4 Essentials to a Successful Charity Auction (Besides Items for Sale)

You’ve procured some really great auction items. Great! These items will sell themselves!

Think again.

Presenting your auction items in the right way with the right ambiance is critical to driving up bids and satisfying guests.

Pay particular attention to these four areas:

1. Sound

Guests who wish to participate in your silent auction will be frustrated if they can’t hear announcements about how to bid and closing times. Clear promotional announcements build energy in the silent auction.

In the live auction, sound is even more critical. Louder is not the answer. CLEARER is what is needed.

This is best accomplished with a “surround sound” system: one where the room is ringed with several speakers. Sound that is band sound or DJ sound focuses the sound on the front of the room. Guests in the front get blasted with too much sound, and the guests in the back struggle to hear. Both are bad and will adversely affect bidding.

2. Lighting

big gala of bidders

Think of your auction like you are managing a retail store. Illuminating the items is not just a good idea; it is critical to getting their highest value.

Once you take care about providing proper lighting so the items “jump” out at the guests, you will find they have more value to the bidders.

In the live auction, the audience must not only see the auctioneer and items for bid, but also each other. For real live auction energy, guests should be able to see all the way across the room.

Similarly, the auctioneer needs to be able to see all the guests. A good auctioneer doesn’t wait to see a bid card go up to react. They will search the room for body language that indicates the bidder is about to raise their paddle and then encourages that bidder to “do it.”

Some events place spotters with flashlights around the room to help the auctioneer see people who are bidding. Nice idea, but very costly since it makes the auctioneer reactive rather than proactive.

It’s better to procure the proper lighting without the need for spotters. If you can stand at one corner of the room and read a 200-300 point bid number from the opposite corner, then your lighting is adequate.

Remember, dinners by candle light = good. Auctions by candle light = very very bad!

3. Item Descriptions

Silent Auction Display

Descriptions must be complete, accurate and exciting. What makes the description exciting are NOT flowery words, but ACCURATE words. Give the bidder the right information, and the item will get interest.

What turns bidders off are descriptions that are incomplete, inaccurate or misleading. If there are blackout dates or restrictions, be sure to list them. If the bidder is left to assume information, they will assume incorrectly and that will hurt the bidding.

For the live auction, we suggest simple descriptions, even a bullet list of what is included. Guests will be distracted by their food, conversations, speakers, and general commotion so expecting them to read long, flowery descriptions in a catalog is wishful thinking.

You are better served by just calling out the key, complete points in a bullet list set up by a very brief opening line.

4. Font Size

glasses booklet

In the silent auction, guests will be reading the descriptions from a distance, often from 3 to 8 feet away. They will not bend down to normal “reading distance” to see the descriptions, so font size is critical.

The only correct solution is to use a LARGE FONT SIZE so guests can see what they are being asked to bid on. If you can read the description from eight feet away, then the font size is probably OK. You should also stay away from “fancy fonts” that may fit your theme but make it difficult to read from a distance.

In the live auction catalog, don’t select a font size to save paper! Yes, you may be able to get multiple items on one page with 10 point font, but if the guests can’t read the descriptions WITHOUT THEIR READING GLASSES, then the font size is too small!

Recommendation: Place one live auction item per page in your catalog, with large enough font to fill most of the page. Yes, you will print more pages and have a thicker catalog, but it takes only one or two more bid steps resulting from bidders reading the descriptions to make this a very profitable change.

This post is adapted from The Big Book of Benefit Auctions by Jay R. Fiske and Corinne A Fiske.


A nationally recognized benefit auctioneer and consultant, Jay Fiske has helped raise millions of dollars for a wide variety of organizations. Additionally, he authored The Big Book of Benefit Auctions.

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