Silent Auctions Simplified

Thinking about launching a silent auction to raise funds? You’re not alone. From home and school associations to non-profits and charities – everyone wants to include a silent auction as part of their events. That’s because having a silent auction is a fun and engaging revenue generating attraction.

However planning, promoting and executing a successful silent auction can be a daunting task. There are many moving pieces, so coordination and planning are key.

The aim of this guide is to go through the basics and help simplify the planning and execution of silent auctions. We’ll talk about what exactly silent auctions are, what you'll need to start out, how to secure great items, some expert insight into “Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Silent Auctions” and provide some additional resources.

So what exactly are silent auctions?

You’ve likely attended an event that has included a silent auction. Have you ever asked yourself, with all of the chatter and noise going on at your event, why they're called “silent auctions”? It’s because they are held without an auctioneer.

Silent auctions can either be the main attraction around which an entire event is based, or they can be a supplemental form of entertainment (and fundraising) as part of an awards ceremony, fundraising event, conference, etc.

During a typical silent auction event, items for auction are displayed for participants to inspect closely. In front of each item is a document called a “bid sheet” (see adjacent sample bid sheet from CharityFundraisingExperts.com). This usually has the name of the item, a short description, its value, a minimum bid amount, and spaces for people to note down their names and bids.

In most cases, guests have a look around to inspect the items. Then placing a bid is as easy (and can be done silently). Interested bidders simply write down their name and a bid that is higher than the previous bid. Many silent auctions add a “minimum increase requirement” to their bid sheets. This means that the next bid must be a certain dollar amount more than the previous one. For example, if the minimum increase is $5 and the previous bid was $50, the next bid must be at least $55.

A silent auction must also have a predetermined end point at which bidding is concluded. At that time, the bid sheets are collected by organizers and the highest bid on each sheet is the winning bid – and that person gets to go home with the item!

Silent auction basics


Here’s a high-level list of what you’ll need to get started with silent auctions:

  • Desirable Items: Your whole auction revolves around the items that are on offer. Sourcing valuable items that your audience will be excited by will help you get the maximum possible revenue from your auction. (See below for auction item ideas.)
  • Item Display: Displaying your chosen items appropriately will help you to accentuate them. Choose wisely from stages, platforms, easels and cases to make the items stand out and appear more desirable.  Keep in mind lighting and location when arranging your collection.
  • Bid Sheets: Bid sheets are where the actual auction takes place. As mentioned above, they need to have the  name of the item, a short description, its value, a minimum bid amount, and spaces for people to note down their names and bids. It is good practice to make sure the bid sheet is securely fastened near the corresponding auction item.
  • Volunteers: Silent auctions can be labour intensive. Recruiting well trained volunteers to help with soliciting for items, inventory management, auction set-up and checkout will help make sure your event runs smoothly and your bidders have a good time.
  • Auction Monitors: If possible, experienced or trained volunteers or staff should act as auction monitors. As the bidding is “self service”, the monitors should be in charge of keeping an eye on the items and bid sheets to make sure that your guests are following the auction and bidding rules.
  • Checkout area: Having a cordoned off area that deals with the actual monetary transactions will help make transaction private (if requested) and secure. Be prepared to deal with cash, checks and even credit cards (using Square).

While we’ve provided a high-level overview of what silent actions are and what they entail, we wanted to offer some expert advice for those just getting started with or are looking for ideas to refresh their silent auctions. So we turned to self-proclaimed “practical fundraising visionary” Claire Axelrad. The following is advice, tips and ideas based on a number of blog posts on Claire’s Clairification Blog.

Forewarned is forearmed – Before you start, understand the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Silent Auctions”

As Claire Axelrad suggests in her post, Fundraising Silent Auctions: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Easy, “Silent auctions are a bit like the story of the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: When they are good they are very, very good; when they are bad they are horrid.”  

Claire notes that the good news is that “Silent auctions can be a great way to increase event revenue and entertain your guests.” They are likely to be most successful, suggests Claire, when viewed as a primary form of entertainment for the guests. This means that the items you have on auction are valued by the attendees, whether the value comes through feeling they’ve contributed to your cause, found a bargain or had access to  “a once-in-a-lifetime experience they’d never have had access to anyplace else.”

On the down-side, Claire warns that silent auctions can also be “a complete time suck and not come near to generating the value of the donated items for your organization.” The rewards are limited when a well-intentioned team spends a lot of time soliciting items that are “non-saleable”.

“The Ugly” comes in when your  silent auctions inadvertently alienate donors or disappoint event guests.” Claire suggests:

A dreary auction is depressing in every way. It depresses your guests because there’s nothing there they want to bid on. It depresses your event revenue. And it even depresses further donations from auction item donors.

So – what can you do to ensure your silent auction is a success?


Keep it mission-related

According to Claire, the first step is to be sure you are “tapping into the power of mission-related, or “funding a need,” items”. In other words, remember that, in general, folks are attending the event to support your cause. So as she notes, “if you do a good job inspiring folks about your cause at your event, your audience is primed to support you. Don’t waste the good feelings you’ve generated!

