Got a silent auction coming up?
After our recent article (Charity Auctions: Providing a Better Donor Experience), I got a number of questions from folks who’d had negative experiences.
These weren’t just poor donor experiences. They were also real drags on staff.
And I feel your pain.
Sadly, I’ve been there.
I’ve worked these painful events. And I’ve been a bidder at them.
Silent auctions are a bit like the story of the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead:
When they are good they are very, very good; when they are bad they are horrid.
Silent auctions can be a great way to both increase event revenue and entertain your guests.
Don’t rule out the importance of the latter.
The very best events I’ve witnessed are those where the silent auction is viewed as a primary form of entertainment for the guests. It’s a fun “shopping” experience, where folks enjoy the opportunity to have items personally selected for them in advance.
The items are valued by the attendees, and folks are excited by the prospect of walking away with:
(1) something they’d have bought anyway, and this way they get it and also ‘do good’ for your cause;
(2) an incredible bargain, or
(3) a once-in-a-lifetime experience they’d never have had access to anyplace else.
Satisfied, well-entertained guests look forward to coming year after year for the opportunity to bid on great surprises and possible bargains.
MORAL: Good auctions are when folks feel they “won” an item; they truly feel more like they got lucky than that they paid for something.
Silent auctions can be a complete time suck and not come near to generating the value of the donated items for your organization.
The last thing you want to do is spend hours and hours of time collecting items that won’t sell well.
It takes just as much time to solicit non-saleable items as saleable ones, but there’s little reward for your efforts.
You only have so many staff and volunteers and they only have so many hours in the day. If you waste those soliciting items no one wants you’re losing the opportunity to solicit more valuable gifts.
Here’s what I mean: Your volunteer gets businessman Joe to give you a $750 tax preparation package. No one buys it, because no one knows or trusts Joe. You get nothing. Joe gets ticked off that no one wanted his service. Lose/lose.
You’d have been better off asking Joe to simply make a $250 gift in exchange for a listing in your event program. You’re fooling yourself if you think it’s better to solicit $100,000 worth of items (donor value), that then sell for a mere $10,000, than to simply concentrate on seeking $10,000 in direct donations, ad revenue or sponsorships.
Securing direct donations and sponsorships takes less time than collecting dozens of little-valued items, and no one ends up with wounded feelings.
MORAL: Don’t waste your precious resources collecting “dogs.”
Silent auctions can disappoint event guests, depress event revenue and alienate donors.
It disappoints your guests because there’s nothing there they want to bid on.
It depresses event revenue because it sucks energy from other strategies that may have yielded a higher return (e.g., direct donations, ads, sponsorships and in-kind gifts).
And it even depresses further donations from auction item donors who find out the item they donated didn’t sell (or sold well below retail value).
I’ve seen more than one auction donor become angry and disaffected when they believed their item was undervalued. They may have thought the $500 glass vase they donated was a beauty, but generally there’s a reason they let go of it (it had been sitting around as unsold inventory for some time and no one liked it enough to buy it). The same is true for the antique (ugly) brooch and vintage (with a slight whiff of old tobacco) purses donated by your board member. They may have paid $5,000, $300 and $150 for them respectively, but that doesn’t mean they’re worth even $50 as a package to any of your guests. Unless your guests happen to be knowledgeable collectors who appreciate their worth, to most folks these are just unappealing used items.
So… what does it take to create a very, very good result, and avoid the bad and the ugly?
There are a number of variables, of course. Your committee members and their connections… the way you describe your items… venue, set-up and signage… pricing and bidding increments…the bidding process… check-out procedures… even the people in the room. [My next article will take a look at the really big kahuna: the donated items.]
MORAL: A dreary auction is depressing in every way. Don’t do it unless you’ve got the infrastructure, energy and savvy to do it well.
Silent auctions that don’t tap into the power of mission-related, or “fund a need,” items are missing a big boat.
Sometimes folks have no real desire to take home “stuff.”
But they’d be more than willing to make an additional donation to you at the event if you made it easy for them.
This is especially true when attendees are guests of friends or employers, and haven’t paid for their tickets. If you do a good job inspiring folks about your cause at your event, your audience is primed to support you. Don’t waste the good feelings you’ve generated!
Here’s what you can do:
(1) You can set up an auction table devoted to these gift-from-the-heart items. Your bid sheet might say “$50 buys one hour of home care for a senior.” Or “Buy 10 meals for a hungry child for $25” or “$35 buys art supplies for one classroom for a year.” People can buy as many hours, meals or classrooms worth of supplies as they wish, and you can have numerous buyers. You can set up several of these types of auctions on the same table, or scatter them throughout the room.
(2) You can have staff or volunteers with clipboards roving around the room. Each might have the same or a different “fund a need” item written on their board. They might also have a basket filled with little goodies (flashing, battery powered rings; glow stick jewelry, etc.). In return for signing up on the list to fund a need, they receive a token gift. This works great, because folks will see someone wearing one of these baubles and will inevitably ask “How did you get that?” Suddenly, it seems imperative to have one in that moment.
(32) At a dinner or luncheon, you can have “fund a need” cards on the table, include check boxes for folks to indicate the need(s) they wish to fund, and have volunteers come around to collect the cards towards the end of the event.
MORAL: You’ve got compelling “fund a need” items that you don’t even need to solicit. You know your donors already value these “items,” so offering them should be a win/win!
Please share any tips you have about mission-related silent auctions with which you’ve had success. I’d love to hear what’s working for you — and your experience will help others!
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