The Definitive Guide to Silent Auction Fundraisers

In this post, you’re going to learn exactly how to throw a silent auction fundraiser.

This guide covers everything you’ll need to know in detail, including:

  • Procuring auction items
  • Promoting your event
  • Additional ways to raise money
  • Lots more

So if you are ready to set a record this year for your cause, you’ll love this guide.

Let’s dive right in.

Silent Auction Basics

What Is a Silent Auction?

Like any auction, a silent auction is an event where goods and services are sold to the highest bidder.

“Silent” refers to the manner in which bids are placed. Guests either write their bids on paper bid sheets or submit bids via mobile bidding software.

Why Are Silent Auctions Effective Fundraisers?

The silent auction is a popular fundraising format for schools, churches, foundations, and many other kinds of nonprofits.

  • Supporters can contribute to your event planning with donated items, resulting in word-of-mouth marketing.
  • Attendees enjoy a unique, fun experience without the pressure of a live auction.
  • Attendees have flexibility to arrive late, leave early, or even participate remotely.
  • Silent auctions allow for simultaneous activities at the event, such as socializing or additional fundraising games.

How Long Does It Take to Plan a Silent Auction?

For the majority of events, six months is enough time to plan your silent auction. Smaller events take less time.

One exception to this rule is if you host your event at a popular venue that requires early booking.

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The Big Decisions

Chapter 1: Form Your Committee

Rule #1 of forming an auction committee is “Quality Over Quantity.” Too many cooks in the kitchen can lead to some members shirking responsibilities and frustration coordinating schedules and earning consensus.

The three main criteria for choosing committee members are:

  1. Who wants to be there?
  2. Who is competent at X (e.g., managing volunteers)?
  3. Who has the right connections?

Find talented people who are self-motivated and have ties to the cause, donors, and local businesses.

To divy up responsibilities, consider assigning these roles on your committee. Assign multiple roles to the same person, if desired, to keep your committee small.

ChairResponsibilities
Managing Director-Coordinate various chairs to design and execute an integrated fundraising strategy.
Procurement-Gather items for sale at the auction
Audience Development-Design and distribute invitations
-Coordinate sales of corporate tables
-Track reservations
Operations-Coordinate the venue, decorations, food service, and Audio/Visual
Publications-Design and publish auction catalog
-Manage database entry into event software
Publicity-Engage local media and community about event
-Register event on community calendars
Financials-Manage budgeting across committees
-Accept and deposit all money from before, during and after event
Display-Set up live and silent auction displays
-Design live auction preview
Volunteers-Recruit, coordinate and train volunteers
Logistics-Track and store auction items
-Organize pickup and delivery of any larger auction items
Cleanup-Ensure venue is in the same shape, or better, as prior to the event
-Check for personal belongings left at event
Thank You Notes-Thank everyone who attended or donated items
Odds and Ends-Manage miscellaneous tasks that don't fall to a committee
-Augment staff of committees needing resources

Chapter 2: Goals & Budgets

Goals

Goals must be specific, achievable and measurable so you can build a plan to achieve them. We’ll cover the two types of goals for silent auctions: fundraising goals and donor development goals.

Fundraising Goals

Vague statements like “We want to raise as much as we can” are not helpful for making decisions. Rather, your fundraising goal should answer precisely how much you want to raise and why. For instance, a proper fundraising goal is:

“Our shelter believes no dog deserves to suffer in a puppy mill, and our mission is to end cruel practices and rescue animals in crisis. Our goal is to raise $90,000 to fund animal advocacy programs and care for innocent animals.”

Such a format focuses your decision making and inspires donors and sponsors.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: Learn how to determine a realistic goal in our previous post: 5 Steps to Set Realistic Revenue Goals for Your Auction.

Donor Development Goals

Although generating a large donation is the most obvious goal of a fundraiser, your event can also build support that continues throughout the year.

As an example, some organizations use their fundraiser to engage a new generation of donors. While the younger generation may not have much money to donate at your event, building a lifelong supporter pays dividends for years.

Budgets

As a rule of thumb, strive for your event costs to be roughly 25% of the total event revenue. For example, if you forecast to bring in $100,000 in total event proceeds, then you should budget $25,000 to throw your event.

Consider the following items when preparing your budget:

Promotional ExpensesAuction ExpensesOther Event Expenses
Save-the-date & InvitationsAuction ItemsVenue
Landing Page & Ticketing SystemDisplayDecorations
SwagCredit Card ProcessingLiquor License
Design ServicesCatalog & Bid FormsFood & Drink
SignageMobile Bidding SoftwareInsurance
AdvertisingRaffle LicenseSound & Lighting
Consulting Services
Valet Parking
Volunteer Party

Chapter 3: Date, Venue & Theme

Event Date

There is no ideal day, month or season in which to hold your fundraiser. Successful events are held every day of the week and at all times of the day, including breakfast events, lunch events, and dinner events.

Your committee should begin the search for a date by answering the following questions:

  • What time of year are we most likely to be able to get people to attend?
  • What conflicting events or holidays must we avoid?
  • Will our preferred venue be available on that date or potential dates?
  • Will we have enough planning time to be successful if we select that date?
  • Will that date or those dates support our theme?

