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This webpage was created in response to several inquiries I have received recently about how to run a silent auction. I do not claim have any expertise whatsoever in running silent auctions. All my experience was gleaned from helping out with (I wasn't even in charge or officially on the committee) two silent suctions at my workplace. As these auctions had involved hundreds of items and were run on a modest budget, somehow this has led people to think that I have some sort of special advice to offer. So here are my tips - whether they are special or not is up to you to decide, and if you come up with any tips of your own while running your own silent auction, consider returning the favor and letting me know!

Ha ha! You've been suckered into running a silent auction! Chances are, if you so much as volunteered to run an SA, you either have no idea what you've gotten yourself into, or you get a strange kick out of being in high-stress, the-clock-is-ticking situations involving a lot of excited-but-clueless people. (It's okay - I fall into the latter category.)

Joking aside though, SA's can truly be a powerful way to fundraise for your favorite organization while bringing consumer happiness to other deal-seeking supporters of your mission. I've had the fun of participating in SA's from both sides of the bidsheet - the gasp of astonishment when you've added up the night's tally and brought in a mother-lode of funds for your non-profit, as well as the thrill of outbidding that other guy for the silver bracelet you've been eyeing all night. And while SA's are usually more fun from the bidding side of table, keeping the following guidelines in mind should help make the experience of running the SA as smooth and painless as possible.

Assembling an Auction Committee
Soliciting Auction Items
Preparing for the Silent Auction
Day-of and During the Silent Auction
Item Pickup and Payment
Handling the Aftermath

Assembling an Auction Committee

  • Don't think that you can run an SA all on your own. Unless of course, you have fewer than a dozen items or more than two hands. But I'm assuming if that were the case, you wouldn't be asking me for advice, right?
  • Make sure you gather together a team of dependable, organized, dependable, resourceful, and dependable people on your committee. Am I repeating myself here? Not without reason - most SA's I have come across were fundraisers for non-profit organizations, meaning that they were primarily volunteer-run. Great, if the volunteers were the reliable and eager-to-help type; disaster if they were the flaky (you know who they are!) type. Remember, no one (including you, probably) is getting paid to do this, but you all need to show up for the job if the SA is going to be successful.
  • How many übervolunteers you will need on your committee depends on how large your projected SA will be, as well as how good you are at suckering other dependable people to lend a hand. A good rule of thumb is one person per 15-20 items, as you will need warm bodies to:
    • Solicit, gather, and store the SA items
    • Organize the items and create bidsheets
    • Set up the items and oversee the auction on the day of the event
    • Distribute the items and collect payment
    • Contact stragglers who left their items behind and/or still need to pay
  • It's good to have occasional meetings with your auction committee - one at very start of the process to assign responsibilities, discuss solicitation ideas and prospects; one right before the event to coordinate set-up and logistics; and one right after to tie up loose ends, share tips, and celebrate. If you've got a particularly social group, you can meet more often during the solicitation process to keep everyone motivated and excited as they collect items, though most of the collection process can be coordinated through email.
  • Suffice to say that if you don't like managing, working with, or delegating work to people, running an SA may not be for you.

