Silent Auction Item Procurement Tips from Heather Dean Presnall, National MS Society

Whether your fundraising event is in one week, one month or one year, chances are your charity auction could benefit from a few more unique, valuable items.

Are you getting items that will “wow” donors, sell tickets and ultimately generate the bids needed to meet your revenue goals?

To help, we sat down with Heather Dean-Presnall, Senior Manager of Multi Market Leadership Events at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Pacific Region, for an episode of podcast Events with Benefits.

Dean-Presnall oversees the Society’s annual dinner and gala, an event with 650 guests that offers a whopping 600 auction lots made from over 700 individually procured items. Today she shares invaluable tips and strategies from years of procurement experience, including:

  1. How many items to include in a silent auction
  2. Top 4 must-have procurement tools
  3. Ways your board can assist with procurement
  4. Sample documents to include in your procurement committee’s toolkit
  5. Tips to keep the process organized
  6. How to bundle items, and more!

Then listen to the full podcast episode for even more tips, plus advice for launching a new event.

The Right Number of Items

At Winspire News, we typically advise having no more than one item per couple, or “buying unit.” Yet your silent auction has 600 auction packages for 650 guests. Doesn’t that upset the balance of supply and demand that dictates how much people are willing to spend?

“That’s a great question, and in many respects we are lucky,” Dean-Presnall explains. “The MS Dinner and Auction started in 1986 and is entering its 31st year, so there’s some legacy behind what we do.

“Another aspect to being able to host such a huge auction is the date: We hold it annually right before Thanksgiving. That way it serves as a kick-off to holiday shopping, year-end tax donations, and planning trip purchases for the next year. Sixty percent of attendees are repeat guests, so they come ready to open their wallets and buy annual presents, vacations and year-end gifts.

“Believe it or not, the night ends with nearly no unsold items – 1 percent or less.”

Bottom line: It depends on your audience. If your audience is accustomed to larger auction offerings and they sell, by all means go for it! Offering more items helps capture more donations.

However, if you’re not sure or have had tepid results, try offering one item for every 1 to 1.5 buying units (this means an audience of 300 guests would have 125 to 150 items to bid on). This is a safe way to prevent creating either a buyer’s market (too many items, which drives down bidding) or seller’s market (too few items, which reduces the number of donations captured).

Plan Ahead

How long do you spend procuring items?

“Procurement is a year-long process,” says Dean-Presnall. “Thank goodness I have a team. I have staff, amazing volunteers, a group of board of trustees, and a committee. Those four stakeholders make procurement possible, and I’m not alone.”

No matter your team size or experience level, Winspire has procurement resources designed to help you offer incredible auction items. For starters, you can download a free beginner’s guide to procurement below, with tips for hosting a procurement “wish list” party, soliciting donations and more.


Enlist Help from Your Board

You mentioned procurement is a yearlong, 4-pronged effort. How can I get one of those prongs – our board – to help with procurement?

Procurement can’t be done alone, and your well-connected board and committee members will play a big role in procuring the unique, exciting experiential items that set your event apart from the rest.

“Keep the board and committee focused on getting high-end packages, and have them focus their efforts especially on the establishments where they’re already going and spending money,” Dean-Presnall advises. “If they’re going to Alaska, have them ask the hotel to donate some nights. If they’re regulars at a fancy steakhouse, ask for a chef’s package.”

Find out where board members would be comfortable asking companies for a donation in return for their repeat business.

This works with staff and volunteers too. While a volunteer might not have connections to luxury or high-end items, anyone can take stock of their connections and likely come up with creative, unique experiences – things people can’t just go and buy online.

A staff member may have an ‘in’ with walk-on roles for Hollywood shows, VIP backstage tickets, seats at the penalty box at a hockey game…but you wouldn’t know about it unless you ask. Push supporters to think outside the box and come up with truly unique Experiences that take connections to pursue.

Smarter Solicitation

1. Tailor messaging to each individual donor, then follow up.

Auction Item Donor Letter SampleFor the MS Dinner and Auction, Dean-Presnall equips her committee with several pre-written letter templates for each type of industry: hotels, restaurants, unique experiences, golf and more. These are tailored to each specific industry so the ask doesn’t feel like a total cold call – even if it is.

‘Dear Airline, Our audience is full of world travelers. Would you donate flight vouchers for 2?’

‘Dear Golf Course, We have a table of golfers slated for this year’s dinner and auction. Would you donate a round of golf for 4 on your course?’

Check out just a few of the documents that have previously been included in the National MS Society’s “procurement toolkit”…

Auction Item Procurement Toolkit Sample

“After the letter, we follow up by email. If still no response, we follow up by phone. Then, if we’re really desperate and they’re local, we’ll drop by in person,” Dean-Presnall says.

