15 Tips for Successful Silent Auctions

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I am heavily involved in our elementary school’s PTA. As mentioned in a previous post, I’m going to be adding an entire section about serving on the PTA to my blog, but having just come off the heals of a HUGE fundraiser, which included a very successful silent auction, I thought, let’s jump forward a little bit then cirlcle back to the begining later!

I have been on the board and an officer for years and served in many capacities.  I chaired the Silent Auction fundraiser several times and, while I officially handed it off a couple of years ago, it will always be my “baby” and one that I always get sucked into helping with year after year. Our PTA has hosted the silent auction for many years before my time, but I (along with my Co-Chair and committee aka best mom friends) get to take credit for taking it to the next level.

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Why do I love the silent auction as a fundraiser?

One of the cool things about it is that you don’t have to be a PTA/kids organization to use this means of fundraising. I can take what I’ve learned hosting it at our elementary school and use it down the line for a grown-up charity organization as well with very few, if any, changes.

For the elementary school kids, this has historically been one of our most successful fundraisers and has allowed us to stop sending our children door to door with junk no one wants to buy. If a fundraiser means keeping my boys from walking all over the neighborhood selling wrapping paper or generic chocolate and keeps my husband from dragging an order sheet into the office (cause, let’s face it, that’s how they’re actually successful) then sign me up!

Where do you get started?

Your silent auction is going to be the most successful when you have at least 6 to 9 months ahead of time to plan, if not a full 12 months.

1. Get your team in place…

If you’re a PTA, depending on when you host the event, this probably does not line up with your election season and placement for the following school year. I know it never has with ours. Traditionally, we have always hosted the silent auction at our Fall Carnival (this year we switched it up and moved it to an adult’s only event in the Spring). With officer elections in April and board placement in May, sometimes bleeding into the summer, a Fall event gives the Auction Chair anywhere from 2 to 6 months as best to plan, unless you make this position a little different than the rest…

What do I mean by that? Every organization has a huge majority of “one and done roles” that potentially can have a large scale impact but are finished after their one event. For many years, we looked at our Auction this way. However, in order to maximize our success, we needed to change the look of the role. Our Auction Chair (ideally) holds a two-year term and should be bringing up someone in their second year to take their place when they bow out. This looks almost like a mentor type of a role. When done correctly, you always have someone who is forward-thinking to next year’s auction and can start getting the leg up well before your board starts to take shape for the next year. We’ll talk a bit more in a minute about what all they need to do and why this is key!

Not every year works this way. The year I took over, the chair before me had parted ways on not so nice terms so I was given minimal direction or coaching. This year, we didn’t have anyone step up into the new role until way late in the game. Things happen and you adjust. If at all possible, ask that previous chair to hang on, at least until the end of the school year, or until you find someone, to help in facilitating donations that require a longer lead time.

2. Corporate Donations…

This brings us to those coveted donations. For many years, our auction consisted mostly of baskets made by each homeroom mom out of donations from class families. Each class was assigned a theme and the homeroom mom coordinated with the Auction Chair to make sure everything was ready for the event. Those auctions typically brought in around $5,000. Not bad, but as our demographic shifted from households who had 1 stay home parent to mostly homes with two working parents, the level of involvement began to decrease. Remembering to purchase a basket item was just one more thing families did not want to do!

We began thinking outside the box and visiting businesses in our community to ask for donations. As I visited more nationally known names and not just local places, I was met with the same answer over and over: “All donations are managed through our corporate office. You’ll need to fill out a form online.”

Once you start searching for donations online, you’re no longer limited to businesses in your community. You’re simply limited by time!

There are many websites that serve as “donation hubs” where companies register their donation guidelines and you fill out applications such as good360.org or other times companies will simply manage their donations individually through a quick online application on their own website. What you’ll find is that each and every company has different time requirements to fulfill the request. Some are 6 weeks, most are 2-6 months, and others are even as far out as 9 months. This is where starting that chairperson ahead of the rest of the board comes into play. If your event is in the fall, they will want to start their online applications in the first 3-4 months of the year. While not everyone will necessarily want to commit to “asking companies for money,” the great part about applying online is that it is mostly anonymous, and something that can easily be done in the evening while you’re watching The Bachelor!

