Oct 31, 2019

Winning the silent auction: Q+A


We hosted a webinar to reveal inside tricks to hosting a successful silent auction.

The answers to the following questions are provided by Nikki Berti of Goodie Two Shoes Foundation and members of the GiveSmart team: Alla Leventul, James Mead, Serena D’Angelo, Erin Phillips, Amy Gainsford, Chi Tran, and Kelsey Woodworth. 

What are the most popular items to offer at the silent auction?
These items are popular because they’re free of cost, and if you’re a school, these (episode 2!) are also great.  

How can we create “fear of loss” to increase the bid offers?
There are many ways to increase the urgency of bidding. Bidding Assistants should always be explaining to guests that they can set an auto bid on an item, so that they will never be in danger of being outbid! Using a countdown clock is another helpful way to remind guests that there is a time limit on when they can bid. Having smaller bid increments, no more than 15%, also helps guests bid more—they may not feel comfortable with a bid jumping $50 at once, but they’ll be more likely to bid $10 five times, gradually as the night goes on. It’s also important to note that including duplicate items in your catalog will decrease that “fear of loss.” If they know there’s multiple to buy, they will maybe place a small bid on each, instead of creating a bidding war on one. Remember that you don’t have to include all items that are donated to you, if you think they will work against you in the long run. Overall, a “fear of loss” is best created by increasing competition on items—use verbal announcements to promote the auction throughout the program, and have a Silent Auction Bids Display showing on a screen somewhere so guests can easily check on where their bids are. 

Ideal number of items based on event attendance.  Our event is 175-200 guests.  We find that if we have over 40 items, many go unsold, and other have just 1-2 bids. 
Every event is different, but look at what those items were that went unsold and don’t include them in your next auction. Perhaps you get different items, perhaps you decrease the total number of auction items and ask for donations instead. 

Recommendations on an opening bid (% of value) and a “buy it now” price – how high should it be?
We recommend starting bids be 30-50% of FMV. Buy it now prices should be high, 200-300% of FMV. If a donor wants to close bidding on an item they should pay a premium price.  

Can you talk about handling check-out efficiently?
Check out Episode 8: Smooth checkout from our Jam Session series! A quick listen talking checkout best practices. 

The best way to handle someone who backs out of an auction purchase?
There’s nothing worse than getting an email from a guest the morning after an event, stating they read the dates wrong, or added too many zeros to their donation, or maybe had one too many glasses of wine and is now having buyer’s remorse. The best way to deal with these issues it to try to avoid a guest backing out in the first place! To prevent this from happening, you can include a line stating “All Sales are Final” to each item description, or include it in an Auction Rules section on the site. However, if a guest backs out, most of the time organizations choose to side with the client, or takes it on a case-by-case basis. If a known donor says they can’t make the trip they won, but you know making them happy is the best thing for the donor-client relationship, you can delete their bid, and offer the item to the next highest bidder. 

How do you get “bargain shoppers” to bid on high-value items in a silent auction?
I think it’s important to have items for all of your guests—not just high-value items that may not be in the budget for some. Instead of expecting bargain shoppers to bid on high-value items, which may be unrealistic, include smaller things in the catalog that they would more realistically bid on. You can also include instant items where everyone is a winner to encourage 100% participation. You can get bottles of wine donated for a Wine Pull, or host a Gift Card Tree with gift cards donated by local businesses to fill in the gaps for guests who have a different budget in mind. As for those high-value items in your catalog, you can encourage friends to go in on them together for trips and vacation homes. It also helps to always include the fair market value, so they can see what a deal they are getting, or know how much they will be able to deduct from their taxes if paying over the value. 

I find that most of my best silent auction items come in at the very last minute which makes for a very hectic few days prior to the event. I don’t like to turn any money away- so I accept all donations. Do you encourage this, discourage this-and or how do you recommend ensuring these great bigger items come in sooner (i.e tickets to events, vacation homes, etc -mostly from Board members)?
It’s certainly better to take those big-ticket items! You can always have a “just added” category within your silent auction so your guests know that it’s a new item. As for board members, it can be tough to set deadlines with them but we suggest being transparent with them about when you want to go live so they can hold themselves a bit more accountable too. Late items will always come in and you can always allocate them to your next event. 

