Nonprofit Insurance Program

How a Fundraising Auction Works

By Alexa Connelly
August 10, 2011

If you’ve attended an auction, you know it can be a great social event—sometimes dinner is even included. Usually the auction has a theme, and most last three to four hours. Generally, there are two components: a silent auction and a live auction.

The silent auction is held first and serves as a “warm up.” It’s where you sell donated goods that aren’t expected to fetch large sums of money. The live auction is the main event, where high-value gifts are auctioned to the highest bidder.

Approximately one year before the big night, an auction committee is formed and a chair is named. If you’re lucky enough to be this individual, hang on to your hat—your mettle will soon be tested.

Working with the leadership of your organization, you’ll pick a date, place, and theme. You’ll name members to chair the major committees, such as acquisition, decoration, and finance, and in turn they’ll recruit volunteers to fill their committees.

The number of volunteers you’ll need depends on the size of your auction. But don’t be fooled: even a small auction can require a small army of 20 to 30 volunteers. Not everyone will have major roles or formally serve on a committee, but your volunteer base should have tentacles so that it’s able to accomplish tasks small and large.

If you don’t feel you and your committee can recruit these kinds of numbers, better to beg off now and opt for a different event.

Volunteers serving on the Acquisition Committee canvass the area in search of gifts from local businesses and residents. The gifts are catalogued, stored, valued, and ultimately transported to the event. Meanwhile, other volunteers are preparing invitations, flyers, welcome packets, and devising plans for decorating the auction venue.

Once the big night arrives, guests will check in and receive a registration packet containing the auction catalog, door-prize tickets, and other miscellaneous items. They’ll enter and find a beautifully decorated room overflowing with gifts on which they can bid during the silent auction. They’ll spend much of their time socializing and tracking the progress of their bids.

Once the silent auction is closed, the guests will be seated and the real fun will begin. The live auction will last one to two hours, and a professional auctioneer or a volunteer from your organization will auction off approximately 25 to 75 items. If you’ve done your work, most of them will be irresistible to the bidders.

After the live auction is finished, your guests will proceed to the checkout tables, unless you’ve implemented an automatic payment system. They’ll pay for and pick up their items, and leave with a smile on their face, assuming your committee has done a good job.

What Should Your Goal Be?

That all depends, of course, on factors such as your experience, the size of your organization, the affluence of your membership, the state of the economy, not to mention how well you’ve planned the event. Any and all of these will determine your potential profits.

If you’ve held auctions before, you already have a sense of how much you can raise. Perhaps your goal will be an amount slightly larger than last year’s. But beware of limiting yourself this way, especially if you have a good volunteer crew. Maybe you’ve been under-achieving without realizing it!

If this is your very first auction, I’d follow the advice of Olympian Peggy Fleming: “The ultimate goal should be doing your best and enjoying it.” In other words, forget about setting a dollar goal.

If you haven’t tried an auction before, you can’t really estimate how well you’ll do. So don’t even try. Simply have fun and get the experience of running an auction under your belt. Then, the next time out, you’ll have a pretty good idea of your potential to raise $10,000 or $100,000.

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