Soliciting Auction Items

  • Be sure to leave a generous time period for soliciting donations - 1-3 months in advance of the SA event.
  • Before you actually start soliciting, it's a good idea to think about the audience of bidders you expect, what their preferences are, and gear your solicitations towards areas that fit their interests. A fur rug that attracts high bidders at a museum benefit auction will probably not do so well at an auction raising money for an animal shelter or for the zoo. I know that this is totally obvious, but you would be surprised what people will set out at a silent auction just because they were able to snag it from a donor.
  • Consider drawing up a list of potential donors, and splitting it among your auction committee to solicit donations. Your committee can be a great source of suggestions and networking contacts, and you may be surprised by how many committee members personally know or patronize a donor you are trying to attract. Set donation goals (by number of items and/or value of the items) for each person to meet.
  • When soliciting from retail outlets, face-to-face solicitation tends to work better than phone, mail/email, or anything else. For (insert name of your non-profit)'s sake, get over whatever fear is holding you back, get your foot through the storefront door, and ask to speak to a manager. Once you've established a donor relationship, you can always correspond by mail or phone the next time your event comes around, but nothing beats walking through the door. (Of course, this isn't always successful if the manager isn't there or is super-busy with customers, but you catch my drift.)
  • When you do start pounding the pavement for donations, be knowledgeable and professional. Arm yourself with the following:
    • Information about the organization you are soliciting for, what they do, what your upcoming event is all about, what you will use the funds you have raised for, who will directly benefit and how. It's even better if this is all in a brochure or card you can hand to or mail to the potential donor.
    • Benefits/incentives for the donor if they support your organization, such as a mention of their business in a printed program or website for the event. If space allows, offer to display business cards and/or coupons alongside the item during the auction. For high-value items, consider offering a free ticket to the event so the donor can attend. And if you print a brochure or card as described above, be sure to list these benefits for the donor's reference.
    • A donor form that the donor can fill out, with areas for the donor's contact information (contact name, address, phone, website, email address), a description and value for the item they are donating, as well as possibly information regarding picking up or delivering the item. If your event size and budget warrants it, it's helpful to have the donor form printed on two-part carbonless copy forms so that you can leave the bottom copy for the donor and keep the original.
    • Handouts or posters about the event (if it's open to the public) that the donor can give out or hand in the storefront window to draw attendees and potential bidders. And even if a manager can't spare a donation for the SA, oftentimes they will be willing to hang a poster or help publicize your event, so don't forget to ask!
  • As donations come in, be sure to keep them organized in an electronic database or spreadsheet of some sort. For the SA's I worked on, I kept my donations in an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the following (the commas delineate separate column titles):
    • Item number (consider assigning a unique number or code for each item if managing a large number of them)
    • Donor name, address, phone, website, email (taken from the donor form)
    • Item name, description, value, delivery status (taken from the donor form)
    • Minimum bid, bid increment, winning bid amount (to be assigned later)
  • Consider having a cut-off date for receiving donations, leaving at least a week before the SA to prepare bidsheets and programs without having to add last-minute changes. Any donations coming in after the cut-off date can be included in the auction, but the donor should be told that they can't be listed in the printed material. It's easier though, to save the item for the next event.