What data can you possibly provide that shows the incorporation of entertainment into a fundraiser increases attendance and overall positive donor experience?
This research study has just that. Entertainment elements start on page 9. 

Do you have more information on how to make checkout easier?
>> 5-minute listen in this Jam Session…Episode 8: Smooth Checkout
>> Blog: Efficient auction checkout 

Any ideas how to promote your event in advance?
There is an entire marketing and promotion section within this 12-month masterplan for your next signature event!  

Any ideas for small-town fundraisers? Local businesses roll their eyes when they see us coming.
This Corporate Donation Guide is a good place to get started! Additionally, search our resources to see if we have one specific to your area. 

So people are more tempted to bid if the package is complete? is that because they have everything and they don’t need to do anything else for it?
Exactly. Packaging an entire experience is typically more enticing because if they win tickets to the show and the package includes parking and a hotel, they are all set for their evening out. 

Is it okay to have more than a 1:5 ratio of items to guests?
Yes, 1 item to 5 guests is just a suggested guideline based on what we see as successful outcomes in auctions.  

What do you include in thank you packages to donors besides the note and description sheet?
A copy of our program. We collect them off all the tables at the end of the night discarding any that are wet or soiled, and then send the following package to EACH donor: organization acknowledgment letter, procurer thank you note, description sheet and program. It costs about $2.09 to mail each 6 x 9 packet.
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation

What is an appropriate range for gala ticket seat/table price? In a large city setting.
We’ve seen NYC gala tickets range from $200 to $850 per seat. Of course, this depends on your venue, what the actual ticket cost it and any entertainment or additional packages you might be booking. For a table, I have not seen clients give a discount. Instead, they multiply the ticket price by the number of seats. Table sponsorships will typically cost more than just buying a table since it’ll include a program ad, shoutout, etc. 

Can Nikki detail what the Committee and Board are expected to do for the event? Schedule of meetings, etc.?
Committee member have to commit to selling/purchasing a minimum of 1 table OR 1 sponsorship OR 8 individual tickets as well as $500 in auction items. OR, they bring a special skill to the table – like the person who makes all the big, fancy bows for our packages. If they meet this requirement, they receive 2 comp VIP tickets to the event for personal use.  We have 10 to 13 committee members. Board members HAVE to facilitate/sell/purchase a minimum of 1 table OR 1 sponsorship OR 8 individual tickets as well as one silent auction item valued at at least $250. Two of our 7 board members also serve on this committee. They must satisfy a combination of both requirements. We launch our committee in January for our May event. We meet three weeks after the first meeting and then every two weeks thereafter. Our committee wraps up by the first week of April to allow us time to prep for our auction, though stuff always trickles in after.
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation 

What is the best ratio of the number of raffle baskets to silent auction items? We are finding that people spend a lot on the raffle baskets and end up not participating in the silent auction.
Not all silent auctions have basket raffles, so it’s hard for us to say what a best practice ratio is. It sounds like your donors are more interested in the basket raffles, so perhaps for your next event you increase the number of baskets and lower the number of silent auction items. Or, you can up the prices for basket raffle tickets. 

Did you recommend mobile bidding? What are the up and downsides to mobile bidding?
Yes, we recommend mobile bidding! Here’s why. 

Do you find that it is better to have individual items or several items together in a basket?
This depends on the preference of your donors. Which items typically sell at a higher value and see the most bidding participation? 

Do you typically have an idea in mind of what you might be interested in when approaching a business and just ask for anything and take what you get (in which case you usually get something small or a gift card)? 
It’s always good to approach a potential donor knowing exactly what you’d like. Be specific in your ask! If there’s pushback, see what they can and are willing to offer, then go from there. 

