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Getting the Highest Bids for Silent Auction Items

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

1) Get the right people in the room

Create excitement for the event beforehand. Encourage supporters to bring friends and colleagues who have money to spend. Print the address for your™ website on your tickets and promotional flyers or posters, so that potential guests can see what will be up for bidding at your event. Don’t ever – even jokingly – refer to your auction as a place to “get a deal”.

2) Arrange the room to encourage bidding

High-end retailers spend a lot of effort making sure that their store and the displays are designed to focus customers’ attention in the right place - on the merchandise. Take a cue from them by placing your silent auction tables carefully, and making sure that you don’t distract your guests from the task at hand.

As soon as you have booked your venue start creating a floor plan and imagine walking through it. Make sure you have six feet between your silent auction tables (to give guests room to walk around each other). Guests should be able to walk through the display tables, not get stuck at a dead-end - no pathways that end against a wall or U-shape table set ups with dead-ends at other tables.

Theme decorations are fun, but don’t go overboard. The auction – first the silent items and then the live auction – should be the most interesting thing in the room.

3) Arrange the schedule to encourage bidding

This goes hand-in-hand with arranging the physical space - you have a set amount of time that your silent auction tables are open, and a set amount of time before your guests get tired and start wanting to go home. Make sure that as much of that time as possible is available for the main function of the evening - bidding on items and raising money.

Most of the auctions I’ve attended start off with time (between one and two hours) for bidding at the silent auction tables. Guests should be able to start bidding on the silent auction items as soon as they arrive. Make sure that your guests’ attention during this phase of the evening is not distracted by DJs exhorting them to get on the dance floor, or by plates of food appearing at tables. If your auction includes hors d’ourves, it is best to have them passed by waitstaff. If you do have any food served buffet style during the silent auction bidding, use several small tables interspersed with the auction item display tables so guests stay busy bidding. However food gets to the guests, anything served during the silent auction should be able to be eaten in one bite with no plates or flatware.

Set up a station where guests can get water, coffee and/or soft drinks without standing in line. If you are going to serve alcoholic beverages at your event, have them available during the silent auction bidding. If you have limited choices of beverages (for example, a dark beer, a light beer, one red wine and one white wine) consider having them can be passed by waitstaff so guests don’t have to leave the bidding area to stand in line at a bar. If you do have bars make sure they are in the same room and easily accessible from the silent auction displays. During the silent auction bidding is not the time to scrimp on number of bars and bartenders. Caterers often recommend having one bar per 100 guests, but if you have space available to have more, do it. Guest who are standing in line at the bar are not looking at or bidding on auction items.

Stagger your ending bid times so that you have two or three different “close” (bidding stop) times five minutes apart from each other. Use different color table cloths, mylar balloons and/or different color bid sheets so that it is obvious to guests which tables of silent auction items are meant when they are told “the green section is closing in five minutes.” Plan your closing times so that the tables furthest away from the live auction seating close first.

Have your auctioneer or emcee build up excitement for the silent auction bidding by counting down time left to bid on each section - five minutes, two minutes, one minute, 10 seconds. As the first section closes guests are immediately moved to the next section of tables that is going to close in five minutes.

If you are moving to a seated dinner, don’t fight your guests desire to socialize with the other guests. Give them some time to do so - in addition to their main purpose as a fundraiser, auctions are supposed to be fun for the guests, after all. After a short interlude for chatting and eating, you can move on to a live auction (if you are including one in your event), a direct appeal or paddle raise.

4) Make it easy to bid

The fastest way to lose a bid is to ask too much of the bidder. Here are three easy ways to eliminate common obstacles for bidders:

Make sure there is a pen – ready to write, with the cap off – on top of each bid sheet. Bring plenty of extra pens - and ask one or two volunteers to carry them around during silent auctions, to replace ones that walk away or run out of ink.

Make sure guests can read your bid sheets. A silent auction is not the time for dimmed lighting or fancy fonts.

Make sure guests can quickly determine which item and bid sheet go together. A clear understanding of what is being bid on is more important than the most attractive display.

This is one argument (but hardly the only one) for varying the types of items on each silent auction table - if you have 2 signed basketballs, or 4 glass-bead necklaces, next to each other, your guests will have to take an extra second or two to ensure that they enter their bid on the right sheet. After you’re done setting up the room and before the guests are scheduled to arrive, have someone who didn’t help with set up walk through the room to be sure they can quickly and easily figure out which bid sheets go with which items.

5) Market your items effectively at the event

I once attend an auction that had a week at beautiful vacation house in the silent auction and only one person bidding on it – I suspect that was the one person in the room who knew where the house was located because there was nothing on the bid sheet or display to tell the rest of us.

Marketing auction items at the event means making sure potential bidders have the information they need to understand what they are bidding on. For silent auction items (especially gift certificates or services) make sure the value, location of where the certificate will be used, any restrictions and expiration dates are clearly stated for each item when you enter it in your™ database. This will ensure that everything the guest needs to know is printed in the catalog and on the description sheet for the table.

6) Review your minimum bids and raises

Every bid is some level of commitment. While some guests will enjoy a ”bidding war” in the silent auction, for most guests writing a bid five times feels the same to them whether it’s been five bids on a single item or five separate items – and you’d rather have them bidding on five separate items. You can influence your guest’s bidding behavior by setting appropriate minimum bids and minimum raises for each item.

