How to run a successful charity auction

Personal by on October 23, 2006 at 12:11 am

Iva and I attended the annual Earthcorps auction on Saturday. We had a tremendous time, and Earthcorps raised a good deal of money. I was struck by how well the auction was run and I thought I’d codify what seemed to be best practices for running charity auctions (at least the non-obvious things). I characterize a successful auction along two dimensions:

  1. Guests have a lot of fun (and will tell their friends and want to return next year)
  2. The chartiy raises a lot of money

Things that any charity auction must do:

  • Credit cards up front: Make sure to collect credit card information up front. This allows guests to bid on auctions and anything else, while keeping the hassle to a minimum. A little work up front makes everyone happier. Their bid number becomes their ticket to everything.
  • Free alcohol: Unless you’re raising money for AA, make sure the alcohol flows freely. No tip jars. You want your guests to have a great time, and you should put no impediments in their way. Make sure there no lines for drinks. Beer and wine are fine, but make sure that you offer good variants of both. No one wants to drink jug wine. This will likely drive where you have the event, because you do not want to spend ‘house’ prices for alcohol.
  • Assign seats: Chances are, you or someone you work with knows everyone coming to the auction. Spend the time to select their seats. You can help they all have a great time (and bid more!), by sitting them with people that they’ll like.
  • Silent Auction: The biggest issue with charity auctions is scale. No matter how many people you have at the event, you cannot live auction more than 40 items without boring your guests. Everything else that has been donated should go to the silent auction. The silent auction enables you to split off the items that are less valuable, saving the compelling & expensive items for the live auction.
    • Place bid increments on the bid cards. Include a ‘guaranteed’ bid that someone can select to guarantee them the item. Set this anywhere from 50 to 100% over FMV.
    • Split the silent auction items into multiple groups. “Close” each section one at a time (maybe split by 10-15 mins). Announce each closing 5 min, 2 min, 30 sec and 5 sec before it closes. This gives bidders a chance to make several last minute bids (the thrill of victory!), and increases your chances of getting multiple bids on the items.
  • Live auction:
    • Use a real auctioneer: Make sure they have experience with charity auctions. They know how to pace the sales, encourage competitive bidding, when to skip an item and how to make the event enjoyable. I know they cost a bit, but it will pay dividends.
    • Sell the items: Pitch each item. Use photos where appropriate. You’ll get much more for them if you can capture the imagination of the audience.
    • Double up: Have 2 or 3 of several high ticket items available. For example, you list 1 weekend away at a cabin nearby. When bidding stalls, the auctioneer offers two of them at the second highest price. Chances are you’ll sell both.
    • Item selection: Your guests are impulse shoppers at this point. Things that give the impression of exclusivity (can’t get this anywhere else), and are local (don’t have to travel that far) perform really well. If it involves a lot of planning (international travel), it will likely be underbid. Know your audience and make sure the items appeal to them.
  • Analyze the data: You know what every guest bid on, you know how much they bid, you know the items that made the most, and you know the items that were in the highest demand. This is a treasure trove of information, and can yield tremendous profits down the road. At a minimum, you should know:
    • The top spenders: duh.
    • The bargain shoppers: They bid on everything while it is a bargain. Although they may not spend a lot (because they get outbid), they play a critical role in increasing bid prices.
    • The group bidders: Some people bid in groups (especially for weekend-away items). Know who they are and make sure you sit them together next year.

Things that charity auctions should consider:

  • Family style dinners: Buffets are too distracting and insular. Plate service is more expensive. Family style dinners are a nice compromise. They encourage guest interaction, and keep the caterer’s work to a minimum.
  • Bid for dessert: Earthcorps featured a dessert table at the head of the room. Many individuals made/bought desserts (each one planned for 10 people). They ranged from incredible works of art to cupcakes. Each table had to offer up a bid. The highest bid go to select the first dessert (one per table). This was a lot of fun and fully in the spirit of competition that a good charity auction encourages.
  • Locations on silent auction items: I’m torn on this one. The items at the Earthcorps silent auction didn’t have locations. For example, yoga classes were listed, but didn’t have the location of the yoga studio. I found this annoying, but I did bid on a massage without knowing where it was. I’m pretty sure I would have bid on more stuff if I could be sure that they were close by. But I could see how this could work the other way.
  • Corporate sponsors: I know, you work at a non-profit precisely because you don’t like ‘businesses’. However, be creative. If you can create the appropriate marketing oppotunities (pamphlet, banner, naming, etc), you’ll find a number of companies that would love the exposure and positive association. You’re pitching many of them to ask for item donations, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask for more.
  • Just donate: A clever idea that raised a bunch of cash. Give people a reason to donate (Ex. $1000 sponsors X, $500 sponsors Y, etc.) Include this segment in your auction and do it in descending order. This probably brought in 20% of the money that Earthcorps raised. It also doesn’t take much time.

Things to be avoided.

  • Speeches: Yes, I know that Ms. Generous Board Member would really like to talk, and I’m sure she has something really important to say. But let’s face it, if you did everything right, your guests are drunk, having a great time and they really could care less about Ms. Generous Board Member. Limit speeches to things that: Inspire, Delightlfully inform, or just make people laugh. Keep them short. Put thank yous, and other ‘announcements’ into the auction pamphlet.
  • Golden ticket: Earthcorps ran a raffle before the live auction that would give the winner a golden ticket that would allow them to choose any live auction item. They sold 100 $25 tickets. However, the top items were getting auctioned at around $2000. So, at most, the golden ticket contributed $500 to Earthcorps, while taking up a lot of time (constant reminders during cocktails, and the time to announce the winner) and resources (4 roving ticket sellers). If you’re going to make this work, make sure that you at least double or triple the expected top bid.
Anyway, these are the things I’ve learned about charity auctions, although I’m sure there are plenty of other tips that I’m missing.


  1. JACKIE GOFF — August 12, 2007 @ 3:27 pm

    Did you have a check list…..with having a full time job and volunteering for this…i need to be organized!’
    Thx, Jackie

  2. george — November 16, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

    Nice work.

  3. JOHN — December 1, 2007 @ 2:19 am


  4. Trevor Bristol UK — March 20, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    Thanks for this – I am going to be an auctioneer 2nite for the first time and it was very interesting

  5. Dave Naffziger — March 20, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    Glad it was helpful!

  6. John — December 29, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    Thanks for a great post, we have been managing charity auctions for 15 years and rarely seen such a concise and correct appraisal of what makes a good auction

  7. charity auctioneer — February 24, 2011 @ 6:19 am

    As a professional benefit and charity auctioneer. ( I can say that your blog post was done quite well. I read a lot on this subject and don’t see such good advice like you posted here. Very well thought out!

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