Create a win-win-win situation – with the right auction items

Yes, it is all about the auction items. But it’s also about how they make your guests feel. Your silent auction will be a success, if the items you’ve laid out for auction are valuable to your attendees or offer up a unique experience.

Claire suggests “if you’ve got the right items, the auction is a winner for all concerned: the bidders, the donors, and your organization.”

When a guest “wins” an item, they should truly feel more like they got lucky, rather than feeling like they paid for something. Make them have a good time and they’ll look forward to the next such event.

When planning for your silent auction, Claire reminds us to think about the needs and expectations of your various stakeholders. Here are some ideas she shared:

Bidders

  • Your guests will look forward to browsing through, bidding on, and talking about items that they find interesting and fun.

Auction Donors

  • Donors will want to see their items do well and raise money for your organization; and awareness for their product or service.

Your Organization

  • Your organization wants to maximize the revenue produced from each auction item and make sure that everyone has a good time.

Of course you want items that sell well

Many associations, non-profits and small membership organizations have limited resources and staff, so it’s critical that you put them to good use by focusing on finding auction items that will excite people and give you more bang for your buck.

But, you ask, how can you figure out what will excite your guests?

Think about your event audience. For example, are they:  Young singles? Retirees? Big spenders? Art lovers? Sport fanatics? Wine lovers? Environmental enthusiasts?

If you know your audience fits into a particular niche, you can focus on finding items and services that would suit their interests. For example, if your organization is a sports club; signed memorabilia, sporting event tickets and sporting goods may be seen as desirable and are sure to sell well.

Regardless of your crowd, there are certain items that tend to sell well among many demographics, and some that don’t.

Some of the items that work across the board:

Based on her experience, Claire suggests that the following are usually effective across all audiences:

  • Restaurant gift certificates
  • Wine and wine collections
  • Vacation getaways
  • Hotel stays
  • Sporting event tickets –  especially VIP boxes that bidders would not otherwise be able to access
  • Entertainment (concerts, theater, symphony, opera, ballet) tickets – especially when these events tend to sell out
  • Gift packages of any of the items described above

Auction items you may not have considered

But in her post – Fundraising Silent Auctions: It’s the Items, Stupid – Claire also outlined some silent auction items you may not have thought of. These, Claire suggests, can be “Priceless items that resonate with your target audience”:

  • Personal services performed by your staff, your board or a group of your supporters – these may be babysitting by a favorite teacher, a party hosted by your board president for the winner and 10 friends at the board president’s house, monthly baked goods delivered by a staffer who is a phenomenal pastry chef, or a certificate good for 4 hours of IT support from your IT specialist. Get creative!
  • Unique community experiences – perhaps lunch with a respected professor, behind-the-scenes with a local broadcaster, a ride on a traffic helicopter, etc.
  • Once-in-a-lifetime experiences — if you have big spenders, then by all means look for that walk-on part in a movie… the dinner for 8 cooked by a celebrity chef in your own home… the box seats for the World Series… the opportunity to conduct the symphony. If not, don’t bother moving heaven and earth to come up with this item; you won’t get an appropriate bid, and the donor will NEVER give you another item.

Some items that generally do not sell well:

On the other hand, some items that Claire has found don’t usually pull too well, include:

  • Professional services such as (unless the provider is well known and respected):
    • Interior design consultation
    • Pilates classes
    • A chiropractic session
    • Financial services consultation
  • Art (unless you have a crowd of art lovers and your art has been vetted by professionals).
  • Antiques (same rules apply as for art)

But how do you get the good stuff?

Once you’ve given some thought to your audience and the kind of silent auction items they might appreciate and value, how do you secure the right auction items?

Claire suggests “your staff and volunteers are the key to finding the very best items for an auction.” She recommends you get your team together and brainstorm based on their various networks of friends, business associates, alumni, etc. Together you can develop a list of possible donors and items and then assign volunteers to follow up and solicit those items.

Questions that might help secure the “good stuff”


In her post, Claire offers a list of questions that might help “generate items that sell well and will excite your guests” – here are a few of her suggestions:

  1. What restaurants do you frequent? Could you get a gift certificate? Would the chef host dinner at the restaurant? Would the chef come to cook dinner in someone’s home? 
  2. Are you a subscriber to, or on the board of, a local entertainment venue? Could you get tickets… behind-the-scenes tour… lunch with the director… a performance?
  3. So you have season tickets? Could you offer up one or more pair? Could you get something special, like an autographed ball?
  4. Do you have any vintage or special wines you’d be willing to donate? Do you frequently buy from a vintner who might donate a case?
  5. What hobbies do you have? Can you offer a beer-making class? A gourmet cooking class? 
  6. What access do you have to special experiences? An afternoon on your private yacht? Two hours on your private jet? A signed television script (you know someone who works at the studio)? 

As your staff and volunteers consider their responses to these questions, remind them to think through their entire network of family, friends and colleagues –anyone they know who might have access to popular and/or creative auction items.

We’d like to thank Claire Axelrad for her insight and ideas that we hope will help you host successful silent auctions this year.

Additional Resources


Image source:
  Male judge... – courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com


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Silent Auctions Simplified by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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