was planning a wedding. But for all the work that put into this event, I honestly think I could have.

The rest of February and March and April and May and June brought everything. Creating flyers. Creating social media hype. Creating an Eventbrite account and signing up for ticket sales. Promoting ticket sales. Passing out flyers. Getting a committee together. Calling and emailing and pleading for donations. Sending donation receipts and thank-yous and follow up phone calls and emails. Figuring out our room setup. Figuring out if we’d have a band or not. Trying to get my favorite person in the history of ever Kenny Loggins to come perform for the event. (Yes, I actually tried this one and ended up getting an actual phone call from his manager who gently told me they couldn’t make our event without a significant fee.) Trying to get other entertainers. Working with our documentary crew to get a clip up and running for a brief showcasing.

By the end of June, we were gathering basket items. By July, we were putting baskets together. Gathering more items. Printing out certificates. Creating more hype over social media. Spreading more flyers. Meeting at the Carefree Resort every few weeks to go over room plans. Figuring out music. Figuring out AV equipment. Going back to Target for ribbon and plastic wrap and more cheap picture frames than I care to admit.

Sometime in July I decided to Google “How to run a silent auction,” because – as per my gif demonstration above, I walked into this without the slightest idea of what I was doing. You guys. Thank God for Google. I learned all about bidding sheets and fair market values and reserve amounts and bid increment minimums and minimum bid amounts and basket setup and bidding registration and bidding check out. Thus came many frustrating nights of creating spreadsheets that organized all the items and calculating start bids and making bidding sheets and trying to seem as though I knew what I was doing.

And during this ENTIRE process of muddling my way through planning, I had my committee to turn to for help. They were phenomenal. From getting donations from individuals to organizations to helping me put baskets together to keeping baskets at their house to simply texting on a weekly basis to ask if there was anything they could do, the four or five people who were there every step of the way – even if they couldn’t make the benefit itself – were simply amazing. Next year, I’m going to get better at delegating tasks (for the week leading up to the event I was working something like ten-hour days), because I know for a fact they would have helped in a heartbeat had I given them some of the work.

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Making the donor poster.
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Our apartment was a disaster for about two straight months as we put baskets together!
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Putting together the collage (photos taken by http://www.raysquared.net/)

Point is, without my crew, I couldn’t have gotten through the months of planning. No chance in hell.

And then came August. And then I realized The Holy Crap I’ve Bitten Off Too Much Than I Can Chew Event was a week away.

On August 1st, the weekend before the benefit, I spoke on the phone with a wonderful lady named Lanae who is a friend of a Carefree Resort staff member. She is an event planner and graphic designer, and she offered her assistance for the evening as a donation. Um, YES.

Lanae met my friend Amy, my partner-in-crime for the entire event planning process, and me at the Carefree Resort on Wednesday the 5th. We were to meet with Jennifer – our new event coordinator at the Resort – and go over final room setup. Jennifer and Amy and I had gone over room setup at least a thousand times before and we were hoping to confirm everything, including a final headcount.

I might mention at this point that the Mesquite South room at the Carefree Resort – the room we had agreed would be the best one for our first event – comfortably holds 75 people. On our contract and during all of our discussions with both Emily and Jennifer, we arranged to have between 50 and 75 guests.

Probably the best thing ever was when Amy and Lanae and I were chatting in the lobby at 1pm, waiting for Jennifer to join us, when the receptionist called me over saying Jennifer was on the phone. I stood up – trailing dirt and hay all over the lobby as I walked to the desk – and took the call.

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The TV screen at the Carefree Resort!

“Sorry I’m running a bit late, I’m just headed down now,” she said. “But tell me what our headcount is so I can get your bill and bring that down with me.”

“I just realized I never told you this morning,” I said, inwardly cringing as I realized about ten million other things I hadn’t done at that point. “Right now we’re up to a hundred and five.”

Ringing silence on the other end of the phone. Then…

“WHAT?!”

We had expected around fifty. Seventy-five at the very, very most.

But a hundred and five?

We were ALL astonished. Extremely, pleasantly astonished.

The four of us had some major discussions about whether or not that many people would fit in the room. After chatting a bit, we decided – as per what Emily told me back in February – it was far better to squeeze a few extra people in than have not enough to try to fill a larger room.

