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INTRODUCTION

The Silent Auction is a tradition that can be very effective for your fundraising goals and very fun for your guests. 

CHAPTER 1: EXACTLY WHAT IS A SILENT AUCTION

That may seem like a silly place to start, because nearly everyone in the nonprofit world knows exactly what a Silent Auction is, but since this is a comprehensive guide, we will make no assumptions. We will start at the beginning.

When we think of an “auction”, we tend to imagine a fast-talking cattle or auto auctioneer uttering a chant that sounds like an alien language, with ringmen barking “YEP!” and “HEY!” periodically, and the gavel coming down hard on the lecturn. It’s a high-energy, high-volume affair, with lots of urgencies.

A silent auction is the opposite of that in nearly every way.

During a silent auction, there is no auctioneer barking out commands, no alien language chant, no ringmen, and way less urgency and pressure.

A silent auction features:

  • Items that are displayed on tables -- or if the organization is using mobile bidding, the items may be displayed on a digital portal. 
  • The Silent Auction typically occurs during the cocktail hour when guests are arriving, connecting with their friends, grabbing a drink and perusing the silent auction tables.
  • Guests browse through the silent auction items, reading the descriptions and deciding if they want to bid.
  • They make their bids by either writing their bidder numbers on the bid sheets or using their phones to make a bid through the mobile bidding software.
  • Each bid is visible to everyone else who is bidding on that item, so everyone knows where they stand in the competition to win each item.
  • At a pre-determined and pre-announced time, the silent auction will close -- no more bids will be accepted.
  • The silent auction committee will make note of the highest bid placed on each item, and they will organize the silent auction items for pickup at the end of the evening.
  • As the guests are departing, those who won silent auction items will make payment for them, and then leave the venue with everything that they’ve won.

The silent auction has a rich set of rituals and traditions that include:

  • The Hard Labor:  Although the silent auction requires a lot of work, that labor is one of the reasons that people love the silent auction. It’s a special feeling when you know that you’re taking on a difficult task, working shoulder-to-shoulder with a group of like-minded, passionate people to achieve a noble goal. There’s a lot of value in that experience.
  • The Planning Meetings:  The planning meetings are often fun social gatherings that everyone looks forward to attending. Leaving the kids at home, meeting a group of friends for appetizers and a glass of wine or two, is a cherished ritual.  
  • Engaging the Business Community:  As your emmissaries go out into the world, to ask various hotels, restaurants and other businesses for donations to the silent auction, they’re increasing the community’s awareness of your organization and the impact that it has.
  • Organizing:  Organizing the silent auction can be a very rewarding challenge for people who are into details and making sure everything is perfectly executed. They’re making decisions about:
    • Which types of items they’ll pursue
    • How to combine the items they receive into packages
    • How to display the items
    • How to execute the load-in and set-up. 
    • How to organize the items for pickup by the winners.
    • How to breakdown the silent auction area.
    • There are many many details to tend to, and for the people who have the personalities for it, the challenge of managing all those details is exactly why they love the silent auction.
  • Execution:  There are probably a few members of your staff and/or your volunteers who have “attended” every fundraising gala you’ve thrown, but they’ve never been inside the ballroom for the program. Some members of your team sacrifice their opportunity to participate as a guest and instead show up hours early to help with the set up. They monitor the silent auction during the cocktail hour, and when the guests go into the ballroom for the program, they do all the work to disassemble everything and prepare for checkout. They’re at the event, and they’re vital to its success, but they never get to enjoy the party as a guest. Those are special people who have a very special commitment to your organization and the success of your event.

 

The Gala Team is engaged in Benefit Auctioneering. We are experts at live auction strategy, which you can learn about in our free guide 26 Steps Your Nonprofit Can Take to Create the Most Profitable Live Auction Ever! 

We are also have a truly innovative Paddle Raiser strategy (aka Fund-a-Need) that we explain in detail in our free guide titled, “The Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Record-Breaking Paddle Raiser”. 

In full discosure, we do not offer Silent Auction services, but so many of our clients have asked for guidance on this topic that we’ve decided to publish this Comprehensive Guide just to help our nonprofit partners find the solutions they’re seeking.

Happy Fundraising!

CHAPTER 2: IS YOUR EVENT THE RIGHT "TYPE" TO HOST A SILENT AUCTION?

One of the first decisions you have to make is to deteremine if the type of event you’re hosting is a good fit for a Silent Auction. 

Out of the four categories below, what type of event you’re hosting?

  • A FUND-RAISER
  • A FRIEND-RAISER
  • A FUND-PRAISER
  • A FUN-RAISER

Each of these ambitions is an important ingredient in every fundraising event, but leaning too heavily on any one of the “Four F’s of Fundraising” tends to have a negative impact on the other three. So it’s important to have a clear understanding of the “type” of event you’re hosting so that you know exactly which of the Four F’s you want to emphasize and then make your decision about whether a silent auction would be appropriate.

FUND-raiser

Your event is a fundraiser when the primary purpose of the event is to raise as much money as possible. A silent auction is a good fit for this type of event. With a pure fundraiser like this, you’re leaning on your board members and your sponsors to fill the room with people who have resources. Your silent auction will offer them unique packages that they can’t easily obtain elsewhere so they’re happy to bid on them at your event, which will help your organization raise money.

VERDICT: A Fund-raiser is a great candidate for a Silent Auction.

FRIEND-raiser

You’re event is a Friend-raiser when the primary purpose is to introduce the organization to the audience in hopes of recruiting more volunteers to your mission. With this audience, the commitment of their time is more important than their financial contributions. 

