14 tips and tricks for a successful silent and live auction

My friend Gareth Duncan, Director of Development at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival knows a thing or two about how to run a great silent and live auction event. Each year, the Fringe holds a fun opening night event on Vancouver’s Granville Island to showcase some of the performers and to raise funds for the festival.

Gareth kindly shared his expertise with me and I’ve added some tips of my own that I’ve gleaned over the years.

Here are 14 tips and tricks for succeeding with your charity’s silent and live auction:

  1. Register your guests. This gives you a chance to report back to them on the success of the event and how it helped your mission. It also allows you to enter this information in your donor database and to segment your mailing list. They will also be the first people you can contact for your next auction event.
  2. At the registration table, give each person a bid paddle and number.
    One side of the paddle can have an image that will reinforce your brand or mission (at the Fringe they use their mascot Jimmy) and the other side, in very large type so it can be read across a dark room, is the bidders number. Having a paddle in your hand also has an interesting psychological effect encouraging people to take part in the live auction.
  3. Make sure you have some inexpensive items in your live auction. Having some accessible items gets the energy going in the room and encourages people to take part.
  4. Have a great MC and auctioneer. Your auctioneer or MC can really make the event exciting, circling back to the mission, recognizing those people who have bid and reinforcing how by upping the bids they are helping accomplish whatever the goal of the event is. Silent auctions might be places where people are looking for bargains, but in a live auction you can really educate about philanthropy.
  5. Use your live auction to ask for straight donations. After you’ve auctioned off all the physical items, the auctioneer can “auction off” donations to the cause. Make this process fast and start high and work down to the lowest donations, say $50 or $25.
  6. Put some of your charity’s items in the silent auction. Another way to get straight donations for specific projects for your charity is to include them in your silent auction. For instance, at the eye care charity I worked for, we had a bid sheet for specialized lenses for cataract surgeries for children in Africa. Each lens cost $100, so we created a bid sheet and photo display for that item and people signed up to provide 1 or more lenses for children’s eye surgeries. If your silent auction is aimed at, let’s say, providing a school bus, you could auction off seats on the bus and take names and bid numbers of people who pledge to donate a specific amount per seat.
  7. Have multiple volunteers record the bids. Volunteers should be placed around the room and each one should be equipped with a clipboard with a spreadsheet listing auction items and item numbers so they can easily record final bid value and the bidder’s number. Recognize that people make mistakes, so have multiple volunteers recording the bid values and numbers and then compare their lists immediately after the live auction to make sure that there is agreement on who bid what. Make sure your item lists have lines for the donation amounts too, as #5 above.
  8. Market each item well. Print bidding sheets with the item number, the name of the item, how much it is worth, a short compelling description and a minimum bid. You can dress up your bid sheets with photos, logos, etc., (or even get a business to sponsor them) too. Other ways of marketing the items are to provide a printed catalogue with the above information and a visual slide show of all the items. Make sure that your bid sheets have a large enough font and are easy to read. Dress up the item with props, e.g., a plate with cutlery, napkin, and the menu of the restaurant whose gift certificate you are auctioning.
  9. Set a minimum bid. While there’s debate on whether or not to have bid increments, it’s definitely good to have minimum bids. I’ve seen recommendations of anything from 20% to 40% of the value of items for the minimum bid. Buy out bid amounts are good, too, e.g., bidding 110% of the item’s value secures it.
  10. Have plenty of pens that work. If they can’t write, they can’t bid. Make sure you have plenty of good pens available, caps off and ready to go at each bid sheet, since some pens will disappear.
  11. Station informed volunteers behind the silent auction tables. These volunteers aren’t just there to smile sweetly; they need to know about your organization’s mission and they need to know about the items on their table so that they can promote and sell them. They should be coached in advance about their roles and be told how they can help move the auction along. For instance, if an item is not getting bids, they can say, “This is a really great bargain and nobody’s bidding—you should get in on this.” For fast-moving items, they can say, “This is a really hot prize. Make sure you put a bid down now so you don’t miss out.” – They can even create some commotion when there’s a hot battle for an item. There’s nothing like a bit of chaos to create excitement and a bidding frenzy! (This principle works well in the live auction, too.)
  12. More items does not equal a better auction. Too many auction items, whether live or silent, just paralyzes decision making and can reduce yields. As a general rule, for a silent auction, have no more than one item for every two guests. Combine items into packages or attractive baskets. Fewer items (live or silent) can mean more competition (i.e., bidding).
  13. Traffic flow is important. Plan your table layout for good traffic flow and be mindful of where you place your food and drinks tables. Make it easy for people to see what is there and circle back to bid again.
  14. Have clear closing times and encourage last-minute bids. It’s a good idea to close your silent auction in sections, with the highest-value items grouped and closed last. Make sure that you announce your countdown times clearly (10 minutes, 5 minutes etc.) and encourage last-minute bidding and some friendly competition. Close your silent auction in plenty of time to be able to gather prizes and process payments efficiently and not have your guests feeling frustrated as they hang around to check out. Many delayed bidding winners will leave early, causing you the headache of days or weeks of follow-up and auction item storage.

The case for support: your charity’s key document

Your organization’s case for support is arguably the most important document your organization will ever write. It gives the raison d’être of your charity and it is the cornerstone of all your fundraising campaigns.

From your general case for support, you can begin to construct individual “case statements” for specific projects and for major donors and grant applications.

The case for support must be a well-written, compelling statement appealing to both people’s reason and emotion and which serves to answer questions and inspire donors to give to your organization.

