Tips From an Experienced Charity Auctioneer

treasure chestI recently spoke to someone who’s been volunteering at a nonprofit’s live auction for ten years — and in a major role, too. He’s the one who stands up in front of the room and solicit bids from the audience.

He’s not an auction professional, but it’s fair to say he’s learned a thing or two during that time — strategies that he’s noticed the pros sometimes overlook.

His main tips can be broken down, so to speak, into the following:

  • Break costs down. When you’re trying to solicit bids for a big-ticket item — let’s say, a starting bid of $1,000 for a weekend at a local resort — do the math, so that people are not focusing solely on that big total number. You might, for example, say, “Hey, this place sleeps eight people, or four couples. If you get your friends together, that’s only $125 per couple per night, and it comes with tennis privileges and a nearby pool!”
  • Break the flow up. A good auctioneer keeps an eye on the audience, and is ready to respond when there’s a lag in the energy, or when people just need a moment to breathe. Telling a story can help, or bringing in something 0r someone new. One year, a good strategy for this developed spontaneously, when a member of the audience jumped up and said, “I was the winning bidder on this dinner last year, and let me tell you what  a fabulous experience it was . . . .” You could, of course, arrange for such testimonials in advance.
  • Break the audience up. That’s right, humor. Easy to aspire to, hard to carry out. But it doesn’t have to be yuck-it-up jokes. Stories from the experiences of the nonprofit staff and board — those inside anecdotes that you laugh (or cry) about at lunch — can be great to share with the crowd.

Even if your nonprofit hires a professional for the important role of auctioneer, doing some of the background work suggested by the above tips can help keep the bidding fast, furious, and fun. For a comprehensive guide to holding a nonprofit auction, see The Volunteers’ Guide to Fundraising (Nolo).