The Silent Auction is a tradition that can be very effective for your fundraising goals and very fun for your guests. Join us as we explore our top tips to creating your Best Silent Auction Ever!
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:
The silent auction has a rich set of rituals and traditions that include:
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 disclosure, 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.
One of the first decisions you have to make is to determine 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?
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.
Your event is a fundraiser when the primary purpose of the event is to raise as much money as possible. A live auction is generally 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 live 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.
Your 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. As a general rule, teachers are not a great source for fundraising, because they don’t have any money! They have plenty of passion and goodwill, but they lack the cash to financially support you, so an audience full of teachers won’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 they ask their friends and family to pledge money, everyone responds with great love and generosity and these teachers raise $2,500 each, and Komen makes $50,000 as a result of its Friend-raiser. Another example of the effective use of a Friend-Raiser: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) 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 process of 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.
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 live auction.
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. During the event, these titans may try to outdo each other in the live auction. In that case, honoring a significant member of the community and encouraging him or her to invite their friends will raise far more money than a typical fundraiser.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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?
When you solicit donations, help the businesses see the value in making a contribution. It helps them get to a quick “yes”.
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.
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 impulse 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 auction experience for your guests.
According to Psychology Today, people make impulse purchases because:
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] stimulate 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!
Rose tinted glasses - Psychology 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 information 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.
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.
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.
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 retail 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.
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