The Year Before The Auction – Location & Theme

Posted in Running A Non-profit Auction at 7:13 am

There are several elements that must be covered with any fund-raising event but several specific items must be kept in mind to ensure a good auction. (Most of my comments are directed at preparing for silent auctions since one often takes the best of the silent to offer in a live auction.)

Auction Location

The ideal silent auction venue will have a spacious room that will hold enough tables to display items and bid sheets.

How many tables? First determine how many items you’re likely to get – past contribution levels are the best guide. In a school you can get as many as one item for every 2 families. (They’ll be combined – 150 is a good maximum number of items to permit.) A small charity can figure on 40-60 items. Each item will need a bidsheet. They will need to be arranged along the edge of the tables – using 12” per item will give enough room for people to get in to bid in a popular section and allow last minute additions if necessary.

If you expect to have 60 items think of getting ten 6’ tables if they will be against the walls or five 6’ tables if they will have traffic on both sides. (Be careful with rectangular tables that are not against a wall. By the time you put bid sheets on each side there is not a lot of room left to display items. This is fine if everyone is giving gift certificates – a couple of picture frames illustrating the items would fit. Baskets might not. Round tables hold a little less – I would use three 10’ tables for 60 items.

There must be room at some areas for a significant crowd to watch/bid. If hot items are grouped (sports items/ teacher- or children-created items) people will crowd to watch the competition. If the crowd stops the bidders getting through, you have a problem.

Sound system – a clear sound system that can be heard announcing the end of the auction will create the excitement and tension that leads to abandoned bidding on an item or two and will minimize people bidding after the item has closed. (A nightmare worth significant effort to prevent occurring.)

Lighting over the tables should be good. If you have dark corners people bid less. Often you have little control over this – just don’t put the items you expect to go for the most in the darkest areas.

Look at expected traffic patterns. Will a bar pull people to the far tables? They might go looking for a hot table, but bidders get easily distracted by friends at an event and don’t always go looking to make bids.

Command Center – Ideally the people collecting and processing the bids will have a separate room very close to the auction for their operations center. If there is no room available, part of the room with outlets should be screened off.

Room Availability – How long before the event will a room be available? With phenomenal planning and execution on everyone’s part, I once set up an auction of 140 items in 2 hours but the volunteers were really tired by the end of the event. The night before is definitely preferable.


Any fundraiser should have a clearly articulated destination for the funds. Charity X’s or School Y’s general fund doesn’t really resonate with potential donors. Building a specific facility or teacher benefits result in more generous donations.

In addition, specifying the theme of the event helps the Auction Coordinator develop donations and a look that supports the theme.


The more people you can involve in all phases of the event the better your donations. Get the chairs in place as soon as you know the location. Catalogs presented as journals can contribute a significant amount to an event – especially if they’re done as keepsakes (in a school – include pictures of each class and encourage pictures of children in the ads) and are done on a regular basis. I’ve found the following structure gets lots of people involved without killing anyone:

Event Chair(s) – responsible for the overall event, sets theme, location, overall look, menu, activities. Responsible for keeping the sub chairs on track.

Auction Coordinator – reports to the Chair but handles the auction end of things. May be one of the co-chairs of the event.

Item Procurer Chair – the person with connections. In addition to asking the community for items, this person will put together a committee to develop more exciting, larger donations. (The event chairs can be expected to come up with a couple of large donations also.) This person will also be responsible for making sure all items arrive before the auction.

Catalog/Journal Production – Produces the book that describes the items to be sold. This can be anything from something produced on the school copy machine to a glossy color book with ads. This person gets the raw ads from the Journal ad manager and the item descriptions from the Item administrator and turns them into a catalog for the event. They may work with a graphic designer and a printer. (being a graphiic designer is a definite plus.)

Journal Ad Manager – the person who collects the ads and solicits local businesses to support your event. This person makes sure all ad materials are in hand and gets them to the Journal Production person.

Item Administration
This person manages the committee that tracks and handles the items from initial arrival, gets them combined and described for the catalog and bid sheets, produces gift certificates generated by the organization, makes sure that all items are in hand and in the correct locations for the event, processes the bids, gets the items to the buyers and generates the thank you notes. A geeky process person is required.

Item Set up – the person who gets items ready for presentation at the auction. They collect props to illustrate items – pictures of teachers, sports paraphernalia to illustrate sports tickets. Their committee wraps baskets and create a beautiful look for the auction room. (Attractive presentation contributes a lot to the bottom line.) This is a great committee to get a large number of volunteers with limited time involved so that they get a chance to see the items they will be bidding on later. It therefore is best to have a very artistic, social person.

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