We recently came across Sherry Truhlar of Red Apple Auctions. Her website has some amazing advice and information about auctions–www.redappleauctions.com. We were especially drawn to a blog she wrote back in 2011 entitled:
A lot of non-profits have avoided silent auctions because they have not been able to make them successful in the past AND because putting one together can be a lot of work. At Bidr, we’re all about making the process easier and providing you with options and tactics that will increase your auction revenues. Sherry provides some great insight:
This post is for you if you’re one of the thousands of arts organizations holding a fundraising gala with a silent auction component.
Statistics show that you’re failing miserably.
National averages of silent auctions show a 50%-60% return. That means for every $100 item on the table, you’re selling it for $50 to $60. Sooooo sad.
And once we figure in the costs to produce the auction – hours spent procuring goods, preparing displays, buying services – your returns fall further.
So should you bag the idea?
For organizations already holding a silent auction, continuing to offer it is likely in your best interest. Here’s why.
1. With targeted changes, you can improve returns.
An audit of our clients found that when returns are average, it’s most often due to poor marketing. Simple changes can have a profound effect.
For instance, one of our clients raised an additional $44 per item once we employed aggressive onsite marketing tactics. With 82 silent items, they earned an additional $3600!
2. Silent auctions are appreciated during lean economic years.
Most of our clients run galas that include a silent auction, live auction, and a cash appeal. Your event may be similar. If so, remember your delineation of bidders.
Top bidders compete in the live auction. Modest bidders shop in the silent for “deals.” And everyone contributes to the cash appeal.
We’ve observed that if you cancel the silent auction, you won’t gain all the money back in the appeal. Why is this? I suspect it has to do with “stuff.” A cash gift makes the donor feel good, but he’s not going home with anything.
In contrast, a silent auction purchase allows a guest to go home with something. It’s more satisfying, especially in a poor economy when some seek bargains. The good news is that this can be a win-win. If you grow returns from 50% to 70%, your guests will still appreciate a 30% discount. You make more money; they still get “a deal.”
3. Silent auctions can train volunteers into “bigger” asks
Most auction acquisition committees are run by tenacious women who don’t mind asking for gifts in-kind, but they often aren’t interested in asking for a cash gift. Consider the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Women’s Committee.
Once unleashed to procure items, these women do a remarkable job acquiring quality items. Sometimes the silent auction tips at 350+ packages! These ladies bring in thousands of dollars through in-kind donations. But if these women were each asked to each secure a $5,000 or $10,000 sponsorship, you’d see a fast decline in participation. Although some secure thousands of dollars in items, they aren’t necessarily comfortable asking for cash.
A volunteer once told me, “I don’t mind asking people for items because I shop at that store, but I don’t want to sell them a sponsorship!” The difference is subtle.
In her mind, asking her favorite chef to donate a dinner wasn’t “selling.” She spends money at his restaurant already, so she was comfortable asking him to return the favor with a donation. But if she’d been asked to approach him about a sponsorship, that was selling. She didn’t want to sell.
Before abandoning your silent auction, consider that many of your volunteers might only want to ask for in-kind donations. Without training, they aren’t psychologically ready to solicit cash.
My final piece of advice is to know that your silent auction can improve with adjustments. Keep at it, but start tweaking.