3. What FREE experiences can you come up with that are PRICELESS?

Historically, our best selling auction items come directly from our school’s teachers and staff. We are so lucky to have a staff that fully embraces us as an extension of their team, and are on board when we ask for help. We receive donations from them for Principal/Assistant Principal for the Day, special experiences & parties with teachers like making Christmas ornaments or a Playground Popsicle Party, After School Scavenger Hunts, Teach Your Teachers for the Day, and some have even donated a Special Bedtime Story and Night Time Tuck-In! These are all so special and don’t cost a dime!

As an extension of our school team, our local Police and Fire Departments always love to get involved and usually donate a Ride to School in a Police Car and Fire Truck.

4. Most Successful “Baskets”

I say “baskets” in quotes here because not all auction items come in a basket form, but that is just what I call everything now. Auction Basket Themes are a tricky game. I had one year where my baby-themed baskets brought in well over $500 and the very next year they tanked. So what is tried and true (in my experience)?

  • Family Experiences: Couple multiple gift cards together to create family days. I have put 5 local locations together and called it “Staycation” and another one “Family Fun Day.” Do you have a city within a 4-6 hour drive that has a lot of fun experiences? Couple a hotel there with a few activities, and a gas card and call it “Roadtrip.” Any tickets you can get to local sports teams, museums, or events will always be a winner.
  • Date Night: I love date night baskets! I always find a nice restaurant (make sure it’s a good value on the gift card) with either a nearby hotel and/or fun adults activity and put them together. Do you have some kids in the area who would like to donate their time? Add a gift card for a baby sitter too!
  • The Kitchen is Closed: Group multiple gift cards to family-friendly restaurants for a value of anywhere from $250-$500. The family that wins this always has something in their back pocket for those nights that they don’t want to cook!
  • Toys for Boys & Princess Dress Up: there will always be an audience looking for toys for their kids. Just be sure these are on-trend with whatever toy/movie character is popular at the moment.
  • Tailgate For the Big Game: Also can be called “Sports Family.” This one is packaged not in a basket but either a rolling cooler or a wagon and usually has camping chairs, water bottles, soccer/footballs, a blanket and whatever else you can think of that a family will need to be prepped for their big tournament weekend!

Two-Three Months Before the Event

As you near your event, you near crunch time. That 8-week mark is really where 90% of the work begins to take place, and when a full committee needs to take shape. During this time, you’ll be asking your families for donations (if you choose to do so), forming & wrapping baskets, and setting up your bid sheets or bidding platform.

Deciding to Ask Your School’s Families for Donations

Auction baskets from classes can be very lucrative, and if your school has a parent-body that loves to give back, you can be extremely successful asking them to donate baskets. We have done this just about every way you can imagine, so let’s break it down.

5. Baskets By Class vs Baskets By Grade

Traditionally, we always asked for baskets by class (as I mentioned above). Each classroom would be assigned a basket theme, so by the time auction rolled around, we would have 25-30ish baskets fully assembled and ready to go. We normally had a little contest, and the class that brought in the most value won a fun prize like pajama day.

Inevitably, a couple of classrooms were the “slacker classes” and would bring in one or two random items. Not wanting to make those classes feel bad, we would use part of our budget to finish their baskets for them, but that would eat into our profits. We decided a few years ago to try a grade-level approach instead, assigning each grade 3 themes and allowing all the families to pick and choose what they’d like to donate to any of those themes. Guess what happened…

We wound up with “slacker grades.” The problem with taking it away from the classrooms, in my experience, was that no one really owned the baskets anymore and it was much easier to skate by without donating, assuming that most of the rest of the grade would! Whoops!