Venue

One of your most important decisions is where to hold your event. Here are some unique locations to start your brainstorming:

  • Hotel ballrooms and convention halls
  • Sports stadiums and athletic fields
  • Wineries
  • Shopping malls after hours
  • Private country clubs
  • Tennis courts (indoor and outdoor)
  • Train stations
  • Corporate building lobbies
  • University or college clubs, community centers, and church halls
  • Restaurants
  • Zoos, botanical gardens, and public aquariums
  • Amusement parks
  • State fairgrounds
  • Theaters and music halls
  • Cruise ships or other large boats
  • Horse arena/stables/barns
  • Private mansions or exclusive homes
  • Museum display halls
  • Aircraft hangar or aircraft carrier deck
  • Circus tents

Remember that cost shouldn’t be your only consideration. Sometimes the “free” option, like a school gymnasium, isn’t always free when you factor revenue you may lose by not choosing a more desirable venue.

Factors to consider are: accessibility, usable space, convenience, food service, sound & lighting and availability.

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Pro Tip: One of the best things you can do to boost attendance is to provide child care for attendees. Ask your venue if previous events have done this and how.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: For more in depth discussion about choosing a venue, see our previous post: Choosing a Gala Venue: Ask These Questions Besides “What’s It Cost?”

Theme

A good theme solidifies your event’s branding and helps create a party atmosphere for guests. Your chosen theme should carry through on all printed material, advertising, publicity, decorations, and activities.

You may even let the theme determine your venue (or vice versa). For example, say your theme is “Show Your Colors,” where you encourage guests to dress in their favorite sports team’s colors. Then, it would make sense to find a sports stadium as a possible venue.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: For a list of theme ideas, check out our page: The Ultimate List of Gala Themes

Chapter 4: Technology

Online Ticketing

Today, online ticketing is more of a “must” than a “nice to have.” There is no shortage of options when it comes to building an event landing page and collecting ticket payments. Some examples include:

Additionally, your mobile bidding provider likely has a ticketing solution as well.

Most ticketing providers charge you a fee per ticket sold, which reduces your risk if you don’t sell many tickets but also can be expensive if you sell out. Inquire about each system’s fundraising features, such as the ability to collect donations in lieu of attendance.

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Pro Tip: Ever wonder how to get your event to show up on Google when someone searches for events in their area? Certain ticketing services, like Eventbrite, have partnered with Google so your event automatically shows up in Google Events.

Benefit Auction Software (w/ Mobile Bidding)

mobile bidding

Benefit auction software helps you organize your staff, vendors, attendees and data. The main features include:

  • Ticketing
  • Table seating
  • Streamlined check-in & checkout
  • Mobile bidding & online auctions
  • Text to give
  • Event reporting

Some benefit auction software to consider are Event.Gives, ClickBid, SchoolAuctions and MaestroSoft.

Should we use mobile bidding?

Mobile bidding is great for large silent auctions, because it prevents people from crowding around tables to read descriptions and place bids. People may also bid from home during your event!

Chapter 5: Food & Beverage

Food

For silent auctions, there are a few major food “don’ts”:

  • Don’t serve food that requires knife and fork or sitting down to eat.
  • Don’t serve sticky food (e.g., BBQ ribs).
  • Don’t serve anything that will create a line (e.g., buffets, carving stations)
  • Don’t put all the food in one place.
  • Don’t serve dessert until fundraising is over.

Instead, choose food that doesn’t distract from bidding and encourages movement throughout the room. Your two best options are passed appetizers and hors d’oeuvres stations.

If opting for hors d’oeuvres stations, put your most desirable food items by the most desirable auction items.

You may be curious about the advice regarding desserts. Desserts are notorious attention grabbers, and for many guests, dessert signals the end of the evening and will serve as their queue to leave.

Beverage

Commonly, silent auctions provide an open bar for the first hour or a limited number of drink tickets. After that, people can purchase drinks with cash or their bid number.

While booze gets all the attention, the most popular drink at your event will be water. Give your bartenders a break and set up several self-serve water coolers throughout the venue.

Consider placing your drink stations in the most remote areas of your silent auction to draw bidders. Just be careful that no lines extend in front of bidding areas.

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Alert: A common misconception is that more alcohol is better for raising money. Drunk guests distract other guests and increase risk of an adverse incident.


Procurement & Promotion

Chapter 6: Item Procurement & Sponsors

Item Procurement

For the uninitiated, procuring auction items seems like a daunting task. Cold-call every businesses in town to ask for donations? No fun.

1. List the People You Know

Rather than focusing on “what”, start with the “who” and then see what they can donate. “Who” includes: yourself, spouse, immediate family, closest friends, co-workers, neighbors, extended family, places you shop, professionals, and vendors.

Then, match people with things they could likely donate. For example:

Questions to Ask YourselfCategories of Items
-What is their business?

-What are their hobbies?

-Where do they live?

-What makes them happy (and would they share that experience)?

-Do they own a vacation home, cabin, or condo?

-Do they fly an airplane, sail a boat, or drive a sports car?

