In a recent post I talked about the Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Easy of silent auctions.
Today I want to talk about the big kahuna: The Items
If you’ve got the right items, the auction is a winner for all concerned: the bidders, the donors, the item solicitors and your organization. If you’ve got the wrong items, not so much.
Here’s the deal:
- It’s no fun for your guests to peruse a bunch of items in which they’ve no interest.
- It’s no fun for your guests to peruse a bunch of items that are out of their price range.
- If donors are in attendance, and no one bids up their item, they feel bad.
- If donors are not there, and no one likes their item, it could be bad for the donor’s reputation (People may remember: “Oh, yeah, they donated that ugly pot”). And, yes, sometimes donors ask you how well their item sold.
- If items sell well below their value, your item solicitors will feel demoralized. And, yes, they’ll often scape goat you for not doing a better job promoting the items. It certainly couldn’t be because that mani/pedi from a salon 45 miles outside of your city (where they have a vacation home) hadn’t a snowball’s chance in you-know-where of selling.
- If items sell well below their value, you won’t raise much money.
You want items that sell well.
In particular, you want items that will sell well with your audience. Do you have young parents with kids? Grandparents? Young singles? Retirees? Big spenders? Not so big spenders? Art lovers? Sport fanatics? Wine lovers? Teetotalers? Traditionalists? Hipsters?
Regardless of your crowd, there are certain items that tend to sell well among many demographics. There are also certain items that don’t sell well among most demographics. So I recommend beginning with, and focusing primarily on, the tried-and-true.
Here are the items I’ve found that tend to sell well across the board:
Sell for at or above donor value
- Restaurant gift certificates.
- Wine and wine collections.
Sell for close to donor value
- Vacation get-aways.
- Hotel stays.
- Sporting event tickets – especially boxes the bidders would not otherwise be able to access.
- Entertainment (theater, symphony, opera, ballet) tickets – especially when these events tend to sell out.
- Gift packages of any of the items described above.
Priceless items that resonate with your target audience
- Personal services performed by your staff, your board or a group of your supporters – these may be babysitting by a favorite teacher, a party hosted by your board president for the winner and 10 friends at the board president’s house, monthly baked goods delivered by a staffer who is a phenomenal pastry chef, or a certificate good for 4 hours of IT support from your IT specialist. Get creative!
- Unique community experiences – perhaps lunch with a respected professor, behind-the-scenes with a local broadcaster, a ride on a traffic helicopter, etc.
- Once-in-a-lifetime experiences — if you have big spenders, then by all means look for that walk-on part in a movie… the dinner for 8 cooked by a celebrity chef in your own home… the box seats for the World Series… the opportunity to conduct the symphony. If not, don’t bother moving heaven and earth to come up with this item; you won’t get an appropriate bid, and the donor will NEVER give you another item.
Here are the items I’ve found that generally do not sell well:
- Professional services (unless the provider is someone who is highly known and respected, people generally will not bid much on things like 1 hour of interior design consultation… an hour of Pilates… a chiropractic session… financial consultation… etc.).
- Art (unless you have a crowd of art lovers and your art has been vetted by professionals). Art is just too subjective. You’re relying on someone there really loving it, and all too often only one person even wants it — so it goes to the lowest bidder. And whatever you do, stay away from becoming a “dump” for old prints your board members no longer want.
- Antiques (same rules apply as for art)
Here are the items that are in between:
- Jewelry, clothing and accessories — these are as subjective as art, but they generally have a lower price point so are more within reach of your bidders. And some folks really love these types of items. It can be nice to have some visual appeal at your auction, rather than all gift certificates. With some crowds these items sell really well. But try to stick to one size fits all with articles of clothing.
Okay, how do you get the good stuff?
Businesses give, usually, out of “enlightened self interest.”
You always have to ask yourself “What’s in it for them?” If they can keep a good customer happy, they will. Therefore, securing donations is, in large part, tied to the contacts of the people who are soliciting donations on your behalf. If you have a committee member who spends a lot of money at a particular hotel, for example, then that member has a good chance of getting a donation from that hotel. Businesses’ other interest is in developing potential new customers. If you can tell them there will be a lot of folks at your event who meet their target audience demographics, then you also have a chance.
Recruit donations of one-of-a-kind experiences.
Other items you might consider are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like the opportunity to be “mayor for a day” or to deliver the local weather forecast. Or perhaps to conduct the local symphony. Government and nonprofit donors can tend to be more community-minded than corporate entities.
The very best way is to spread the responsibility among a group of volunteers.
Ideally, they should represent somewhat different networks. The larger the group, the better. Bring them together for a brainstorming session if you can. If your volunteers are spread out geographically hold several brainstorming sessions. I love these sessions, because folks tend to feed off of each other. One idea acts as a springboard to the next.
Your job is to prompt people by suggesting different categories of donors and/or donations.