For example, every development director would agree that teachers are not a great source of fundraising revenue. They have plenty of passion and energy to offer, but they lack the cash necessary to financially support you. So an audience full of teachers wouldn’t produce much fundraising revenue.

UNLESS --- you’re an organization like Susan G Komen’s annual Race for the Cure. When the Komen organization throws a Friend-raiser and recruits 20 teachers to run or walk in their annual race, those teachers become passionate advocates who often have a deeply personal connection to the mission. When those teachers ask their friends and family to pledge money to support them, everyone responds with great love and generosity.

These teachers might raise $2,500 each, and Komen makes $50,000 as a result of its Friend-raiser that recruited those 20 teachers.

Another example of the effective use of a Friend-Raiser: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is an organization that serves one of the most vulnerable populations in our country – children who have been abused or neglected and are now in the court/foster care system.

CASA organizations need to raise money, but they also need to recruit volunteers who can get trained and become CASAs, because there are far more kids who need a CASA than there are CASAs available. So a Friend-raiser that shares the need, the mission, the strategy and the process for getting involved, might persuade 20 or 30 new people to seek out additional information, and that would be a tremendous success for the CASA organization.

That would make the event a very successful FRIEND-raiser for CASA, but not a great fundraiser.

VERDICT: A Friend-raiser is a poor candidate for a Silent auction.

FUN-raiser

A Fun-raiser is an event in which the primary purpose is to throw a great party and ensure that everyone has “Fun”. Examples of these types of events would be fundraising concerts, fashion shows, 5k walks/runs, or any other event where the fundraising is primarily achieved through ticket sales, sponsorships and pledges. Your attendees are helping you raise money just by being there, so you wouldn’t ask them to also participate in a Silent Auction.

VERDICT: A FUN-raiser is a poor candidate for a Silent Auction.

Fund-PRAISER

In a Fund-PRAISER, the goal is to honor a titan of industry who has made a large impact on your specific charity or the societal problem that the charity is trying to solve. Your honoree might be a builder who has made a commitment to affordable housing and who has employed previously homeless people on his job sites. With a Fund-Praiser, your honoree may purchase two or three tables, and his fellow titans, who admire him and want to support him, will also purchase tables. And his major vendors, who want to show their appreciation, also buy tables and bid on items. 

VERDICT: A Fund-Praiser is a great candidate for a Silent auction.

CHAPTER 3: FORM A SILENT AUCTION COMMITTEE

The silent auction is way too much work for one person to do alone. You need a team of people who are committed to making the silent auction work. Putting the burden of this huge task on one person is a formula for disaster, blame, and resentment. 

Creating a “committee” of people who are working on the silent auction serves better for several reasons.

  • SHARE THE LOAD: The work of collecting items is spread out among many people, so the burden on any one person is not so great.
  • MORE IDEAS: More people means more ideas about creative items that might be appealing to your guests.
  • MORE RELATIONSHIPS: - More relationships with more potential donors means more possibilities for high-quality donations. 
  • SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE: Have you ever been part of an organization who had one person who organized the whole silent auction, and when that person retired or quit, suddenly the organization lost the institutional knowledge? Having more people involved, means that you’re always training the next leader of the silent auction.
  • FRAGILE HUMANS - We’re all human beings subject injury, illness or family emergencies, so spreading out the silent auction burden means that you don’t have to worry that the illness of one person could bring your whole process to a halt.

The Scleroderma Foundation has published a useful Event Committee Job Descriptions. This document does a good job of describing the responsibilities that people on the event committee will have. 

CHAPTER 4: GIVE CLEAR DIRECTION AND DIRECT MARCHING ORDERS

It’s important that the silent auction committee has a vision for how it is going to approach collecting donations. 

Don’t simply tell your volunteers and staff to, “Just go and collect as many items as possible.” Doing this puts an ambiguous, daunting, and never-ending task on the plate of your volunteers and staff. 

Inevitably, such direction from your organization’s leadership results in paralysis by analysis. 

A better approach is to divvy out responsibilities with clear direction on each person’s role in the process. 

Instead of telling someone to, “Go collect items,” give him or her specific marching orders such as, “Please help us create a ‘Coffee Lovers Package’ for our silent auction. To do this, approach 3-5 coffee shops in your area. Ask each shop owner to donate a $25-$50 gift card, a bag of whole beans, and a t-shirt or mug.” 

What you have done is specifically empowered that committee member to take action to complete the mission at hand. This enables him or her to approach as many coffee houses as needed until he or she completes the mission. Encourage your volunteers and staff to be creative too, so they can be alert to opportunities to could collect additional items related to the “Coffee Lovers” idea, such as a Barista for a Day experience, or a private sampling party, for example. 

When you mobilize your staff and volunteers, you give them: 

  • Purpose – They have their marching orders and can move forward confidently. 
  • Check-Off List – They know what they need to do, whom they need to contact, etc. 
  • Clarity – They won’t be twiddling their thumbs; they know exactly how to move forward with gusto.
  • Opportunity to be Creative – They can put together fun packages within their assigned parameters.
  • Start and Finish Point – This isn’t about going to solicit as many people as possible with no end; rather once they reach their goal, they are done and will feel accomplished.
  • Deadlines – You can attach specific deadlines to the assignment, helping the process move forward in a doable and fast-acting timeline. Remember, people drag their feet when their workload is ambiguous. With clear purpose and a start and end point, they will be motivated to move quickly to achieve success.

CHAPTER 5: CREATE EFFECTIVE SOLICITATION MATERIALS

When your silent auction committee members are actively working to collect donations, arm them with a one-sheet overview about your organization and the event.