2. Stay organized.

Keeping track of all the solicitations made, results, contact information and follow up needed can be overwhelming. Dean-Presnall advises keeping it simple.

The MS Society tracks 30,000+ proposals made over 31 years of procurement using a really, really big Excel database.

“We’ve found a huge database in Excel of everyone we’ve ever asked is sufficient,” says Dean-Presnall. “We have the companies ranked so we follow up with top prospects or renewals first, then move our way down the list. It’s pretty old school in a lot of ways.”

For a smaller organization, Excel or Google Sheets can suffice.

You might also consider online or cloud-based auction software to take even more legwork out of the process. When shopping for providers, ask if they provide a database for you and your team to track donations.

Bottom line: Track every aspect of procurement so you can follow up with potential donors and ensure a hot lead doesn’t get forgotten.

“Keep in mind these businesses have jobs too. Your event may not be their priority, and a reminder can be all it takes to get the ‘yes’.”

3. Delegate clearly.

Try to meet with your auction committee at least once every few weeks as the event draws near.

At the end of each meeting, make sure each committee member is walking away with concrete to-do’s, including a list of local businesses or contacts from whom they’ll solicit donations: ‘If you could do these 5 things – get a $100 gift card to this restaurant, ask someone with a wine club membership to donate a bottle – by our next meeting, we’ll be so much closer to our goal.’

You can push committee members further based on their level of connections as well.

Dean-Presnall’s top 4 procurement tools

Ensure your entire team is equipped for success with these 4 procurement must-have’s.

Staying in Touch with Donors for Your Nonprofit1. A good story. Know your mission, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. If you have a connection to the mission, share it. It’s the most impactful thing you can do to make people understand why you’re trying to raise money and secure these items.

“We spend a lot of time training our committee members to use the right language to talk about multiple sclerosis and our events correctly,” Dean-Presnall says. “This puts us in the best possible light and helps us stand out among hundreds of other donation requests any given company receives each year.”

2. Website that makes it easy to donate. Ensure your website is up to date. Is there an easy point on your website to hit ‘donate an auction item’ or ‘underwrite an item’?

3. Leave-behind materials. No matter what a business’ answer is, have a letter, business card, or donation form ready to leave behind.

“Don’t just walk out the door taking ‘No’ for an answer,” she emphasizes.

4. Nonprofit info. “Along with the brochures and pamphlets, we equip committee members with a W-9, the 501c3 documentation. If a company wants an online application, we have a volunteer as the point person on this year round. We also list our GuideStar rating and association with the BBB on our forms and website.”

The goal: Leave the business with no hesitations or qualms about giving to your organization.

Bundling Items

how to bundle smaller auction items into more valuable items“As a general rule, we don’t put anything out that’s worth less than $100 (or has a perceived value under $100),” says Dean-Presnall.

This means if you have four $25 gift cards, find a way to put a restaurant package together. Throw a bottle of wine and some pasta noodles in to increase presentation of package, she suggests.

“As far as travel goes, two months before my event, we look at where we have premiere stays already donated. For example, if we have a wonderful New York City property, is there a gap where we could pursue Broadway tickets, a gift certificate to a NYC restaurant, Yankees tickets? Once we’re able to create a trip or experience for donors, it’s guaranteed to sell for way more than a two-night stay in New York City, and even more than the sum of its parts.

“We look for gaps and attack them to make sure packages look great, and bidders want to bid.”

For an easy way to tap into your donors’ travel budgets, Winspire offers bucket-list, unique and exciting trips that can be used in any event with no upfront cost. Check out our Top 10 trips:


How Much of Retail Value You’ll Get

How much of an item’s retail value (%) can we expect to capture?

“At our auction, we currently capture 50 percent of retail value,” says Dean-Presnall.

Indeed, studies show silent auction items typically sell for 50 percent of an item’s fair market value. You can use this guideline to determine how many items, and of what caliber, you would need to reach your goal.

That said, certain packages will garner more of the retail value than others.

“Big-ticket travel items, like trips to Europe or wine country, capture more of the retail value than photography or spa packages,” Dean-Presnall confirms, getting bids 60 to 70 percent of retail.

In partnership with companies both local and global, the MS Auction and Dinner is able to create unique packages and items for every budget, age and interest. By offering highly sought after items ranging from $100 to $25,000, there is truly a great item for every shopper.

We hope these tips provide some inspiration for procuring your own incredible auction catalog.

Check out Dean-Presnall’s full podcast episode below (and don’t miss her unique ideas for extra revenue streams within existing events).