What are your thoughts on hiding the Fair Market Value with a silent auction?
I’m not sure why you wouldn’t show the FMV. I think the majority of bidders want to know the value of what they are bidding on.
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation 

Do you still have a formal program with descriptions in addition to auction website and description on tables?
Our 4-color program features a full-page ad for each of our live auction packages. The ads include each live auction donor’s logo. In addition, we list all silent auction donors (their company name and email address/not what they donated). It also includes special thank you’s/acknowledgements and ads tied to our sponsorship packages.
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation 

I am relatively new to the organization. My problem is our base doesn’t respond to me. My boss can shoot an email to a connection and get a donation. But they won’t answer me. I’ve read his emails to see how he speaks to them and try to emulate that, but no avail. How do I get people to respond to me with a donation?
Personal connections are crucial in fundraising. Since you’re new to the organization, perhaps you should hold an informal event so that donors can meet you. When you send your next newsletter, introduce yourself, include a photo, and let the community know that you’re the new [role] at [organization]. Until then, keep using other people in the organization and your board to get donations and be sure to introduce yourself to as many people as you can at your next event.  

What’s a good revenue formula to shoot for? Is it based on # of items? # of guests? 
There’s no exact formula because the number of guests, but also the willingness to donate of those guests, comes into play. The number of items, but also the cost of the items, are all contributors to overall revenue. You should also consider whether you are hosting any games, raffles, wine pulls, etc. that might generate additional revenue? 

Do you have a station with a volunteer to assist ppl make bids or are these volunteers floaters?
Typically, we’ll have the assistants be floaters! You want to pick volunteers that are not shy and have no problem coming up to a guest. This is a very proactive role and just having a help station that guests approach themselves might be too passive when it comes to getting bids from your guests. 

Do you communicate live auction items prior to event?
Every organization is different…some like to keep the live items a surprise, others preview them so that guests know what’s coming. This depends on your audience and how compelling your live items are. 

In addition to the Silent Auction do you have any suggestions for successful additional revenue enhances? (examples: wine pull, jewelry pull, raffle, heads or tails etc.) 
These are all great ways to generate additional revenue!  

Thoughts on consignment items? Best companies? Thanks 🙂 
Consignment items are a fantastic way to fill any gaps in your items that you can’t secure from donors. Generally, these would be higher-end trips, unique experiences or signed memorabilia that you can’t get otherwise. Consignment companies will allow you to place these items in your auction, and the great part is that you only need to pay them back their fee if they sell! While these items can create an exciting buzz, it’s not best practice to ONLY secure consignment items. Donated items where you get back 100% of the proceeds are still most beneficial for your organization! There are a lot of great companies out there, but we do recommend two of our partners, Winspire & GoCharity. 

We would like to do a special ask at our fundraiser event. We have a goal to raise for a specific cause, which is the kids’ holiday fund. Is there a creative way to include this in the auction? For example, anyone who “bids” on supporting the Kids Holiday Fund automatically “wins” by donating to that specific ask. Or is this confusing because they wouldn’t actually physically collect anything? Curious on your thoughts. Thanks!
With a monetary donation ask, generally, this will be a separate highlighted part of your program, and not considered part of the “auction.” The more heartstrings you can tug at, and the more clear it is where the funds are going, the better the outcome! A short video or speech should be presented followed by asking the crowd to make a donation. There are fun ways to make this even more interactive, for example, we’ve seen organizations dim the lights, and have glowsticks available on the table. Guests are directed to crack their glowstick after making a donation on their phone to “light up the room!” You could also have volunteers walking around the room passing out something small to those who make a donation, we’ve seen bracelets, stickers, buttons, etc. and it can be something that the kids made! Within the GiveSmart system, we also have the capability to create a display to be used on a projection screen that updates in real-time as guests donate on their phones to keep the momentum going! 