Include the names of past donors and suggestions on the kinds of items you are looking for. 

A lot of organizations create long solicitation letters that no one reads, which can be a huge silent auction saboteur!
Make your solicitation materials full of graphics, images, bullet points and a clear call to action. Keep in mind the KISS rule when creating these materials – Keep It Short and Simple -- shame on you if you were thinking of a different word for that final S in Kiss. :-)

Remember, people are busy! 

By taking the time to make a clear and readable short one-sheet, you are respecting their time and making their decision easier. 

Just like your volunteers don't like ambiguous direction, neither do your donors! 

The more clear you make your requests, the easier it will be for them to make the decision to donate. 

Also, many people and business owners want to donate to nonprofits but they get asked all of the time so it can be difficult to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. 

By creating clear solicitation materials, you give them a clear picture of the other organizations that have donated to your cause and the audience that will be seeing their items up for auction. 

Overall, having clear, concise and simple solicitation materials will help bring a potential donor closer to making a donation to your silent auction event.

EXAMPLE:  Here is a great sample solicitation letter published by Winspire.

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CHAPTER 6: LEVERAGE YOUR BOARD MEMBERS AND SPONSORS

Your Board Members and sponsors are connected in the community. They have relationships with hotels, restaurants, spas, etc, and they can make introductions or requests on behalf of your organization.

In The Fundraising Authority’s Silent Auction Guide, author Joe Garecht writes:

“The single best way to approach this group is to call them. 

Eventually, you will be sending letters as part of an auction mailing, but for this group of people who are already connected to you, it is best if someone from your staff, board of directors, host committee, or a volunteer actually picks up the phone and calls to ask for a silent auction donation. 

Calls like these are relatively easy, because this group of people already knows your organization and supports your work. If this is an annual silent auction event, the call is even easier, because the person you are calling will be aware that you are having a silent auction. 

Calls to this group would generally go something like this:

“Hi Jim, this is Marti from St. Paul’s Church. How are you? I’m great, thanks. Listen, we’re getting ready for our big annual silent auction, and you’re such a great supporter of our Church, I wanted to get your help. Would you be willing to donate an item for us to auction off? You would? Great! Thank you! Do you think your company or any of your friends might be willing to donate an item as well?” 

Some of the people you call will have a great item. Others will need your help to think through a list of items they could donate. Still, others won’t have an item but will be willing to ask others to donate to you. 

The key with these calls is to make as many of them as you can… the more people you call and talk to, the more items you will have for your auction.”

CHAPTER 7: INDICATE WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE DONOR

When soliciting donors for silent auction items, you must be clear what’s in it for the donor, after all, few will be motivated to give if they’re not getting some sort of community goodwill or marketing benefit from the process. 

Think like a donor – what do they “get” in exchange for their generous donation? 

  • Supporting a Worthy Cause - Most importantly the donor gets to support an organization that is doing great work in the world.
  • Solving a Community Problem - The nonprofit is serving people in the community who really need help, and by making a donation, that coffee shop is helping to solve a community problem.
  • Promotion - Maybe the coffee shop will have its logo listed on the nonprofit’s website and on slides during the event to thank all the sponsors. Maybe they’ll get a social media shout out.
  • Tax Benefit - Of course, the business will want to know that the organization they’re contributing to is a registered 501(c)(3), and their gift is tax-deductible
  • The Right Audience - Businesses spend a lot of time thinking of ways to connect with their ideal customers. If your event is going to attract a lot of people in a business’ target demographic, then that business may want to make a contribution to a) put their name and service in front of that audience and b) to show that audience that the business shares their passion for the nonprofit they’re all supporting.
  • Personal Connection - If you’ve done your research and you happen to know that the business owner has a personal connection to your cause, then you’re very likely to get a generous donation.

When you solicit donations, help the businesses see the value in making a contribution. It helps them get to a quick “yes”.

CHAPTER 8: TRIGGER THE BUYING "IMPULSE"

How many times have you been in line at the grocery store and you grabbed a pack of gum or some mints or a candy bar, because it was right there in front of you at the checkout counter?

There’s a lot of research that demonstrates that it’s not hard to “trigger” a buying impulse in shoppers. In an article on Chron, reporter Sophia Harrison explained that placing items near the checkout counter can increase revenue and introduce shoppers to new products.

Harrison quoted a study which showed that 38% of shoppers purchased something they had never purchased before.

This point-of-purchase behavior is relevant to your silent auction, because it reflects a particular pattern of behavior -- someone buying something that they didn’t walk in the door intending to buy.

If we’re forensic psychologists trying to learn the “profile” of an impulse buyer, it would help to think of the characteristics of the opposite -- the buyer with a plan.

Here’s an example: 

Suppose you need a gallon of milk.

  • You drive to the store specifically to get this gallon of milk.
  • You don’t get a cart or a basket, because all you need is a gallon of milk.
  • You go to the refrigerated aisle and grab a gallon of milk.
  • You walk to the front of the store and go to a self-checkout counter.
  • You scan your gallon of milk.
  • You put your gallon of milk on the scale.
  • You’re ready to make payment and checkout.
  • When suddenly, your eyes fall on Rihanna on the cover of “Cosmo” next to the headline “I’m open to love, but guys have to earn it.”
  • You grab the magazine, run it across the scanner, and throw it into your bag. 
  • You walk out the door with a gallon of milk and a copy of Cosmo.

Your thought process in buying these two items is totally different.

Buying the milk was the purpose of the trip. 

