4 things we learned about silent auctions from a hit ABC sitcom

With spring fundraising season upon us, many nonprofits are hustling to procure quality items for their charity auctions. How can you generate higher bids on every item and make the silent auction worthwhile?

In popular ABC sitcom Last Man Standing, funny guy Tim Allen plays Mike Baxter, a marketing director for sporting goods retailer Outdoor Man. His wife, Vanessa, is a revered geologist doubling as leader of the PTA.

See below as Vanessa and Mike attend a fundraiser for the school that includes a silent auction – and one hilarious pen-and-paper bidding war. Then see if you can spot the 4 best practices we found in the clip, plus get free downloads for your next auction (like customizable bid sheet templates).

(Source: Last Man Standing, ABC Television Network)

Silent Strategy #1: No Junk

Silent auction strategy #1 - No Junk“This is an auction – it’s not a landfill.”

It can be tempting to offer every item donated to your event and hope someone will end up buying it. You might wonder what’s the harm – isn’t it smart to bump up participation by providing items at different price points?

That’s true, but putting out items that aren’t valuable (think: a semi-used DVD set of Designing Women) will end up costing your nonprofit much more than you might potentially make.

For one thing, successful silent auctions rely on your ability to create a luxury shopping experience for bidders – and that means offering only items valuable enough to warrant those high bids you seek.


More importantly, cheap items lower the perceived value of every auction item. Because the silent auction sets the tone for the whole event, so bargain-basement bids in the silent auction can affect how high bidders are willing to go in the live auction.

company-ball-caps-branded-merchandise.png“Avoid placing any junk on the silent auction tables: no embroidered ball caps from the local tire shop, no logo coffee mugs,” asserts benefit auctioneer Danny Hooper.

What should you do if a donor wants to donate small or unpopular items to your event? As tactfully and politely as you can, suggest a straight cash donation instead, Hooper advises.

Then, after the event, see which items didn’t get any bids. Having duds isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it likely means you’ve kept donors interested by offering brand-new auction items, and you never know what will be a hit and what will be a miss.

Simply make a note in your auction binder not to put that item out again next year.

Silent Strategy #2: Appeal to different demographics

Silent auction strategy #2: Appeal to different demographics“The only thing I like about this basket, is the basket.”

Men and women can have very different taste when it comes to auction items.

Since many fundraising events appeal to couples, you can use this principle to your advantage by making sure your auction is peppered with fun items that either pamper the buyer or make great gifts for a significant other.

For gals

Silent auction strategy #2: Appeal to different demographics - women

Women tend to be a little more active in the silent auction, so you want to stock tables with items that allow bidders to indulge, unwind and get pampered. They’ll be willing to spend top dollar knowing the funds go to a good cause – especially if the experience can be shared with girlfriends or loved ones.

Consider shopping experiences (think your donors would be interested in a Saks Fifth Avenue Shopping Spree in New York City?), an in-home culinary demonstration, spa and massage certificates and more.

For guys

Silent auction strategy #2: Appeal to different demographics - men

Men are generally known to be more impulsive when it comes to spending – which is great news for your bottom line.

Bucket-list sports games and tournaments (like a weekend at spring training, a round of golf or even a trip to the NCAA Final Four Championship), equipment (like fishing tackle) and memorabilia will generate plenty of bidding competition. Other items that sell well include cigars and craft beer.

Keep in mind men and women are not the only smart segments to target. Your auction offerings might have items that appeal to parents, business professionals, foodies, music lovers, you name it.

Understanding who’s in your audience and procuring items with the widest appeal will maximize your returns on the silent auction.

To get the ball rolling, we’ve prepared a list of over 400 unique auction item ideas to download for free:


Silent Strategy #3: Bundle lesser-value items

Silent auction strategy #3: Bundle lesser-value items“It’s a whole collection: Scarface, fake money, a little machine gun, cigars. Now THIS is worth something.”

There’s a reason baskets are a silent auction go-to for organizations big and small.

The contents of a basket are relatively easy to get donated and offer a convenient way to bundle smaller items into one wonderful package that’s “greater than the sum of its parts” in value.

When creating baskets, be sure to keep the theme focused and include a wide range of categories in your basket selection. For more ideas and best practices on bundling creative baskets, see:


Silent Strategy #4: Inspire competitive bidding

Silent auction strategy #4: Inspire competitive bidding

The macho bidding war between two dads over a Scarface basket may seem preposterous, but it’s the ideal scenario for your cause.

Friendly competition and big egos go a long way to powering your auction results.

While it’s more typical to see bidding wars in the live, they can certainly happen in the silent.

Along with making sure your items are valuable enough to generate bidding wars, consider including “Buy Now” prices on every item. People who don’t want to bid (say, guests who have to leave early or know an item would be the perfect anniversary gift) will pay anywhere from 100 to 150 percent of retail value to ensure they win the item.

Click below to download free professional, customizable bid sheet templates that include the Buy Now option.


And one final tip…

Don't forget the silent auction pens (or pencils!)Don’t forget to put out plenty of pens in case things get heated on the auction floor!