Running A Great Auction

Posted in Running A Non-profit Auction at 9:38 am

I love auctions for schools, churches and charities. (I’ve run over 20 of them for various schools and charities.) They are the most painless way of supporting your favorite cause. Volunteers get to have guilt-free coffee klatches with their friends (“I don’t have time to clean my house – I’m working on the auction.”) A well-run auction will maximize bids, minimize extra volunteer work and result in everyone feeling good throughout the event.  This series will cover the considerations and mechanics of running a good auction.

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Auctions are wonderful fundraisers – they just require man-weeks to man-months of volunteer time. (Quite often the most active volunteers are those that command a very respectable consulting fee. Do not make the mistake of calculating the worth of the volunteer time put into the auction – just signing over their paycheck for the time would probably dwarf any amount you could hope to raise, but don’t worry about it – no one ever signs over their whole paycheck.)

If you want to have an auction, the better you understand the dynamics and plan it for your community the more you will raise. Nothing breeds more subtle resentment amongst volunteers than trivializing their contribution by failing to sell items, selling items for less than the volunteers themselves would have paid or failing to collect money. Annoying volunteers is really bad – either they are your biggest donors or they talk to your biggest donors. With some planning eveyone will have a happy, profitable experience.

To jump forward to a specific:

Failing to sell items can cast a pall over an entire event. If you get a dealership to donate a car & you push it as your premier item and no one bids, everyone thinks the event failed even if it raised a record amount on other sales.

At one series of auctions a staff member had her relatives donate vacation homes several years running. The first year Board members bought the homes well above market value, wishing to support the staff person in getting great items for the auction.

The next year each family donated the homes again, specifying an off-season time because it really had been inconvenient giving up their summer home for part of the summer and stating a value equal to the highest house rental in the neighborhood during the peak season. The staff member uncritically listed starting bids at a couple of hundred less than the stated value and was shocked when nothing sold at the auction.

The following year we researched the value of nearby homes for the period being offered and started the bids at 75% of that value. The bidders thought they were getting a good value and actually bid some of the homes slightly above the market value of the homes in the area.

While it was less than the bid of Board members during the first year, it was the optimum result for the item – donors weren’t strained by giving the homes, buyers didn’t feel ripped off when they checked the price later (& they do because they want to figure our what portion of the purchase price is tax-deductible) and volunteers were happy because the work they put into presenting the item paid off in a donation to the charity.

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