Getting the Highest Bids on Live Auction Items

Need More Auction Ideas?

The article below is an excerpt from “The SchoolAuction.net Guide to Running a Fundraising Auction…while maintaining your sanity” – download your copy for FREE right now.

1) Hire a professional auctioneer with a focus on charity auctions

Many years ago I helped organize an auction that raised $2,800. This seemingly low dollar amount actually exceeded our goal of $2,500. We had about ten items in the live auction and a volunteer stepped up to play auctioneer. Not having a real auctioneer probably didn’t have a significant dollar impact on the amount raised, although I’m sure that on a percentage basis we could have brought in a lot more. If you’re goal is to raise less than $5,000 you can probably get by without a professional. Otherwise, I cannot stress enough how much a professional charity auctioneer will add to your auction.

Unfortunately, that small auction isn’t the only one I was involved with that didn’t hire a professional. When planning an auction for a group that includes performers or outgoing community leaders, it can be hard to make a planning committee understand that a sparkling personality and lack of stage fright are far from the only requirements in an auctioneer.

But sit in the audience and it’s painfully obvious when the personality pretending to be an auctioneer is making inappropriate jokes, raising bids by excruciatingly small dollar amounts, or taking forever to get through each item.

It might sound like a marketing slogan when the professional charity auctioneers say that using a novice – or fake auctioneer as some say – can actually cost you money. But I’ve come to believe it’s true and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Planning  – From sequencing the live auction item to hints on acquiring items, setting up the room to ideas for revenue enhancers, and even advice on sound systems, today’s charity auctioneer is a treasure trove of ideas that will help both planning and the event run smoothly.
  • Reading the Audience – An expert charity auctioneer figures out quickly where the money is in the crowd and who the bidders are. They know how to move the bidding increments up appropriately – not so fast that it scares off bidding and not so slow that it takes to long to reach highest potential. A professional knows how to stimulate stagnant bidding. The professional charity auctioneer has a likable personality, but keeps the focus on the items and the point of the evening – raising money for your cause.
  • Timing  – Live auctions can be fun and exciting, or long and boring. Every time someone has told me they never want to sit through a live auction again, I have asked and found that they’ve never attended an auction with a real professional charity auctioneer. A professional takes about two minutes to auction each item and five to ten minutes for a direct ask (a.k.a. paddle raise, special appeal) . An hour of poor auctioning can seem like forever – and only get through 10 items with no direct ask. While an hour with an experienced charity auctioneer will leave your guests energized, and having bid on at least 20 items plus a paddle raise.
  • Presentation  – For guests to feel safe bidding, they have to know where the bidding level is and what they’re committing to when they raise that bid number. I attended one auction where the auctioneer was an expert… in cattle or car auctions, not in charity events. My $150 bid cost me $200 because of the way he was calling the bids. No one at my table bid on anything else at that event, we were afraid of how much it would cost us!

2) Select the right items, and package them into lots when appropriate

Your professional charity auctioneer should be a huge help in selecting the specific items for the live auction, but here are some general ideas:

Save some good stuff for the silent auction – you want quality throughout the event (and remember this because that’s what you’ll tell the person who donated or procured an item they thought should be in the live but you put in the silent).

I recommend a couple of fun and inexpensive, relative to the bulk of the items, at the beginning and end of the live auction so that all of the guests at least have a sense there is something they can bid on.

Think about any question someone might have about a live auction item and then make sure your auction catalog clearly answers it. Explain any limitations, restrictions or expiration dates, give locations, whatever is appropriate. The auctioneer will know how much of this information to explain as part of the auctioning process, and some truly motivated guests will get the attention of the auctioneer and ask if they have a question – but most will simply not bid if they have a question about an item.

3) Arrange your live-auction lots carefully

Your auctioneer will play an invaluable role helping you put your live auction items in order, but here are some general ideas:

Make the first item something tangible, popular with many people (wine, chocolate, coffee) and not too expensive (relative to the rest of your live items). The idea is for your guests to start practicing bidding – to start having fun with it. At one auction I attended, the auctioneer started off by auctioning off a $20 bill – he started the bidding at $5 and it did take the audience a moment to bid even that. When the $20 ended up going for $25 – that set a good message for the event and that auction was quite successful.

Auction item values are usually arranged in a bell curve, with a steady climb in the first half of the live auction to the item with the highest value. Don’t group like items, and don’t let the item values bounce up and down too much. As much as possible, have a steady, graceful arc in the rise and fall of the bell which will allow bidders to gently increase their bids toward the middle of the catalog and then slowly decrease their bids afterwards.

Often auctions will have one-of-a-kind items (student created art, dinner with a local celebrity, walk on role in a movie, etc.) in the second half of the live auction because these are the items most likely to keep your guests there.

4) Control the amount of time your guests are expected to sit and pay attention

There is a limited amount of time that your guests will be enthusiastic about participating in the live auction, before they want to go back to socializing. Most groups will do well with limiting their live auction to 45 to 60 minutes, and it is the very rare group that will still be paying attention – or even present – longer than 90 minutes. And this time limit includes all talking and presentations before the live auction actually starts.

If you have hired a professional charity auctioneer, you can estimate an average of 2.5 minutes per live-auction lot (this includes describing the item and the bidding).