-Are they "connected" to celebrities or unique experiences?

-Who are their friends and contacts?

-Can they introduce you to someone who has what you want?
-Unique experiences

-Unusual or limited edition items

-Memorabilia

-Items with emotional impact

-Items everyone needs

-Trendy items

-Local trips/cabins/mini vacations

-International trips

-Items YOU would buy
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Pro Tip: Trade your duplicate certificates with other nonprofits (local or otherwise) for items you can’t procure on your own. For example, a Colorado nonprofit could trade a ski trip to a California nonprofit for a vineyard getaway.

2. Make the Ask

Now that you have your procurement targets, it is time to make the ask:

  • Be Specific: Don’t ask for “something,” ask for something specific.
  • Be Thorough: Ask everyone on your list. You’ll be surprised who donates!
  • Remove Barriers: Pre-fill any forms. All they should need to do is sign.
  • Don’t Apologize: It is never an imposition to help a friend.

3. Show Appreciation

Write thank you notes, comp tickets and provide recognition at the event to show your appreciation. These are important steps to ensure they donate again next year.

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Pro Tip: To ensure competitive bidding, you should not have more than one item for every two people at your event. It’s OK to procure more than this amount since you can always choose not to promote your lesser items or bundle them.

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Need Auction Items?

Find local golf, B&B stays, wine samplings, glamping adventures and more for your auction.

Sponsors

The steps to get sponsors mirror the steps to procure auction items. Rather than asking for items to sell, you are asking for cash contributions.

Start by engaging your board members with strong presences in the business community. Ask the board members to close 2-3 sponsors including their own businesses. Outside of your board, good places to seek sponsors are:

  • Local businesses who don’t have an item to donate
  • Membership and social clubs
  • Supporters who can’t attend

For local businesses, contact professionals like doctors, lawyers, and real estate agents. Build a sharp prospectus that quantifies the marketing opportunity and explains the donation is tax deductible.

Like procurement, you should have an idea what you want someone to sponsor before making the ask. For the “big fish” exclude the lower level sponsorship opportunities from your prospectus. Here are some examples of things to sponsor:

  • Title Sponsor
  • Items for your auction or raffle
  • Venue
  • Catering
  • Valet
  • Giveaways/Prizes
  • Matching Donation
  • Event Landing Page or App
  • Photo Booth
  • Signage
  • Swag
  • Email and other communications

You can also ask for in-kind donations, like wine from a local vineyard or printing services from a print shop.

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Alert: For your donors and sponsors to claim a tax deduction, you must give them an acknowledgement letter. Deductions are available for cash contributions and donations of property, but not for services or vacation rentals.

Chapter 7: Audience Targeting

Audience targeting is the process of identifying the bidders, donors and sponsors you want at your event. The last thing you want is a room full of eaters-not-bidders!

Choose Your Target Audience

So, who are the right targets? Here are some things to consider:

  • Monetary & Strategic Value: Were someone to attend your event, would they be willing and able to make a significant contribution? Would they spread the word about your event to their affluent friends? Would they continue to give after your event?
  • Compatibility: Is your event well-positioned to beat out other things someone could do with their time and money? For example, parents would be a high-compatibility segment for a school fundraiser. Millennials would be a low-compatibility segment for an Alzheimer’s disease fundraiser.
  • Size: Are there enough people in this segment to be worth targeting? Targeting only billionaires, despite their high monetary value, would give you too short of a list of people to target.

Try to formulate donor personas representative of your targets, as well as personas representative of people who aren’t your targets. A proper persona contains demographic data, attitudes and motivations, and behavioral information (e.g., their prior donor history).

Can You Have Multiple Targets?

Of course! Be mindful, however, that if you target everyone you are really targeting no one. A good way to think about targets is to have one target audience per ticket level.

An alternative to having multiple targets is to have multiple events. Perhaps the big gala appeals to your high-net worth donors but a low-key “wine down” would appeal more to young professionals.

Build Your Invite List

Now that you have your target audience, it’s time to build your target list. This step identifies real people who fit your criteria for being a target so you can make a plan to contact them.

If you have a robust donor database, then this task should be relatively easy. Simply run a report that shows people who meet your criteria for being a “target.” If you don’t have a complete database, some good places to building your invite list are:

  • Prior attendees, donors & volunteers
  • Newsletter subscribers
  • Social media followers
  • Networks of your committee members, awardees, sponsors, vendors & beneficiaries

Additionally, think about any segments of people that aren’t on your invite list but you would like to attend. For example, if you have an aging donor base, your invite list may be light on young professionals.

If young professionals are a strategic target for you, put the category “young professionals” on your invite list and think of ways to reach them that don’t require contact information (we’ll cover that later on).

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Pro Tip: You may identify people whom you feel compelled to invite but don’t meet your target criteria. Email these people an invitation, but reserve the personal asks (phone calls, etc…) for your targets.

Set Your Ticket Levels

The last step to audience targeting, before getting the word out, is to determine what you are selling. In the case of a gala, you need to know what your ticket packages are and how much they cost.

Your goal is create ticket packages that match up with your target segments’ preferences and willingness to pay. While there is no “one size fits all” to ticket pricing, there are some universal mistakes you can avoid.

