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Procurement for Auction Events: My Thoughts and Experience

Many nonprofit organizations, if not most, have fundraising events that have an auction included.  If you read my first blog, “If It is Spring, It must be Event Season”, you will note how many were held on a single day.  They are a popular way to bring in money for your organization, and they are an opportunity to share your mission and programs with new donors.  They are also time consuming, expensive, and take a lot of effort to pull them off successfully.  If your organization is going to have an auction element as part of its event, let me share some guidance that I hope will make it more successful.

In my experience serving several nonprofits and schools, auctions will generally consist of a silent auction before the big dinner, where guests will browse and place bids on items for a limited amount of time while socializing over glasses of wine, beer, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and a live auction held after the dinner is served which offers high income items, like travel, expensive wine collections, and art.

Over the years, I have learned that what sells best at a charity auction are well packaged smaller combinations, celebrity items, unique opportunities, and travel.  However, it is important to know what kind of guests you will have attending your function to succeed.

When procuring for the auction, plan ahead and start early.  Those involved should make a list of all the people in their network that can help them, including family, friends,  associates, and businesses they use often. Obtain items or services that are unique, or package smaller items to make the offering more valuable.  Combine gift certificates with meals at restaurants in the same vicinity and make a shopping spree, or concert tickets with a dinner for two and a hotel room for an evening on the town.  When I served on the Board for a social service agency back in the late 90’s, I worked for the now defunct Hollywood Entertainment.  I obtained a donation of a Marilyn Monroe marketing piece used in the video stores, combined it with a couple of bottles of wine and video rental gift certificates, and packaged the offering as “Drinks with Marilyn”.  It was surprisingly popular and created a bidding frenzy with a few of the guests, bringing in a good deal of money for the organization.  Another year, my daughter, a talented budding artist, hand-painted a collection of flower pots, and because the collection was unique, it also was a very popular offering with the guests who attended.   

Celebrity is also a big seller for auction items.  Portland is filled with actors, authors, business and community leaders, musicians and other celebrities, and many of them may support your cause.  If you are connected to people like that in one way or another, see if they will consider doing something they enjoy doing for a short period of time with an auction guest who pays for the opportunity.  Consider a lunch at a local restaurant or conversation over coffee or drinks at their favorite diner or bar, a simple hike or bike ride in a local park, or even a round of golf.  It doesn’t have to cost them anything, and for a short time, your auction guest will have the opportunity to talk to someone famous.  If you have clothing with your logo on it, have the celebrity wear the item, get photographed wearing it, and have them sign it.  If you can’t arrange personal time, autographed CDs, DVDs, or books are also popular.  I am blessed to be connected to a number of people in the entertainment field.  I remember with great pleasure surprising the late Les Sarnoff, the local radio host, at an event by putting together a package provided by Wilco when my friend, Leroy Bach was a member of the band.  I have also had items donated by other bands and TV shows that I was connected with that were also high income items.

Travel opportunities are also big ticket items for charity events.  Board members and their connections will often have vacation homes on the Coast, in the Cascades, or even abroad that they will donate for auctions.  The key is to not have too many similar offerings.  At some auction events, I have seen four or five vacation homes at the Oregon Coast offered, and because of the law of supply and demand, they ended up being sold for less than they actually could have brought in.  In cases like that, I suggest, with your donor’s permission, contacting an organization that has a similar mission that might be willing to trade a vacation home in their location.  This idea would be particularly effective for an organization that is part of larger group, like a national organization with chapters in other states.  If you have a business sponsor that has a travel department, see if you can persuade them to provide the airline tickets.  If the buyer of the travel opportunity has to pay for the transportation to get there, the package will bring in less income for the organization.

One last thought.  Procure items that are necessary for your event when you can.  There are many businesses that can be generous with their products that you will use during the event.  I was lucky that I have friends in the brewing and winery businesses that donated their products for events I was involved with, and the money the organizations saved helped keep the costs down, and increased the net income.  These donations also created long standing relationships with the businesses that continue to this day and have enriched the organizations I have served.

If your organization is going to have an auction event, I wish you the best.  I hope this advice brings you greater success.

Richard Freedlund, the author, has been involved with nonprofits for over a dozen years in several capacities. He currently serves on the Board of CNRG and is the owner/proprietor of Greater Good Fundraising, a business catering to the needs of small nonprofits and public schools. His opinions are his own and come from his experience, knowledge, and training in development. They do not represent the collective opinions of CNRG board members and volunteers. He welcomes responses to his blog at [email protected].