With 60 minutes, take out 5 minutes for pre-auction speeches and 10 minutes for the special appeal/direct ask, and you have 45 minutes of actual live auction time – or time enough for 18 items/lots.

Note: Time spent listening to long speeches about your organization is time not spent bidding. Time sitting at a table listening (or not listening) to people talk is time spent NOT spending money. The purpose of every speech made at your event should be to inspire the fundraising opportunities to come later in the evening – you will handicap that effort if the speeches go on too long or there are too many of them.

5) Schedule the live auction carefully

Most charity auctions follow a common formula – one to two hours of silent auction, 20 to 40 minutes to eat and socialize with fellow guests, 60 to 90 minutes of live auction and then check out. I’ve heard of events that have post-auction entertainment (live music and/or dancing), but usually people are ready to leave by the time the live auction is over so don’t invest too much time or money in planning something for after the live auction.

Also incorporated into that formula is that on weekends, you can start the event as early as 5:00 and have two hours of silent auction time. For weekday events, I start at 5:30 if I expect most guests will come straight from work or 6:00 if they will be going home first. Friday and Saturday you can end as late as 10:00, but if there is work the next day it is a good idea to be done by 9:00 or 9:30 at the latest.

The format and timing of the silent auction gives guests flexibility in when they arrive because they can join in as long as they arrive any time before it ends. When it comes to the live auction, however, you want it to start at a time when everyone will have arrived but before the earliest arrivals start getting tired – and a maximum of two and a half hours after the doors opened is a good guideline.

Don’t stuff your guests at dinner and use sugar and caffeine to your advantage. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for a full dinner, I strongly recommend dessert and coffee be served. A slice of cheesecake finished as the live auction is starting will give a needed lift to your guests’ energy level.

And make good use of that sugar energy! Don’t use this time for speeches and long presentations. The auction is the entertainment and raising money for your cause is the evening’s purpose. While you might include statistics and details in your auction catalog or information you hope guests will take home, the moments before the live auction is not the time for a detailed review of your organization. You can have a very short reminder of why you are raising money and a FEW words from a volunteer or beneficiary of the organization, but I don’t recommend more that that.

A note for groups with paid staff. I have heard from many people, and experienced it as a guest myself, that having staff speak at the auction can easily backfire. Whenever possible, stick with volunteers and beneficiaries – and, again, even then only let them speak for a few minutes.

This is also the time when your guests’ thoughts will most likely turn toward food. As they socialize with the other guests, guide their attention to the dining tables, where (if you are serving a full meal), the salad and dessert plates are already set out. Budget too tight for a full sit-down dinner? Consider serving only fancy desserts or finger food – just make sure your invitation clearly explains what people can expect for food. You might be tempted to offer a buffet, but I’d recommend against it – it will take significantly more time to feed everyone that way, and time spent standing in line at a buffet line is time not spent bidding.

6) Market each item effectively

A slideshow that lets your guests see the auction items is a great way to market live auction items. Use slides creatively! For example, if there is a beach house, show photos inside as well as the view from the house, get pictures of the sunset and people having fun playing on the beach. If your auction is for a school and you have student-created art, include photos of the kids creating the items as well as the finished product.

If you personally know many of your guests and have an expensive item of jewelry in the live auction, having an outgoing volunteer wear the item – and draw attention to it or even encourage people to try it on – before the live auction starts can drive up interest and bids. I’ve been to auctions where they’ve tried to show such as jewelry to the seated guests during the live auction. I don’t recommend this because it’s too time consuming to show a small item to all of your guests. You’ll either slow down the pace of the auction (and lose the attention of the people who aren’t interested in that particular item) or end up with part of the audience feeling left out. Having that piece of jewelry bigger-than-life on a screen will let everyone see it.

7) Include a Paddle Raise (a.k.a. Special Appeal, Direct Ask)

As you reach the highest ticket items in your catalog, you may wish to include a direct request for a cash donation. A direct ask, also called a paddle raise or special appeal, is an opportunity for everyone to participate in bidding. The auctioneer will ask everyone who can donate to raise their bid number. The amounts start at the highest dollar and work down. The starting and finishing dollar amount depends entirely on your crowd. One auction may have a starting point of $10,000, while others start at $100. Your auctioneer will help you set the ladder for gift amounts, moving down from, for example, $500 to $250 to $100 to $50 and finally asking for pledges of $25.

In the ideal situation, your top dollar is a stretch for your audience and you’ve already arranged for someone in the audience to raise their paddle for that amount. This gets the crowd excited and the next dollar amount request will almost sound like a bargain to many bidders!

Paddle raises work best for specific purchases rather than general or undesignated funds. For example, let’s say your school would like to purchase ten new computers for the computer lab and you’ve determined they’ll cost $1,500 each. You share with the audience that you are hoping to raise $15,000 and that every $1,500 will make one more computer possible. This is a great type of project for a paddle raise because even if you don’t make the full amount, you’ll still be able to use the funds raised for the promised project.

If you don’t have a project with a budget that works neatly for a paddle raise – don’t let that stop you from doing one.

Like This Article?

You'll Love Our eBook!

“Getting The Highest Bids for Live Auction Items” is an excerpt from “The SchoolAuction.net Guide to Running a Fundraising Auction…while maintaining your sanity” – download your copy for FREE right now.