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Build Better Auctions

If you plan meetings in the nonprofit world, you’ve organized a silent auction or two. From animal shelters to YMCAs, every nonprofit uses this fundraising method.

Silent auctions are simple in principle but complex in execution. People bid on donated items by writing their names and bids on a bid sheet. The highest bidder at the end of the auction buys the item.

The complexity of silent auctions comes in the tremendous number of volunteers and hours needed to solicit, collect, track, display, transact and distribute the donated items. With so many moving parts, running a silent auction is not for the organizationally challenged.

In the past few months, I’ve attended a number of silent auctions that were part of a larger fundraiser, like a dinner or luncheon. All succeeded in raising significant funds, but all could have been improved by using a few of the ideas that experts offer. Here are a few pointers:

Experiences Sell

At one event I attended, several restaurants had donated gift certificates. That was nice, but what would have been even nicer and more enticing for buyers is a private dinner in a restaurant’s wine cellar or private dining room with the sommelier on hand to talk to guests. Such personalized, one-of-a-kind experiences significantly up the value of silent auction items.

When donors offer a gift certificate to their place of business, ask if they can take that donation to the next level by making it a more personal experience. A garden center, for example, could provide a $50 gift certificate that included a 30-minute private consult with one of its gardening experts.

And remember, auction items should reflect the audience. A high-end dinner I attended featured high-end silent auction items like fine jewelry. A silent auction for Dress for Success, which helps women build self-esteem and find jobs, was heavy on dinners out, massages and salon services. As the website points out, “Tailoring your items to align with the demographics and lifestyles of your guests provides a good foundation for active bidding.”

Display and Promote

Target has made millions by being a master of merchandising, making the items it sells look attractive and appealing. Strive for the same with your silent auction.

Bump up the lights and increase the point size of the type used to describe each item so buyers can see items and easily read about each. The Central Kentucky YMCA does a great job of this during its annual silent auction: It places each item description in an upright, Plexiglas frame.

Joe Garecht, whose website has many great tips, recommends breaking silent auction items into categories like travel, dining and sports. He also says that if there’s room at your venue, set up categories in different areas, and separate the bars or beverage areas so that people will revisit the auction as they refresh their drinks. Post auction instructions in visible locations, and have the event emcee periodically remind attendees that auction time is running out or that bids on some items are still bargains.

Garecht and others advise closing bids for categories one at a time, five to 10 minutes apart. Bidders who lose out on items in one category will then still have time to bid on items in other categories.

Make It Easy to Pay

All the fun and excitement created by a silent auction will burst like a soap bubble if there’s a long, slow line to pay for and pick up auction items. This is one spot where it is hard to be overstaffed. Have as many people as possible accepting payments, and equip them with iPads or laptops with credit card readers latched on. If possible, have another line for those who want to pay with cash or a check. This, too, depends on your audience; with many audiences, especially businesspeople or a younger crowd, credit cards will dominate.

These tips are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. A number of books and e-books tackle silent auction planning, and all of the following get high rankings on Amazon. Most are in the $25 to $40 range, a modest investment that could pay off in a more successful silent auction.

They include “The Silent Auction Handbook” (2011) by Joe Garecht; “The Big Book of Benefit Auctions” (2009) by Jay R. Fiske and Corinne A. Fiske; “The Silent Auction” (2012) by James Healey; and “A Higher Bid: How to Transform Special Event Fundraising With Strategic Auctions” (2015) by Kathy Kingston.

Garecht’s website — — is also worth a visit.