Tips for a Successful Silent Auction

by Eric S. Taylor, CPA, CGFM, Audit Partner

Posted on December 7, 2017

So, your organization has decided to hold an annual fundraiser.  Maybe you have decided on a fundraising dinner event, with entertainment and an MC to facilitate the event.  “What are some ways to generate revenue at this event?” your organization might ask.  One activity to consider when trying to generate revenue is a silent auction.  Silent auctions are not only fun and exciting for attendees of such an event, but they are great fundraisers for non-profit organizations.  However, organizing and staging a successful silent auction can be an overwhelming task for those in charge.  

Below are some helpful tips in organizing, planning, promoting and running a silent auction at your next annual fundraiser.  Keep in mind that these tips are for an in-person event.  Online auctions are a whole different kind of event and should be organized and executed in an entirely different manner.

Planning for the Silent Auction

Silent auctions can be a daunting task.  Right from the beginning planning stage there are many things to consider.

  • Select an auction committee or group of volunteers – A successful silent auction is more than a one person job.  A reliable set of individuals is key to making this type of event happen.  It is good to assemble a group that is equal to one person per about 12-15 items being auctioned.  Make sure to set this group up well in advance of the event date, to adequately have time to properly plan and execute the auction.  It is a good idea to have this group meet at the beginning to assign responsibilities and to brainstorm, and then periodically, until the event, to monitor progress and update responsibilities.  A meeting just prior to the auction also is a good idea to coordinate the set-up of the event.
  • Decide on auction items to solicit – Having desirable items to auction off is extremely important for the success of the auction.  Assessing the potential attendees of the auction about their interests, buying habits, and price range is key to deciding what items to solicit. Once the auction items are decided on, it is time to draw up a potential list of donors of these items, and then assign potential donors to the members of the committee to commence soliciting donations.
  • Approaching auction donors – When seeking items from potential donors, it is best to meet with them face-to-face.  When approaching the donor face-to-face, make sure the people soliciting are able to provide the potential donor with information about your organization, the organization’s mission, and relevant information about the upcoming event. Offering the donor benefits for donating items is helpful, such as a couple of free tickets to the event, or advertising space in the event’s brochure, poster, or on the organization’s website.  The degree of benefits provided can be decided based on the importance or value of the items donated.  If the donor does provide an item to solicit, it is a good idea to have a donor form on hand to fill out, that indicates the donor’s contact information, the item(s) donated and the fair market value or retail value of the item(s), as determined by the donor.  Also, as part of promoting the event, ask the donor if he or she is willing to keep a stack of event flyers to pass out, or attach a poster in his or her place of business.

Preparing for the Silent Auction

Promoting the auction, setting up the auction space and creating rules is critical for a well-run auction.

  •  Promote the fundraising event and auction – In order for the auction to be successful, it is beneficial to market the event.  One of the most cost-effective ways to promote the auction is to prepare an online event website. This can be linked to the organization’s website.  If budgeting allows, consider marketing the event through mailers, newspaper advertisements and other media outlets. Also, event posters can be hung at donors’ places of business.
  • Create a set of rules and follow them precisely – It is important to have clear auction rules prepared and posted in conspicuous places throughout the auction area. Make sure these rules are followed closely the day of the auction.
  • Plan the display and flow of the auction space – Prior to the event, have the auction committee, or a part of the auction committee, visit the event location to see the space allocated for the auction.  Viewing the space in person will make it easier to determine where tables, stages and easels can be placed for proper display of the items and flow of the auction traffic. Planning the appropriate lighting of the items is important as well.
  • Prepare bidding sheets – Bid sheets should be prepared ahead of time and placed adjacent to the item being auctioned.  The bid sheets should include:

–  Item

– Donor

– Fair market or retail value

– Minimum bid and bid increments – A good rule of thumb is to assign the minimum bid at 40% of the fair market or retail value, and the bid increments should be approximately 10% of the fair market or retail value. These numbers are approximates and should be rounded and adjusted accordingly for ease of bidding.

– Auction closing time

– Donor contact information – Donor contact information is important in the event that the donor does not stay to claim the prize at the time of auction. It is also good to have contact information from all bidders for future marketing contacts and mailer lists.

– Bidder number (if bidders are registered ahead of time)

– Bid amount

Running the Silent Auction

Now it’s time to put on the silent auction. There are a few things to consider while carrying out the silent auction.

  • Set-up of the Auction – Provide ample time for setting up and displaying the auction items, as well as posting the bid sheets. Take time to make sure the lighting is inviting for the bidding of the items. Make sure all items to be auctioned are properly safeguarded until the start of, and during, the auction.
  • Auction Monitors/Volunteers – Post staff throughout the silent auction area to answer questions and monitor the bid sheets periodically.
  • Bid Sheets – Bid sheets should be located right next to items being auctioned.  An ample number of pens (as opposed to pencils) should be located next to the bid sheets.  Bids written on the bid sheets should strictly adhere to the bidding increments posted on the bid sheet. Any bids written that do not adhere to the required increments should be crossed off by the staff monitoring the bid sheets.
  • Bid Ending Time – Bidding should be stopped exactly at the time designated on the bid sheet. Since most of the heavy bidding tends to happen very near the closing time, it is a good idea to make an announcement about 15 minutes and 5 minutes prior to the closing time, letting people know how much time is left to bid. This helps in driving up the bid amounts at the end, maximizing the potential fundraising amount.  Some organizations prefer to stagger closing times for specific items or designated groups of items, so people have the opportunity to bid to the last minute on multiple items. For example, each table could have its own posted closing time on a staggered schedule.
  • Checkout Area – Make sure to have a separate sectioned off area for handling monetary transactions.  Winning bids and names can be circled or highlighted on the bid sheet.  Winners can be posted on a separate sheet, or notification can also be done as an announcement. It is in the best interest of the fundraiser to have the ability to handle most forms of payment. The organization should be able to receive payments in the form cash and credit cards. Receiving personal checks should be avoided. One staff/volunteer person should collect the money from the winning bidder, and another staff/volunteer person should be responsible for retrieving the item and bringing it back to the checkout area to distribute to the winning bidder.

 After the Silent Auction

Just because the silent auction at the event is over, that does not mean the auction committee’s job is done:

  • Distributing Unclaimed Auction Items – Sometimes bidders choose to leave a silent auction event before a winner is named.  If so, the organization will need to arrange to have the person pick up the item and make payment. If that person does not pick up the item within a time-period posted in the written rules, award the item to the next highest bidder on the bid sheet.
  • Thank You, Thank You, Thank You – Always send thank you notes to the people/businesses that donated items for the auction. This is just a general courtesy that goes a long way with the donor. Thank you letters can also be sent to winning bidders.
  • Recordkeeping – It is good to keep a spreadsheet documenting items that were donated and auctioned off, the name and contact information of the donor, the name and contact information of the winning bidder, as well as the winning bid amount collected. This spreadsheet can be used to compare to the amount collected.  It can also be used in the future to invite back big spenders in future events, as well as contacting donors to solicit donations for future events.
  • Safeguard Monies – Monies from the fundraiser should be counted by at least two separate people at the time of collection, as well as signed off as counted by these two people.  The monies should be locked up until it can be deposited at the bank or given to the receiving organization.

 These are just a few tips to help organize and run a silent auction.  There are obviously more tips and detailed suggestions that can help with putting on a successful silent auction.  It is recommended that further research be completed by the person in charge of the silent auction or by a selected committee for the auction. Planning and execution of a well-organized plan can greatly help to maximize the revenue generated and used towards your organization’s mission.