How to Run a Successful Silent Auction (Part II)

by The Fundraising Authority

In the first part of this article, we discussed how to set up your silent auction, solicit items to auction off, and manage and track your auction donations.  In this second (and final) part of the article, we’re going to discuss how to run the auction smoothly, as well as how to maximize revenue at the event.

Running Your Auction (Without Getting a Headache)

Depending on the size of your silent auction, you may have anywhere from 10 to 300 items up for bid.  This can create quite a headache during your event.  In order to make sure the event goes smoothly, follow these five tips:

1.   Have Enough Volunteers – You’ll need a good number of volunteers (or paid staff) to run your event, especially if you have a lot of items up for bid.  Recruit them early and train them well.

2.   Appoint Auction Monitors – Task at least two of your volunteers with being “Auction Monitors.”  These people are responsible for keeping an eye on the items during the event to make sure people are observing the minimum bid, answer questions about items, and collect the bid sheets when the auction ends.

3.  Use Clipboards and a Lot of Pens – Sure, you can just put your bidsheets on the table and scatter some pens around, but if you really want to run a professional auction, put each bid sheet on a cheap clip board (these can be purchased at your local dollar store) and make sure each and every item has its own pen.  Guests will bid more if you make it each for them.

4.  Group Items by Category – If you’ve got a large auction, group your items by category to make it easy for your guest s to navigate your event.  Have a section for restaurant gift certificates, one for entertainment, one for sports tickets, etc.

5.  Close Out Your Bidding by Section – As you end bidding on your auction, close the bidding by section.  Start with the section with the lowest average priced items, and move up in value as you go.  For example, you might announce that the restaurant gift certificate section will be closing in 5 minutes, then close it out, then announce that sports tickets will be closing in 5 minutes, then close it out, then announce that your high-end section will be closing in 5 minutes, then close it out.

Auction Checkout 101

Next to tracking your silent auction donations before the event, the biggest headache you will have in running a large silent auction is the auction checkout.  Be sure you have a procedure in place before the event, and either print up signs with the check out procedure that you can display at the event, or have the emcee announce the procedure to the crowd (or both).

One checkout procedure that I have found effective for large auctions is:

  • Have auction winners collect the bidsheets for the items they won off of the tables, and bring them to the check out area.
  • Set up your checkout area with multiple lines: several for credit cards, and one for cash and check only.  If you have a particularly large auction, consider using stanchions or velvet rope to separate the lines.
  • When winners come up with their bidsheets, have them pay, then separate the two or three part carbonless bidsheets that you used.  Mark their copy PAID, and keep your copy in a folder.
  • Winners may then take their  copy, marked PAID, to an auction runner (one of your volunteers) who collects the items for the winner.  If the person won a gift card or sports / entertainment tickets, they can take their PAID bidsheet / receipt to the Giftcard & Ticket Table, where your volunteers have all of the cards and tickets filed by item number.

Of course, no silent auction checkout procedure is perfect, and there are bound to be some problems at checkout.  Train your staff and volunteers to handle these with grace, and appoint a “Problem Solver” to figure out tricky issues at checkout.

Maximizing Your Silent Auction Revenue

Ok, now you know how to run a successful and efficient silent auction event — but how do you maximize the fundraising revenue from these events?  Follow these tips:

1.   Take Credit Cards – Taking credit cards is a must for a large silent auction.  Without this feature, your revenue will be severely cut.

2.   Pre-Publicize the Auction Items – Preview interesting silent auction items on your website, on your event invitations, and in your event communications.  You may even want to consider taking bids on some items online, with the caveat that online bidding ends at noon on the day of the event, and bidding at the actual event will start just above the highest online bid.

3.  Motivate People at the Event – Your emcee should constantly be working the room, encouraging people to bid, and alerting them to items that are still real bargains.

4.  Offer Another Opportunity – Many people will come to your event ready to spend money on some auction items, but will walk away empty handed because they were outbid.  Give them a chance to spend that money on your cause – set up a table that allows them to sponsor a service you provide, pay for items your organization needs, or simply make a donation in lieu of buying an auction item.

More information on running successful silent auctions can be found here.


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Joe Garecht May 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Dawn –

I like to include the retail value for several reasons. First, if you are using carbon-less copy paper bidsheets and giving the bidder one copy as a receipt, the only way for them to know if they made a tax-deductible donation is to know whether or not they bid over the market value.

Second, I have found that without the market value listed, people often UNDER value the items in a silent auction. For example, you may have a gift basket with the retail value of $100, but people will l0ok at it and say, “eh, that’s probably worth $50.” And then they will stop bidding at $50 or $60.