The other issue we encountered with this is that many of our families wanted to donate cash for someone to shop for them. While that’s well and good for Karen to give her friend Junell, who also happens to be her class’ room mom, $20 to shop for their class baskets, the PTA as a national organization frowns upon Karen, Sarah, Mary, Brian, Mark, Estelle, and 50 others each giving Junell the Auction Chair $20 to then go shopping with unaccounted-for cash! That money has to first be deposited into the PTA’s bank account, then the Auction Chair has to shop and be reimbursed by the Treasurer. For some people who want airline miles or whatever, that’s fine, but for our school, that’s asking a bit much of most of our parents to go shop for $3000 worth of stuff THEN be reimbursed for it!

So, moral of that story… if you’re going to do school donated baskets, stick to a classroom level. Turn the low participation baskets into a “mystery box donated by Mrs. Casey’s class” and call it a day!

6. Communication is Key to Receiving Quality Donations from Families

When you are trying to solicit basket donations from your school’s families, you are going to need to communicate with them consistently and constantly. We operate about a 2-3 week push for donations, so communication ramps up at about 3-4 weeks out.

We start communicating the week before, giving everyone a “heads up” of sorts that of what we’re doing, what their theme is, and how they can make donations. Collection boxes are placed in each teacher’s room with a promise to check at least twice a week. We use all means possible from social media to flyers in take-home folders to get the word out. After that its a matter of staying in front of people on social media, and reminding them but in subtle ways. If something really cool comes in for a donation, we’ll share a picture of a “sneak peek” with a reminder “only 5 more days to donate.” When we are in the last two days, our Principal will use the school text system to send one last reminder out to families.

After collection, the work of course changes to assembly! We share pictures of volunteers hard at work putting together incredible baskets. Another great post is a “get a head start and set up your account on 32auctions.com.” When the auction goes live, we will share daily different auction items, alternating between very popular items and some that may need a little love.

7. Know Your Audience When Setting Basket Themes

Your basket themes can make or break your success. $25,000 in donated product means nothing if people are not willing to buy it! You need to have your finger on the pulse of your families and have a good understanding of what they shop for, where they go in their free time, and what their spending limit would be for an auction basket.

We have learned that baskets geared towards children are wonderful at a family-friendly event, like a carnival, where kids are present to ask mom and dad for it! The items in the basket need to be timely, current to whatever the latest characters are, or the IT toys happen to be. A basket themed for Green Lantern probably won’t get as big of a rush as Black Panther or Aquaman right now, despite the fact that you can buy more items on sale for it to equal the same value.

If the auction is at an adult-centered event, then you need your baskets to be more focused on family activities & experiences, items for the whole home, or date nights. As a mom, I’d look at a giant Star Wars basket and think “yeah that’s cool but my kid doesn’t need that much Star Wars stuff,” and bypass it at an adults night, bidding instead of restaurant gift cards, tickets to fun events, or a giant spa day basket. BUT if my son was with me begging me for it, I would up that bid more than I wanted to originally.

8. Use Your School’s Entrepreneur Network

MANY people work for themselves these days, whether they’re a hairstylist, travel agent, or part of an MLM company. Start to put out requests on your social media for those families to donate to the auction. I’ve had Realtors donate baskets of home goods or gift cards to restaurants, moms who sell makeup give a basket of product with a voucher for a free make-over, and LulaRoe Consultants donate a gift card to their store with some leggings. While 500 families may not be that big of a draw to nationally owned companies, this is a great way for all of these small businesses to get in front of their community, show they like to give back and show off some of their best selling products.

9. Take Your Auction Online One Week Prior to the Event

Notice I didn’t even mention bid sheets, did I? If you’re still opting for an event only/live auction with paper bit sheets, you’re missing out on HUGE earnings. The year we launched our auction online was a game-changer. We more than tripled our earnings from previous years, and it really wasn’t that much extra work. Instead of printing bid sheets, we used the platform to generate QR codes for each basket and places those along with a description next to each item for the live event.

After researching countless companies, I determined the right fit for our organization was 32Auctions.com. It’s an incredibly simple platform that is super easy to figure out, and they take minimal fees. To set our auction up with over 150 items listed, with 4 pictures each, ran us about $110 upfront then a small fee from each item that totaled approximately 2-3%. Considering we more than made that amount up by going online from paper, it was well worth the cost!