The case for support should answer the following questions:

  • Who is the organization and what does it do?
  • What is the problem it seeks to solve?
  • What is distinctive about the organization? (the “unique reason to give”)
  • What impact are you making? Are you being successful?
  • What are your priorities at this time and your urgent needs?
  • How will your programs/campaigns enable your mission to be accomplished?
  • How can the donor become involved?
  • What’s in it for the donor — why should someone give to this effort?
  • How do you raise funds?
  • How will the funds raised be used?
  • How will the funds specifically benefit those you serve?

Whether you are a brand new charity or an established one, your case for support materials should be organized in a way that is:

  • Easily accessible for those who need them such as fundraisers, your marketing department, board members etc.
  • Well-organized so that you can see what materials are there and access them efficiently
  • Backed up so that you don’t lose these essential resources.

Don’t ignore this last point. You can back up your case materials for free online in the cloud either through DropBox or Google Drive, so that they are safe and also so that you can access them wherever you are.

It makes sense to have all the material you need to raise funds and awareness in one place. From this bank of information, you can assemble anything you need — from press releases, to grant proposals, to website content, to major donor proposals etc.

Here’s what your case for support info bank should include:

  • Your mission, vision, and guiding principles
  • Your organization’s history and your organization’s record of success and impact
  • A clear statement of the problem/situation
  • The solution to the problem
  • How you are going to address the problem (your goals and objectives)
  • A sense of urgency or time limit
  • Timeline
  • Staff and governance including bios and photos of staff, board members, and overseas staff if any
  • Who is responsible and what their qualifications are
  • Budget(s)
  • Stories and photos to support the need (by putting a face to the problem)
  • Testimonials about your organization and about your programs
  • Why your organization is equipped to address the problem
  • Compelling photographs
  • Video PSAs or other video you might have
  • Maps showing where you work
  • Stats

Perhaps the best job posting I’ve ever seen

About a month ago I saw a job posting from Penguin Books shared by a friend on Facebook. It was called Impress a Penguin (http://impressapenguin.com) and was unlike any job posting I’d ever seen before. It is brilliant!

Screen shot of one portion of Penguin Books' brilliant job posting

Screen shot of one portion of Penguin Books’ brilliant job posting “Impress a Penguin”

It’s a stellar bit of branding and simultaneously it is a fun, creative and charming way of reaching out and inspiring potential job applicants to excel. This career posting for a Community Manager seems guaranteed to produce results — both the ideal candidate for the job as well as brilliant ideas for the future.

I just had to share it.

P.S. I loved this ad so much that I wrote (well, my black-and-white cat Oliver wrote) a fan email to its creator, Alan Trotter. The fun continued because when you click on the link to his email the subject line “Flattery” appears.

Charity impact: How to get beyond overhead rates and tell your charity’s story

FACT: Donors want to know that their gifts are making a difference.
FACT: Overhead rates or ratios are a common way donors seek to measure impact.
FACT: Charities aren’t too happy about this.

All of us have been asked by donors what our charity’s overhead rate is.

Donors latch onto overhead rates as a way of determining if the charity is “wasting money” because they’ve been conditioned to do so and it’s an easy number to find. This proxy measure of a charity’s value is not ideal, but if other measures of a charity’s impact aren’t readily available, it may be the ONLY thing donors can latch on to.

Executive directors of charities can rail against their donors’ obsession with overhead rates all they want, but the fact is that this fixation isn’t going away any time soon. It shows that donors increasingly want transparency and a clear picture of how their gifts are changing the world.

So how can your charity tell its story and show its impact more effectively?

Three US organizations — The BBB Wise Giving Alliance, GuideStar, and Independent Sector — have created a free Charting Impact tool to help nonprofits explain their impact.

Charting Impact’s five simple questions will help you identify the information you need in order to tell the full story of your organization.

The goal of these 5 questions is to help charities find the clearest and most succinct way to articulate what they do and how they do it.

1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

These questions are deceptively simple. Often we are too close to our causes to see them clearly. Jargon and automatic patterns of speaking about our work can creep in and obscure our story. We may forget our creation story and the bright vision of the future that the charity’s founders dreamed of when they poured all their energy into starting the charity. Sometimes we can benefit from a fresh look from an outside advisor.

For more information on how you can communicate more effectively to raise more funds, see More Money for More Good by Bob Ottenhoff and Greg Ulrich. It can be downloaded for free.

How charities and non-profits can succeed on Facebook

Are you wondering how to make Facebook work for your charity or non-profit?

Recently I attended a Net Tuesday session in Vancouver, BC called “The Science of Facebook” presented by Darren Barefoot and Theo Lamb of Capulet Communications.

Darren and Theo analyzed 1000 posts from large environmental NGOs and asked 2 questions:
1. What kind of content earns the most likes, comments and shares on Facebook?
2. Which organizations are “killing it” on Facebook?

Here are the main conclusions I’ve been sharing with the organizations I’ve been working with:

  • Follow the 80/20 rule (a.k.a. the cocktail party rule) and talk more about others than you do your own organization;
  • The top performing NGOs published once a day, seven days a week; don’t overwhelm your audience;
  • The top ten posts for likes, comments and shares were all visual – videos and above all photos that featured emotional or provocative subject matter. Most of those included a simple powerful message in overlying text.

You can see the full report and some of the winning posts at

Here’s a glimpse of a couple of Facebook posts that hit it out of the park:

A winning Facebook post from National Audubon Society

Surfrider’s brilliant sushi roll that earned over 11,000 likes and over 11,000 shares and counting.