People tend to OVER value big items like jewelry and vacations, but UNDER value everything else…


Valerie May 12, 2013 at 5:48 am

Hi, Joe! I’ll be co-chair of a major fundraising event next year that includes a silent and live auction component. These auctions have in the past several years always included some “consignment” items — usually sports memorabilia valued between $50 and $500 — that the previous years’ organizers have rationalized will help make the auction more attractive to male attendees, and that if an item doesn’t sell the company simply takes it back, so there’s no risk. I strongly suspect these consignment items are sucking donor dollars from the event — that is, that many bidders show up with some rough ‘budget’ in mind, even if it’s a subconscious one, and that once they’ve spent that budget they stop bidding. So that a consignment item that goes for $400 (but only raises $50 because we owe the sports memorabilia company $350) has actually cost our charity that $350 in donations because that bidder would have likely spent that money on other items if they hadn’t already spent $400 of their ‘budgeted’ amount.

I’m wondering whether we should only accept consignment items that are for extremely exciting budget-blowers — travel, for instance — that are MUCH more valuable than any of our other auction items.

What is your feeling on this?

Thanks for any help!


Joe Garecht May 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Hi Val,

Great question. I have successfully used consignment items in the past, but only with a few caveats…

First, the consignment items have to be items we can’t otherwise get donated and that appeal to a segment of our bidders that aren’t turned on by much of the rest of the auction. Two good examples would be the sports memorabilia items you mentioned in your comment, and super high end luxury items.

Second, we have to have enough other items so that the consignment items are “add ons” not the main attraction. So, if I have an auction with 100 items, I may throw in 4-5 consignment items to appeal to high end bidders, sports fanatics, etc., but wouldn’t add 20 consignment items.


Patricia January 24, 2014 at 11:42 am

Hi Joe,
Last year I was “thrown in” last minute to run a silent auction at a fundraising golf tournament. I was responsible for the creation of the bid sheets, organizing items prior to and at the event, and overseeing the collection of bid sheets and disbursement of items. Having never run a silent auction before, I was rather out of my element. Your tips will certainly serve as a guide for me as I tackle this year’s auction!
My question for you is: Do you see any advantage to staggering the bid-closing time for items? Would this help get more dollars on later closing items, from donors who missed out on the earlier items? Or would this just cause confusion/frustration to bidders and complicate things for the people accepting payment?
Thank you for any insight you have into this.

Joe Garecht January 26, 2014 at 12:10 am

Hi Patricia,

Thanks for your question. Yes! I definitely recommend staggering the closing time for different groups of items. As I note in our Silent Auction Handbook, the best practice, if you are running an event with at least a couple of dozen items or more, is to group the items into categories (entertainment, sports, gift cards, etc.) and then close each group at a different time. It encourages more bidding and higher bids.


Brittany February 20, 2014 at 11:27 am

What is your benchmark of how much money is raised in comparison with the auction items’ retail value? Now that our event is over, I’m trying to figure out if doing a silent auction was really “worth it.”

Joe Garecht February 21, 2014 at 10:21 am


It depends on the number of guests you have, the number of items you are offering, and what types of items you are offering. Generally, silent auction items sell for 50%-100% of retail value, with gift cards going for closer to 100% of their face value.


TJM April 9, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Hi Joe,

I just found this website and I can’t tell you how thankful I am. I am running a gala fundraiser for a foundation that has not had one in decades. Could you let me know how I can get set up to take credit cards?

Thank you!

Joe Garecht April 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Thanks for your question. There are lots of different providers who can help you take credit cards at your event. Start by checking with the bank where you deposit your funds to see if they have an option. If you want to accept credit cards for your event online, but don’t need to swipe cards at the actual event you can look at Network for Good (full disclosure: they are a Fundraising Authority sponsor). If you want to be able to swipe cards at the event itself, look at DoJiggy (again, a Fundraising Authority sponsor) Square and PayPal.

Katie August 28, 2014 at 7:51 pm

What’s the best practice for registering people for bidding at your event? Lately people reluctant to register their contact information and credit card upon entering the event and prior to their bidding. It also clogs up the event entrance. However, its hard to track down people after the event to get their credit card info.

Joe Garecht August 29, 2014 at 11:30 pm


Thanks for your question. Honestly, I have found the best policy for silent auctions to be letting people bid using their name and phone number, and then collecting payment after the auction closes by setting up the auction check out tables right by the exit from the main event room, and making sure to have lots of checkout tables, as well as runners to grab items, plus a few volunteers to direct people who are leaving to check out and collect their items.