Mistake 1: Pricing Too Low

If tickets are too inexpensive (or free), then people may question if your event is worth attending. Holders of free tickets are also more likely to “no-show” since they haven’t paid anything.

You’d rather target donors who are price-insensitive when it comes to supporting a quality organization.

Mistake 2: Pricing Based on Cost

Many organizers set their entry-level ticket price by taking their cost to feed an attendee and adding a markup to it (say 20%). This is known as “cost plus” pricing. While you may luck into the optimal price level with this method, it will leave money on the table most of the time.

What’s relevant to pricing is what the purchaser is willing to pay. Determine willingness-to-pay by estimating the fair market value of a ticket (what would a comparable meal and entertainment at a restaurant cost?) and add on a charitable contribution to the price.

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Alert: Publish on the ticket how much is fair market value and how much is a charitable contribution. Purchasers can claim a tax deduction on the charitable portion. Learn more.

Mistake 3: Offering Only One Ticket Level

If you offer all tickets at, say, $50, you lose out on people who would attend for a maximum of $30 as well on people who would’ve paid up to $100.

Instead, offer multiple levels, such as Friend ($30), Patron ($50), Benefactor ($100), Silver Corporate ($500), and Gold Corporate ($1,000). Additionally, consider an early bird discount to encourage early commitments. Encourage people to buy higher levels by offering special recognition or a VIP reception.

Mistake 4: Selling Tickets to Attendees Only

This may come as a shock, but there are many people who support your cause but hate social events.

Add a ticket option that is “Donation in lieu of attendance” so people can send their regards and money. We’ve even seen an event that offered a “Pay So You Don’t Have to Attend” option!

Chapter 8: Get the Word Out

Selling tickets comes down to sending the right messages through the right communication channels. This ensures your messages reach the intended recipient (i.e., your target audience) and inspires the desired action (i.e., a ticket sale).

Communication Channels

You have several channels available to you, some free, some paid. Evaluate your target segments to determine which channels will give you the best Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI).

Word-of-Mouth

Perhaps your most valuable channel, word-of-mouth marketing is when you take action to get people to tell their social circle about your event. Word-of-Mouth marketing is effective for fundraising auctions because it assuages attendees’ fears that they won’t know anyone at the event. Oh, and it’s free.

Some ideas to get the ball rolling are:

  • Committee & Volunteers: Challenge your committee, board, and volunteers to each personally invite 10 people to your event.
  • Kickoff Event: Host a mixer at a private home for your top donors and ask them to refer someone else who might be interested.
  • Class Projects: School fundraisers should incorporate a class project as an auction item so students tell their parents about the event.
  • Social Media: Enter anyone who refers someone or who uses your hashtag on social media into a prize drawing.
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Pro Tip: Furnish your committee, volunteers and table captains with email templates and talking points to make it as easy as possible for them to contact their network.

Email

Email is a cost effective way to let your donor base know about your event. Consider setting up a drip campaign to contact people multiple times (with different messages) until they click on your event link.

If you have a large email list, customize your emails to your target segments. For instance, you may feature your Patron’s package to one-time donors and your Benefactor’s package to sustaining members.

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Pro Tip: Test subject lines and content to see what gets the most opens and clicks. You may find that a text-based email that looks like it came from a friend performs better than a image-filled promotional email.

Phone Calls

Increasingly, people hate receiving phone calls. It’s also not the ideal method to collect payment and issue tickets. That said, phone calls can serve the purpose of building awareness of your event, and alert people to check their emails for an invitation.

Call the people in your database who have a preferred method of communication of phone calls, as well as anyone else with which a volunteer has a personal connection. For everyone else, start with an email and circle back with a phone call to your “heavy hitters” who haven’t purchased a ticket yet.

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Pro Tip: When making the ask over the phone, hold the silence until the recipient responds. Ask, “Would you consider purchasing two reservations for our fundraiser so we can increase after school programming?” Then, pause until they respond. Awkward? Effective? Yes.

Snail Mail

If you have donors’ physical addresses, consider sending a save-the-date and invitation via snail mail. Although you’ll pay in printing and postage, the physical mailer gives something for interested recipients to post on their fridge.

The save-the-date should just have the basics: who, what, when, where, why. The invitation to follow should have more detailed information about your organization, event theme, pricing, basic agenda, and RSVP return card.

Facebook

Facebook is a free way to let followers learn about your event, as well as let newcomers find out about you using it’s Discovery feature. Even more valuable is that your followers can forward the invitation to their friends, so you can expand your reach.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: Proper Facebook event promotion is an art and science. Check out our previous post: How to Promote Your Fundraiser on Facebook.

Community Advertising

The resourceful event planner can get the word out in the community relatively inexpensively:

  • During procurement, ask businesses to put a flyer their window. Do the same for your venue and vendors.
  • Post your event on any online community calendars.
  • Contact your local newspaper and radio stations to learn about promotional opportunities.
  • Create a Google ad that shows up to people searching for events in your area.

Homepage & Email Signature

Work with your webmaster to post your event details on your homepage. Similarly, all committee members should add a link to their email signature saying “Join us for our fundraiser” with a link to your landing page.

