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• find an ideal location
• hire an effective auctioneer
• develop a strategy to get your supporters to attend
• solicit donations of goods and services to sell
• generate a catalog and bid sheets
• train volunteers so the event will run smoothly
• set up your event for maximum profits
• wrap up for guaranteed success at your next auction
With a warm, engaging style, the author offers a fresh approach based on enthusiasm for the cause, understanding
the motivations of all who are involved, and keeping a good sense of humor. With a glossary, sample solicitation scripts,
catalog entries, forms, and letters, this guide is an essential tool if you are looking to plug that hole in the budget and
have fun while you’re at it.
n a climate in which community services funding is more and more scarce and the causes are getting more and more
urgent, grassroots fundraising is the brightest light at the end of the tunnel. The easiest grassroots fundraiser is a
benefit auction, and this book offers tried-and-true methods for putting on a wildly successful event.
In this comprehensive, step-by-step guide, author Sandy Bradley draws on her many years of experience as an
organizer and auctioneer for nonprofits and arts organizations. Learn how to
“After raising money for nonprofits all over the country for 30 years, I was delighted to discover new pointers on every page of
this funny and engaging manual! Sandy has captured the wisdom from a thousand lessons learned the hard way and condensed
it into a treasury of practical steps any organization can master. Beyond logistics, Sandy shows us how to stay in touch with the
soul of our work, take care of people, and have fun.”
—Susan Howlett, veteran fundraising consultant, trainer, and author of Getting Funded
“Don’t even think about organizing an auction until you read this book. From the first page to the last, you’ll be thanking
yourself for taking the time to learn from a master. Sandy leaves no stone unturned and shares all her wisdom, secrets, and
humor in this fabulous book.”
—Miriam Barnett, nonprofit consultant and administrator, Washington
Sandy Bradley is an auctioneer for nonprofits and arts organizations. She is also a musician,
writer, and, for thirteen years, host of the “Sandy Bradley’s Potluck” on National Public Radio.
She has served on the Seattle Arts Commission and the Bumbershoot Commission. In 1991,
The Seattle Times named her one of ten “People of the Year” who make Seattle a better place
to live. A licensed auctioneer since 1979, she is currently an oyster farmer on Willapa Bay.
51 69 5
Pineapple Press, Inc.
Front cover art by Steve Weaver
9 7 81 5 6 1 6 4 3 04 2
“An excellent resource for the first-time auction organizer as well as for the seasoned event professional. It provides comprehensive answers to all the questions you should ask when you start to organize a benefit auction.”
—Lori Mudge, professional fundraiser, Washington
A Fresh Formula for Grassroots Fundraising
Pineapple Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2004 by Sandy Bradley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage
and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Inquiries should be addressed to:
Pineapple Press, Inc.
P.O. Box 3889
Sarasota, Florida 34230
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Benefit Auctions : a fresh formula for grassroots fundraising / by Sandy Bradley. — 1st ed.
ISBN 1-56164-304-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Benefit auctions. I. Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Design by Shé Heaton
Printed in the United States of America
Author photo on back cover by Ben Marra
his book is a collection of ideas and systems devised by teams of staff
and volunteers, and it largely reflects their generous help and ingenuity. I’d like to thank Colleen Tuell, Luther Black, Melanie Shelton, Sharon
MacNamara, Mark Graham, Jerry Gallaher, Rose Thompson-Haeckler, Sue
Yuzer, Chris Lunn, Brogan Thomsen, Bitsy Bidwell, Ben Scholtz, Patricia
Burget, Rob Adamson, Dawn Brightwell, Benjii Bittle, Miriam Barnett,
Michael Daly, Loren Haralson, Greg and Jere Canote, Penny and David
Clees, Mary Pat Byrne, Barbara Starkey, Lou Magor, Chrisanne Galvez,
Nancy White, Sue Noble, Kristina Lagace, John Hutchison, Chris Wright,
Amy Carroll, Charlie Parriott, Frank Raabe, Jeanne Muir, Ann Schweit,
Amanda Wood, Al Eastman, Sally O’Neal, Peter Langston, John and Lonnie
Grey, and the Lutheran Alliance To Create Housing (LATCH). Special thanks
to the hundreds of volunteers who made the Annual Musical Instrument
Auction at the Northwest Folklife Festival possible.
