summer fall silent auction sizzle MAIN

Silent auctions used to be a side note in fundraising events, but with more organizations using fewer and higher-end items, they are making a bigger impact on revenue than ever. Silent auctions offer a fun, interactive opportunity for more guests to participate and support the cause.

We’ll look at 4 strategies for a more successful silent auction:

  1. Be selective with every item.
  2. Put out the right number of items.
  3. Create eye-catching displays.
  4. Target travel budgets.

Whether you’re planning a silent auction to buttress a smaller event (like a golf tournament) or procuring items for the fall gala, there are actionable tips for you.

Silent Strategy #1: Be Selective with Every Item.

In a ballroom or venue with limited space, every square foot matters. Here’s benefit auctioneer Renee Jones’ take on the topic, in a recent webinar:

“Say you have one 6 foot table in a silent auction. Every 16 inches is another asset. You have to decide: What’s 16 inches worth? You shouldn’t have an item worth $300-$500 sitting next to an item that’s $2,500. Set an intentional baseline (X amount of dollars) that each package is going to be valued at or above.”

Don’t put out just anything that gets donated. Make sure each item is valuable, highly sought after and worthy of generating bids. Better yet, skip ‘maybe’ items in the procurement process altogether and go only for ‘great’.

Here’s a few strategies to curate a WOW-worthy silent auction catalog.

1. First, brainstorm an exciting procurement “wish list”. These are items your auction committee thinks would be a great fit for your audience. Once you have a list, delegate responsibilities for procuring among the team.


2. For inspiration, look at sales of years past. Which items were big hits among your donors, and which were duds? If something didn’t sell last year, don’t put it out again without a very compelling reason. Items without bids suck momentum out of the room and take up bidders’ time that should be spent bidding on more appealing items.


3. Consider tried-and-true auction item categories that tend to sell well in any market. These include wine and craft beer, electronics, exclusive local experiences (think front-row seating at the school’s commencement ceremony), travel packages and hotel stays (more on this below).

On the flipside, anything tangible that is difficult to put value on can be a tough sell: think artwork or a case of wine from an unknown wine cellar. That’s not to say you should skip the handmade quilts and other sentimental items, which can sell for many times what they’re worth. It all depends on your audience and the craftsmanship of each item.

Services (like dental cleanings and writing wills) can also struggle to get bids. For more, see:


Silent Strategy #2: Put Out the Right Number of Items.

How many items are recommended for a silent auction? Here’s how Jones and Winspire VP of Fundraising Ian Lauth answered this question:

“At Winspire, we typically recommend one item for half the number of “buying units,” or couples, in your audience —at most,” Lauth says. “If you have 200 guests, that’s 100 buying units for a maximum number of 50 items. I would actually encourage less – between 30 to 40 items for 200 guests.”

“I typically recommend 1 item for every 10 people,” Jones says. “If we’re going to have 500 guests, we’re at 50 silent auction items.”

Bottom line: We want to create a sense of scarcity and urgency, and create an environment of competitive giving.

Art paintbrush“Many times if you’re associated with client projects—if you work with adult programs where individuals have special needs and are making pottery, or your child’s school makes a cookie jar or terra-cotta coffee table, whatever it is—you need to create scarcity,” asserts Jones. “You want it to be special. You also want the silent auction to be just one component of the evening, not to overwhelm the rest of the program.”

Not only does being selective increase the perceived value of every item, it’s less work for volunteers and staff who are already stretched thin.

casual man with a headache isolated over a white backgroundRemember the opportunity cost of labor spent procuring too many items, cautions Lauth.

“If you’re putting out 50-plus auction items, think seriously about the time and energy and expenditure it’s going to take. Someone has to set up those tables, package the items, organize the items, offer them at the end of the night… The more events I go to, the smaller and smaller the silent auctions are getting, and the more time they’re spending on procurement per item,” he concludes.

Silent Strategy #3: Create eye-catching displays.

basketWhen you’ve worked so hard to procure exciting silent auction items, you want each one to bring in as much revenue as possible. A lot of your success has to do with looks.

The display is the first impression guests will have of the item, so be sure the accompanying display states each item’s contents clearly and accurately. The auction item description should list all of the features, the minimum bid, and have a striking image or two where appropriate.

For professional display sheet templates designed to extract high bids at your auction, see:


Presentation is even more important for basket bundles. Be sure to decorate them as professionally as possible, and consider finding “representations” of non-tangibles (like a branded baseball and mitt to represent tickets to an upcoming game) for displays that bring the package to life.

Investing time and resources into details like ribbon, tags and displays goes a long way to raising an item’s perceived value – and thus bids.


Silent Strategy #4: Target Travel Budgets.

Do your donors, board members, supporters and guests like going on vacation? Who doesn’t?

Travel has been the #1 best selling auction item in the country for years, with no signs of slowing. Big-ticket travel items generate plenty of buzz, raise the overall perceived value of your auction, and tend to sell for far more than their objective dollar amount.

People are already budgeting thousands of dollars for vacations each year. Why not give them the opportunity to support your event at the same time?


Attract category shoppers by offering the most popular travel categories; that is, avoid losing a sale because you don’t have a wine, golf, or tropical trip if that’s what someone is seeking. Best of all, if you partner with a no-risk travel provider like Winspire, every trip is 100 percent donor sponsored.

If you’re considering offering travel in your silent auction, see our catalog of hotel stays only, below. These items are at lower price points than Signature Experiences, making them perfect for silent auction tables but still packing plenty of ‘wow’ factor.