So you want to have an auction? (Bonus points if you read that to the tune of “Do you want to build a snowman”.... And if you didn’t have that in your head before, you’re welcome.)
While most of us have seen a silent auction done before or have a basic idea of what they are, silent auctions are one of those things that can be a ton of work or turn your event into a hot mess if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Sounds scary right? Now, I’m not trying to talk you out of having one. Quite the opposite, actually.
Silent auctions are a great way to build new relationships in your community and bring in some extra money for your fundraiser.
And while they definitely have a learning curve attached (I know all the mistakes because I’ve made them myself), there are a few basic things that will easily make your silent auction attractive to guests and run smoothly.
Here I’m sharing my top tips on how to organize any kind of silent auction. Whether you’re using paper tracking, credit card swiping, or auction software, here the foundational tips to creating a successful auction.
Decide if your guests will be organized by name or by bid numbers
This determines how you do registration, what info you collect on bid sheets, and check out. Be sure to get as much guest info ahead of time as you can (name, email, phone number, and address if you send things in the mail) to make processing faster.
Want more tips to organize your check in and check out tables?
Pro tip: for guests that don’t RSVP ahead of time, instead of having them write their contact information down on paper, make a Google Form ahead of time that you can use at the event. This will help with the problem of not being able to read someone’s handwriting later.
Items vs. packages
Knowing the difference between the two can be confusing because people sometimes use them interchangeably (like sponsors and donors), but let me break it down for you.
Each thing that is donated for your auction is an Item. The items that you put together into baskets to have guests bid on are then called Packages.
Have you ever been to an auction, saw that their baskets also had numbers on them and wondered what the hell the numbers were for?
Well, let me tell you.
So, in this case to organize their event, each item was given a number. Each package would have gotten a number.
Usually Items will be one series of numbers, for example, all of your individual items could be numbered 800 to 899. Then you would do the same with your packages. They could be numbered 500 to 599.
This helps with tracking things down if you need to, or helps you keep track of what you have as you are putting things together into packages. For example, items 801,805, and 822 would all be bundled together to create package number 511.
Where you start the numbers don’t really matter, you just want to space the number series far enough apart so that it won’t affect anything if you go over by having more than 99 items. For example, if your items start at 500 and you have a large event, I wouldn’t recommend starting to number your packages at 600.
The goal is to make sure that you can easily tell the numbers apart and know what items have been put into packages, and which haven’t.
For smaller events, you don’t have to number all of your items if you don’t want to (though it’s good to get in the practice of it if you plan on your event growing), but it is still good to give all of your packages numbers to keep your check out speedy.
Displaying your silent auction
Have you ever been to a silent auction where everything is crowded together? Where it looks like if you touch the wrong thing you might have an avalanche on your hands?
Yeah, not a good look.
Trying to fit AllTheThings on a table because you ran out of room isn’t what you want. It doesn’t just mean that you have more stuff and look, you where creative with making it all fit!
It actually turns away guests. Your tables will look overwhelming because of all the stuff on them, and also because people won’t have enough room to comfortably browse and bid.
What ends up happening is people will bypass your silent auction all together and head for the bar instead.
This happens to the best of us (I’ve definitely done it!). It’s very common to find out that your silent auction is going to take up waaay more space than you thought. But the good news is that it’s a super easy fix.
Make sure to make a floor plan for your auction, or just measure out a simple layout ahead of time.
Pro Tip: Depending on the size of your baskets, a standard 8 ft table can comfortably fit about 4 packages. This gives you room for your display, and also gives people a bit of shoulder room while they bid.
Again, this depends on how big your packages are, but it’s a nice ballpark to start you off planning how much space your auction will actually need.
For things like gift certificates, you can add frames if they are nice, or put a gift bag in place of the item. This gives them a designated place in your layout and your winning bidder still feels like they can take a tangible gift home.
I like to have a sign printed for each item to add photos and a short description to get people more interested in what’s in the package. Also add a title so guests can easily figure out what they are bidding on and the sheet for it. You can make your auction look instantly more put together by putting these signs in frames or acrylic sign holders.
Each one of your packages should have its own bid sheet on a clipboard. I like to put the clipboard on the table directly in front of the package it is for. Don’t have them hanging off the table or piled on top of each other. You want to make it easy for guests to participate.
Pro tip: Add more than one pen to each of your auction package bid sheets in case a few happen to walk away. I like to put one on each side of the clipboard. It’s a nice touch to show that you thought of people who are right AND left handed.
Collecting Money/ Check Out
It’s super important to know ahead of time how you will be collecting money at your event. The system for collecting donations that you choose will determine how long it takes you to process each payment, which will then determine how many guests will pay that night, and how many you’ll have to spend time tracking down later.
See where I’m going with this? Help your future self out.
For large events with more than 100 guests, or where you’re expecting to raise more than $5-10k that night, you might want to look into auction software where you can swipe credit cards at the beginning of the event and do automatic processing afterwards.
If you plan to take checks or use a card swipe system like Square, it’s still good to take the time to come up with a good system.
Go through all of the steps that guests will have to do to donate at your event, and plan ahead to see if there are ways that you can shave off more time.
This might mean doubling up on the number of volunteers you have at your checkout table as the auction closes so that you can get more guests checked out in less time. Overall, if you can get each guest who wants to give checked out in 3 minutes or less, then you’re doing alright.
Again, the more guest info you can get before the event, the faster your auction check out will be. Learn how to organize a fast event check in table like a boss!
There you have it! My top tips to organize a kick-ass silent auction! These tips will help you keep your event running smoothly, keep your guests happy, and most importantly, help you keep your sanity the night of your event!
Are any of these new tips that you can’t wait to try? Or do you have other tips for a smooth silent auction? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
Until next time, happy fundraising!