Messaging

Your messaging must must drive people through the conversion funnel, making them aware of your event and ultimately selling them a ticket.

The Conversion Funnel

The conversion funnel consists of three steps:

  1. Make people aware of your event.
  2. Persuade people that your event is worth attending.
  3. Convert them into a sale.
Conversion funnel

Customize your messaging for each stage of your funnel and for each of your target segments. For example, encourage signups among lifelong supporters with a mission-focused message, while delivering a transactional message (“Our gala is the perfect date night!”) to potential newcomers.

Reference the table below for some ideas and tweak it to fit your situation.

 AwarenessPersuasionConversion
Heavy Hitters-Feature event on newsletter
-Postcards
-Emails
-Phone calls
-Social media posts
-Short video about the good work your organization is doing and the impact from their previous generosity
-Other emotional appeals about your cause
-Include SASE in mailer
-Sell tickets at other meetings for your organization
-VIP ticket offering
-Sponsorships
-Links to event landing page
One-Time Supporters-Postcards
-Emails
-Social media posts
-Short video about the good work your organization is doing and the impact from their previous generosity
-Tease exciting auction items, live band, etc.
-Early-bird discounts & promo codes
-Emphasize limited tickets left available
-Onsite ticket booth (great for converting museum visitors)
-Links to event landing page
Not-Yet Supporters-Word-of-mouth campaigns
-Social media and paid search ads (use Facebook lookalike audiences)
-Local newspaper/radio (try to get a feature about your cause!)
-Flyers at local businesses
-Community calendars
-Highlight pictures/video from last year
-Tease exciting auction items, live band, etc.
-Volunteer selling
-Early-bird discounts & promo codes
-Pre-event raffle ticket sales (winner announced at event)
-Onsite ticket booth
-Links to event landing page

Get Ready for Event Day

Chapter 9: Registration Packets

The registration packet sets up guests for bidding success and reduces the questions you’ll get on event date.

The outside of the registration packet should include the guest name, ticket level and bidder number. In the inside of the package, Include the following:

  • Name Badge
  • Auction Catalog
  • Drink Tickets
  • Map of Venue and Auction Items
  • Auction Scrip (see Revenue Enhancers)
  • Other Promotional Materials from Sponsors
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Pro Tip: Print some extra registration packets at each ticket level for walk-ins who did not pre-register. Label them with the bid number and ticket level.

Auction Catalog

Invest in simple, attractive graphic design for the cover and ensure your font is easy to read. Don’t try to save a few bucks by using a small font size! You’ll pay it right back and more with reduced bids.

Your auction catalog should include the following items:

  • Welcome Letter: Usually written by the committee chair, the welcome letter thanks attendees for attending and reminds them that this is a fundraiser for a good cause.
  • Acknowledgements: Use the acknowledgements page to thank committee members, volunteers, sponsors, and anyone else worth acknowledging.
  • Agenda: Let people know when various auction sections close as well as any other programming you have for your event.
  • Auction Rules: The auction rules specify how to bid, when payment is due, and how to handle ambiguity in the item descriptions. FundraiserHelp has a good example of silent auction rules.
  • Item Listings: Include the catalog number, title, fair market value and donor for each item for auction. Guests can see the descriptions and photos on the table.
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Pro Tip: Use an easy numbering convention for silent auction items based on their section. For example, Section A items should be 101, 102, 103, etc…Section B items should b 201, 202, 203, etc… Color code your tables or promotional materials based on the section.

Chapter 10: Silent Auction Displays

When creating a silent auction display, you want to maximize the perceived value of each item. Here are the key elements of the silent auction display:

Flyers

Print a flyer with promotional information and display it on an easel or photo frame behind the bid sheet. This makes it easier for bidders to browse experiences without bending over to read the bid sheet.

Item Descriptions

Descriptions must be complete, accurate and exciting. What makes the description exciting are not flowery words, but accurate words. Bullet points are OK!

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.

Fonts

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.

Use a large font size, around 16 points. Also, avoid “fancy fonts” that may fit your theme but make descriptions difficult to read.

Bid Sheets

If you’re not using mobile bidding, the bid sheet is where bidders will record their bid in the silent auction. Even if you are using mobile bidding, having bid sheets available in case of an emergency is a good idea.

Ideally, the bid sheet is 3-part carbonless form (learn why in Chapter 14: Cashiering & Item Pickup), and includes the following:

  • Auction Section
  • Item Number
  • Description & Restrictions
  • Fair Market Value
  • Starting Bid & Bid Steps
  • Buy-it-now Price
  • Field for Bid Number
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Pro Tip: Supply attendees with a sheet of stickers with their bid numbers (and perhaps a bar code) that they can place on the silent auction bid sheets. Bidders will want to bid to get rid of their stickers, and you’ll avoid having to interpret bad handwriting.

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Alert: Do NOT require personal information on bid forms, such as name, email, or phone number. People may not want others to know what they bid on, or they may not want to upset their friend whom they outbid. Use bid numbers only.

What Should the Starting Bid and Bid Steps Be?

