The Silent Auction
The silent auction is among the most common fundraising techniques used at charity events. Just set up a table. Lay out a few auction items. Then place a bid sheet in front of each. As attendees wander about the event, they are attracted to the silent-auction table, sometimes for lack of anything else to do, and if they see something they like, they write their name on the bid sheet next to an amount. Event planners come back an hour or so later, pick up bid sheets, and collect payment. Therein lies the secret to fundraising success! Or so many event planners believe, considering how indifferently they treat the silent auction.
I once attended a nice fundraiser at a popular event location. Not all who attended were affluent, but many were, and there had to be at least 250 of us there. At the table where I sat were two couples with “unlimited” giving potential. Both were multimillionaires with a history of charitable giving. There were others with such capacity for giving in the room. Keep in mind this was a fundraiser, not just an evening get-together.
When I arrived, I expected to be greeted by a few volunteers selling raffle tickets. There were no greeters or raffle-ticket sellers as far as I could see, but there was a raffle. I suspect people could find someone to ask for tickets if they looked hard enough. The organization had paid staff. I guess I could have asked one of them. I didn’t bother. Most people who attend events won’t bother either.
As I walked around, I noticed a silent-auction table tucked away in a corner of the large room. There were five, maybe six items up for auction. They were low- to mid-value items of a random nature. None were things anyone would need. I also doubt they were items people would have thought about wanting before arriving at the auction. Since the items had a low bid price, I suspect some attendees thought them attractive enough to place a bid, as all were sold. There were no announcements about the auction. There were no advertisements or promotions for any of the items. Perhaps one or two of the items had been made by well-known artists or craftspersons. Potential bidders in the room would never know. The silent auction was just that—silent.
This scene is not an unusual one at events. Many host organizations just don’t get it. Fundraising is an active, not passive, undertaking. For some reason the silent auction in particular seems to be mistaken as the most passive of all fundraising techniques. Just because it’s called a “silent” auction doesn’t mean event hosts have to be silent about it.
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Silent auctions treated passively by event hosts are passively treated by attendees. Like any fundraising opportunity, silent auctions need to be stocked with items people want or need, and the opportunity to bid and win those wanted or needed items must be promoted. Consider a raffle for which raffle-ticket sellers passively sell tickets. That’s a formula for disaster. Why passively hold a silent auction? Attendees mob aggressively promoted and well-stocked silent auctions. Particularly aggressive bidders will fight to get the last bid.
At the event I attended, the hosts were as silent as church mice about the silent auction. Given the poor selection of auction merchandise and too few items for a crowd of 250, that was probably a good thing. After all, for the savvy event attendees in that crowd, the silent auction was a glaring example of poor event fundraising. And why embarrass the volunteer officers of the host organization by purposefully pointing out a botched fundraising opportunity? Had the auction been properly promoted and appointed with appropriate items, event planners could have added a few thousand dollars to the organization’s net revenue for the year. This was not a large organization, but no organization can afford to ignore easy money.
What Is a Silent Auction?
During a silent auction, bidders “silently” write bids on bid sheets for auction items. Auction items are generally the same kind used for live auctions, consisting of merchandise, services, and trips. The items up for bid are generally placed on display in a defined area, such as……….
Excerpted from the book, Money for the Cause: A Complete Guide to Event Fundraising by Rudolph Rosen. Texas A&M University Press.
(c) Rudolph A. Rosen, 2012