Fundraising for Your Writing Group? Host a Silent Auction
The silent auction is a fundraising classic, but classic doesn’t have to mean stuffy and boring. You know the drill, the organization in need lays a bunch of random donations out on a table; people bid for them on a sign-up sheet. At the end of the event, the highest bidder wins. Pay up, thanks for your money, now take home your basket of wine and dry crackers.
We can do better.
I recently volunteered to organize a silent auction for San Luis Obispo NightWriters (SLONW), a writing organization of which I am a member. SLONW is a smallish group that depends largely on modest membership fees to cover its costs which include monthly meetings featuring a variety of speakers, an annual writing contest and other events. Though I’ve helped organize fundraisers before, I am especially determined for this auction to be a financial success. Many of the members are my friends and deserve to reap the rewards fuller coffers would bring. I’ve done a bit of research to help me do the best job possible, and gee I hate to keep good research to myself.
Soliciting Donations for a Silent Auction: The Job No One Wants
If you’re even a little bit of an introvert, calling people you don’t know to ask for things is a painful experience. Like, I’d-really-rather-go-to-the-dentist level of painful. Technology to the rescue! Thanks to email and social media, your first contact with a potential donor doesn’t have to be face-to-face or even voice-to-voice. Soliciting from the comfort of my home has made the process not only more emotionally tolerable, but much more convenient. For less stress, start gathering donations six to eight weeks before the event.
My recommended steps:
1. Reach out to the membership you're working for. By simply sending out a few email blasts, I’ve already collected a beautiful hand-made quilt, some lovely home-décor pieces, an original work of art, a collection of like-new books and some desirable computer equipment. Great start! Also be sure to ask your group for recommendations of businesses that might be willing to donate. Someone’s grandmother or grandson may be related to an owner you’d like to speak with. Repeat this step every week until the event.
2. Make a list of items you think will be popular with your crowd. Tickets to events and adventures tend to bring the largest bids, but you know your folks better than I do. Research local businesses that might be likely to donate your key items.
3. Before contacting anyone, plan what you’re going to write or say. Write a short script that explains who you are, who you’re representing, how the donation will help the organization and how, if applicable, donating to your organization could benefit the business. Provide a website url or contact number. Be polite and gracious. Proofread and check your spelling. I said, proofread and check your spelling.
4. Reach out to local businesses via the “Contact Us” form on their website. Owners and managers are much more likely to read your request when sent through their official channels of connection than through a personal email. Using direct messaging through a Facebook business page or other social media is also effective. Don’t be afraid to go after the big fish! By using nothing more than a website contact form, I was able to get a generous gift certificate from the biggest performing arts center in my area.
5. Follow up with a phone call to businesses that don’t reply to your email after a week or so. This is difficult for me, but easier because I’ve already broken the ice with an email. Pick up the phone and call. Ask to speak with the manager or owner and give them your pitch. Again, be gracious and polite even if they say no. There’s always next time.
6. Repeat the steps until you’ve secured enough items for a successful auction.
Silent Auction Success!
Getting great items for people to bid on is only half the goal. Staying organized and creating a bid-friendly atmosphere are equally important. In my opinion, most of life’s crucial instructions can be distilled into Do-and-Don’t lists. You're welcome.
Do make sure your venue is large enough to neatly display the auction items, but not so large guests will have to hire a guide in order to see all the offerings.
Do have roomy, stable tables to set up the displays. Using wobbly trays or—worse yet—placing items on the floor--is not only unsafe, it devalues the items and discourages bidding.
Do put effort into displaying your auctions items. Bring attractive tablecloths, place gift certificates in frames, put related items in a new basket or other useful container. As with all things, presentation is key. If your goods look expensive, fun and interesting they will attract more and larger bids.
Do provide a bidding sheet complete with the name and description of the item, the estimated retail value, the minimum bid (if desired), the time when bidding will end and a working pen. If opting for a minimum bid, make plans for any items that don’t reach that amount. Will they be returned to the donator, given to charity or…?
Don’t think you can do it all alone. Depending on the scope of your event, have at least one or two assistants to help you in preparation and on the night of the auction. Collecting donations, arranging displays, answering questions and keeping an eye on valuable items can be stressful and too much for a single person to do well.
Don’t reject any decent donation. Similar small items can be bundled together to make, for example, a gift basket of craft supplies, a collection of candles or a box full of vintage jewelry treasures. Put your imagination to work. If the item is clean, attractive and in working order it can probably add dollars to your organization's bank account.
Don't crowd all the items together. Allow enough space for people to gather around and look at each offering. If I have to stand in line to check out that sweet collection of vintage jewelry, I am moving on.
Don’t forget to make announcements through the evening. Typically, a silent auction occurs simultaneously with other activities. A mention of the auction and its rules should be included in the opening remarks of the overall event. Sneak in a reminder once or twice an hour, and give the crowd a 15-20 minute warning before bidding is about to close.
Don’t wait until the last minute to start announcing winners. If the event is scheduled to end at 9 p.m., begin announcing winners at 8:30. By the end of your soiree, people are tired and ready to go home, no one wants to hang around to find out they didn’t win the cheese basket.
Have you organized a silent auction before? I'd love to hear your tips, share in your successes or laugh with you about the near-disasters you encountered.