Do you recommend putting the market value of the items? We’re concerned people will try to keep their bids undervalue to get a “good deal”.
The answer can vary based on your donors and items but generally, we do not recommend showing the FMV on the item as it tends to cap bids at that amount. There ARE certain items though such as art and jewelry pieces that sometimes benefit from having the value shown as guests may have a hard time distinguishing truly how valuable that item is. 

What advice can you give on sponsorships of event? 
We hosted a webinar on this entire topic. You can watch the recording here! Additionally, you can view the Corporate Donation Guide, which is a great place to get started to acquire sponsorships. 

If you get a small item donated by one business and another small item donated by another business that could be combined into one larger package – what is the proper way to represent both businesses so that one does not outshine the other?
When you note who the donor is to include both! “Generously donated by [donor 1] and [donor 2].” 

Any quick recommendations as to what to look for when browsing/weighing different options for mobile bidding software?
Here are 9 questions to ask yourself when purchasing mobile bidding software. 

Have you found that participation in silent auction is overall decreasing?
Every event is different, but our latest research study shows that donors are increasingly enjoying auctions and fun ways to engage at an event. You can view the full study here. 

Any recommendations for the millennial demographic as it relates to participation in silent auction?
Our latest research study unpacks millennials and what they look for and like about fundraising events. In the demographic breakdowns they’re the pink bars/numbers. 

Do you prefer to use bidder numbers or have people use their name to bid?
We prefer people by name.
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation 

Are your number of proposed items number of guests divided by 5, or number of wallets divided by 5?
Every guest has a wallet 😉 

How long should the event be in order to increase/encourage maximum bidding? If part of an event with a program, how long should you give participants time to bid before the program starts?
We recommend having silent auction open for about 3-4 hours during the night of your event. This will give your guests enough time to view the displayed auction items live while mingling, drinking, eating, and enjoying the program. We recommend giving participants about 1-2 hours of bidding time from when check-in/registration starts to when the program starts. It also helps to increase bidding by opening the silent auction about 7-10 days before your event, to get more exposure to your auction. 

Can you clarify what is a live auction? 
This quick video is a great explainer of live vs. silent auction. 

Do you survey guests after the auction event to gage ROI and collect demographics if you’re just starting out with an auction event? 
Definitely! The more insights you can gain from your donors earlier on, the better!  

How do we deal with the transition between the guests who “need” the physical silent auction bid sheet vs those that can use our mobile based bidding?
If you’re using mobile bidding, it’s a good idea to have staff or volunteers floating around with iPads to assisting donors who might not have phones or just need general auction help. If you’re using a mobile bidding provider you cannot also have guests bidding on paper because the bids will not align with one another. 

How do you recommend keeping track of what items everyone on the committee is working on procuring? We can discuss progress updates at meetings but between meetings how do you ensure multiple people aren’t reaching out to the same organization for a donation?
It’s a good idea to pre-assign companies or individuals that people may reach out to for donations. If your committee already has an idea of who is reaching out to who, get it into a document or spreadsheet. Then make the document shared, so that everyone has access to see who is speaking with which donors. It’s important for everyone to update what they’re working on, so that someone else doesn’t reach out to them. 

Can you say something about the IRS regs for silent auctions? How many days can a nonprofit host an auction without paying taxes?
You’ll have to consult an attorney for questions regarding legal matters, as we’re not licensed to advise on such regulations, and they vary state to state. 

Do you stick to 1 item for every 5 guests or is the live auction an addition to the 1 to 5?
The 1:5 ratio is suggested for silent auctions. For live auctions we recommend no more than 7-10 items. This can vary depending on the size of your audience.  

Do you use organizational funds to purchase unique items at all? Or are all of your auction items donated?
When we first started, we used a consignment company so we could actually have an auction with unique items but as we grew our committee and spheres of influence, we moved away from that – within three years. (If you go consignment, you’re pulling dollars out of your donors pockets and then giving half or more to someone else. You increase your fundraising expenses while greatly decreasing your potential revenue.) Now, basically EVERYTHING is donated. But, that’s not to say we don’t buy some small things. Sometimes we use a minimal amount of organizational funds (say $250) to purchase some of the filler items I mentioned that help embellish those baskets and increase the ROI by simply making them more appealing to the eye.