Preparing for the Silent Auction

  • Several weeks before the event, visit the location where you will be holding the SA. Get a feel for the "flow" of the space, and determine where and how you want to set up your auction items, where you can set up a pickup and payment area, as well as the number of tables and chairs you will need. It is best if you can set up the SA in a space that can be closed off or roped off entirely.
  • Once you have a mostly final list of donations, go through the list and:
    • Assign a minimum bid and bid increment for each item. Set the bids as low as you can get away with - never higher than 1/3 to 1/2 the stated value of the item. Most of the fun of a silent auction comes from the action between bidders, and if you set the minimum bid too high, fewer people will participate. Set bid increments in whole dollar amounts, to avoid people bidding by penny amounts.
    • Consider grouping the items by theme if you have a large number of them - all travel-related items together on one area, all restaurant gift certificates together, all art-related items together, etc. This way, during the auction, bidders can zone in on a point of interest first. Modify the item numbers/codes you've assigned them if need be.
    • Bundle small-value items together if you have a lot of them to get a higher overall value for the bundle - such as pairing a casual restaurant gift certificate with movie tickets, or a set of manicure tools with a haircut gift certificate, or a box of doggy bones with a pet portrait sitting. That said, of course, make sure you do have a number of items along all price ranges to appeal to every bidder.
  • Set the following rules and bidding procedures for the auction, and put them in writing. You will want to post copies of the rules throughout the auction and/or print them in the program.
    • Length of Auction: Determine a clear cut-off time when bidding must end, and do not allow additional bids after that time. If the SA is running in conjunction with another event, such as a dinner or concert, end the auction at least a half hour before the end of the event, or have dessert or another distraction ready to entertain the bidders while you process the bids. Few bidders are patient enough to wait beyond a few minutes to claim auction items.
    • Bidder Identification: Some SA's require bidders to fill out a registration form with their name and contact information, sign off on various legalese regarding their commitment to pay for an item they bid on, and then assign them a unique id number or code. This is useful for tracking down the bidders later on and adding them to your mailing list for future fundraising opportunities. However, it adds an additional verification step later on in the process, which can slow things down. All of the auctions I have worked on stick with names and phone numbers, which has worked fine.
    • Bidding Procedure: State the obvious - that in order to successfully bid, bidders must legibly print their name/number and amount of the desired bid. First bids must meet the minimum bid value, and subsequent bids must increase by at least the set bid increment. It seems obvious, but this doesn't always happen!
    • Pickup Procedure: It's best that you do not allow winning bidders to take their own item when they have won, as oftentimes they may pick up the wrong item (it happens with gift baskets) or neglect to pay for it altogether. Specify that they should work with an auction committee member to pick up and pay for the item.
    • Method of Payment: List what types of payment you can accept - cash, check, and/or credit card. If you accept checks, be sure to list the name bidders should make the check out to. And as bidders too often "leave the checkbook at home" or lack the cash available to buy the item outright, the ability to accept credit cards can make a difference.
    • Pickup Interval: Invariably, you will have auction items left behind that were bid on but whose high-bidders disappeared. Decide if bidders have to pick up their items on the day of the event, or if you will give them a window of a few days to a week to come and pick up the item.
    • Dispute Resolution: In the event of a disageement, let bidders know who to consult, be it someone on the auction committee or you, the auction manager. You may want to state procedures for settling the disagreement, such as conducting an oral auction to determine the final price and bidder, or any other dispute resolution techniques.
    • Additional Legalese: Be sure to include any other legal disclaimers that your organization requires, such as stating that the non-profit can not guarantee the quality of the item or service, that bidders must be responsible for obeying expiration dates, and other such restrictions.
  • Print bidsheets for each of the items. This is where the spreadsheet will be helpful, as you can use the "Mail Merge" function in your word processor to directly load the information from the spreadsheet to the bidsheet. If you don't know how to use Mail Merge, consult this tutorial. Make sure your bidsheets include the following information:
    • Item number, Donor name, Item name, Item description
    • Item value, Minimum bid, Bid increment
    • Lined/columned area for bidders to fill in their information (either their bidder number or their name and phone number) and bid amount
    • Tip: As with the donor forms, if your budget allows, consider getting your bidsheets printed on a two-part carbonless forms, as these can come in handy when you process bids. If you go this route, just get a template of the bidding section printed, and print out stickers (which can also be done via Mail Merge) with the bidsheet information to stick on the form. Also, make sure that the carbonless forms are in two colors, so you can distinguish between the original and the copy.
  • If you plan on registering auction bidders, be sure to determine a numbering/coding system to identify the bidders and to print out the registration forms. Be sure to ask for the bidder's name, contact information, and to include any legal information you want them to sign off on.
  • Print up an auction program to distribute to the bidders at your event. Using Mail Merge, you can create a listing from your spreadsheet of each item, its donor, the item description, as well as values and minimum bids. You should also include the SA rules and procedures, as well as some information about your fundraiser, the organization you are benefiting, and how it will use the funds from the SA. If you are limited on funds or want to save trees, consider at least printing up a list of the auction items and donors to distribute.
  • Assign your auction committee members various responsibilities and shifts throughout the auction. You may want to create name tags or ask your committee members to wear similar items of clothing so bidders can identify who the auction volunteers are.
    • Before the SA, setting up the auction items and bidsheets
    • During the SA, standing guard over the items, checking bids, and answering questions (consider hiring a separate security guard if extremely valuable items, such as jewelry, are involved).
    • Thoughout the SA, making announcements about various items or keeping time
    • At close of the SA, gathering and sorting bidsheets, then processing pickup and payment. Everyone should be involved in this. Split the committee into payment teams of two or three people, then assign each team a portion of the alphabet (A-H, I-O, or whatever is best divided among your team) or a portion of the bidder id numbers (1-50, 50-100, you get the idea).
  • With help from the rest of committee, collect all the auction items, and plan how you will to set up and display them.
    • Most items can be sufficiently displayed by themselves, but others can use additional visual aids. If a trip is being auctioned, obtain pictures from the location to generate interest. If a restaurant gift certificate is featured, ask for a menu to display alongside it.
    • Consider framing gift certificates, or enveloping them in cheap page protectors to keep them from getting damaged or stolen (it happens!) by an unscrupulous bidder. You may want to consider putting all the gift certificates in a separate and secure box and displaying just the bidsheet with a business card or other visual aid.
    • Don't forget to purchase or borrow tablecloths for your display tables if you want to add a classy touch.
  • Collect any other useful items that you may need during the auction:
    • pens, extra bidsheets
    • calculators, receipt books, credit card swipers (if applicable), cash boxes with ample change
    • signs for the payment area that designate the sections of the alphabet or bidder id numbers for each payment team you designated earlier
    • staplers, tape

