Live Auctions: Which Items Should You Include?

Your big fundraising gala is coming up. Now it’s decision time.

Which items are worthy of inclusion in your live auction? And which items should you delegate to silent bidding?

Here are the factors to consider when setting your live auction lineup:

Broad Appeal

Bidding at Live Auction

The key to high bids is competition among bidders. Period.

If there is only one person interested, your best-case scenario is earning the minimum bid. And if that one person happens to be ill on your event day, then you’ve spent valuable live auction time for naught.

As much as we at TravelPledge love golf, even we must acknowledge that beach vacations sell better than golf vacations.


Not everyone plays golf but everyone loves the beach. Parents in the room can more easily justify purchasing a family vacation to the Caribbean than a buddies’ stay & play at a top course.

The broad appeal drives competitive bidding and ultimately bigger donations.

Leave the items with narrow appeal to the silent auction. If your one relevant bidder shows up, then great. If not, you’ve printed an extra bid sheet.

Kid Appeal

waterpark experience for kids

It’s no secret that people like to spend more money on others than they do on themselves. Well, this counts doubly when buying gifts for children.

Need proof? Take a queue from the prices you see on the hottest toys around Christmas.

Use this to your advantage when setting your live auction lineup. Including items for children engages all the parents and grandparents in the room to bid competitively.

Some great examples are:

  • Private book reading with a famous children’s author
  • Meeting a sports star
  • Special tour at a child-friendly place, like the zoo
  • Firefighter for a day, police for a day, etc…

Live Testimonial

dawn sunset

Nothing is more compelling to a potential bidder than a live testimonial.

If evaluating vacations, for example, include destinations where an attendee can vouch for how great it is. If they provide a well-timed endorsement (“I visited there last year, and you wouldn’t believe how blue the water is”), a potential dud can turn into a bidding frenzy.

There is nothing wrong with orchestrating the testimonial to make the maximum effect so long as the testimonial is honest. Last year’s winning bidder of the same item is the perfect person to ask.

Point out your star witness to the auctioneer ahead of time so the auctioneer can prompt the comment at the perfect time. Experienced auctioneers are pros at leveraging audience participation to deliver big bids.

Strong Visuals

Golf vacation_bigscreen

Sometimes words just don’t do an auction item justice.

You could have a fabulous trip to a Colorado dude ranch lined up, but if attendees can’t visualize the mountain setting or the ear-to-ear grin of their child riding a horse, then bids may be hard to come by.

Great promotional photos and videos give bidders confidence that their expectations will be met (or exceeded) should they win. Visuals articulate what words can’t and solicit the “oohs” and “ahs” that generally precede aggressive bidding.

So, if you are torn deciding between two vacations to include in your live auction, opt for the one with the high definition photos and exciting video.

Multiple Sales

big gala of bidders

Say you’ve started an elusive bidding frenzy. It would be a shame to sell the item to only one winner when you have ten willing buyers.

In the case of a rare autographed football, your hands are probably tied. But, if you are auctioning a vacation to a big resort or event tickets, then you may be able to sell it multiple times.

Ask the provider how many times you can sell it. TravelPledge shows you on each experience how many times an item may be sold.

Depending on the answer, you could clear the room at the donation maximizing price. For instance, rather than selling one vacation at $5,000, you could sell ten vacations at $3000.

The “Sweep”

A twist on multiple sales is the “Sweep,” which is good for items that are too big to be sold to a single bidder. Rather that selling, say, a dinner cruise for 60 people, sell the cruise “by the couple” by breaking the price into tickets for 30 couples paying the same amount.

The “Feel Good” Factor

apple pie

We recently spoke to an auctioneer who once raised $5,000 for a school PTO by selling an apple pie baked by the 2nd grade teacher.


Because the pie had what we call the “feel good” factor.

“Feel good” items usually have a touching backstory and gives the audience a surprise. The audience engagement gives attention-seeking bidders their moment to shine.

A side benefit to “feel good” items is that they are usually inexpensive to procure (think apple pie). That means a big net donation (now, doesn’t that feel good?).

Items to Leave Out of Your Live Auction

  • Anything with very limited appeal, where there may be only one or two potential bidders
  • Items that will cause embarrassment for potential bidders (e.g., tummy tucks, face lifts…)
  • Items that are too complex to explain quickly
  • Certificates with too many restrictions or with a narrow window of availability

Now that you have the right items selected for you live auction, make sure to place them in the right order to maximize bids.


Al McDonald is the Chief Product Officer for TravelPledge and author of the e-book “The Definitive Guide to Silent Auction Fundraisers.” Al has helped thousands of nonprofits exceed their auction goals through auction item procurement and advice. Al understands that successful auctions are hard work and is committed to delivering practical advice that will move the needle for you today.