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Robert Baird

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Eight Factors to Consider Before Planning Your Charity Auction

It was Harry Truman who said, "I make a bum decision, I go out and make another one."

With all due respect to our 33rd president, I'm hoping the key decisions you and your volunteers make—and make early—about your charity auction will be sound ones.

Each of the possible choices, which I discuss in detail in my book, Everything You Need to Know to Raise Money (and Have Fun) with a Charity Auction, will set the tone for your event and ultimately for your success.

1. Location

Deciding where to hold your auction is the first order of business. There are several factors to consider; paramount among them are cost and size. If your organization owns or has access to a site large enough to accommodate your auction, the decision is easy. If not, you'll have to look into renting a room or rooms for the event.

Many of your options are obvious: Knights of Columbus Hall, Moose Lodge, VFW hall, local school auditorium, firehouse, hotel ballroom. Then too, I was once involved with an auction held on the lanai at the Hickham Air Force Base Officers Club overlooking beautiful Pearl Harbor. Talk about a location!

2. Date

Most charity auctions are held either in the spring or fall. Summer is generally a bad time, since many of your likely guests will be vacationing. Winter isn't advantageous either, as many are preparing for or recovering from the holidays. Of spring and fall, the latter is generally your best bet. And weekend evenings are the most popular time, since most auctions last well into the night.

3. Theme

Using a theme can add to the fun of your auction. It allows you to create a buzz around what would normally be seen as just another fundraising event. Searching the Internet is an easy way to generate ideas for a theme. Some of the ones I've found popular are Margaritaville, Hurray for Hollywood, Havana Nights, Mardi Gras, and a Medieval Night. In addition to adding spice to your auction, a theme also provides direction for your decoration committee.

4. Auctioneer

You'll need to decide whether to hire a professional auctioneer or use a volunteer (if you're really lucky, you might have a volunteer who IS a professional auctioneer). Professionals will cost you more, at least up front, but they'll move more gifts and for more money. A pro can auction 35 items in an evening, at 20 to 25 percent higher prices than an amateur. Still, if yours is small auction, it might be wise to use a volunteer. The same is true if you have a volunteer with a charismatic personality and is known by many of your guests. This can give your event a casual and personal feel.

5. Tone

Whether your event is black-tie or denim, 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.

6. Refreshments

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'll be willing to pay. Your other decision about refreshments will be whether to have any or all of them catered.

7. Photography

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

8. Speeches

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. Give your speaker no more than 10 minutes; 5 is better. And choose ONE speaker, usually your master of ceremonies, auction chair, or organization president.


Realizing that "Advice is like castor oil, easy to give, but dreadful to take," let me close with just one more tip: have some fun. That's key. Sure, there will be frustrations. And more than once you'll feel like slapping a fellow committee member with an auction paddle. But the rewards of holding a charity auction—psychological and financial—can be great. And so can the memories.

Robert Baird
© 2015, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Robert Baird, as an organizer, volunteer, and board member, has been intimately involved with fundraising charity auctions for the past three decades.


The Ins and Outs of Charity Auctions: Interview with Robert Baird

Robert Baird, author of Everything You Need to Know to Raise Money (and Have Fun) with a Charity Auction, recently spoke with his publisher about charity auctions. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Mr. Baird's additional thoughts with you.

How can we tell if an auction is right for us?

That's easy. An auction is right if you have two key ingredients: volunteers willing to work hard and a supportive donor base. Combine these two and your profits can soar.

For those who have never conducted an auction, how much lead time is needed?

Typically a year. It can be done in less time if you've done an auction before or have volunteers with experience. But venues must be nailed down and dates need to be saved, and often that takes 12 months from the start of the event.

What's a reasonable number of items to secure for a live auction?

Remember, there are two parts to the event, the live auction and the silent auction. The silent auction can have as many gifts as you can round up and have space to display. The number of live auction items depends on how much time you allot to this part of the event and the speed of your auctioneer. A volunteer is sometimes great, but keep in mind a professional auctioneer can usually move twice as many items (or more).

How much will this even cost us?

That depends. If you're smart, you'll attempt to have everything, even the venue, paid for by local businesses and other donors. For things you can't get donated, like food and the bar, typically your ticket fee should be enough to cover these items. Remember, the ticket price is a source of revenue and shouldn't be considered simply a break-even proposition.

How can we make sure we don't lose money?

Forget the whole thing and find a million dollar donor. But seriously, there are no guarantees. Shifting many of the costs to donors and pricing the admission correctly can help ensure you're profitable. Then the money made in the live and silent auctions is pure profit.

For our first effort, what's a reasonable goal?

As you would expect me to say, that all depends on your audience, your committee, and your donor base. As I discuss in my book, it can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. As for something to shoot for, I'd recommend you run the best auction you can, don't overtax committee members, and keep all your contact information (attendees and donors) for the next time. Look at it as not one auction, but the first of many with increasing attendance and revenue each year.

Obviously, the biggest source of revenue is the auctioned items. Are there other revenue streams we should know about?

Yes, there's surplus revenue in the ticket price and it's common to hold raffles throughout the night. For instance, I've seen professional auctioneers hold contests in the middle of the auction where couples pony up $20 for a chance to win half the pot. An auction with 100 couples equals a quick $1,000.

As for timing our auction, is one season better than another?

Typically fall is best, as many are looking for Christmas gifts and the kids are back in school.

Some auctions are pretty elaborate—I recall attending one that traded on a Mardi Gras theme. Is a theme necessary? And what's your experience with the best kind of themes.

The event needs to be fun or people won't come, so most auctions are based on themes. You can go tropical, for example "Hawaiian Luau," an auction featuring leis, hula skirts, Hawaiian music; or perhaps choose a movie theme like Clash of the Titans, featuring ancient Rome, togas, sandals, wine; or highlight a decade, the 50s for instance, with poodle skirts, bobby socks, and greasers.

Can we use a local luminary or should we hire a professional auctioneer?

It's something for your committee to debate. A local celebrity can be a lot of fun and attract a good crowd. At the same time, you can often maximize your revenues with pro. If you use a professional auctioneer, vet them well and ask the right questions: "How many have you done before?" "How many items can you auction off in half an hour?" "What advice would you provide us?" "What good ideas do you have?" "Do you supply the auction software?" and "Can you provide references?"

Nearly every event has glitches. What's the thorniest one with auctions?

The process of closeout is the most fraught with danger. At the end of the night, people want to leave. You need to check them out as quickly as possible. Using professional software, an experienced auctioneer, and letting people check out early if they need to (and reading my book, of course) are the best ways to mitigate what I consider to be the biggest potential glitch.

Tell me some of the most tantalizing items you've ever seen auctioned off?

The most profitable and interesting item was a handmade quilt. But this was a different kind of quilt. It was made from T-shirts—high school student activity T-shirts such as football, cheerleading, drama, and debate. I watched in amazement as two bidders went at it for 15 minutes. The crowd was silent and in awe. The quilt finally went to the high bidder for more than $20,000. Then, he turned around and donated it back to the school to display over a rocking chair in the trophy case.

And some of the clunker items?

Gift certificates. Of course they're free money so you'll want to accept them. But as an auction item you'll seldom get face value for a gift certificate. Your big money will come from gifts with high intrinsic value, things provided by someone the organization respects which are basically fun. Car washes by the principal and her staff, dinner hosted by the clergy, fishing trips on the mayor's boat, and such.

© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Robert Baird, as an organizer, volunteer, and board member, has been intimately involved with fundraising charity auctions for the past three decades.


Anatomy of a Charity Auction

Adapted from Everything You Need to Know to Raise Money (and Have Fun) with a Charity Auction