For fully donated items, start the bidding at 30% of the fair market value (FMV). For fixed-price consignment items, add 10% to your cost if the item sells. And for TravelPledge items, use the minimum bid we provide you.

Pre-print bid steps on your bid sheets so guests don’t have to do any mental math. Your bid steps should be about 10% of the value of your item. You should have around 14 steps, with the 1st step being the starting bid and the 14th step being the “Buy-it-now price”.

Example: Suppose you have a fully donated item valued at $500. Then your starting bid would be $150, and the following bids would be $200, $250, etc…all the way until a buy-it-now price of $800.

Tables, Sound & Lighting

Now that you’ve got your flyers and bid sheets, it’s time to lay out your silent auction items. The display portion of your silent auction is not a time to cut costs. Invest in extra tables and lighting if needed. You will make your money back and more with higher winning bids.

  • Budget two linear feet of table frontage per item.
  • Keep at least eight feet of walking space between tables.
  • Use circular or serpentine tables instead of rectangular tables to help bidder flow.
  • Test the lighting at the same time of day as your event.
  • Use props to display items at varying heights.
  • Add a mission-based message (or photo) on an easel in the center of each table.
  • Minimize any cellophane on your auction baskets.
  • Install a great sound system to build excitement, deliver announcements, and close out auction sections.

Chapter 11: Games & Revenue Enhancers

Revenue enhancers are things you do in addition to your silent auction to maximize your event proceeds. Choose your revenue enhancers diligently as to not fatigue your donors.

Auction Scrips

An auction scrip is simply a voucher that is good toward some amount of an auction purchase. Auction scrips encourage people to bid because the scrip is worthless after your event! Include auction scrips in your ticket packages.

Silent Fund-an-Item

Add pledge forms on a silent auction table where guests can pledge money to fund a need. Provide a box for people to submit their pledge forms.

Green Line Auction

Grab a green marker and draw a line under one of the biding lines in each of your bid sheets. People who bid on that line are automatically entered into a raffle. The effect is that people will skip the initial bids and jump straight to the green line!

Treasure Chest

Fill a locked box with valuable items and sell identical looking keys to guests. Over the course of the event, people will try their luck at unlocking the treasure chest, but there will be only one key that fits.

Diamond Bar

Wrap a felt bag around the stem of 100 champagne glass. All but one of the bags contain a cubic zirconium with the exception being a real diamond. Sell each glass for a fixed price, say $50. Purchasers visit an “Appraisal Station” for a jeweler to examine each person’s stone to identify the real diamond.

Balloon Grab

Get rid of small gift certificates by putting a slip of paper representing each in a helium balloon. Sell the balloons for $25, $50, or $100, depending on the value of the certificate within. Purchasers pop their balloon to see what they won.

Raffle

Raffle an item for which bidders can easily assess its value. For example, you could auction a flat screen TV for around $400, but make way more than that selling raffle tickets for $10/each.

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Alert: Choose revenue enhancers diligently as to not fatigue your donors. Remember, these are side shows, not your main event.


Event Day

Chapter 12: Guest Check-in

Streamlining check-in is crucial to your event’s success. If people have to wait in a long line, they may choose not to bid to avoid checkout. When checking someone in, accomplish the following:

  • Deliver the registration packet
  • Collect any money due for entry fees
  • Verify guest contact information for your donor database
  • Pre-authorize payment to save time during checkout

Organize your registration packets by last name, not bid number, since attendees will not know their bid number.

What About Walk-Ups?

“Walk ups” are people who didn’t pre-register for your event. You should have some extra registration packets available without names on them to give them. Since you will likely need to collect payment and contact information from walk ups, divert walk-ups to a secondary check-in table to keep the line moving.

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Pro Tip: After the guest leaves the check-in station, have a volunteer ask the guest if they have any questions about bidding, especially if you are using mobile bidding. The volunteer can train multiple people at once so people can continue checking in.

Chapter 13: Administer the Silent Auction

If you thought your silent auction was “set it and forget it”, think again. Proper silent auction administration drives competitive bidding and ensures a fair process for participants.

Facilitate Bidding

There are several things you and your staff can do to increase bidding activity:

  • Position your staff around the auction floor to answer any questions your guests have. Give your staff a booklet with additional details about each item in case the flyer is incomplete or unclear.
  • Continually check that the bid sheets are in the correct place and that there is a pen. Guests will steal your pens, so consider making a cup available with additional pens.
  • Monitor bid sheets for skipped bid steps (a good thing!) and cross out the skipped steps so the next bidder knows where to bid.
  • Pull any bid sheets for which there is a bid number at the “Buy-it-now” price.
  • Use announcements to spur competitive bidding. A classic maneuver is: “Bidder #123, you were just outbid for XYZ.”

Close Sections

If you have many auction items, close out your silent auction in three sections, not all at once. Stagger your closing times by around 15 minutes to give your staff to close out each section.

Each section closing is an exciting moment to see who wins each item. It also concentrates bidding on the remaining items for increased competition. For this latter reason, you should place your lesser-valued items in the first section to close and the most valuable items in the last section to close.

