Dos and Don’ts of Charity Auctions

Charity auctions, run properly, are a tremendous fundraising opportunity with the right items and organization.  We consider auctions part of the evening’s entertainment … So make sure they are engaging and fun!  Auctions can make upwards of $1 million (this involved auctioning a Ferrari), but on average, you can expect to raise $10-20,000, a significant contribution to the cause.

If realtors emphasize “location, location, location,” we’d like to emphasize “merchandising, merchandising, merchandising.”  Here’s what we’ve learned over the years, from personally managing charity auctions ourselves (silent and live) and from shopping at many more.

Silent Auctions

#1 – If appropriate for your event, serve alcohol (‘nuf said).

#2 – It takes a village. Enlist the board, staff and members of your organization and event committee to collect donations. Set a goal for board members (at least one event sponsor and two auction items, for example). Encourage supporters to make requests of the proprietors of restaurants, hotels, clubs, spas, hair salons and retail stores they frequent or where they work.  Provide a deadline when donations need to be secured to give you time to create the presentation materials (see item #6).

#3 – Provide materials for volunteers to use. Sometimes people are overwhelmed about where to start … so they don’t.  Provide:

  • A template letter for requests, which briefly talks about your organization and the event, lists the types of donations you’re looking to receive and provides your 501(c)3 information.
  • A donation form, which requests a full description of the item, any limitations, such as blackout or expiration dates, etc.; retail value; who should be credited on the bid sheet for the donation; and contact information for questions (and, later, a thank you letter from the charity).

#4 – Auction items that do particularly well in our experience include experiential opportunities, travel and hotels (exotic locales as well as “staycation” spots), restaurants and consumables (wine and food). Also include items that are a value for activities in which people already engage.  For example, gift certificates to area spas and restaurants, tickets to local sporting events or concerts … even dry cleaning services.  What is a unique experience in your city that people would love to get the chance to do?  A private tour of a sports stadium prior to a game or entry into a private club?  A sunset boat ride, tee time at a local golf course or a river kayaking trip?  Consider lessons for tennis, dancing, painting or horseback riding.  How about a local caterer or restaurateur donating services to give a wine-tasting event or prepare a meal for four at the winning bidder’s home?  And donations from local artists.

Charity Auction Tips#5 – Organize donations into categories, so that people can shop items that interest them in one area. Popular categories include Travel & Entertainment, Restaurants, Lifestyle (spas, clothing, makeup, etc), Wine & Food, Memorabilia, Art and Sports.  Of course, your donations will also dictate your categories.  Provide signage so people can identify the groupings.

#6 – You need to “sell” your items much like retail stores merchandise their products.   Make the displays and descriptions appealing (You will need to re-write most of the copy provided to you … and be prepared to do some research).  Arrange them decoratively.  Bring floor and table-top easels.  Display photographs and other representational artwork in 8 x 10 acrylic frames.  Create gift baskets that combine like items, such as wine and chocolate or spa gift certificates with personal pampering products.

#7 – Make your silent auction akin to a shopping experience.  Invite a handful of local vendors who work charity events. We’ve had vendors with handsomely framed lithographs of the masters; estate jewelry; and more.  They make your auction more interesting, donate 20% of their sales to the organization and many of them will also provide a direct donation to your auction. Additionally, a reputable vendor will give 20% of sales that occur later, but resulted from initial contact at your event.

#8 – No matter how organized you think you are, have extra blank bid sheets that you can fill out by hand.  You may be missing one sheet … or someone will show up with a donation you didn’t expect. Also have additional sheets for popular items, where bidding goes to page 2.  Request their name, phone number (preferably cell so you can text the winner) and e-mail information.  You will need to track down bidders who have already left the event.  Make the barriers to placing a bid as low as possible, with the starting bid at a reasonable minimum and defined bidding increments.  Modest (though not incidental) increments encourage bidding wars.  Bid sheets should be on clipboards (or the budget clipboard of cardboard & paper clip) and pens should be plentiful.  Winners should not need to be present to claim their winnings.

#9 – It’s helpful to color code your item sheets by category with stick-on dots and to number items within the category for quick reference.  This makes check-out run much more expediently. Organize the gift certificates at the check-out (do not display them on the tables).

#10 – The auction should be staffed at all times to answer questions, encourage friendly bidding competitions, engage bidders (Do you have gifts you need to buy in the near future?) and, sometimes, to prevent theft. (Sadly, it happens.)  Throughout the evening, take the mic and create excitement, remind people the auction will be closing at [designated time].  Although you need to be conscious of when people may want to leave the event, schedule your closing as late as possible to maximize bidding opportunity.  Much like a birthday party, once the presents are opened, people leave the party.  Have the emcee announce that items will be distributed one-half hour after the auction’s closing to give you time to organize the check-out.

#11 – When the auction ends, have plenty of volunteers ready to collect bid sheets quickly (no cheating!), to help process payments and deliver items to the winners promptly. Organize the winning bid sheets by the same category in which they were displayed to make it easier to find.  Additionally, you can make a “winners” board with a chalk or dry-erase board.  Create a check-out line with at least two representatives to process credit card payments and one to handle cash/checks and hand out gift certificates.  If possible, set up a Square payment system for your charity. If that’s not possible, make sure you have a phone line available to your check-out station to process credit card payments.  If you are utilizing an old-fashioned, carbon copy imprinter, your credit card processing company may offer a slightly lower rate if you write their phone/address on the receipt (and it gives you recourse for any problems that come up later).  Stamp the bid sheet PAID and hand it off to designated “runners” who will track down the item and hand it off to the winner.

Live Auctions

If you have one or two extraordinary items (private jet travel, full vacation experience at a high-end destination, dinner with a local celebrity, etc.), you may want to consider holding a live auction.  Announce that the silent auction is closing soon, then have someone from your organization (who isn’t shy) take the mic and oversee the bidding.  Have volunteers help you identify who is bidding in the audience and escort them to the payment table.

We have also been at a few events where a professional auctioneer oversees a larger effort.  Project Angel Food in Los Angeles does this really well.  The auctioneer sells “opportunities,” such as “$2,500 will buy special Thanksgiving meals for X number of clients” … and so on. Frequently, they sell more than one across a variety of categories and donation levels.

Opportunity Drawings

Formerly known as a raffle (until the IRS regulated the age-old tradition), it’s another fun way to enliven the evening and we consider it icing on the auction cake.  But make sure you follow state and federal guidelines. If you’re willing to negotiate the red tape, here are a few ideas …

Have the item(s) merchandised at the check-in table.  Ask people to “make a donation” for tickets (rolls of dividable carnival tickets will do) as they check-in, then have volunteers walking around to offer them throughout the evening.

One gimmick that works extremely well is to suggestion a donation of $1 per ticket or “your height in tickets” for $20.  Have them put one foot on the end of the ticket roll and literally break off the length of tickets at the top of their head. (We always give shorter guests a few bonus inches).  It’s a great ice breaker.

While regulations chance drawings vary by state, you can review the federal guidelines regarding tax-exempt organizations and gaming at:

With the above tips, your silent auction should be a huge success and make a significant contribution to your organization’s mission.  Good luck!

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