Day-of and During the Silent Auction

  • On the day of the SA, give yourself ample time to set up and display all the items. If the area can be closed off or if there isn't any security risk, you can try to arrange to set up the auction items the day before the auction if you have a lot to set up.
    • Place the bidsheet for each item in full view of the item. If you are holding the SA in an outdoor area, tape down the bidsheet or use a paperweight.
    • If you collected business cards or coupons from the donor, don't forget to set these near the items as well.
    • Post copies of the SA rules and procedures in conspicuous places around the auction area.
    • If you have space to set up in advance, set up the payment area with calculators, receipt books, credit card swipers, cash boxes, and a sign for each of the payment teams you designated earlier.
    • Once you have finished setting up, rope or close off the auction area until it is time to limit security risk.
  • During the auction, circulate and check the bidsheets occasionally. If items are not being bid upon, consider lowering the minimum bid prices on them. Also, cross out any incorrect bids, such as those ignoring the posted bid increments or subsequent bids that are lower than the previous bid. (Yes, this happens too!) Consider using a special color ink or initialing any changes to make them more official.
  • If you have access to a microphone or loudspeaker, make occasional announcements to the bidders. Tell them how much time they have left to bid, and consider pulling a few bidsheets to announce what certain items are going for at the moment to add to the thrill of the event.
  • Things will start getting chaotic around the end of the SA, so make sure your volunteers are ready to take action at the designated end of the auction.

Item Pickup and Payment

The end of the SA is without fail the most chaotic and stressful part of the event. People will be crowding around, wanting to know if they have won and sometimes getting angry if they have not. Money and items change hands very quickly, making it easy for auction items, bidsheets, or money to "disappear" without a trace. If you don't plan out this part of the auction with your committee well in advance, a lot of frustration will follow!

  • Always, always, ALWAYS end an auction at the designated time. I've been at SA's where because of all the activity at the end, the auction manager decided to extend the auction time an extra 10-15 minutes. Someone always gets upset about this if they've been outbid during this extra time, plus this also leaves much less time for the auction committee to process the bids and start pickup and payment. It's rarely worth the extra money to have embittered bidders and frustrated committee members on your hands. (That said, there are SA's where the ending time is a "surprise" to add to the fun, which is fine to do if your bidders are aware of this. But if you've promised an end time, stick to it.)
  • When an auction is called to an end, get all the bidders out of the auction area and rope/close it off. It is possible to conduct all your closing activities if the flow of the room doesn't accomodate a separate area or if there isn't enough space to move people out, BUT the chaos level will be *much* higher (as well as the risk of items walking away) if you don't close off the auction area.
  • Have your committee members go around the area and check each bidsheet. They should make sure that the final bid was placed correctly and star/circle/highlight the name/number of the highest bidder. (If a bid was placed incorrectly, the item should go to the previous bidder who bid correctly.) Then they should collect all the bidsheets (or just the top copy of the bidsheet if you have carbonless forms). The collected bidsheets should then be sorted in alphabetical order of the bidder's name (first or last - up to you) or in numerical order of the bidder's number. It's best to split this job among the volunteer teams you designated before - all the A-I bidsheets go to their designated team, who then sorts within the subpile to put everything in order.
  • When it comes to informing which bidders have won, there are a couple of ways to go about it:
    1. Do nothing. That is, let the curious bidders come up and ask if they've won. This is highly inefficient, mildly frustrating when 10 people are talking to you at once, but it works.
    2. If you have a microphone and loudspeaker (or a really loud person on staff), call out the winning names or numbers from the bidsheets (in alpha or numerical order).
    3. If you have the carbonless copy forms, you can collect the bottom copies and post them on a bulletin board or lay them out on a table in order - either by name, bidder id number, or the item's auction number. Then let bidders come and see if they've won.
    4. If you have the carbonless copy forms *and* didn't close off the auction area during processing, you can just leave the bottom copy on the display table with the item, and the bidders can come see if they've won.
    5. Last but not least, if you happen to have ooodles of time on your hands, you can write (or type, if you have a computer and printer handy) the winning names or bidder id numbers next to a list of the auction items (you'll want to have pre-printed a list of the items beforehand, of course). Then you can copy the list several times and distribute it through the group. Or copy it to a transparency and show it on an overhead projector. This can be a pretty ideal way, but it takes a good chunk of time. It works best at concert events where the silent auction closes after intermission, and you have the next half of the concert to process the bids. Other times, you'll only have about 15 minutes to turn everything around.
  • When it comes to pickup and payment, the following has worked pretty well for me.
    1. If you haven't already, set up the payment area with each team in charge of its section of the alphabet or bidder id numbers. One person should hold the bidsheets and serve as the cashier, while the other person (or two, if you had teams of three) serves as a runner.
    2. When a winning bidder comes to claim their item, the runner(s) should fetch the item(s) won (don't forget to check the gift certificate box if those were kept somewhere separately) while the cashier adds up the bill, handles the monetary transaction, and writes a receipt.
    3. If the auction area has not been closed off, make sure that some commitee members are standing guard with the items and that they do not allow anyone not on the committee to walk off with an item. If a winning bidder attempts to take their item, tell them that they need to pay for the item first and have a runner fetch the item. Or at least present a receipt for the item, if you lack the staff to have runners.
    4. HOLD ON TO THE BIDSHEET! Do not let bidders walk away with the bidsheet - it contains helpful and possibly confidential (if phone numbers have been listed) information.
    5. You may come across bidders who want to send you a check in the mail. Suffice to say that you should never allow a winning bidder to leave with an item without paying for it. (Unless you know them to be completely trustworthy, or they're a board member of the organization!)
  • If the winning bidder is nowhere to be found, and you are determined to find homes for all the auction items on the day of the event, then go up the list and offer the next-highest bidder the item at their lower bid price.
  • Once the dust has settled and the happy buyers have gone home, gather up all the unclaimed auction items (if any), the bidsheets, the cashboxes, the credit card receipts, and put them all in a safe place. Then relax for a little bit, because you've earned it!