The sudden impulse to buy the magazine came from a completely different part of your brain. You didn’t “need” that magazine. You didn’t walk in the store intending to buy that magazine. But something about its proximity to the checkout, its cover image, it’s headline, its price, etc. triggered an impuse to buy that you couldn’t resist. In less than 3 seconds grabbed that magazine and bought it.

For your silent auction to be successful, you want your guests to make decisions in the “Cosmo” part of their brains, not the “Milk” part of their brains.

To trigger that, you need to offer items that can be understood immediately without any deep thought. They need to be simple, attractive and priced properly.

Psychology Today published an article tiled “Five Reasons We Impulse Buy”, and all of the reasons are relevant to the silent auciton experience for your guests.

According to Psychology Today, people make impulse purchases because:

  • They love shopping - People enjoy the experience of shopping. They like perusing merchandise, finding things that they love and value and purchasing them. We buy things simply because we enjoy the act of shopping.
  • How do you leverage this in your silent auction? - Create a fun shopping environment. Create attractive bundles full of interesting items that have value and will add something to the lives of the people who purchase them. Don’t clutter your silent auction with junk. Find good items.
  • They have a fear of missing out -The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real thing. A Psychology Today article titled “The Science of FOMO and What We’re Really Missing Out On” says that FOMO has always existed, but it’s been exacerbated by the onset of Social Media. The fact that we can easily “see” what our friends are doing makes us we feel FOMO more strongly.
  • How do you leverage this in your silent auction? - Make sure your silent auction is in a location that’s visible to everyone, so guests can see other people shopping and get that FOMO feeling. If you’re using mobile bidding the push notifications whenever someone gets outbid also produces FOMO that can promote competition and increase revenues.
    1. They rely on heuristics -- Heuristics is a fancy way of saying a mental shortcut that helps us make conclusions based on very little information.
      1. For example, it’s dangerous for us to automatically trust EVERY strange dog we encounter, but it can be paralyzing and inefficient to fear EVERY strange dog we encounter. So our brains accept the heuristic that certain breeds are friendly, and/or a dog wagging its tail is friendly, so we quickly and automatically trust some dogs despite the fact that we don’t know that particular dog.
  • How do you leverage this in your silent auction? - Stay on the well-traveled path and let heuristics work for you. Stick with brands that people recognize and trust, the destinations that are familiar and the details that are typical. It’s way easier for someone to say “Yes” to a 7-day vacation in Cabo San Lucas, than to say “Yes” to a 7-day vacation in Guayaquil, Ecuador. They’re both lovely vacation spots, but one is extremely familiar to most of your guests, while the other is unfamiliar. When you’re looking for quick decisions, stick with the familiar.
  • The desire to save - Our consumer economy has a quirk that must seem odd to people who don’t live in this same type of hyper-consumer environment. In other cultures, people buy things because they need them, and they recognize that they’re spending money. In our culture, we often buy things because of how much money we’re going to “save” by buying it. You could go to your local grocery store and buy a roll of paper towels for $2. Or you could go to Costco and buy 15 rolls of paper towls for $20, and you’ll brag about how much money you saved! The $18 additional dollars you spent is not the number that sticks in your head, it’s the 67-cents per roll you saved by buying them in bulk.
    1. How do you leverage this in your silent auction? - Everyone loves a sale! The good news for you is that all of your silent auction items start out with a signficant discount. If you’ve got an item with a retail value of $100, you have a starting bid of $30, so this item is a steal. Another way to leverage the power of the consumer mindset is to bundle things together. You want your guests to think “Wow! Look at all the great stuff in this baskett. If I win this thing, I’m going to save sooo much money!!”

In a Robin Report article titled “FOMO & The Retail Experience” author Judith Russell said that consumers are addicted to sales the way addicts are addicted to heroin. Russell wrote, “[Sales] stiumulate the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure center of the brain.” She says that nearly 25% of Americans are addicted to buying things on sale.

A silent auction is just a big “Sale”.

 Everything is offered at a discount!

  1. Rose tinted glasses - Pschology Today says that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than our actual reality. Most of us think that we’re better than average drivers, and most of us think that we’re better than average parents. 
    1. Photos of our vacations make them look more fun than they actually were.
    2. Photos of our children make them look more angelic than they actually are. :-)
    3. The story of that time you nearly drowned while learning how to surf in an 8-foot swell sounds funny and romantic when you’re re-telling it, but it was terrifying when it happened.

How do you leverage this in your silent auction? - Remember that your guests will look at your items through rose-colored glasses as long as you paint a pretty picture. When you tell them how much fun they’ll have, they’ll see themselves having fun. When you tell them how beautiful the sunsets will be, they’ll imagine how beautiful it will be. When you tell them how great it will be to rejuvenate their marriages, they’ll picture themselves holding hands.  Your descriptions plus their imaginations will drive your silent auction revenue through the roof.

CHAPTER 9: MATCH YOUR ITEMS TO YOUR GUESTS

When you’re thinking about the items to sell in your silent auction, make sure you consider the demographics of your guests. 

If you’re doing a fundraiser for the symphony, then your audience is probably older, probably into the arts, and might be interested in packages that include opportunities to see special performances by the symphony.

This is probably not the group who will bid on tickets to a Jay Z concert.

Clearly, the “types” of items you offer matters, and so does the value of those items.

If your event is a black-tie gala with an individual ticket price of $250, then you might have silent auction items that sell for thousands of dollars.

But if your event is an elementary school fundraiser and the individual ticket price is just $25, then you should be seeking items that will sell for dozens or hundreds of dollars -- not thousands.
Use your previous years’ data to give you ideas about what has sold for the most money. You also want to check to see which items received the most bids. Items that have 10 or more bids give you an indication that they were popular, and you should look for more items in that category for this year’s event.

