Getting in on the Auction with Karen Sorbo

How a shy farm girl became the fast-talking queen of Minnesota charity fundraising

karen sorbo, auctioneer, auctions, people and profiles, minnesota
Auctioneer Karen Sorbo

Photo by ackerman + Gruber

Auctioneer Karen Sorbo is one of the most sought-after for fundraising benefits, having generated more than $600 million for worthy causes at more than 2,600 auctions since she started in 1993. Today, Hopkins-based Sorbo works at 65 to 70 fundraising events a year in Minnesota and across the country; her record for a local auction is $2.24 million for Children’s Minnesota Foundation. 

“I grew up on a hobby farm in western Minnesota, and my father brought me to numerous auctions. I was fascinated by the auctioneer’s chant. I just stared at the man with the belt buckle you could serve a turkey dinner on, with his cowboy hat and cowboy boots and his fast talking. I didn’t set out to become an auctioneer—it wasn’t a girl’s job or career. I was very quiet then and didn’t speak much—but I’m making up for it now.”

“Growing up, I wasn’t pretty and I was heavyset. My father raised me like a boy. I didn’t act like a girl, and I dressed in bib overalls. I think that contributed to me having a lower voice. When they’re growing up most girls are really cute, and they speak in high voices. My voice is very far down in my diaphragm, which helps as an auctioneer.”

“I went off to college and got a music degree, taught private music lessons, then got married and had children. I got into auctioneering after my father retired in 1992. He was really bored and I said, Dad, why don’t we go to auction school and open up an auction house? We graduated and got licensed but then my father fell very ill and I couldn’t open an auction house. But there was an article in a local newspaper with a picture of me getting my certification and shaking the hand of the owner of the auction school, so I got a call asking me if I could donate my skills.”  

“My first auction was at a charity golf tournament raising money for diabetes, and I was ‘bit by the bug.’ I thought, All right, I’m changing lives. That’s what I’d wanted to do since I was a little girl. I ended up raising three times as much as the person they’d hired in the past. In my first year I donated my work to 50 nonprofits and I finally thought, Why not make a living doing this? Nobody turned me down, and the phone kept ringing. That was 2,600 auctions ago.”

“Every auction is like my first and last. I always give it my all onstage. And I study every organization as if it were a marriage partner—I always learn everything about who’s hiring me, and then I’m able to connect with the audience because I feel I’m one of them. Because they believe in finding a cure for cancer, or finding a cure for AIDS, my job is to make them feel they’re there for a reason—not just to auction off items but to truly feel good about giving.”

“When I’m in front of an audience, I have to keep the energy going. I’m a lady, and you’re not supposed to perspire, but I’m actually dripping because it takes so much effort. I’m an entertainer. I’m a motivational speaker creating the energy for people to continue to bid—and to bring them back to why they’re there. And then sometimes it might get quiet and I’ll sit down next to someone and say, Sir, I’m curious. If you have $10,000 to bid, don’t you have $11,000? I make it a conversation.” 

“For the first 15 years of my career, people would bid on more material items, but now guests at events want to bid more on experiences and making memories. Material items don’t fetch what they used to: 20 years ago, I sold a castle in Ireland for $4 million, but I couldn’t get $500,000 for it today. 20 years ago, I sold a Rolling Stones guitar for $85,000; today it would be difficult to get $5,000 for it. I recently sold a Golden Retriever puppy for $35,000; I wished we’d had two, we could have brought in $70,000.”