The main thing we needed to do was push our prep/due dates back by about two weeks to go live a week ahead of the event. This allowed us the time to collect everything, photograph the baskets, and do all of the admin work. By going live a week early, we were able to capture all of those families (and extended family members) who could not physically be present at the event. The event feedback we received was that our families LOVED not having to babysit their bids by putting in a proxy and forgetting about it until the end. It was a win-win all the way around.

I could go on and on about how to set this all up correctly online, but I think I’ll save that for another post!

Heading into the Home Stretch

As you near the launch of your auction and your event day, there are a few more things you need to make sure everything runs smoothly.

10. Supplies & Organization 101

Some of the most basic auction supplies will be: clear cellophane wrapping paper, clear packing tape, rubber bands, crinkle paper, and lots and lots of wired ribbon. You’ll need some form of container for the items, and while I call them baskets, most of the time they aren’t actually baskets! Amazon boxes wrapped in black paper work just as well if not better than actual baskets.

Many of your donations will come in the form of gift cards. We have found that it is best to keep these in our PTA safe until it is time to assemble the baskets. If the gift cards will be stand-alone items, then we keep them in labeled envelopes until check out. We start tracking all items that come in using google sheets so that the document is live for whoever is working directly with the Auction Chair.

11. How to Wrap a Basket

I will never forget my first time working with the auction. I had spent hours wrapping baskets that I thought looked great! Then a member of our leadership team came in and literally unwrapped them all, and told me I had done it wrong! I was in TEARS! While her delivery was not the best, I now understood what she meant. I had just bunched all the cellophane together at the top but it was so bunchy, you couldn’t really see inside the baskets to tell what was inside them.

Now, I tell all of my volunteers the fastest, easiest way to wrap them is this:
*Assemble the basket, using clear packing tape to secure items in place.
*Photograph the basket BEFORE wrapping.
*Unroll a large amount of cellophane and place the basket on top with the front facing the roll and enough in the back to pull over the top.
*Pull the cellophane up into a ponytail at the top of the basket with a rubber band or ribbon to hold it in place, ensuring the front is as wrinkle-free as possible.
*Use clear packing tape to secure around the sides, pulling loose ends tight towards the back.
*Take a wired ribbon and create a quick, easy bow (unless you have someone crafty handy) to tie at the top
*Use a small label to put the name and/or basket number on the back to help with set up and delivery later.

12. Have Enough Volunteers for Set-Up and Take-Down

I have spent many auctions setting up for HOURS by myself or with only one or two helpers. This is one of those events when as many hands as possible make a huge difference for set up! However, that only works if you have a clear vision of how to set up. When we hosted the auction in our school cafeteria, we immediately knew the best layout because we had been using it for years. It was really easy for me to direct volunteers to set up baskets. When we moved venues this year, we changed the layout several times during set up, so several of our volunteers spent good chunks of time standing around. Likewise, you’ll want to have many people on clean up, or you’ll be there all night.

Additionally, you’ll want to post clear signage throughout the auction showing what time bidding will end, and when all items are expected to be claimed by. Did you solicit for corporate donations? This is a great spot to list some of those corporate partners or sponsors to thank as well! In previous years, we have also placed company names and/or logos on banners and posters throughout the event.

When it is time to close the auction, be sure to be able to actually close off the area. The last thing you want is a complete free-for-all of people claiming their items. While we have gone to 100% online payments for our auction, a “check out” table is still necessary to verify payments have been received. We have about 5 runners who are able to go and retrieve items for our winners, so people are not claiming items on their own.

13. Set Clear Expectations for Payment and Delivery

One of my least favorite tasks is tracking winners down after the event to collect payment. Amazingly, when they pay online, the process of delivering their items (if they weren’t present) becomes astronomically faster. E-Bay has a 2-day payment rule, so do not be afraid to set rules for your own organization. We type up a disclaimer and copy it onto each bid sheet stating that the winners will have one week to make payments, and how they can make payments before we move onto the next bidder. We make 3 attempts to reach them during that week. If they do not call us back we move on. We opt not to ship anything; winners have to be part of our school community or know someone who is that can ship it for them. We just do not want the expense or liability.

