Every meeting and event planner wants his or her event to leave a lasting impression. But when you,re looking to host an event that speaks volumes to attendees, and to the organization you're representing, sometimes the best thing to do is keep quiet.
Silent auctions are popular with meeting and event planners. Not only do they help raise money for an organization’s cause, they also encourage networking with local businesses and keep attendees invested in an event.
"Our [annual] silent auction is a very social activity," says Susan Gedert, alumni affiliate coordinator for University of Michigan-Dearborn’s College of Arts, Sciences and Letters (CASL). "Guests enjoy walking around and seeing what’s of interest to them. Since all of the proceeds from our auction go directly into our scholarship fund for deserving CASL students, our guests feel that, besides going home with an item or two, they’ve had the chance to give something to the university."
Of course, planning a silent auction is no easy task. Not only do you need to know your target audience, but you have to secure the donations-lots of them.
"You need to start early," says Shanthi Sivanandham, development and special events coordinator for the Michigan AIDS Coalition. "Auction item procurement can be a year-round activity. Sit down and brainstorm with your committee: Who do you know? What do they do? Would they be willing to donate an item? Take note of items you see in auctions you attend. What’s popular? Connect with the donor and ask for your event."
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
One of the most important things when planning a silent auction is to be mindful of who will ultimately be bidding on the items. While lavish items like trips can be fun, if they’re out of your attendees’ price range, your silent auction could be a bust.
"You want to offer a variety of minimum-bid items-you don’t want folks to walk because bidding is out of their reach," says Jeanette Harris, one of the Michigan multi-district coordinators for the Kiwanis International Eliminate Project and a member of Kiwanis Detroit Club No. 1, whose annual silent auction raises funds to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus. "Sports and theater tickets are always popular, as are gift cards at a discount. Know the expected budget of your bidders. It doesn’t make sense to have super high-priced items if it’s outside their budget."
In fact, a silent auction may not even be right for your event-or it may need to be combined with other fundraising event activities.
"We switched from a silent auction to a raffle [in 2002]-so the odds were better for those with less money," says Tiffany Devon, public relations director for Community Living Services, which serves people with disabilities. "During the last two years, though, we have held a silent auction run by a sports memorabilia company in addition to the raffle. They take care of everything and give us a check at the end of the night."
While hiring an outside source to host your auction can be efficient, most planners prefer to keep the auction planning in-house and avoid splitting the proceeds. Therefore, it’s important to have plenty of volunteers on hand to help things run smoothly.
Use all your volunteers’ expertise and resources, whether it’s securing auction items, promoting the event or selling tickets and sponsorships, Gedert says.
"Get your members involved so that they have a stake in making the auction successful," she says. "Have a system to catalog the items to avoid losing items, and have a cutoff date so that you are not organizing items at the last minute. And don’t forget to arrange transportation of the items to the auction site."
While most of the items up for bid should speak for themselves, to maximize your auction’s potential, group similar items together and present them in an eye-catching way.
"We group our silent auction items into five groups: sports/recreation, health/beauty, dining, entertainment and home/hearth," Gedert says. "That way it’s easier for guests to find items that interest them."
"It’s also important to attractively package the items," Harris says. "Use attractive baskets, bows and clear cellophane." (For more tips on item presentation, see sidebar, "Catch Guests’ Eye for Maximum ROI.")
GOING, GOING, GONE!
While lining up an auction’s items is crucial, a planner’s job has really only just begun once the items are on-site.
"[During the event], it’s important to get enough people to watch the bid sheets, tally the items and quickly provide results, so people don’t have to wait too long," Harris says. "Be sure to cut off the bidding time before the end of the program so that the results can be announced-you don’t want folks to be cranky."
It’s also important, Devon says, to talk to experts on the dos and don’ts of auctions, and to get feedback and input from those who’ve planned them before.
Gedert says guests at CASL’s event use bidder numbers when bidding rather than their names. "During our first silent auction, we had guests write their names on the bid sheets and had trouble reading some, so we switched to tickets that have a removable stub," she says. "We put a bid number on both parts of the ticket, keep the main part of the ticket in which guests have filled in their names on the back and they get the stub with their bidder number."
With so many details to keep track of, it’s easy to overlook the most important part of hosting a successful silent auction: thanking your donors. After all, you’ll want to establish a positive relationship with them in the hope that they’ll continue to contribute to what could become an annual event.
"Remember to send thank you notes to your donors and acknowledge them in your program booklet," Harris says. "Prepare tax receipts in advance so that you can put in the names of the donors and ask them to identify the fair market value of the items donated."
By working together as a team, your organization will maximize your auction’s success and create a memorable event attendees will look forward to year after year. You can’t put a price on that.
Catch Guests' Eye for Maximum ROI
Want to get the most from your silent auction items? Lisa Gleeson, owner of Lisa’s Gift Wrappers in Royal Oak, offers these tips.
Develop a theme
- Put seemingly unrelated items together or make smaller items into a larger offering. Combine assorted beauty products into a Spa Day package, for example, or combine a coffee grinder, beans and travel cup as Top of the Morning.
Give the Details
- Details imply value. With bottles of wine, for example, describe the vintner and location; include wine industry ratings or quotes from reviews.
Make it pretty
- Use color as a theme. Get the best ribbon you can afford. Ask a florist for bows.
- Display items of varied heights.
- Don’t make people guess. Cellophane should be clear (and attractive) from front and back.
- Use unique baskets from stores like HomeGoods or Pier 1 Imports, or trays, plate chargers and saucers.
- Help guests visualize the experience. Mount or frame a restaurant menu or create a tableau with plate, napkins and utensils.
- Keep it streamlined. Multiples of an item? You don’t have to display them all.