Handling the Aftermath

No, it's not quite over yet! Once you get to feeling kind-of normal again, there are a few things left to finish up.

  • Track down the stragglers who won the bid but did not claim the item! More often than not, these people had legitimate reasons for leaving early and will collect and pay for their item once you've informed them that they have won. Also, insist that they come pick the item up - don't get caught in a sitution where you take it upon yourself to deliver or mail the item. It's a waste of time and money.
  • Once the pickup interval is over, and the winning bidder has not yet claimed their item, offer the item to the next highest bidder. It might be nice if you inform the previous bidder that they've lost rights to the item, but don't put yourself out if they haven't.
  • Collect the bidsheets, go back to your handy-dandy auction spreadsheet and enter in the winning bids for each item that sold. This comes in handy, as you can easily tally up the total amount the auction brought in at the click of a button, as well as see which items were enormously popular and which items weren't.
  • Compare the totals in your spreadsheet with the total amount of money in your cashbox (removing the amount you used for change, of course), and make sure they add up correctly.
  • If you want to be really "meticulous", you can also enter the name of the winning bidder into your spreadsheet. This comes in handy if you want to invite the high bidders and shopaholics back to your next SA. Speaking of which, if you required your bidders to register for a bidding number, be sure to collect those registration forms, and add them to your contact/mailing list.
  • Be sure to send lovely thank-you notes to the donors who gave items for your silent auction. This is another area where your handy-dandy spreadsheet will come in handy - use Mail Merge to create address labels and form-letter thank you's (sure, they're impersonal, but better than nothing).
    • There's a bit of debate over whether you should tell the donors how much they're donations sold for in the silent auction. Most of them will be curious to know, and it's more than fair to give them the information. However, some donors (particularly...ahem, artistic/creative types) may get upset if the item sold for under the value they stated and refuse to participate in the future. Or perhaps worse, if the item sold for way over value, they may use this as justification for raising their prices. Anyway, it's up to you how you want to handle the situation.
  • Last but not least, hand over the entire bundle of money you generated to the organization, and bask in their praises as they sing your glories for raising such a generous amount of money for their cause. You definitely have deserved it!

Has this information been helpful to you? Let me know at auctiontips at lerios dot org

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