CHAPTER 10: SETTING UP YOUR SILENT AUCTION TABLES

The Fundraising Authority sells a great Silent Auction Handbook (for $27) that answers all of the nuts and bolts questions about organizing, setting up and executing your silent auction. 

On the subject of set-up, The Fundraising Authority guide offers a formula to estimate the amount of table space that you’ll need. In simplest terms, you’ll need about 2 feet of table space per item. You want to make sure that everything is visually appealing and and thinking outside the box for beautiful displays.

Make sure there is plenty of lighting, extra pens, and easy to read and understand bid sheets. 

Organize your items by category and space them out well to avoid having your bidders feel cramped and crowded.

If you are using mobile bidding, do your homework! 

Not all mobile bidding technologies are equal. Find a great company that will work best for your attendees (See Strategy #16). 

If you’re looking for some quick recommendations on setting up your silent auction, check out a great article published by Winspire titled “3 Tips for Attractive Functional Silent Auction Tables.”

CHAPTER 11: MAKE BID SHEETS SING

A good bid sheet should include just the right amount of rows to encourage healthy bidding. You don’t want a bid sheet with 100 rows because if only 10 people bid on the item, then 90 rows are left empty and the bid sheet looks pathetic. 

On the flip side, if you only have 10 rows for bidding, and the item drums up a lot of exciting bids, there will be no room on the sheet for your guests to bid. 

An ideal bid sheet has about 20 rows, allowing for plenty of bids without looking sparse. (However, we suggest ditching paper bids and switching to mobile bidding. See Strategy #16.) 

You want to make sure that you provide sufficient information about your silent auction items, so that your guests can quickly make a decision without having to do any further research. You don’t need to go into super detail, but the iinformation you provide needs to be relevant and 100% accurate.

A Capgemini study titled “Beyond the Label: Providing Digital Information Consumers Can Trust” focused on the information people rely on in making purchasing decisions.

This chart shows the results of that study.

Silent Auction

So it’s important that you include crucial information and make it easy to read and easy to understand. Make it easy for your guests to say “Yes, I want this item.”

If you had a dinner for two in your silent auction, It might be tempting to simply write “Dinner for Two at The Chophouse” on top of your bid sheet, but many of your guests won’t know what The Chophouse is all about.

 

Instead you should describe the auction item fully. 

For example:

  • Enjoy a delicious night out for two at The Denver Chophouse & Brewery, located downtown in the Historic Union Pacific Building. 
  • You’ll enjoy the restaurant’s extensive wine collection, handcrafted beer brewed on site, and classic steakhouse menu. 

Remember, unlike a live auction, there is no auctioneer to give a detailed description of your silent auction items, so it’s your job to make the bid sheet sing! 

Along the same lines, if you’re offering sports or theatre tickets, you’ll want to detail the exact seat location and the exact date and time of the game or show.

CHAPTER 12: HOW RETAIL VALUES CAN UNDERMINE YOUR SILENT AUCTION

As we explained in our comprehensive LIVE Auction guide, publishing or announcing retail values in the live auction can really undermine your fundraising.

The Silent Auction is a different animal, but in general, we believe the same rule applies. There’s often very little to gain and a lot to lose when you publish retail values.

For example, let’s say you have a package called “A Romantic Night in the City” that includes a night at a trendy hotel, dinner at a popular restaurant and a couples massage. 

We believe it’s a mistake to say, “Okay, one night at that hotel is $200, the dinner gift certificate is for $150, and the value of the couple’s massage on their website is $250, so the retail value of this package is $600.”

And then publish that retail value on the bid sheet.

When you publish that retail value, you put a cap on the bidding, and you trigger a different emotion in your guests. The most profitable silent auction items are those that trigger competition and an “I-want-to-win!” mentality in the bidders. The least profitable auction items are those that trigger a discount-seeking mentality in the bidders -- “I’m looking to get a great deal on this.”

Just to be clear, we’re not suggesting that you lie to your guests. If there are gift certificates in the package that have a specific value and that value is “relevant” to what it’s going to cost them to redeem it, then you need to share that value. However, if the value is irrelevant, then you shouldn’t share it.

Here’s an example of a relevant value:  If you have dinner for 2 at XYZ Restaurant and the certificate is worth $150, then you need to share that, because the actual cost of the meal really depends on what you order. If they order some expensive wine, the price will exceed the value of their gift certificate and they’ll have to come out of pocket to pay the balance.

Here’s an example of an irrelevant value: A one-night Friday or Saturday night stay at a swanky hotel in a King suite for two people. Yes, there’s a “value” for that, but it’s irrelevant. The certificate is good for a one-night stay, so when the winner redeems it, it will pay for a one-night stay.

So if we return to the example of the Romantic Night in the City package, your description should share that they’ll get a night in the hotel, plus a couple’s massage and dinner for two at XYZ restaurant (up to $150).

Notice that we’re only sharing the retail value of the “relevant” gift certificate -- the one that “may” not cover the entire expense, because it depends on what they order. We do not share the revail values of the “irrelevant” gift certificates -- the hotel stay and the couple’s massage.

Remember, the emotions we want to trigger during silent auction are “impulsiveness” and “competition”. We are not trying to trigger savvy shopping.

CHAPTER 13: PRICE STARTING BIDS CORRECTLY

Nothing can stump a charity auction event planner more than trying to price auction items. It can be hard to put a price tag on merchandise, especially if the auction item is “priceless”. 

The good news is we have learned from errors of the past and can help you get this right from the start! 

If you set your silent auction opening bids too high, chances are most items will sell below fair market value. 