15. Some Basic Math

I follow several pages for PTA/PTO leaders and watch as many people say they have purchased XYZ to auction off, and cringe every time I see it. On average, an auction item will bring in about 50%-80% of its value IF it is something people want and is well packaged. Other items come in far lower. We depend on our “priceless” items to offset the loss of value, and those typically do the trick. We do not purchase items with PTA funds to turn around and lose money on them. If we cannot get it donated, we do not offer it as part of the auction.

Be sure you fairly value every basket so that you are setting a clear expectation of what people are bidding on. To do this, group your basket items together first. Use a QR reader on your phone to quickly scan each item’s bar code and use the average price you find on each item. Write each value on a scratch sheet of paper and add them up. When you set up your basket’s descriptions, you’ll list each item but then only use the total number for the value.

When setting your auction goal, clearly it doesn’t make sense to set a number that exceeds your total value in goods. While we have our priceless items, and we also enable donations on the auction website, people just aren’t going to spend much more than something is worth (usually). I typically use a 75-80% rule when I’m setting our auction goals. If I have $10,000 in goods, then I’m going to shoot for a goal of $7500-$8000.

15. Have a Wrap-Up Meeting within One Week

I know, you just finished after MONTHS and MONTHS of work. You just want to sit down and take a breath! Don’t do it quite yet! Within one week, host a meeting with any key players in the auction. This could be event chairs, coordinators, school principals, PTA leaders, etc and sit down to discuss everything while it is all still fresh on your mind. Take detailed notes of what everyone thought went well and what they thought could use some improvement. Go into this meeting with a very open mind. It’s never easy to hear criticism, not matter how constructive, but the only way to improve is to listen to the feedback of others.

Come to this meeting with good, solid numbers. What baskets sold well and what didn’t? How much did you spend on supplies? What was your percent of income vs value? All of these numbers will help guide future decisions.

If you aren’t continuing in the role next year, be sure to save these notes in either a binder or your organization’s shared drive for the person who is taking over for you next year.

Final Thoughts

A Silent Auction can be a very successful fundraiser for any organization, but it is a lot of work. Before venturing down this path, you really need to make sure you and your team are up for the task! Probably what I love most of about this kind of fundraiser is that you truly do get that pay off of a job well done when you meet your goals!

Corona Virus Update 3/15/20: I wrote most of this post before we entered into this time of Social Distancing for Corona Virus! As I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw post after post of PTA leaders in a complete panic because their live auctions were canceled, and they didn’t know what to do with all of their donated items. If you’re reading this and had to take your auction online due to the Corona Virus, let me know how it went in the comments!

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About The Author

Junell

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29 COMMENTS

  1. Lisa | 23rd Mar 20

    Such great ideas!! We love going to Silent Auctions. I always love the baskets, especially wine and spa related ones.

  2. Angela | 20th Mar 20

    Thanks – sharing with a friend that handles a lot of school events.

  3. Noelle | 19th Mar 20

    I love the idea of auctioning off experiences! I had never heard of that before. This looks really fun, but I’m sure it was a lot of work for you and those on the PTA.

  4. vanessa | 19th Mar 20

    This sounds like a pretty cool idea. It takes alot of coordination to pull this off -I bet.

  5. Sydney Delong | 19th Mar 20

    Great tips! Putting a Silent Auction together can be very tiring, having a team of people to help is I think the most important tip!

  6. Liz | 18th Mar 20

    These are some great tips! Thank you for the information! As a mother of 3, having this type of information under my belt will surely be helpful in the future!

  7. Kendra | 18th Mar 20

    Thanks for this! Very helpful information. I’ll pass this along to some friends that can definitely benefit from your tips.

  8. Suzan | It's My Sustainable Life | 18th Mar 20

    A lot of work goes into organizing events such as these. Great ideas and suggestions for those in charge.

  9. judean | 18th Mar 20

    Great tips! I find that any time of wine tour or basket of cheer does extremely well in both silent auctions and others. Almost every fundraiser I go to…alcohol baskets always do well…very well!

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