Setting appropriate minimum bids and raises isn’t hard. When you enter the items you have procured for your auction into your organization’s™ database, you can just leave the Minimum Bid and Minimum Raise fields on the Edit Item screen blank, and the software will supply a default value based on the amount in the Fair Market Value field. You can also enter a minimum bid and minimum raise by hand, of course. If you do choose to use the standard values supplied by the™ software, take the time to review them for each item.

If your item or activity can be easily purchased by any number of people, then it has a retail value that will play a significant role in setting minimum and maximum bids. However, if your item or activity is unique (a piece of art) or is not usually available for purchase (dinner with the mayor, a weekend at a private vacation residence), Fair Market Value is subjective and the item can go for a lot more (or a lot less) than that value. There is some art involved in getting the final minimums right. Here’s a few questions and guidelines to consider when reviewing the minimum bid and minimum raise values for your items:

What is the highest minimum bid you can realistically expect at least one person would make for the item?
What is the highest final bid you can reasonably expect for the item? (remember, this is often NOT the same thing as the fair market value).

How many steps do you want between these values? (I try to keep it to no more than 5 for most items; others will say 8 is the right number, but it can vary, based on how exciting the item is to your guests and how long your silent auction tables will be open).

Gift certificates can be expected to sell for (or even slightly over) face value.

7) Bundle items into lots - but carefully

If you are auctioning items online - with a long time for an infinite number of people to consider bidding, no display space challenges or check-out considerations - for maximum revenue you can auction each item individually. However, at an auction event, you have a finite number of guests with a limited amount of time, as well as limited space to display items and the reality that all those items have to be quickly processed so they can be delivered to guests at the end of the evening. With those realities, I strongly recommend limiting the number of silent auction items to 90 or so for an event with 200-350 guests. This will also help maintain “bidding pressure” on your guests - since not every guest will be able to win an item, those who really want to will need to bid aggressively (make sure you also have a special appeal scheduled for later, to allow those guests who do not win any items but want to donate to your cause to do so.)

So you’ve decided to have 90 silent auction items but you have 150 items donated? Bundling items can help you keep the number of auction items manageable.

When bundling, keep in mind that a bidder has to want all items in a basket or bundle enough to pay top dollar. Here are some ideas to consider when you are deciding which items to combine:

If you’re bundling coffee, wine and/or chocolate, the item will probably go at or even over the value of those consumable items. Adding a mug or corkscrew to the basket makes it more complete - and gives you a nice way to auction off that coffee mug - but the increase in the maximum bid will often not be as much as the increase in the market value.

One bundle I’ve seen pay dividends by going over the market value is to combine a pair of tickets to the theater or ballet with a restaurant gift certificate and promoting it as a “date night”. This is one time when adding additional items - especially a bottle of wine or champagne and an overnight stay in a hotel close to the restaurant and show - will likely increase bidding as much as the increased market value.

Only bundle clothing when the sizes and styles are the same. Don’t combine the small leather jacket with the extra-large workout gear. Same thing with children’s toys - if you put together a toy for a toddler and a game for a teen, only people with both a toddler and teen in their lives will bid.

I often create a “family package” by bundling tickets to family- or child-oriented destinations (science museum, children’s theater, miniature golf, pizza joint, etc.) and these packages get about 60%-70% of market value or higher if all of the activities are geographically convenient. Part of this is because…

The stated value of one of the items in the bundle can send the total retail value of the package to a high that is unrealistic. For example - your family outing package might include ten different gift certificates with an average value of $30 plus one year-long membership at a museum with a value of $250. Technically the retail value is $550, but unless that museum is a really hot item, the perceived value will be closer to $330.

Regardless of value or type of item, anything in your auction that has at least two people who want it will go higher than anything that only one person wants.

8) Consider a “Buy It Now” option

Having a Buy It Now price on an auction bid sheet is a way that someone who really wants the item can be sure they’ll get it. This option is also used by guests who want to support the organization but aren’t interested in the bidding process. When setting a Buy It Now price, I use a formula only as a starting point. For items that have a clear retail value, that is, one can go to a store and easily purchase it, I generally set the Buy It Now price at 150%. This means a $50 gift certificate would have a Buy It Now price of $75.

Figuring out the Buy It Now price for unique items, including art and jewelry, is more challenging. What I do is to take the 150% of stated value as my absolute minimum and work up from there. For lower value items - say a necklace valued at $40 - I might set the Buy It Now Price at $60 but if members of my planning committee have indicated they are highly interested in it (indicating it’s likely to be popular), I would put it at double or $80. For unique items with a stated value of $100 or more, I usually set the Buy It Now price at double the fair market value.

And sometimes, Buy It Now just doesn’t make sense for an item. I know of one auction where an autographed book was given a “Buy It Now” price of two times the retail value of the book, without consideration of the autograph. The person who told me about this would have been willing to pay quite a bit more but the guaranteed buy out was used quickly.

Using Buy It Now on some or even most items - does not mean you have to use it for all items. Have volunteers keeping an eye out for items where the “Buy It Now” option has been used – they should either remove the bid sheets and replace with a “this item won through the “Buy It Now” option” flyer or remove the bid sheet and item altogether. Otherwise, it is easy to not notice the item has been bought, and people will waste time bidding on an item no longer available to them.

In the end, some items will go for higher than you expected and some will go for lower. You will probably have at least one guest or volunteer who says the minimum bids are too high and one who says they would have paid more than the maximum bid. Smile, thank them for their opinion, and ask them to be on the planning committee next year. And know that you did a great job.

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

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