Silent Auctions: How Many Items Should You Include for Bidding?

If you are holding a silent auction for a fundraiser, you may be having a difficult time determining how many items you should put up for bid.

Too few and you risk not raising enough money, but too many and you stifle competitive bidding and spread the same amount of money across more items.

What is the right number of items for your silent auction?

A good rule of thumb is to not have more than one item for every two people at your event.

But there’s more to the story. Here are some things to keep in mind when procuring items for your silent auction.

What Is Your Fundraising Goal?

Before obtaining any items for your auction, you’ll need to know the dollar amount that you are trying to raise. There’s a big difference between raising $100,000 and raising $1,000,000. Obviously, larger goals will require more items.

But what if we want to raise as much as we can?

“As much as we can” is not a goal. Set specific, achievable, and measurable fundraising goals so you can manage your procurement.

How Large Is Your Venue?

The size and layout of your venue is very important in deciding how many items you should procure for your auction.

You do not want to cramp patrons by setting up so many items that they cannot easily move around the room or view the promotional flyers. However, you also don’t want your items to be spread so far apart that the offerings seem sparse.

You should try to give each item two linear feet of table space.

If you are working in a smaller room, you may have to cut out some items, bundle some together as a larger package, or utilize the buy-it-now board. Remember that this is an event, and people will want to socialize, so leave plenty of room for them to do so.

How Many Buying Units Will There Be?

buying unit is a single bidder or a couple attending the event together. It is a reasonably safe assumption that a couple will not bid against each other, but rather make spending decisions together.

On average, you can expect that each buying unit will walk away with 1 to 1.5 items. Thus, multiplying the number of buying units by 1.5 should give you the upper bound for items to include.

We recommend, however, that you include fewer items than the upper bound you calculate. You want to create a “seller’s market” to foster competitive bidding.

When calculating your number of buying units, review sales and attendance data from previous years. If you don’t have this information, review your RSVP list and make some reasonable estimations. “Close enough” is just fine.

Who Is In Your Audience?

Another factor in determining the number of items will be what type of people are bidding.

If your supporters are quite wealthy, they may be more interested in bidding on exclusive wine bottles, art, and vacations than on restaurant gift certificates. Likely, you won’t be able to procure as many of these types of items, but that’s OK so long as your attendees bid competitively.

Otherwise, you’ll want to focus procurement on more practical, affordable items, of which you will have a greater number.

Do You Have a Live Auction Also?

Lastly, if you are hosting a live auction in addition to your silent auction, you don’t want to sap all of the money out of the room with your silent auction.

To determine how many items to allocate to your silent auction, it’s time to do some math:

  • Roughly 65% of your auction revenue should come from the live auction, while the remaining 35% comes from your silent auction.
  • For most galas, you can expect the average buying unit to spend $600 dollars in total on auction items.
  • Expect a 50% yield (winning bid divided retail value) on silent auction items.

So that means you need to procure $420* worth of silent auction items per buying unit. How that breaks down in terms of number of items depends on your decisions based on the factors above.

*$420 = $600 x 35% / 50%. For a more detailed explanation, see here.


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.

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