I am a professional fundraising auctioneer. This means that I work with non-profit organizations to help plan and implement their fundraising auctions. Then the night of their event I get to get onstage and encourage people to spend-more-than-they-should-on-stuff-they-don’t-need-in-support-of-a-great-cause.
Fundraising auctions are fun, but they are a challenge, too. Every event I do, there are four or five little things that go wrong. And once in a great while, there is a catastrophe that tests the limits of my experience.
A few years back I was doing the auction for a local organization that benefits the homeless. And this particular event, the auction was transcending. Things were selling for double what they’d sold in the past.
We’re right in the heart of the auction, and an auction lot takes off.
$2,000 – 22 – 24 – 26 – 28, now three! Three thousand, 32, a board member named Nick is in at 35-hundred, woman in the back is in at 38-hundred, back to Nick at four thousand? Yes, no, maybe so? Sold, three-thousand-eight-hundred and the place goes nuts.
I flip the page on my script, eager to get on to the next item when a volunteer comes running up to me: we need a doctor in the back of the room. I’ve had things like this happen before. Eight months before this at a different auction, a bidder almost choked to death on her dinner, and Dr Angel – no kidding – saved her life with the Heimlich. So I know that the most important thing is to get someone who is CPR certified to respond, quickly.
But when I look in the back of the room, I see the second place bidder from the last lot, Nick, flat on his back on the floor, and the event chair giving him chest compressions. And I realize we’re all headed into uncharted territory.
I tell everyone that we’re going to take a break from the stage while we wait for the EMTs, and I meet with the staff to figure out what to do next.
As the time slowly ticks by while we wait for the EMTs, it becomes evident that Nick has died. I’m thinking, but not feeling as we discuss what to do. I know that the crowd needs some closure, something to help make sense of the evening. And the Development Director tells me her program really needs the money we were going to raise.
We agree that doing the rest of the auction would be crass, so we decide to just do the fund-a-need: where people simply pledge money to the cause. Done right, a fund-a-need can bring a crowd together.
After the EMTs take Nick out, we get back on stage, and I tell the crowd that Nick was a big supporter of the cause (he was a board member), and he would have wanted us to make something positive happen. I tell the crowd that it is up to us to come together to save many lives where we couldn’t save one. And with an up swell of emotion, we go on to have the most successful fund-a-need they’ve ever had.
After the event, alone for the first time in my car about to call my wife, it finally hits me; the emotions finally arrive. Hard. I’ve killed a bidder. Instead of good, my powers did bad. It was one of those subjects so serious, everyone played it down. “Of course you didn’t kill him!” my friends would say.
But I felt like I did.
And it haunted me. I’d get going in an auction, start to ramp up the emotions, and suddenly get worried that I might be pushing someone too far. I’d flinch internally whenever a volunteer came running up mid-auction with a question.
It wasn’t until that same event, a year later, chatting with one of Nick’s friends who had been at his table the year before. “I want you to know,” he said, “That Nick died having the time of his life. His heart attack was massive, his death instantaneous. And if he wasn’t at this event, he would have been at home, eating dinner alone.
“Instead, he died surrounded by friends, having a great time.” He could tell I was touched, so he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know what his last words were? His last words were: ‘Can you believe that lot just sold for $3,800?!?”
And in that moment, he released that yoke of guilt from my shoulders. In that moment, he restored my confidence in our powers. Because in that moment, he reminded me that we’re all here for the short term. And anything we can do to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, more meaningful, in any of these small little moments is using our powers for good.