For live auctions, if you don’t have people pre-register, you can simply have a few staff members with clipboards that go immediately to the live auction winner for each item to quietly collect payment immediately after the winning bid is placed, even while the live auction continues for other items.


Sue October 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Hi Joe,

I have been asked to organize an annual silent auction for a non-profit organization and part of that process is to solicit donations from our membership. Many donations include experiences such as hosted lunches, dinners, or sail trips. Some of the sail trips have suggested value amounts of $600-800, but the historical high bid amounts are half this. Some donors suggest it is not worth their time and money to donate items that go so far below their value and bad feelings are generated. HERE’S THE QUESTION: Is it “proper” to pull silent auction items off the table if the bid amounts are below the stated minimum bid? I am inclined to say ‘yes’ if the rules of the game are clearly laid out to donors and bidders, but have more often seen items ‘sold’ even if minimum bid amounts are not reached.

Joe Garecht October 30, 2014 at 4:35 pm


Thanks for your question. I think that if you have a minimum bid clearly marked on your bid sheets, you should stick with it… and if it is not met, the item doesn’t sell. If people are actually entering bids on your sheets that are lower than the minimum bid, then it is highly likely the minimum bid is not listed clearly enough or seems like a suggestion (does it say “Suggested Minimum Bid” or anything like that?) Make your minimum bids clear by actually printing in the minimum bid as the first bid on your bid sheet, and let someone fill in their name as the bidder.

Another question is – do you have too many of these items that aren’t selling? If you have lots of, for example, sail trips in the $600-800 range, suggest to the donors of many of them that you already have hit your limit on sail trips, and suggest they offer something else. Or you could pair the trip up with something else, like a hotel room and dinner gift certificate, to make one of the sail trips a “weekend away.”

Hope this helps.


Sue October 30, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Thank you Joe—We will be careful to highlight the minimum bid amount–although I think that has been done in the past. Perhaps past acceptance of a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” low bid created this issue and we need to be more vigilant. Minimum bid means minimum bid!

Lori January 21, 2016 at 2:13 pm

Just wondering what your thoughts are on separating larger valued items from lower valued items on a silent auction. Pros and Cons??
We have in the past separated items that are between $1 – $1999 and $2000 – $4999. They higher priced items would go on a separate table that we called “super silent”. We also have a live auction component to our event with auction items valued over $5000.
I have found that our lower valued items yield 80-90% of value whereas our super silent only yields 56%.
I am aware of course of the value difference but am wondering what your thoughts would be on this.

Joe Garecht January 21, 2016 at 2:55 pm

Hi Lori!

Honestly, your best bet would be to test this for your organization and audience. For example, this coming year, if you have 10 “super” silent items, why not put two or three in the regular auction area, and see if they do better? That way you will know for sure, since every audience and organization is different. That being said, I normally do like grouping higher-end items together at a special table, and have found great success with it.

One thing to keep in mind is that you may not be comparing apples to apples if you are looking at “% of value” as your yardstick. At most silent auctions, lower dollar items are normally gift cards, sports tickets, gift baskets, etc. — things where it is easy to figure out a value, and where everyone agrees on the value. I.e. if you offer a $200 restaurant gift card, everyone knows that the value is $200. That’s why sometimes you’ll get $205 or $210 bid for the item… everyone knows it is worth $200, so they are chipping in an extra donation of $5 or $10, giving you 105% of value. When it comes to higher-dollar items, though, value often gets tricky. If someone donates a week at their vacation home, and says that they normally rent it out for $3000 per week, well, the value just isn’t as clear and not everyone will agree that a week in Cape May at a 4 bedroom house is worth that much… so you’ll get bids in the $1500, $2000, etc. range. These types of items and experiences are just harder to value.

Hope this helps!


Judy February 9, 2016 at 9:00 pm

How do we choose a Good website to use? I have numerous items, $25-$100. Our silent auction will be coupled with bowling, both held at a bowling alley. This is our first event and no one has done one before.

Joe Garecht February 11, 2016 at 3:29 pm


There are lots of options out there for silent auction software… but remember that your online silent auction is an add-on to your offline auction at the actual bowling alley event. Lots of silent auction vendors would disagree with me, but if this is your first time running a silent auction event for your organization, I would suggest NOT using an online component. Get one auction under your belt… the offline work is enough for the first year. Then, once your organization has the hang of it, add the online component for year #2.

Let me know if you have any other questions.


Trudy Glassett January 21, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Joe, how do we set the minimum bid on a silent auction item? Gift basket valued at $50, for example?

Thank you for your input.

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