Here is a great “hack” to get what you need. We also have a committee member who throws a BBQ or taco party at her house each year. She buys all the food and drinks but charges her guests $25 each to attend. They also have to bring one themed item, which varies year to year. She gives us all the dollars she raises specifically for the purpose of buying whatever filler items we need for the auction itself or to actually create the baskets like cellophane, crinkle, ribbon etc. (Garage sales are GREAT places to find awesome, quality baskets at very minimal cost, by the way particularly after the holidays) She creates an amazing basket with the items she collects at the party and donates that to us for the auction too. She’s provided a giant BBQ basket valued at $350, an about town basket valued at $600, a family game night basket valued at about $275 and a giant wine lovers basket valued at $500.  
– Nikki, Founder, Goodie Two Shoes Foundation 

  Is it better to always group like items (electronics, toys, home, etc.) or should they be mixed so people see things they might not initially be interested in?
It’s a good idea to group like items and put them in categories for easier search on our platform. Guests are initially directed to the full catalog when they first register, so they will see all the auction items on one page. 

Thoughts on NOT bundling experiences in major cities (ie dining and hotel) so that those living in that city can bid on dining, not wanting the hotel?
Bundling things like dining and hotel is, of course, relevant to the location of your auction and where the majority of your donors live. If the tickets are for a show in town, and most donors live in town, then you likely do not need to bundle with hotel. For example, if you’re hosting an event in Connecticut and offering Broadway tickets in NYC, it’s a good idea to bundle in hotel since donors will likely have to travel a bit. Either way, look at bundles or individual items you’ve offered in the past – how did they perform? If you’re happy with those results, stick with it, or for one year try something new to see what happens. 

If you’ve received a night at a hotel you can offer that up as an additional item. 

Any advice for blind silent auctions?
We don’t have direct experience with blind auctions but found this as a helpful resource! 

What is the best way to get the board involved? I am new to the role and they have not been involved at all in the past. help!
We hosted a series of Jam Sessions (which are tiny webinars, less than 10 minutes)…check out Episode 10: Enabling Your Board! 

What is your suggestion if you don’t have a prop or it’s just a gift cards to other things. To show how awesome the package is?
It’s important to have a display of some sort for all your items, even if it’s just a paper with photos and a description of the experience/item. If the item is compelling to guests, it will sell itself! Just be sure to include a through description with any possible restrictions (blackout dates, number of guests, etc.).  

During a silent auction, do you ever end the bidding for certain items early? Could doing that make the item seem special or exclusive? If it’s a particularly big item, can it help to close bidding on it early in order to pack it up with a little extra time?
We recommend ending all silent auction items at one time.  It’s important that the guests know exactly when the silent auction is going to close, because many guests like to place last-minute bids to secure their items. Having items at the same event closing at various times could cause confusion for guests. If a guest were under the impression that their item was about to close at 9:00, for example, but the item they were interested in closed at 8:30, they would be disappointed not to have submitted their bids. You should leave enough time after the auction closes to pack up all your items to be prepared for checkout. 

Do you base the price of tickets based on the cost to cover the event itself?
Yes. You should figure out the cost per head (accounting for food, venue, entertainment, staff, etc.) and then charge more than that for a ticket price. If the cost per head is $75, then that is also the FMV of the ticket. If you charge $275 for one ticket, then $75 is FMV and $200 is the amount that can be written off as a tax deductible.  

I like the personalized thank you cards from the committee. Are there other creative ways or items to send with the thank you cards that is cost-effective? Example – pictures from the event, a small token of appreciation besides the thank you card?
We’ll be running through this in detail on our next webinar, Gobble Gobble: shake up how you say thanks this fall. Details + RSVP here! 