After our meeting, Lanae had some amazing props to show us. We went out to her car and went through all the things she used at events – fun, Western baskets and pails and burlap everything. She offered to make programs for us as well as table numbers. I was amazed. All the little details I’d been too busy to think about, and here she was offering to swoop in on a 72-hour notice to tackle these things for us.

The big day came, and after running the ranch in the morning, I got to the resort at noon to check into the room I’d reserved for the night so I a) wouldn’t have to drive an hour home and b) could store all the auction baskets safely before bringing them into the event room. Amy met me at the resort around 1pm and the two of us went over the game plan before she went back home to feed her dogs and get ready and I showered and tried to relax.

At 2pm Lanae arrived and started to set up her gorgeous decor. At 3pm, the rest of my setup crew – volunteers of the ranch – arrived on the scene and started laying out the auction baskets. Alec, our AV equipment guy for the evening, and I worked with our equipment for 30 minutes to try to get our documentary clip up and running, eventually getting success.

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The room as we were setting up!
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One of the many things Lanae made for us.

By 5pm, everything was mostly ready to go and the Carefree Resort staff stood by to get us anything we needed and probably started to make the food by then and then all of the sudden it was an hour later and it was go time and my plan for check in went smoothly and I had enough volunteers to man the registration table as people started to arrive and suddenly the cash bar was hopping and the room was filled with guests and laughter and waving and excited talking and hugs and craziness and awe-struck faces as they looked around at the gorgeous setup of the room.

It was absolutely perfect.

The auction went smoothly. The food – according to everyone – was fabulous (I couldn’t eat – I was too full of adrenaline!). After dinner, we had our presentation and the documentary clip went off without a hitch.

I started off the presentation with welcoming everyone and thanking those who had made the evening possible. After talking briefly about the ranch, I passed off the mic to Jim, my boss and the owner and founder of the ranch. He spoke beautifully about the mission of Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary and drew both laughter and I’m sure a few tears from the crowd.

And then he thanked me for putting together the event.

And then he announced something that I still am not quite entirely sure is reality or just a really, really good dream.

Jim told the crowd how my dream is to go back to London some day. (My first time was during my study abroad trip in the summer of 2013.) His wonderful sister Jean donated two round-trip tickets to New York City as part of the auction, and I had joked with them earlier that morning about making them tickets to London instead. In fact, I’m always dreaming aloud about London.

And Jim proceeded to announce that as thanks for my hard work in putting together the benefit dinner and for running the ranch, Jim said, Tierra Madre will be sending me back to London. All I had to do was pick the dates.

Astonished doesn’t even begin to cover it. I don’t even know what my reaction was, I was so numb with shock to register a whole lot right then and there. But as the room burst into applause and Jim and Jean broke into huge smiles as they saw my face, I’m pretty sure I cried.

And then I laughed because Shana, who works with her wife Denise at the ranch with me as the manager and volunteer coordinator, respectively, shouted from the back of the room, “Well, we got you flowers!”

It was all too much.

The night ended with us hastily figuring out a system for the check out process, thanking people for being patient with us as we had them do donations through the website instead of putting their cards through our card reader, which was down (damn you, Square app, for being so confusing), and listening to the talented Josh Roy, who came to us last minute as our entertainer for the evening thanks to one of our awesome volunteers.

And at the end of the night, as Amy and I and a few others sat down to count what we’d earned, we realized that we had pulled in a whopping $8,726 dollars for the 33 horses of Tierra Madre.

Almost nine thousand dollars.

Let this just serve as inspiration for those of you out there who get overwhelmed by what seems to be the impossible.

I went from not having the slightest idea of what I was doing to striding around confidently during this benefit with a clipboard and giving out directions to the volunteers.

If I can pull something like this off and raise almost $9,000, you too, reader, can do absolutely anything.

Final thoughts about this benefit:

I have made so many wonderful friends and connections through Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary. The ranch truly brings together people of all walks of life. And that alone was a privilege to witness. Seeing everyone gathered together for a common cause was simply incredible.

Everyone wants to feel as though they are part of a team, like they are part of something bigger than themselves. And as I looked around the room on the night of August 8th at my ranch family and my new friends and then across the room to the collage of the 33 horses that make my world go round, I felt that way.

For someone who has spent her entire adulthood thus far worrying about what her calling should be, I think I have finally found it.

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My boyfriend and I at the benefit
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