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Procurement Tips

by Kathryn Schwartz

Getting donated items to auction at your event can feel like one of the most stressful parts of planning – but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Here’s a few suggestions on how to get started:

Hold a Brainstorming Party

Getting people together to talk about what items they’d like to bid on can be a fun way to generate excitement about the event and kick off donations for the auction. And like any brainstorming session, the ideas that come out this party are likely to be more plentiful and interesting than people generate on their own.

Here are some hints to make your Brainstorming Party a success:

  1. Invite everyone. You’ll want to have lots of people who care about your organization attending.
  2. Make it a party! Hold it at a home, not an office, and serve refreshments.
  3. Be organized. Have big sheets of paper and markers so you can write ideas where everyone can see them. If possible, have the auctioneer or someone else familiar with auctions lead the discussion.
  4. Instruct guests to think big, to not worry about where the item might come from or if it is practical.
  5. Once you’ve collected a bunch of great ideas, talk about the items/experiences and what similar ideas they might inspire, as well as who might know someone to ask for the item. For example, the brainstorming might suggest a trip to sail around the world as an idea which could lead to one of your guests offering to donate a day on their sailboat complete with food and drink.

Build a Donor Database, and Ask!

If you already have a list of possible donors, you can import this into your database (email support for more info on this). If not, you should start collecting information on potential donors. So who donates items to auctions?

  • People who already know and care about your organization’s mission - your best sources of donations are people who already support your organization – your board members, volunteers, members, and if you’re a school, your students and families.
  • People who are asked to donate by friends and colleagues from #1 above.
  • Businesses that want to market to your supporters (for example, a school auction would reach out to businesses that offer goods and services for kids).
  • Businesses your organization does business with (the restaurant where you held a celebration, the nursery where you bought plants, the store where you buy office supplies, etc.)
  • Businesses located near your main operations
  • Medium and large retail chains that have stores in your community

To reach people involved in the organization, use your organization’s newsletter or whatever other communication methods you have to ask all your supporters to consider donating a service or item for the auction. Make it easier for them by providing suggestions (e.g., frequent flyer miles, use of a vacation house, landscaping services, lunch with a local personality, etc.).

Ask for unique and fun items that people can’t buy themselves. For example, one radio station donated the chance for someone to be ON THE AIR with the DJ. Who do you know who could offer fun, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities? Ask them if they will donate this item which costs them nothing and will raise hundreds of dollars. A brainstorming party (see above for more information) can help inspire ideas of experiences to ask for.

Compile a list of businesses to ask for donations. If you’re lucky last year’s auction team will have left you a list of who has been asked in the past, along with the results – what they donated or why they did not donate.

Call or visit to ask for the company’s donation policy, get a name and confirm the address of where to send the letter. Make sure you get the correct spelling of the person’s name.

You might get lucky and get a donation right away, more likely if you make the ask in person. Otherwise, your next step is to send a personalized letter with a specific, reasonable (but slightly optimistic) donation request.

Make the letter as short as possible while still explaining what your group does, what you’ll do with the money raised, and how many people will see their name if they donate. If you have any opportunities beyond the event to mention donors – e.g., newsletter to your group or a link on a webpage – be sure to mention them. Example: Are you a high school group in an affluent area? Contact summer camps that are teen focused and tell them you’ll put out brochures (or even send one to each family) in exchange for a donation.

Using a donation form is a great way to collect information that will be helpful to putting your auction together as well as providing details about the donation that are valuable to your bidders. If you’re using such a form, make sure your letter explains why the form is helpful to them because it makes sure they and their donation are properly listed. Complete the parts of the form you know (e.g., company name) and never state or imply they “have” to complete it, some business will prefer to give you the same information in a letter format.

Finally, your letter should include a name and phone number the donor can call for more information, as well as letting them know someone from your organization can pick up a donation.

Keep track of everyone you’re asking. You can go ahead and enter your list into your database as Donors; when they respond with a donation, you’ll have half the work done of entering the item!

Mail the letter and then call a week later to follow-up, make sure they got it, and ask if there are any questions.

If the business says “no” to a donation, note the reason and whether they should be asked in future years.

When you do receive a donation, make sure you send a thank-you right away. Use the Mail Merge feature in to generate a personalized letter that includes a thank you, lists the donations, and lets them know how to purchase a ticket if they want to attend. For a nice touch, after the event send a follow-up postcard or note that repeats the thanks and includes some details about the success (such as what you’ll be able to purchase with the money raised). This second thank you can be from the people receiving the benefits of the donation.

A Note on Consignment Items

While procuring items for your auction, you will probably get offers that involve you spending money. A hotel that offers you a one night donation if you buy one night, or a trip to Italy that you have to give $2,000 to the “donor” if you sell it (they’ll tell you it’s no risk because you only pay if it sells, and it should auction off for much more than the minimum).

Be careful.

If your guest spends $2,500 on a trip to Italy, in their minds they’ve donated that much to your organization – even if you only received $500. Most guests show up at the auction with a maximum they can spend, and you want to keep all that they spend.

There are also potential sales-tax or tax-deductability complications with these types of auction items.

Sometimes a donor will insist that an item be sold with a certain minimum value. While not as onerous as the previous examples, any donation with strings attached is a challenge. At one auction I organized, a supporter donated a painting by an artist friend who had asked for a particular minimum bid. It wasn’t outrageous, but it was a higher percentage of market value than the other auction items. As the silent auction started to come to an end, and the painting had no bids, the pro-active volunteer in charge of the silent auction – who did not know about the restriction on the sale - lowered the minimum bid and the item finally received a bid. Fortunately, by the time the auction had ended, a second bid had been placed that brought the price up to the minimum.

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