What is your opinion on auction items wrapped in baskets/cellophane vs. “open” items that are set out (with gift cards/certificates available for pick-up upon checkout)?
Baskets are a good way to group together items by theme or interest. Baskets loaded with lottery tickets are especially popular (not sure if we can advertise that, gambling). If you have items that are not worth much on their own, but would make a good basket when packaged together, then feel free to make a basket of them. If you do offer a basket wrapped in cellophane, try to make the items inside visible to guests without having to break the seal. 

I find that when individual items are present, it’s best to have them exposed for inspection by guests. Sometimes guests want to handle the items a little bit to gauge their interest. If you have any items that are particularly fragile or that should not be handled, you may place a volunteer near those items to make sure they’re not tampered with. 

Paper vs. mobile bidding…difference?
This blog breaks down the difference between paper and mobile bidding, and while all providers are different, this is what it looks like with GiveSmart. 

How to you transition attendees from paper bidding to mobile bidding – especially those who are technology resistant?
As Nikki said on the webinar, you have to just rip the band-aid off and make the switch. From there, it’s important to inform guests leading up to the event that the bidding will be mobile, as well as mentioning it again when they arrive at the event. Have staff and volunteers scattered around the auction area with iPads so that they can assist those who might be resistant. This 12-month plan will help map out that promotion and communication leading up to your signature event. 

Do you guys think raffles add to or take away from silent auctions during the cocktail hour time?
Raffles typically tend to be set at a more inclusive giving price, which is a great incentive to get more guests giving at your event. The more ways you can give donors to participate the better! 

Do you recommend closing the silent auction before you do the direct ask (paddle raise), or after? Thank you!
Catch Episode 22: Closing your silent auction. It covers just that! 

 How do you drive traffic to your online auction?
Head to the 12-month signature event masterplan, and fast forward to the marketing section. It’s a helpful resource that outlines how to promote your event and auction before and during your event. 

How to you prevent getting marketing ‘swag’ of little value? Is there a candid, polite way to say that’s not what you’re looking for?
If you reach out to a donor, state explicitly what you’d like them to donate and what you need. If someone offers swag that is of little value to you, after you’ve thought about any possible way you could use it, let them know politely that it won’t be of use to your organization. If possible, suggest another organization that could use the swag. 

Do you suggest using third party auction item sites for large ticket items like travel experiences? Do you make any profit from these? 
We always recommend trying to secure 100% donated packages/experiences first so that you keep 100% of the profit, and if you need to utilize a third party vendor to supply an item/package/experience be sure to set the starting bid above the price you need to pay for the item if it sells. A good rule of thumb is to pay 10% above the price when determining your starting bid on consignment/third party items, and make sure it appeals to your audience so bidding will surpass that opening bid and generate some profit for you. Using a third-party company to secure items will not guarantee you as much profit, but it help generate excitement and appeal to excite your guests/donors about bidding!   

What is the best way to display and promote a destination vacation rental prize?
You can tease the items before your event on social media or in guest communications and link to the item to preview or open for early bidding, if using mobile bidding. It’s a good idea to give your guests an idea of what they can expect so they can start making decisions on what they can spend as soon as you begin promoting your fundraising opportunities. Consider organizing your items in a specific category to grab your guests attention and highlight the destination vacations you’re offering so they can weed through all the items you’re offering with intentions of what they want to “shop” for!   


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What our clients say

We needed a platform to make sales online and to track and display ads for our sponsors. GiveSmart was perfect. We ended up making close to $15,000 more than we had hoped for. Definite better ROI than we anticipated. The interface is easy to use and provides plenty of options to get help if needed.

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The Rotary Club of South Whidbey Island

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MicroFinancing Partners in Africa

GiveSmart is highly flexible - you can use it for [a] simple registration and check-in, to full-scale galas with complex order forms, onsite upsells, live auctions, seating management, and more.

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Hope Chest for Breast Cancer

GiveSmart is easy to use and ideal for virtual events and can be used for in-person events to manage the silent auction, seating charts, and check-in to the event. Being able to use the platform for unlimited events within the contract year is very useful and being able to add other users and volunteers for different levels of access is helpful as well.

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Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County