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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.

Eight-Factors to-Consider-Before-Planning-Your-Charity-Auction_Robert-Baird.jpgRobert 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.


Topics: Fundraising