In the donor category, I might suggest (1) financial institutions; (2) law firms; (3) real estate brokers; (4) technology firms; (5) contractors and architects, and (6) retail, just to name a few. In the donation category I might suggest any of the items described above that tend to sell well. I like to write ideas up on a white board or an easel. You can ask folks to brainstorm every restaurant they think they can get a gift certificate from; then tear this sheet off your flip pad and tape it to the wall. Then start on tickets to sporting and cultural events. Write down everyone’s ideas; then tear this off and tape it to the wall. And so forth… until the entire room has sheets of potential donations and donors.
Don’t forget to ask your board, committee members and staff what they can personally offer.
Do any of them have vacation homes or time shares where they can donate a week or a week-end vacation get-away? Season tickets to hard-to-get events? Access to a private chef or driver?
Don’t forget to ask who can solicit the suggested donation!
A pie-in-the-sky idea like “let’s get a walk-on part on a TV show” is worth less than a piece of pie on the ground unless someone volunteers the fact that they’ve got a connection and will pursue that gift. Put someone’s name next to every idea; then follow up with them.
You can also brainstorm silently with folks who can’t attend a meeting, simply by sending a form out to folks and asking them to complete it. You’ll need to follow up with each person individually however, as the lion’s share (1) won’t complete the form and/or (2) won’t give you all their ideas without a little coaxing from you.
Honor the competitive spirit
When folks work in groups it can often ignite healthy rivalry.
And when they get a bit competitive they volunteer more. I remember one brainstorming meeting where one member said “I can offer a meal cooked by my private chef.” The person sitting next to them said “I can do that too.” This prompted another member to say “I can do that too, and I can donate our dining room and have my driver pick people up!” I never knew any of these folks had private cooks or drivers!
Offer awards to winning teams.
Have volunteers work in teams and offer awards to the teams who bring in the most items and/or whose items sell for the greatest value. This has added benefits. These volunteers tend to have more fun, they recruit new members to join them next year, and they try to get friends to bid on the items they secured so their team will win!
Here’s what to ask to generate items that sell well and will excite your guests:
- What restaurants do you frequent? Could you get a gift certificate? Would the chef host dinner for 8 at the restaurant? Would the chef come to cook dinner in someone’s home? If they can’t do it, do they have a sous-chef or pastry chef who might do it?
- Are you a subscriber to, or on the board of, a local entertainment venue? Could you get tickets… behind-the-scenes tour… lunch with the director… a performance at your home…?
- So you have season tickets? Could you offer up one or more pair? Could you get something special, like an autographed ball?
- Do you have any vintage or special wines you’d be willing to donate? Do you frequently buy from a vintner who might donate a case?
- What hobbies do you have that might make a good item? Can you offer a docent tour? A beer-making class? A gourmet cooking class for four couples? A sketch of the donor’s home? Wedding photography?
- Who do you know that’s fun/interesting to hang out with? Can you offer a morning in the Mayor’s office? Dinner with the local newscaster? An afternoon shopping with a professional buyer? A nature walk with a forest ranger? A day-long shadow with a veterinarian. And don’t forget about lunch or dinner with your own E.D., Chief of Staff, Symphony Director, Head of School, etc.
- What access do you have to special experiences? An afternoon on your private yacht? Two hours on your private jet? A signed television script (you know someone who works at the studio)? Chance to be a bat girl at spring training (you’re a season ticket holder and/or know the team owner)? Chance to play hoops with a team member? Free or VIP parking somewhere? Impossible-to-get restaurant reservations? A winery tour and lunch with the vintner?
- Who do you know who might do something wild and crazy like shave their head or beard, go bungee jumping or wear an opposing team’s colors for the right bid?
As your staff and volunteers consider their responses to these questions, remind them to think through their entire network of family, friends and colleagues – anyone they know who might have access to popular and/or creative auction items.
Keep in mind you only have so much space to display items.
Try to avoid “small stuff.” If you get items under $100, consider packaging them with other items. Or put small stuff with universal appeal (i.e., $25 pizza-to-go is good; $35 worth of shoe shines at the airport is not good) into ‘grab bags’ where guests have the opportunity to win at least what they pay, or more. Maybe sell these for $25. And keep this in mind: If you or no one on your staff would want this item then most likely your guests won’t either.
Silent auctions take a number of years to hit their stride. At one organization where I worked, our first such event raised $13,000 out of a total event tally of $350,000. Guests had been coming to our Gala for years and weren’t used to being asked to also bid on items. Some thought we were ‘nickel and diming.’ We almost gave up, because it was a lot of work. But others thought it was a great addition to the night’s entertainment. Fast forward 15 years and the auction has become a centerpiece of the Gala. Guests love it! Gala attendance has doubled and the event is raising $1 million.
You may not raise hundreds of thousands overnight. But if you put your best feet forward in securing, describing and displaying your items in a manner that appeals to your target audience, you will thrive. And each year will get better and better. To your success!
What items have you found sell the best for you?
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