Silent auction luxury retailer.jpg

Silent auctions are a critical part of many fundraising events‘ success, bringing in about a third of the revenue at a typical gala or dinner event.

As your organization’s one-night-only storefront, you have just 3 or so hours to make money. Everything must go! So you want to take advantage of all your merchandise.

Today we’ll look at 6 of the most commonly asked questions on procuring silent auction items that maximize revenue, including:

  1. How do we revive an auction that’s gone downhill?
  2. How do we encourage more spending during the event?
  3. What are the best-selling, highest-profit silent auction items?
  4. How do we politely turn down unwanted donations?
  5. How many items should we include?
  6. What’s a “super silent auction”?

Most silent auction items fetch 40 to 60 percent of their retail value (see our recent infographic on predicting total revenue). Read on for practical guidelines to ensure bids reach 50 percent retail and above.

1. Revive a Dull Auction

How can our nonprofit revive a silent auction event that used to bring in thousands but has gone downhill in the past couple years?

This question came to us at the end of our webinar, “10 Deadly Sins of Charity Auctions,” and I suspect this participant is not the only one facing this problem.

When an event is successful, it’s tempting to try and recreate its success by repeating every detail next year. Unfortunately, no two events are the same. Thanks to ever-increasing revenue goals, philanthropic competition and high event chair turnover, it’s very common for auction revenue to stagnate year over year.

The key to reviving your auction? Follow the 3 E’s of Successful Fundraising Events: Entertain, Engage and Extract.

It’s time to be brutally honest and ask which elements of the night do not contribute to these 3 fundamentals. Your silent auction is no exception.

  • In order for your silent auction to be entertaining, the items must surprise, delight and interest your donors.
  • To engage the crowd, the night’s agenda, room set up, emcee and more can all be positioned to encourage as much participation as possible.
  • And to extract the highest bids, be sure to only offer desirable items with high perceived value. If you’ve seen revenue decline in recent years, you might be offering the same merchandise over and over again to the same buyers. So try bringing in more attendees and diversifying the auction offerings—then put their best foot forward with sleek silent auction item displays (click below for free templates).


2. Increase Participation

How do we encourage more spending on our silent auction items? What’s the best way to generate buzz about the silent auction during the event?

Winspire-Experiences-on-display-1.pngFirst, make sure every item offered is high quality. Great items tend to speak for themselves in terms of their perceived value.

At the event, it’s helpful to have volunteers or an emcee walk around the silent auction with a cordless mic, highlighting some of the very special packages and deals that are out there on the tables.

Finally, close the silent auction in stages. This creates compression among your guests and ensures the maximum number of eyes are looking at every silent auction item (rather than try to protect one item at a time, for instance). For more on proper silent auction closing techniques, see:


3. Procure High Profit Items

What are the best selling and highest profit silent auction items?

This is a great question and can depend on your audience. Some popular categories include wine and craft beer, travel packages, electronics, sports memorabilia and exclusive local experiences. Check out the study-proven top categories here:


Benefit auctioneer Danny Hooper also notes, “I am seeing more and more consignment packages used in silent and super silent auctions. People try out some of these travel package items, put them in the silent auction with no upfront cost, and achieve great results.” Incredible no-risk travel packages take just minutes to reserve and generate the kind of event buzz that lifts bids across the board.

The important thing is to avoid placement of any junk on the silent auction tables: no embroidered ball caps from the local tire shop, no logo coffee mugs

Yard sale tables sm.jpgThink luxury, not yard sale.

While it’s smart to have a variety of price points for a diverse audience, you still need to create a luxury shopping experience for your guests. Cheap or undesirable items depresses the perceived value of your entire silent auction – heavily limiting profits.

Great items like travel packages have the opposite effect.


4. Be Choosy

Do you have a polite way to let potential donors know you can’t accept their “junk” donations in the silent auction?

Absolutely. Try asking for cash instead.

Let’s say you go to a law firm to solicit a donation, and they offer a legal will kit for two. It’s wonderful that they want to show their support, but these items many times attract no bids at all. This is a lose-lose for both your charity and the law firm.

At this point, try asking something like:

“Rather than make that donation, could we ask you instead for a cash donation equal to the amount? Or if not that much money, perhaps $200? On your behalf, we’ll go out and buy a few bottles of really nice wine and create a wine basket. We know that will have a a lot more appeal, and we’ll put you down as the generous donor of that wine basket.”

A cash donation, sponsorship or underwriting of better items will go a lot further for your cause than an item that largely goes ignored or undervalued.


5. Create a Balanced Market

How do you decide how many silent auction items to include?

When thinking about the optimum number of silent auction items for your event, you want to avoid creating an imbalanced market: either a seller’s or buyer’s market.

A seller’s market is created when you have too few items for the number of people in room. That drives individual prices of those items up, but you’re missing out on revenue from bidders that would have bought items had there been enough.

In a buyer’s market, the silent auction tables have been flooded with too many items, meaning donors can go around leaving one low bid on multiple items – and some items won’t get any bids.

As a general rule of thumb, try taking the number of guests attending your event and dividing that by two. For example, if an estimated 200 people will attend the event, that’s 100 couples, buying units, or wallets. It’s typical to see anywhere from 1.5 to 2 items per wallet (that would be 50 to 75 items in this example), but you need to use your better judgment to create that balance.

Don’t forget to try the super silent auction as well!

What’s a super silent? Read on…

6. Try a Super Silent Auction

What is the difference between regular silent auction and super silent auction, besides value of items?

The live auction should have no more than 8 to 12 items. If you have more premium items than 12, you can take the overage and create a super silent auction. This is a special dedicated section of the silent auction, complete with a standalone table, separate signage and bright lighting.


Your auctioneer or emcee would be on stage highlighting the table: “We have great items over at the Super Silent Auction that you don’t want to miss. Any of these items could have been in the live auction, but out of respect for your time we have placed them in the Super Silent. The benefit to you folks is you can take a closer look at some of these wonderful donations . We want to thank Empress Hotels for donating their beautiful romantic hotel suite…”

Make sure these items and donors get lots of love, and close this item last in your silent auction.


We hope these tips have given some insight into the types of items that attract frequent, high profit bids. Stay tuned to Winspire News for part 2 of our silent auction FAQs, coming up.


Want even more easy ideas and best practices for your auction? Check out our new charity event planning tool, Checklist Builder. It contains shareable to-do lists for easy task delegation, plus a wealth of resources and time-saving templates. It’s free to sign up and could be extremely helpful for you and your team as you plan your next fundraising event. Here is a little video showing how it works.

We are looking for feedback so please check it out and let us know what you think!