Typical Closing Procedure

  1. About 10 minutes before the schedule closing time, announce to the guests which section will be closing and remind them to check that they are still the high bidder.
  2. Have a staff member pick up pens by each form to prevent further bidding once time is up. Have a second staff member follow behind and circle the high bid to “lock it in”.
  3. The first staff then collects the top two copies of the bid sheet to take them to checkout area. One copy will be for your organization and the other will be the bidder’s receipt. Tape or staple the third form to the item as the item tag.
  4. Finally, remove any tangible auction items from the table and take them to your item pickup area. Repackage the item, if necessary.
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Pro Tip: If there are two (or more) guests still bidding on an item, consider letting them continue bidding until there is one winner. You’ll avoid any gamesmanship from the competitors and increase your yield. This is known as the “soft close.”

Chapter 14: Cashiering & Item Pickup

After your auction close, provide brief thank you remarks to your guests. This puts a nice cap to the evening and gives your staff time to prepare for checkout and item pickup.

Cashiering

Prepare Receipt Folders

Compile two receipt folders for each guest who won an item. One folder will contain the original bid form for your records, and the other folder will contain the winning bidder’s copy. Add any bar tabs or other receipts to the folders.

Additionally, for any winning bidders of an experience (or other non-tangible item), add any gift certificates they won to their receipt folder or provide a letter with instructions on how the bidder should expect their certificate.

Process Payments

Your auction management software likely has built-in credit card processing functionality, so you would simply need to obtain card readers. When collecting checks, write the bid number in the memo field for future reference. Where possible, avoid collecting cash payment since handling cash is theft liability.

Process payments for guests who pre-authorized payment during check-in. Then, direct them a special line for them to pick up their receipt folder. For other guests, have them line up to remit payment a cashier station. You should have one cashier for every 75 buying units.

The general cashiering process will be as follows:

  1. Ask for the guest’s bid number.
  2. Retrieve the two receipt folders.
  3. Collect payment.
  4. Mark your receipt folders as “PAID.”
  5. Hand the winning bidder their receipt folder and direct them to Item Pickup.
  6. File your own copy of the receipt folder.
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Alert: Collect any sales tax as required by your state and locality. Just because your organization is exempt from paying sales tax doesn’t mean you are exempt from collecting it.

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Pro Tip: At checkout, ask the guest if they would be willing to allow the final bill to be rounded up to the next $100, with the extra being a cash contribution. Most agree, of course, adding significant cash contributions to your total.

Item Pickup

There are five scenarios you’ll need to consider for item pickup, small tangible items, big tangible items, online purchases, and items that didn’t sell. Here’s how to handle all five:

Certificates

Certificates can be anything from restaurant gift cards to vacation vouchers. If you have the certificate available before your event, add them to the receipt folder you hand your guest at checkout. Otherwise, give winning bidders a letter that explains how they will receive their certificates.

For TravelPledge items, winning bidders are emailed their certificates once the auction organizer checks out in our system.

Small Tangible Items

By “Small Tangible Item”, we are referring to any item for which the winning bidder will no trouble carrying to their car to take home.

For these items, the winning bidder hands their receipt to a volunteer in the item pickup area. The volunteer matches the receipt with the third copy of the bid sheet that was attached to the item during auction.

An alternative workflow is the “Costco model”. Winning bidders collect their own items, with a volunteer checking receipts upon exit.

Big Tangible Items

If an item is too large to take home on the night of your event, pre-arrange to deliver the item to the winning bidder.

The only reason you would choose to include a cumbersome item would be if you could generate a large donation on it. Hence, covering the delivery should be worth it.

Online Purchases

For online purchases, or any other scenario where the winning bidder isn’t there for in-person item pickup, you have a few options:

  • Mail the winning bidder their item for a fee. Buy shipping insurance for expensive or fragile items.
  • Have a volunteer personally deliver the item. This is a nice touch to get additional face time with a donor.
  • Arrange a time and place after your event for the winning bidder to pick up the item.

Items That Didn’t Sell

Items that didn’t sell are generally not returned to the donor, unless specifically requested or you were selling the item on consignment.

Returning the item could insult the donor – you’d be better served finding an alternative use for it. Gift the item to a volunteer or use the item at a future event.

For consignment items, like memorabilia, follow the consignment company’s instructions for returns.


Wrapping Up

Chapter 15: Taxes & Reporting

Many organizers are surprised at the tax and reporting requirements associated with their auction. And, unfortunately, many organizers ignore them.

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Alert: Requirements vary from state to state and organization to organization. So, while we do our best to cover the key considerations, you should consult your accountant.

Are donated auction items and sponsorships tax deductible for donors?

Cash contributions and donated property are tax deductible. Furnish your donors with an acknowledgement letter for their contribution.

The letter should contain your organization’s name, item description, and a statement that no goods or services were given in exchange for the donation (or estimate the value of what was given). It is the donor’s responsibility to estimate the value of the item they donated, so no need to provide that for them.

By contrast to cash donations and donated property, donated services or the use of property (such as vacation rental time) are not tax deductible.

Are tickets and auction purchases tax deductible for attendees?

Tickets and auction purchases are tax deductible only to the extent that the purchase price exceeds the fair market value of the item purchased.

