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.