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What to Keep in Mind When Considering a Charity Auction

This article originally appeared on Auctionpay.

Organizations from local schools to national nonprofits are utilizing auctions to raise needed funds and fill the gap left by shrinking budgets and dwindling funding sources.

Is an auction right for your organization? Here are some things to consider:


While auctions can raise literally thousands of dollars in just a few hours, there are a variety of costs associated with running an event. Expenses can include auction invitations and catalog publication, food, beverages, flowers, venue, entertainment, computer management systems, rental equipment, etc. Don't skimp on lighting, sound system, or a good auctioneer, all of which can make or break an auction. And don't overlook simple things like table decorations, which people love to take home.

To get a handle on your budget, outline auction goals and estimate all preparation and associated costs. Good numbers to keep in mind when budgeting are that 70 percent of revenue comes from the live auction portion of the evening (85 percent of the items' stated value is received by the charity), 20 percent from the silent auction (50 percent of the stated value is made), and 10 percent from "fund-a-cause" (of which 100 percent benefits the charity). While many things can be donated, there will still be hard costs involved. Utilize ticket sales and sponsorships to cover these costs. By planning ahead, you can accurately determine how much you'll need to raise through auction revenue to reach your goal.


Planning should start 11 months ahead to make sure there's enough time to secure a venue, recruit volunteers, procure items, and organize and publicize the event. In addition to recruiting an auction chair and co-chair, it's a good idea to form committees of volunteers to oversee such areas of responsibility as procurement, silent auction, live auction, decorations/set up, entertainment, invitations, volunteer coordinator, publicity, registration, check out, item pick up, and clean up.


Procurement is perhaps the most important—the success of an auction depends on the value and demand for items up for bid. The best lots are items, experiences, and activities that are not easily purchased, which have greater value and will encourage people to attend the event. When determining procurement items, think about the make-up of prospective attendees, their likes/interests, and a realistic budget range for bidders. School auction? Put kids' artwork or class projects, the latest computer or entertainment systems, a family ski trip, or vacation to Disneyland up for bid. Be creative with your lots! You'd be surprised at the interest in a group father/son baseball outing, or a mothers-only social gathering hosted by a well-liked parent. Assign committee members specific categories to target, such as restaurants, hotels, and entertainment. Find out who knows whom, and leverage those relationships.

Also, evaluate how an auction fits in with your other fundraising activities. Will your donors be receptive? Are there new audiences you are trying to reach? How can you make your auction different from others in your market? What time frame is best for holding it when competition is minimal? Consider talking with top donors and other key influencers to gauge their interest in an auction and what would make them attend.


Determine whether you or a dedicated staff member have the time and energy to plan an auction and coordinate with the auction chair, co-chair, and committee members. You'll also need a team of volunteers on-site to support the event. The night of the event, a good rule of thumb is to plan one volunteer for about every 10 guests. For example, a 250-person event would have six volunteers at registration, four spotters during the live auction, six at check out/item pick up, nine at set up and tear down, etc. Be up front with your staff and volunteers on the responsibilities and time commitment involved from them to ensure a successful event.

Event Management Software

Additionally, many larger organizations utilize event management software to electronically manage auction event planning and processes from procurement to bid tracking. New payment processing technology helps streamline auction check-in, virtually eliminate end-of-evening cashier lines, speed fund transfer, and lower credit-card processing expenses for nonprofits, meaning more funds directly benefit the organization.


Finally, talk with people at organizations similar to yours who have run successful auctions to gather tips on do's and don'ts. Several companies offer charity auction seminars that offer valuable insight on planning a successful charity auction.

Auctions can be fun social gatherings and great community-building events. If planned and executed well, donors go away feeling positive about your cause and often turn into long-term supporters. Guests admittedly enjoy auctions because they actually receive something tangible in return for their donation. Sponsors appreciate the exposure, and the event can be a great team-building activity for your staff, volunteers, and supporters.

© 2003, Auctionpay

Auctionpay streamlines benefit events and on-line fundraising for nonprofits. Auctionpay works with nonprofits to create a better experience at charity auctions and other fundraising events by automating and improving key processes before, during, and after events. Its services include on-line registration prior to the event, on-site payment processing and improved guest experience the day of the event, and on-line donations post-event. Auctionpay serves more than 2,000 clients in all 50 states and is headquartered near Portland, Ore., with offices in Atlanta, Ga., New York, Seattle, and San Diego. For more information, call (800) 276-5992 or visit
Topics: Charitable Giving