Remember that most people come with a budget for the night. 

Opening bids that are too high will automatically disqualify some people from bidding. It’s always good to start bidding low and allow competition to drive up the final prices of the items. 

A low starting bid always gets people excited that they will leave with a “deal.” And because the price is low, lots of people will be eager to bid, and you’ll trigger competition, which is the true engine that drives values through the roof. 

Once people are excited about the item they are bidding on, they are more likely to continue to bid. 

Here are some pointers for how to price your starting bids: 

  • For donated items, we recommend a starting bid at 30% of the item’s fair market value and any bid thereafter should go up by 10% of the fair market value. 
    • For example, the opening bid for a $100 item should be $30, and the bidding should go up in $10 increments. 
  • For consignment items, we recommend starting the bidding at 10% above the cost of the item to the charity. If the item costs the charity $100, then bidding should start at $110. 
    • Please note that this advice applies only to consignment items in your “Silent “Auction. We explain in Step 14 of our Live Auction Guide that it’s often more profitable to start consignment items in your “Live” auction items below the reserve cost and let the compeition of the bidding drive the prices up.
  • For “priceless” items, such as an art project created by your child’s class, or something sentimental that just can’t be tagged with a price, a good pricing strategy is to start the bid low to allow the guest’s emotional connection to the item determine the value and drive up the price. 
  • Many auctions have “Win It Now” prices stated on their bid sheets for those guests who want to ensure they become the immediate “winner” of the item. The “Win It Now” price should be a premium price equal to about 150% of the item’s fair market value. We do not recommend a “Win It Now” price be offered for priceless and sentimental items, but it works well for accessories, vacations, memorabilia etc.
    • Remember, when allowing a guest to "Win It Now," the bidding will most likely never exceed whatever “Win it Now” price you set. Use this option wisely!

CHAPTER 14: LIMIT SERVICE-BASED ITEMS

Many businesses and individuals are very generous with the items and services they donate. This can be great, but many services like photography, graphic design, housecleaning, haircuts, etc., are unpopular in a silent auction and often will not sell at all! 

Most people have loyalty toward their own service providers -- for example, you have a favorite hair dresser, favorite nail salon, favorite esthetician, etc. You’re probably not going to buy a service donated in the silent auction, because you don’t know that person’s style and/or capabilities -- plus you’re loyal to your current relationships.

So what do you do if those generous philanthropists have donated services to you? 

We suggest that you package and present them in a way that makes them desirable to the bidders! For example, a donation from a graphic designer could be packaged with headshots from a photographer, and other business services to create a “Young Professionals Package.”

You also can tuck away excess service items or unwanted/unpopular items in “Mystery Grab Bags” that auction off for $20, $30 or $100! 

Everyone likes the surprise component of Mystery Grab Bags, so they can be a fun way to engage donors and stash away some of those unpopular but well-intentioned items. Just make sure that every grab bag contains some items with universal appeal so your buyers don’t open their grab bags and find nothing but junk and/or services they’ll never use.

CHAPTER 15: LIMIT TOTAL AUCTION ITEMS

Limiting the number of items available for bid at your auction may sound counter-intuitive; after all, the more items you have the more money you’ll raise, right? 

The reality is that too many silent auction items can overwhelm your guests, and cause them to disengage in the silent auction.

There may not be enough people to bid on all of the items, or your guests might be nervous about bidding on too many items for fear of winning them all and going over their budget for the night. 

A good rule of thumb is to have no more than one item per five guests. 

So if you have 500 guests, you would have no more than 100 silent auction items.

Remember, your guests have to see all of the items, and bid on their favorites in a relatively short amount of time during the cocktail hour. If you have too many items, they don’t have time to look at everything.

And you have to remember that some of your guests won’t place their “first” bid until they’ve seen everything that you have to offer. They don’t want to commit themselves to Items #1, #2 and #3, eating up their spending budget, and then discover that they really wanted to bid on items #51, #52 and #53 instead.

So they’ll walk the entire silent auction looking at EVERYTHING you have to offer before they go back and start placing bids. If you have too many items, they don’t even have time to review everything let alone get into competitive bidding wars.

Remember, competition is the fuel that drives values. You’ll make more money with fewer items.

If your silent auction committee has done a great job and has gathered 500 items for your silent auction, and you’ve got 500 guests coming to your event, then you’ve got to start putting together bundles to create interesting packages and get your total number of items down to 100.

CHAPTER 16: WHAT TO DO WITH SIMILAR ITEMS

Let’s say that four different photographers have donated photo sessions to your silent auction. You’ll want to package each photo session creatively with other items.

Pair one of the donated photo sessions with a “Kid’s Birthday Party Package.” Pair another donated photo session in a “Mother-Daughter Day Out Package” – complete with a shopping spree, spa day, gift card for lunch, and mother-daughter photo shoot. 

A little creativity goes a long way in utilizing similar items in your silent auction.

CHAPTER 17: ACCEPT THE REALITY OF MOBILE BIDDING

A few years ago, Mobile Bidding was the hot new wave of the future. Everyone was talking about it, wondering if guests would understand what mobile bidding was, speculating that guests wouldn’t embrace it, worrying that mobile bidding wouldn’t raise as much money as a traditional silent auction.

But now, mobile bidding is a proven game-changer.

If you are not using mobile bidding in your events, you are officially living in the past, and the price of living in the past is lower engagement with your donors and less fundraising revenue. 

For organizations who have not embraced mobile bidding, one of the biggest fears is that their guests will not want to bid on their phones.

