When you need to raise money for your nonprofit organization, a live auction or silent auction can be a great choice. When part of a nonprofit fundraiser, auctions attract big-money donors and help you raise awareness of your event, your organization, and your cause. By designing your auction strategically, you can maximize revenue and provide your donors and participants a great time that leaves them thinking positively about your nonprofit organization.
Live Auctions: Making Them Work
Live auctions can generate a lot of excitement at your fundraising event or gala, especially if you bring in an experienced auctioneer who knows how to work the crowd and pump up the bidding. Consider looking for an auctioneer who’s a member of the National Auctioneer’s Association, or ask around to find a stand-up comic who has a good history running auctions. It’s also a good idea to give your auctioneer a hand during the actual event by stationing spotters, also known as "ring men," around the room to keep an eye out for people trying to place a bid, calling the auctioneer’s attention to any bidders they might have missed. Raising the house lights makes it easy to spot eager bidders.
One unfortunate aspect of a live auction is the limitation of time. Your audience may get restless after a few items have been auctioned, no matter how entertaining the auctioneer. The limited number of items you can auction can also restrict your fundraising.
What if you have a donor who came prepared to write a big check, but they lost out to a higher bidder on the item they wanted most? You can reap some of these "extra" donations by holding a "raise the paddle" event at the live auction. This works by having your auctioneer ask everyone in the audience to raise their bidding paddle (or their hand) to make cash donations toward your organization and your cause. Your spotters can be of great assistance during this part of the auction. It also helps if you have a donor planted in the audience to start the bidding at a high number — say, $10,000, depending on your donor base — and the auctioneer can then drop down by increments to give everyone who wants to bid a chance to jump in at the level where they feel comfortable.
There’s no reason you can’t combine a live auction and a silent auction at the same event, by the way. Hold out just a few high-ticket or very unique items for your live items — Think about a handmade quilt featuring artwork from the children whom your nonprofit organization supports, or maybe seek out some high-end theatre tickets or an all-expenses-paid trip to a ritzy resort. Once you’ve designated those items for your live auction, you’re free to load up your silent auction with dozens of smaller items.
Silent Auctions: More Success Tips
Live auctions are unpredictable, so they appeal to the spontaneous. Plenty of the people coming to your event, though, want to plan ahead — so they’re waiting for the silent auction. They have a number in mind that they want to spend on auction items, and they want to figure out how to apportion their bids. You can encourage this, and tempt them to exceed their overly cautious budgets, by advertising the items available way ahead of time. Send out an auction booklet to everyone coming to the event, complete with photos of items, donors’ names, and opening bids. You can also set up a web page with the same information and send the link to your guests several times if necessary.
As you gather auction items, keep your focus on experiences rather than physical items. It could be embarrassing if no one buys the Wheaties box signed by the athlete who’s present at your auction, and people don’t tend to come to silent auctions for practical items such as electronics or exercise equipment. You might want to exercise caution when it comes to people from your donor community who want to donate their services as a way of advertising their businesses — things could get awkward when no one wants that "free" interior design consultation. Instead, try to offer gift cards to local restaurants, weekend stays at upscale hotels, visits to local theme parks, concert tickets, or box seats and a chance to meet a local professional sports team.
Assigning prices to silent auction items is a tricky situation. You don’t want to start bidding too low and end up losing out on possible income for your nonprofit organization, but you also don’t want to start bidding so high that you fail to attract bidders. One option is to set up a reserve price, especially for pricier items. A reserve price is the lowest price you’re willing to accept for an item, but it doesn’t have to be the starting bid. When you set a reserve price, your bidders know that if that price isn’t reached, the item won’t be sold.
What About Online Auctions?
Sometimes your donors are out of town or they just don’t want the hassle of getting dressed up for an event. Consider throwing an online auction simultaneously with your silent auction or even on its own. Websites are available to help you host online auctions, providing display of items, handling bidding, and collecting payments.
By combining silent and live auctions, you can raise money for your nonprofit and awareness for your cause. With careful planning, use of a good auctioneer, and attractive items on offer, you can maximize your fundraising efforts.