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December 4, 2021
Crash Course on Charity Auctions
By Bob Baird

While auctions might not bring in the dollars that they did before the recession hit, many nonprofits find they remain a viable event for increasing coffers and cementing relationships with donors and the general community.

However, far too many organizations plan an auction without asking themselves three essential questions.
  1. Do we have enough time to prepare? The absolute minimum is nine months; a year is better.
  2. Can we recruit sufficient volunteers? You’ll need dozens, even for a small auction.
  3. Does an auction make sense for us? That depends on your answers to the preceding questions, the Rolodexes of your board, and the health of the economy in your area.
What Should Your Goal Be?
If you’ve held auctions before, you already have a sense of how much you can raise. With the economy starting to look rosier, perhaps your goal will be an amount slightly larger than last year’s. But beware of offering too many items for auction. Selling items for very little—or failing to sell them at all—does not endear the donor to your organization, as some Massachusetts nonprofits—large and small—have learned during the last year.

If this is your very first auction, I’d follow the advice of Olympian Peggy Fleming: "The ultimate goal should be doing your best and enjoying it."

In other words, forget about setting a dollar goal. Simply have fun and get the experience of running an auction under your belt. Then, the next time out, you’ll have a pretty good idea of your potential to raise $10,000 or $100,000.

Choosing a Location
In terms of location, there are several factors to keep in mind—cost and size being the most important. If your organization owns or has access to a site large enough to hold your auction, the decision is easy. If not, you’ll have to look into renting a room or rooms for the event.

The site you choose must be large enough to accommodate both your silent and live auction. You may want to consider using two rooms (if your location has an elevated stage or podium, one room might suffice). Your silent auction should be set up to allow for maximum “milling around.” Remember, the silent auction is a social event. For the live auction, however, you’ll need to have seats for your guests. A quick room change is possible, but you’ll need an intermission to accomplish this.

Choosing a Date
Most auctions are held either in the spring or fall. Summer is generally a bad time since many of your prospective guests will be vacationing. Winter isn’t advantageous either, as many are preparing for or recovering from the holidays.

Of the two seasons, fall is generally your best bet. Many of your guests will be getting into the holiday shopping mood and may find that what you have to offer is on their shopping list.

Picking a Theme
Using a theme allows you to create a “buzz” around what would normally be seen as just another fundraising event. It also puts people in a good mood and can loosen their grip on their wallets. A theme also provides direction for your Decoration Committee.

Searching the Internet is any easy way to generate ideas for a theme. Here are some good links:
Choosing an Auctioneer
You’ll need to decide whether to hire a professional auctioneer or use a volunteer. Professionals will cost you more, at least up front, but they’ll move more gifts and for more money. A professional can auction approximately 35 items in an evening, at 20% to 25% higher prices than an amateur can. A professional can also provide consulting services, training, paddles, software, and forms. However, you’ll pay between $1,500 to $2,500 for these services.

If yours is small auction, it might be wise to use a volunteer. The same is true if you have a volunteer with a magnetic personality. This can give your event a casual and personal feel. Although an amateur may only move 15 to 20 items in an evening, he or she will be able to interject local humor a professional can’t.

Casual or Formal?
Whether your event is black-tie or denim is entirely up to you. There are pros and cons to either choice. Your key consideration should be the people you want to attract. If your audience is your own membership, then you already have a feel for what would be appropriate.

On the other hand, if you’re attempting to attract an audience from the community at large, you and your committee will need to assess what the market will bear. So much depends on where you’re located, your competition, the cause, and your ability to attract guests based on your committee’s personal contacts.

You generally have four options when it comes to food and drink: dinner, hors d’oeuvres, dessert, and beverages. What you offer will be a function of what your guests typically expect and what admission price you think they’re willing to pay. Your other decision about refreshments will be whether to have any or all of them catered.

If you want pictures or video taken at your auction, you can either hire a professional photographer or enlist a volunteer. If neither of these options is available, make sure you have someone (even if it’s your teenage son or daughter) taking pictures throughout the evening. These pictures will aid next year’s committee members with planning and set-up.

Heed Franklin Roosevelt’s words when it comes to speeches at your auction: "Be sincere; be brief; be seated."

Remember, your guests didn’t come to hear someone talk, they came to have fun and socialize. Give your speaker no more than 10 minutes; five is better. And choose ONE speaker, usually your master of ceremonies, auction chair, or organization president.

Items covered in a welcome speech should include: the reason you’re holding the auction, a mention of major donors and sponsors, a thank-you to all volunteers (mentioning the names of the committee chairs), and a plea to “give till it feels good.” Remember, the purpose of the auction is to make money.

This article is adapted from Robert Baird’s new book, Everything You Need to Know to Raise Money (and Have Fun) with a Charity Auction. Republished with permission fromContributions Magazine. A free subscription is available by clicking here.
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