Photo essay of charity auction fundraising best practices

CoverA few months ago, my husband and I attended the Community Crisis Center’s 28th annual benefit auction. I’ve only attended this event a few times, but it ranks up there as one of my favorite non-profit special events for the following reasons:

  1. The mission of this organization is powerful
  2. Gretchen Vapnar, who has been the executive director for decades, is an extraordinary visionary, strong non-profit leader with a fun innovation streak
  3. This benefit auction is the “granddaddy” of them all in our community. It was the first charity auction event that raised significant money and became what resource development professionals would call a “signature special event

Every time I attend this event I’m impressed with all of the things they do right. So, this time I decided to take pictures of things that I consider important to the success of such an event and share them with you.

Meet Karen Fox
KarenKaren and her husband Dan are the co-chairs of this event. They have volunteered and co-chaired for countless years. The following are just a few reasons I decided to include Karen’s picture as photo evidence of a best practice:

  • Recruiting the right volunteers for your event is important. You need people with time, energy, vision and a desire to succeed.
  • Karen and Dan’s social network is large, which makes them ideal co-chairs because it provides them with a fertile environment from which to recruit other volunteers, sponsors, in-kind auction item donors, and event participants.
  • Karen and Dan’s long-term commitment to this event brings continuity and stability.

If you want to read more about the growing importance of volunteerism and some of the best practices involved with recruitment and retention, then you want to check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article “The New Volunteer Workforce“.
Live auction and silent auction
LiveCharity auctions are funny and quirky events. There is a weird “bargain hunter” mentality that is pervasive. I am a firm believe that you need to offer donors more than just a simple silent auction opportunity.
As the old saying goes . . . “Go BIG or go home,” which is why I think a live auction needs to accompany your silent auction.
guitarThe following are just a few tips you might want to consider:

  • Remember that donors can buy most of the stuff you’re auctioning off at the store or online. So, don’t try to sell them stuff . . . ask them to bid on “one-of-a-kind experiences” and things that are difficult to find and purchase. In other words, don’t auction off tickets to a sporting event. Package those tickets with luxury transportation, unique dinning, a meet-n-greet with people close to the team, special tours of locker rooms or behind the scenes stadium spaces.
  • Room set-up is critical. You want to get as much as you can all in one room because people will want to get up periodically from their dinner table and check on their bids. If they need to leave the room, then they are less likely to get up and monitor their bids.
  • Be smart when establishing your opening bids and incremental bid increases. Make sure to value the auction item and set the opening bid at 50% of the items value.
  • bid formI love the idea of adding a “guaranteed winning bid” to the bid form. You need to be careful about where you set that number, but I suggest setting it around 50% above fair market value.
  • I didn’t get a picture of Terry Dunning, who was the live auctioneer at the event, but it is important that you recruit someone who knows what they are doing. Terry is retired, but back in the day he was a professional auctioneer. He is a pro and knows how to maximize bids (aka donations to your organization).
  • The silent auction is typically big (however I encourage you to keep it reasonable and at an appropriate scale for how many people you have in your room), which is why you want to divide auction items into sections (e.,g. sports, home improvement, entertainment, etc). Consider closing down bidding one section at a time with 10 to 15 minutes in between closings. This strategy allows donors who lose their bids to get more aggressive with other competitive and open bids. Don’t forget to use a “countdown” to give donors notice and an opportunity to sneak in last minute bids.
  • Don’t wait to the last minute to secure silent and live auction items. Give yourself many months (maybe even as many as 12 months) to secure fun and unique items. You also want to circle back around to donors who were active in your auction and ask their thoughts about what they want to see in next year’s auction. It only makes sense, right?

 Don’t leave money on the table
pledge formWhen running a charity auction, there are always winners and losers at the end of the evening. There are donors who want to support your mission but couldn’t because they were outbid. Of course, the Community Crisis Center had a solution for this. They placed pledge cards in the middle of every table.
However, please note . . . it is NOT good enough to simply put the pledge cards on the table and wink at your donors.
The organizers of this event put together a powerful mission-focused video presentation and a group solicitation was made from the podium. As is the case with all fundraising appeals, you need to “make the ask” if you expect people to give.
Well organized checkout process
checkoutNothing is worse than having to stand in long lines at the end of the evening to figure out what you won, pay your bill and collect your winnings. I just love how this organization does their checkout.

  • It is computerized
  • There many different checkout stations which keeps lines short
  • They take credit cards (I can’t remember if I gave them my card info in advance, but I think pre-registration is always a great idea because it speeds things up at the end of the evening)

I could go on and on, but I will stop here; however, I will include just a few more pictures after my signature block without any explanations. Let’s see if you can guess why I took the pictures and what makes it a best practice for your charity auction.   😉    Please share your thoughts in the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.
PS — I just got off the phone with Pamela Grow and she reminded me of how important it is for organizations to measure the “true return on investment” after every special event. This reminded me of an awesome tool that my former employer — Boys & Girls Clubs of America — developed for their local affiliates. It is an Excel spreadsheet that helps calculate ROI. You can check it out by clicking here.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Excellent advice for folks who are continuing with ‘paper’ silent auctions. There are other things to consider if you move to a mobile platform.
    Karen Lozow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.