But this fear is completely unfounded. Your guests overwhelmingly arrive with their cellphones in their purses and pockets, and they are completely comfortable using their phones for bidding.

According to Pew Research “the cell phone has been the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world.”

Here’s the reality -- he guests walking through the front door at your event used their cell phones to do one, or two or ALL of the following:

  • INVITATION - Many of your guests originally received the invitation to attend via their cell phones.
  • PINTEREST - The used their phones to share photos of dresses back and forth with their friends while trying to decide exactly what to wear to your event.
  • INSTAGRAM - They took photos of themselves before they left their homes, announcing to the world that they were about to go to your event.
  • GPS - They used the GPS on their phones to figure out exactly where they were going, and to decide if they wanted to drive or call for a ride.
  • ALARM SYSTEM - They used their phones to arm their home alarm system as they left.
  • UBER or LYFT - They used their phones to summon drivers to drop them off at your event.
  • TEXT & PHONE CALLS - They used text messages and actual phone calls to chat with their friends en route and coordinate their arrivals.
  • INSTAGRAM, TWITTER & FACEBOOK - During your event, they’re posting photos and comments about the event, sharing the experience with their networks.

We have moved firmly into the digital age, and your guests use their cell phones for EVERYTHING! As a matter of fact, if you don’t use mobile bidding, you’re denying your guests the opportunity to bid the way they really want to bid.

You may believe that your guests would prefer to just write their paddle numbers down on a sheet of paper. It may be true that certain elderly audiences may resist the mobile movement, but overall nonprofit attendees prefer using their phones.

Their cell phones give them

Here’s how you can tell. 

The next time you’re at the airport, you’ll notice a strange new phenomenon. For decades, there’s always been a huge line of taxis waiting to carry passengers to their hotels, offices, and homes.

Now, the taxis are still there, but the passengers have changed their behavior. 

Instead of walking to the taxi line and immediately stepping into a waiting cab, the passengers are using their phones to call Uber and Lyft, and they’re waiting for their specific drivers to arrive.

Think about that. 

We love solving our problems with our phones so much that we’re willing to ignore an immediate ride in a taxi and wait for our individual driver to arrive. 

Your guests like using their phones.

So you can understand how frustrated your guests will feel when you tell them, “I know that you’re using your phone to manage your home alarm system, your transportation, your nanny cam, and your social media networks, but you can’t use your phone to bid on items in our silent auction, because we’re not willing to accept the reality that people like using their phones.”

If you allow them to use their phones to bid in the silent auction, they’ll reward you with more vigorous bidding and more revenue generated.

Some organizations will say, “We don’t want to use mobile bidding, because we don’t want our guests to spend their entire night looking at their phones. We want them to pay attention to what’s happening on the stage.

Here’s a news flash:  A significant segment of EVERY audience is on their phones. There’s nothing you can do about it. Everywhere you look people are looking at their screens, so rather than fighting against it, you should simply embrace it and add mobile bidding to your event.

CHAPTER 18: WHAT ARE THE SPECIFIC ADVANTAGES OF MOBILE BIDDING?

Okay, so you accept the reality that people like using their phones, but you’re still wondering about the specific advantages of mobile bidding.

There are many companies who provide mobile bidding services. Here are some of the benefits: 

  • Ease of Planning: Mobile bidding enables event planners to expand the reach and ease of their silent auctions by putting all items up for bid online and eliminating pencil and paper bid sheets altogether, which are time-consuming and resource-intensive. Once the silent auction is set up online, it basically runs itself.
  • More Money Raised: Mobile bidding allows you to run your silent auction for weeks or days (instead of just for an hour or two at your event). It also opens up bidding to a larger audience, not just those at your event. Imagine how much more money you could raise by keeping your auction open for days instead of hours, and by allowing several hundred people additional people bid?
  • Elevates Guests’ Experiences: Your guests will have a better overall experience at your event because they won’t have to stand in long check-in and checkout lines because mobile bidding allows people to register up-front from the comfort of their smartphones. They can even register for the event prior to stepping foot in your venue!
  • Higher Engagement:  Guests will be highly engaged at your event, not hovering over bid sheets keeping track of the items they want most. Instead of hanging around the bid tables, they can enjoy cocktails and conversation with friends while tracking their bids from their smartphones. 

CHAPTER 19: WHICH MOBILE BIDDING COMPANY SHOULD YOU WORK WITH?

If you want to learn more about mobile bidding, Capterra has published a great comparison chart, that shows some of the features and links to the major providers.

engagement

Locally, in Denver, our favorite companies to handle mobile bidding are GiveSmart, Auction Event Services (AES) and Bolder Events.

We’ve worked with each of these companies dozens of times. They’re very experienced, very reliable, very well trained, and their technology is very stable. When we walk in the door and see that GiveSmart, AES or Bolder Events is running the show, we know that we’re in good hands.

CHAPTER 20: STIC TO YOUR ANNOUNCED CLOSING TIME

We recommend that you publicize your closing time and then stick to it. Sometimes a charity will make a decision to push the closing time back because they want to get more bids, but we believe that doing that can be penny wise and pound foolish.

When you announce a closing time, you’re making a commitment to the bidders. They’re playing your game. They’re competing to win the items that you’ve assembled. They’re contributing the dollars that you need.

Don’t move the finish line on them.

When you bump back the closing time, you’re punishing all the compliant people who followed your instructions and bid early, and you’re rewarding the noncompliant people who didn’t get their bids in on time.

Don’t reward the wrong behavior.

Remember that later in your event, you’re going to have a live auction and a paddle raiser (aka fund-a-need) and you want your audience to comply with your auctioneer’s prompts. You want them to bid quickly in the live auction and to give generously in the paddle raiser.

