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Tips for Running a Silent Auction: 8 Ways to Get People Bidding

LYNN SAGE CANCER RESEARCH FOUNDATION LUNCHEON 2015 | Decor: Kehoe Designs | Venue: Hilton Chicago | Photographer: Sheri Whitko Photography

Silent auctions create a fun buzz at fundraising events and add an element of surprise and excitement. A silent auction can maximize your fundraising revenue, but also requires a lot of preparatory work. When planning an event that includes an auction, prioritize its planning — securing items is a time-consuming process and staffing and proper setup at the event is imperative for success. We’ve spoken to fundraising pros for tips for running a silent auction and how to engage your guests in bidding to meet your philanthropic goals.

1. Asking for Donations

The first step in planning a successful silent auction is, of course, securing donations. Consider your guests and what they’ll enjoy. For example, at the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Research Benefit Luncheon, the purse auction is always a big draw. When working with donating companies, tell them about your guests and be specific about the items and experiences you want to include in your auction.

It’s also smart to be aware of the timing of your ask: earlier is always better. Begin asking for donation at least 9 months in advance of your event. As you gain experience working with donating organizations, make note of when they do their budget decision-making. You don’t want to end up asking for Cubs tickets midseason. Individuals and companies are often very generous, but don’t be afraid to exclude items they offer that might devalue your auction.

2. Experiential Items Net Higher Bids

Get creative and seek out experiences that aren’t necessarily available for purchase. For example, a sleepover at toy store or the opening pitch at a major baseball game. Reach out to banks for use of their skyboxes or places with exclusive memberships like a motorsports club for access to a drive around the track or to act as a copilot in a fighter jet. These types of experiences net high bids because there’s not another way for the general public to access them. Experiential items tend to outbid material items, so this is a great area to focus.

3. Auction Software Elevates the Bidding Process and the Bids

The days of lined paper with hand-written bids are waning. More ubiquitous are tablets that bidders use to submit their offers. But the next wave — and the one that offers the most promise for higher bids due to their ease of use — is auction software that guests access right from their phones. Some examples are OneCause (formerly BidPal) and AES. When deciding whether to use auction software, consider how much your auction raises versus the cost of automation. Take into account your event budget and that of your sponsoring organization and also make sure to choose a platform that works with your database.

As guests arrive at your event, use their cell phone number to text them the link for the auction. They’ll enter their name and pre-assigned bidder number to begin bidding. If a guest doesn’t have a cell phone or would prefer not to use it, the auction company will also provide tablets. Ensure your event staff is trained to coach users on how to best utilize the bidding site.  

A major advantage of auction software is real-time updates. This means that if a guest gets overbid, they’re notified and given the option to either bid again or to set a maximum bid and the software will bid in increments for them up to that ceiling (think eBay). Compared to the paper-and-pen model, which relies on bidders re-visiting the item to manually check a bid, new systems are efficient and lead to much higher overall gains for the organization. They also eliminate the controversy and awkwardness of pitting bidders who are friends against each other; the anonymity makes the process more peaceful and enjoyable.

4. Build Bidding Excitement Prior to Event

It’s a great idea to build buzz for your auction in advance. There are a few ways to do this: display the entire contents of the auction on your website or send a teaser email with a few of the bigger items to pique interest. You can also opt to open your auction a few days in advance of your event. Generally, organizations that opt to allow pre-bids cut the bidding a few hours before the event then open the auction with the pre-bid amounts as the opening bid for items.

If you’re using auction software, you can also choose to allow donors who are unable to make the event bid in real time via your site as a means to increasing the total number of bids and funds raised.

5. Organize Auction Items by Theme

Bidders shouldn’t have to wade through spa days and shopping sprees to find their Blackhawks tickets and vice versa. Make it easy for them to quickly find their areas of interest. You have a limited amount of time to capture their attention before they get hungry, thirsty or social and wander off. Organize items into categories like: sports, experiences, travel, spa, kids, theater, concerts, etc. Signage should clearly direct bidders to where they can find the different categories of items. Auction software offers the ability to easily categorize items for virtual viewing as well.

6. Display Your Auction Items with Care

Even when you’re utilizing auction software, a visually appealing physical setup is paramount. Provide space — at least two feet — per package and display descriptions in lucite frames. Clearly list the lot number, item description (in bullets quick reading), the retail value, starting bid and minimum raise amount. Make sure there’s a good flow between tables and that category signage is high and clear.

This is a great spot to create a connection between the guest and the cause. For example, at a an event to benefit children, display photos, stories or letters from children who have been helped or still need aid.

Creating a package or basket of items with a theme draws in perspective bidders. For example, pair a show, dinner, hotel night, brunch and jewelry for a “Happy Anniversary” package. Bundling items into a memorable experience makes it easy for bidders to purchase a group of items at once.

7. Save Donors’ Time

Be respectful of your bidders’ time by clearly stating a start and end time for the auction. Another way to be considerate of a donor’s and willingness to participate and donate is to offer a “buy now” price. That price should reflect a premium dollar amount the organization is willing to accept for the item since it will not be part of the auction once a buyer chooses this option. A new trend is to utilize a “buy now” checkout booth to easily gather payment and to package the item for immediate removal from the auction. Use an attractive clear bag with a seal for security purposes and give the bidder the item so he or she doesn’t have to wade through an end-of-event pickup line. Make sure to clearly label signs with “sold” and update software accordingly.

8. Make Check-Out Seamless

After a wonderful event, the last thing you want is to ruin the experience with a frustrating check-out experience. Your ultimate goal is for your donors to leave happy and with all of their items. That means minimizing their wait at the end of the auction. Pack up and label items — certificates can be easily sorted into manilla envelopes — for easy retrieval. Clearly mark pickup and checkout areas with signage and have a table for checks and cash.  

We also encourage you to consider how many staff you’ll need so that this process will flow smoothly. Staff for auction closeout should include security (securing the area where items are displayed), runners (for moving the items to checkout) and check-out computer operators (helping each guest that is attempting to check-out).

Most importantly, express gratefulness and be gracious to your benefactors at every step of the process.

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