As the organizer, you should furnish the fair market value of the ticket on your ticketing page, as well as the fair market value on auction items within the catalog and bid sheets.

Do you need to collect sales tax on our tickets and auction items?

Generally, yes. You will need to collect all applicable sales tax on tickets and auction items. Just because your organization is exempt from paying sales tax, you are not exempt from collecting it.

Is auction income taxable?

In some instances your auction income is considered Unrelated Business Income (UBI), meaning it was generated in a manner unrelated to your tax-exempt purposes.

There are many conditions that determine whether you will owe this tax, such as how often you throw such a fundraiser. You will need to consult your accountant for your situation.

What forms do you need to file with the IRS and state departments of revenue?

Check out Blue Avocado’s Sample Auction Reporting Checklist for Nonprofits.

What records do you need to keep?

Keep records of all donations and purchases for at least five years in case of an audit or if you need to look something up.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: The above considerations are spelled out in more detail in a post by Blue Avocado: Nonprofit Auctions: A Complete Compliance Guide and Sample Forms

Chapter 16: Post-Event Audit

We hate to follow up the chapter on taxes with a chapter on audits, but this is a very different kind of audit. The post-event audit helps you solidify your lessons learned for next year.

Metrics

Numbers don’t lie. Your best lessons will come from reviewing event data, and then forming explanations for metrics that surprised you. You’ll also be able to measure your success year over year to determine the efficacy of new initiatives.

Funds Raised

  • Total revenue
  • Total expenses*
  • Revenue to expenses ratio
  • Break down metrics by each revenue stream
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Pro Tip: Include volunteers’ time in your expense calculations by allocating $10/hour. This represents other ways you could’ve used volunteer time, perhaps not related to your event.

Attendance

  • # tickets sold
  • # attendees
  • # attendees who gave
  • Top 20 donors
  • Break down metrics by each ticket level

Auction Items

  • Auction item yield (winning bid divided by retail value)
  • Top performing auction items
  • Top performing item categories (vacations, memorabilia, etc.)

Guest Experience

  • Longest registration line
  • Longest checkout line
  • People who left early
  • Qualitative observations of guest engagement

Recap Meeting

The goal of the recap meeting is to uncover additional opportunities for improvement not reflected in the data, as well as form explanations for surprising findings during data analysis.

Your committee should meet for the recap meeting as soon after the event as possible, while your fundraiser is fresh in everyone’s minds.

Some topics to discuss:

  • Vendors
  • Food
  • Logistics
  • Guest Experience (e.g., Were there long lines?)
  • Audio Visual
  • Venue
  • Silent Auction Display & Flow
  • Sticking to the Schedule
  • Guest Sentiment (e.g., What comments were overheard?)
  • Committee Performance

Survey Data

In your thank you emails to attendees, request feedback on your event either by email or a survey link. Even if you don’t get many responses, your attendees will appreciate the opportunity to give their input.

On any thank you calls, have a keen ear for opportunities for improvement as well.

The next year, when you listen to your donors’ suggestions, give the donor credit for their idea. They will appreciate that you listened and will be forthcoming with additional feedback.

Additional Reading Book Icon

Additional Reading: It’s common among PTAs to hand off next year’s auction to an entirely new committee. Communicating your lessons learned is critical to their success. Check out our previous post: Break the One-year Planning Cycle for Your Fundraiser

Chapter 17: Donor Retention

Your inspirational event laid the groundwork to turn your attendees into a sustaining donors. The event follow-up can go a long way toward “sealing the deal.”

A common way to express your gratitude is through thank you letters. Ideally, the letters are hand-written (especially for big donors) though email may be required for larger events. Personalize your letters and give a clear call to action for more ways to be involved. Your letter will stand out, retain the reader’s attention, and compel them to act.

Here are some examples of letters to send attendees and ways to personalize them:

Email topicHow to personalize
Thank you note for making the event a success-Add a photo (or link) of the recipient, or tag photos in a photo directory so they can easily find themselves.

-Have the "sender" be a volunteer or beneficiary who spoke to the donor at the event. Hand-write the note for bonus points.

-Acknowledge specifically what they contributed (ticket purchase vs. winning bid vs. table sponsorship, etc...).
Sharing a story that illustrates your mission-Send first-time attendees a story focused on why your cause is worth supporting, but send "heavy hitters" a story that shows their continued support has made a difference. Hint: It can be the same story told in different ways.
Invitation to another event that showcases your mission in action-Segment your programming by target age and commitment level. Send the right invitations to the right people.
Appeal for donation or other contribution-Ask repeat donors to renew their membership, but think creatively about how to engage people who may not have discretionary money. Remember, your goal is lifetime donations!

-Some alternative appeals: volunteer, tell friends & family about us, sign a petition, subscribe to our blog, follow on social media.

Acknowledgements

In addition to the articles linked within the article, we want to acknowledge the following books which were invaluable to putting together this guide:

  • The Big Book of Benefit Auctions by Jay R. Fiske and Corinne A. Fisk (learn more)
  • A Higher Bid: How to Transform Special Event Fundraising with Strategic Benefit Auctions by Kathy Kingston (learn more)

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