A broken promise early in the evening can turn into an unwillingness to give later in the evening.

Set your silent auction close time, and stick to it.

STEP 21: WHEN SHOULD YOU CHOSE YOUR SILENT AUCTION?

When you’re choosing the proper time to close your silent auction, there are several factors to consider 

PAPER SILENT AUCTION 

  • Time for Final Bids - If you have a paper silent auction, then you need to close it either before your program begins (when you want the audience’s full attention), or you need to create a 10-minute break in the program during which your guests can go back to the silent auction tables and make their final bids.
  • Done Before the Live Auction - you need to close your paper silent auction before you start the live auction. You don’t want people to leave the room during your live auction to go bid on their silent auction items.

MOBILE SILENT AUCTION

  • Time for Final Bids - If you’re using mobile bidding, you can send notifications to your guests letting them know when the silent auction will close. You can send a count-down clock to their phones, so they know exactly how much time they have to get their bids in.
  • Done at the end of the Live Auction - If you’re using mobile bidding, you don’t need to end the bidding before the live auction, because no one has to leave the room to place a bid. Since only a tiny fraction of your audience will bid on live auction items, the rest of the audience can bid on the silent auction during that time. You should plan your silent auction to close at roughly the same time as the live auction.

CHECK-OUT PROCESS  

  • Remember that your guests have to check out, which means that your silent auction team needs time to organize all the silent auction items for pick up. 
  • For example, if bidder #324 won four items in the silent auction. Those four items need to be identified and put together so that when #324 checks out, you’ll have all of her items ready for her.

STEP 22: ALWAYS CLOSE THE LOOP WITH DONORS

The best way to get donations for next year’s event is to go back to the well by approaching past donors. 

In order to go back to them next year, you need to make sure you properly cared for them this year. Make sure you send your silent auction donors a thoughtful, preferably handwritten, thank you note telling them how much their donation meant to your organization and specifically how much it brought in such as, “Your donation of a $50 gift card, mug, and Barista for a Day experience brought in $300 for our organization! This will help us feed 30 hungry families this year – thank you!” 

Closing the loop is your best chance of getting that same business to donate time and time again – don’t let this opportunity to show graciousness and professional communications with your silent auction donors go to waste. 

Everyone likes to know how they helped make a difference!

CHAPTER 23: MINE YOUR SILENT AUCTION DATA FOR FUNDRAISING GOLD

Your silent auction bid sheets hold a wealth of data that could help you raise more money during your next fundraiser. 

When the event is over, and after you catch your breath, take the time to put on your accountant’s hat and analyze the silent auction data you collected. 

Those silent auction bid sheets contain a wealth of information about your guests. 

For example, suppose you had 100 items in your silent auction, and each item had an average of five bids. That’s 500 total bids, which is a substantial amount of information. From this information, you might be able to glean a wealth of data, such as:

  • Which guest(s) bid on the greatest number of items? (e.g. Jane bid on 12 different items)
  • Which guest(s) had the most total bids? (e.g. Mary bid 27 different times)
  • Which guest(s) bought the highest priced item of the night?
  • Which guest(s) bid on the most items while winning the fewest (e.g. Ken bid 7 times, but didn’t win anything).
  • What percentage of your total audience participated in the silent auction? (e.g. we had 500 guests, and 54 of them placed at least one bid during the silent auction)
  • Which item(s) received the most overall bids?
  • Which item(s) received the fewest bids?
  • Did the location of the items in the silent auction have any impact on the number of bids that they received? (e.g. the items on the table in the farthest corner received the fewest bids. The items on the table nearest the ballroom received the most bids).
  • What “type” of item was most popular in the silent auction?
  • What “type” of item was least popular in the silent auction?
  • What was the average selling price of the items compared to their retail values? (e.g. on average the items sold for 60% of retail). You’ll learn which members of your audience enjoyed the silent auction most. While we tend to focus all of our attention on the winning bidders, and while it’s true that the winners are among your best supporters, some of your non-winning bidders are equally as significant. They tried to win and drove the price up – in turn, driving up how much money you raised! 
    • Here’s what you might learn from your bid sheet analysis… During your silent auction, Kara purchased a spa package for $50, and Elizabeth paid $50 for a free night in a hotel. You appreciate both women, and you send each of them a thank you note. If you categorized your givers based on “level” of giving, you would put Kara and Elizabeth in the same category, because they both contributed the same amount of money. 
    • However, after analyzing the data from your silent auction bid sheets, you discover that Kara bid one time on one item, and she won the item because no one bid after her. On the other hand Elizabeth bid on four separate items, and placed a total of nine bids. The only item she won was the $50 hotel certificate, but she was instrumental in driving up the value on three other items. 
    • The data would show you that although Kara and Elizabeth contributed the same amount of money, they were very different bidders. They did not have the same impact on your event. This may be way more detail than you’re interested in learning about your guests, and we’re not suggesting that every group needs to dig so deeply. However, the point is that this type of valuable, actionable data is available. 
    • Before you throw away those silent auction bid sheets, consider whether it’s worth taking a look at the information and mine them for fundraising gold. 
    • One of the best things about mobile bidding is that you can get all of this information as a report.

Helpful Resources

Experts Share their Fundraising Secrets
Experts Share their Fundraising Secrets
Read
26 Steps to Your Best Live Auction
26 Steps to Your Best Live Auction
Read
Record Breaking Paddle Raiser Guide
Record Breaking Paddle Raiser Guide
Read
Crank Up the Volume Silent Auction Guide
Crank Up the Volume Silent Auction Guide
Read

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