“There Was Nothing to Bid on at the Silent Auction!”

This is not what you want to hear someone say about your nonprofit’s silent auction.

But it’s exactly what a friend of mine said recently, upon returning from a fundraising event. She didn’t literally mean, of course, that the silent auction featured rows of empty tables. But for her purposes, it might as well have. There was nothing she wanted. And she’s usually the type to eagerly enter lots of bids, as well as sign up for every raffle that comes her way.

I asked for specifics on what went wrong. They included:

  • “Too many local goods. I don’t live in that city, and don’t want to drive an hour just to redeem a restaurant or haircut gift certificate.”
  • “Too many crafts made by the same person. They were weird little animal sculptures.”
  • “I don’t know, too many things that just seemed a little tacky, or weren’t to my taste.”

It sounds like this nonprofit did some things right, and some things wrong in planning its silent auction.

dollFor instance, there’s nothing wrong with approaching local vendors for donations of auction items, particularly if most of your attendees will come from nearby. The local merchants will often say yes to a donation of goods or a gift certificate, partly because they’ll get advertising and goodwill among their natural clientele. But clearly not everyone attending an event will be a local, so it’s worth making sure to branch out or go to some merchants with a presence in other cities.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting crafts, most likely from an enthusiastic member. But if they’re not surefire sellers, make sure not to overwhelm the tables with them. People might wonder whether the craftsperson was having trouble selling them, too.

As for the “tacky” comment, it sounds possible that some merchants were also unloading items that weren’t selling anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to turn up your nose at offerings that might, after all, suit someone in your audience — you just need to balance these out with items that will suit a broad range of people.

At a silent auction that I recently attended, one of the items that got the most buzz was a Trader Joe’s gift certificate for $25. The bidding started at $15 and ended at a mere $26. Not exactly a big-ticket item, but that was $26 of pure profit for the nonprofit — and it added something to the table that everyone, male or female, bargain or luxury hunter, found interesting and worth returning to check on. People who come to the table to look at one item are bound to give one more look at the other ones there . . . .

For more information on holding a successful auction, see the articles on the “Nonprofit Fundraising” page of Nolo’s website.