Many non-profits have turned to silent auctions either as stand-alone events, or as a way to maximize the revenue from an ongoing fundraising event. I just finished running a major silent auction for an organization I am involved with, and wanted to pass along some lessons I learned during the process. In the first part of this article, we’ll look at the best ways to prepare for a silent auction. In the second part, we’ll look at some tips for running the event and maximizing revenue.
Should You Have a Silent Auction?
The first question your organization needs to ask is: is a silent auction right for you? Keep in mind that in order to raise a lot of money, your silent auction will either need to have a large number of items to auction off, or a ton of attendees bidding on a few high-end items.
Either way, a silent auction is hard work: either you have to spend lots of time digging up a few large items and lots of well-heeled attendees, or you have to find a lot of small items and track them throughout the process. No matter how you cut it, silent auctions are time and manpower intensive. Before planning your auction, decide if the return is worth the investment of time, people, and resources for your organization.
Also, remember that silent auction events generally take a number of years to hit full stride. Your first year, you may only auction off 5-10 items. As retailers and business owners get involved with your event year after year, more and more of them will become “regulars.” The particular event I just completed work on started ten years ago with just six silent auction items. This year, the silent auction featured 200 items being bid on by 400 event attendees.
If you’re going to have a silent auction, be ready to commit to holding a silent auction event each year for a few years until it hits full steam. (If you’re not sure how to run a good fundraising event, with or without an auction, read our 10 Steps to a Successful Fundraising Event).
Finding and Equipping Your Auction Committee
One of the most important things you can do to ensure the success of your silent auction is to put together a strong auction committee. The auction committee is tasked with one thing and one thing only: helping you find items to auction off at your event.
If you can, try to find 10-30 people who are willing to solicit auction items from their friends, family, colleagues, vendors, and more… Appoint one of the members as the auction chair, and a couple of other members as deputy chairs, and hold regular meeting to encourage the committee in their work.
You should also provide your committee, and everyone helping out with your auction, with a packet of materials they can use to solicit items. This packet should include flyers / brochures / tri-folds on your organization, event invitations, a description of the event, silent auction pledge forms, and a list of good silent auction items to help get the process started. For some ideas on silent auction items that sell well, read Creative Silent Auction Ideas for Your Event.
Letters, Calls, and E-mails
One you’ve got your committee out working, it’s time for your non-profit to do its part of the silent auction work. Have some volunteers or staff members pull together lists of local retailers, complete with contact information. This information may be gathered online or from the yellow pages. Be sure to include the following types of businesses:
Restaurants and Pubs
Museums and Amusement Parks
Salons and Spas
Any other retailers or businesses your event guests may be interested in
Then, write a great letter which explains (in one page or less) what you are asking for (a silent auction donation), what your organization does, what the event is, why the event is important, and how someone can make a donation. Include a form that can be mailed or faxed back, and offer to pick up silent auction items directly from retailers, if they are donating an item other than a gift card / gift certificate.
Once your lists and letters are complete, do a mailing on your organization’s letterhead, and include a return envelope to allow your donors to mail back their gift cards and pledge forms. Send this letter via snail-mail because a real letter on letterhead conveys the idea that you are a real organization in a way that e-mail does not. If you can’t find a postal address, send an e-mail. E-mail and phone calls can also be used to follow up with prospective donors who have received your letter but have not responded.
You’ll be surprised to see how generous your local retailers are towards your organization. Be sure to make all pick ups promptly and to respond to all requests for additional information as soon as possible.
Tracking Donations and Entering Information
If you’re expecting to hold a silent auction of any appreciable size, save yourself some time and effort at the end of the game by tracking donations properly right from the start. My suggestion is to create a master spreadsheet for your silent auction that you will use to enter all information on donations, send thank you letters, prepare bid-sheets, etc.
First, assign each item that comes in a number. You can either do this sequentially (1,2,3,4…) or, if you think you’ll have a larger auction, set up categories for the items you receive (100-199 Restaurants, 200-299 Entertainment; 300-399 Sports Tickets, etc…)
Then, enter the following information into your spreadsheet for each item:
The item’s number
The item’s name (“Tickets for 4 to the Ballet)
The item’s description (“Four great seats to the Ballet on December 1st to see the Nutcracker. Section B, Row 2, Seats 4-7”)
The item’s donor
The donor’s contact information
The item’s retail value
The item’s starting bid
I suggest you enter all this information when you receive the item, and then mark the item with the item number and file it away. Then, based on the spreadsheet you create, you’ll be able to do the following, all through simple mail merges:
Create three-part carbonless bid-sheets for the auction that include the item name, description, value, donor, and starting bid. (Sample bidsheets can be found here (PDF), here (DocStoc), and here (Word Doc).
Create an auction preview book listing items up for auction and presented to event registrants.
Create and send accurate thank you letters to donors.
Click here to go to the second part of this article, where we discuss how to maximize revenue at your silent auction event and how to run the auction smoothly and efficiently.
For an even more detailed walk through of silent auctions, including complete step-by-step instructions, check out The Silent Auction Handbook: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Holding Successful Silent Auctions.