1. Getting Started 1
2. Broaching the Topic 5
3. Leadership 7
4. Setting the Parameters
5. Ticket Price 22
6. Hiring an Auctioneer 25
7. The Food 32
8. Details of Staging 38
9. Solicitation 49
10. Dates and Times 70
11. Data 75
12. Getting People to Attend 85
13. Silent Versus Live 92
14. Your Catalog 103
15. Encourage Bidding 107
16. Training Your Volunteers 110
17. Joint Ventures
18. Auction Preparation Checklist 121
19. Wrap Up 123
20. Frequently Asked Questions
Preparation and Solicitation 136
The Catalog 144
Auction Rules and Procedures 147
Setup Charts 150
Thank-you Letters 157
o matter what the field—social services, the arts, education, culture,
politics, or ecology—funding is scarce. Governmental funding is
more and more difficult to come by. Grant money is drying up. Essential
services in the community are suffering cutbacks, and organizations that
provide them may be forced to reduce their programs.
At the same time, the causes are getting more and more urgent. More
help is needed. In this climate, grassroots fundraising is the brightest light at
the end of the tunnel. Each small organization has important work to do,
and is loath to spend that valuable time on fundraising rather than the task
at hand. But fundraising is essential, and it can be made, dare I say, fun.
Fundraising needs to be easy and effective. We need every shortcut and
advantage we can get. Even if your group is blessed with a generous millionaire supporter, the job is never done, and with more resources you could do
even more good work. Fundraising successes bring you more supporters;
they build your team.
The easiest grassroots fundraiser is an auction. People are more comfortable asking for donations of goods than for donations of money.
Auctions are still a lot of work, but there is nothing vague about the task.
The wheel has been invented and now you can take full advantage of it. You
can actually decide how much money you’re going to make.
This book offers you a tried-and-true set of methods for your first auction. Get on with it! Your leadership is important and you will not be alone
in getting things done.
our organization is strapped for cash and you need to raise some
money. At your last board meeting, someone said, “Hey, we could have
an auction!” Everyone greeted this with a fair amount of enthusiasm, not
unlike the gang of kids saying, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” right after Mickey
Rooney has said that his dad’s got a barn and they all could put on a show.
And lo! an auction will come to pass. You’ve been appointed auction chair,
possibly with a loyal troop or two to help you, and you’re wondering what to
Here’s the map of how an ideal auction should go:
• You find a location.
• You hire an auctioneer.
• You develop a strategy for getting people to attend.
• You solicit for donations of goods and services to sell.
• You send out invitations.
• You work with the donation data to generate a catalog and silent bid
• You train the volunteers so the event will run smoothly.
• You have the auction, and with luck, plug the hole in the budget.
• You wrap up (write thank you notes, create financial reports, and so
Here are some of the tasks that are associated with each of these steps:
You find a location. Select a place your supporters will know how to get
to. Does your mailing list center on a particular zip code? Guests will need a
place they can park. Consider the acoustics: will they be able to hear the auctioneer? What is the capacity of the room? Can the attendees see the merchandise and the auctioneer? Is the lighting sufficient? Will the hall management
support your efforts? When should you make reservations? Is six months in
advance enough? Should this event be combined with another draw, like a
dance or a picnic? Does the hall offer appropriate facilities for the extra event?
You hire an auctioneer. Do you really need a professional? Is there a difference between one auctioneer and another? Will an auctioneer’s chant be
accessible to your audience, even if they have never attended an auction
before? How far in advance should you call them? How much should you pay?
What questions should you ask the auctioneer?
If you’re not hiring a professional, how can you train an in-house volunteer to serve as auctioneer for the evening? How will you create a starting bid
and incremental raises, pacing, humor, timing, and a predictable closing patter?
You develop a strategy for getting people to attend. What is the best
way to reach people who would like to attend? Bus cards, TV commercials,
public service announcements on radio, publicity stunts, the Goodyear
Blimp, a whisper campaign, newspaper announcements, huge mailings, or
personal contacts? Are there important conflicting events which might affect
your attendance? Can kids come?
You solicit for donations of goods and services to sell. Who should
you ask? Should you divide up the field by area or by category of business?
Should you ask by letter, phone call, or in person? What makes people decide
whether to give or not give? How do you develop a short statement about why
you’re doing this auction? Why do people give—for tax deductions, good will,
getting you off their back, special interests, eagerness to be involved?
How do you track what you’ve secured? What about forms? What should
they look like? How many NCR layers? Should you ask for expensive things
or lots of little things? How long does it take to solicit $1,000 worth of donations? What’s the best time of the day or week to ask? What special considerations are there when you ask artists for their work? Are there any particular
things to avoid? What if people want to set a minimum?
You send out invitations. How do you assure they get opened? Should
you send bulk mail or first class? What makes people come? When should you
send them out? Do you need an RSVP? A deadline? How many invitations do
you have to send out to get two hundred people to attend? How do you get
the right people to attend? Should you focus on rich buyers? If people of more
modest means come, will they be able to enjoy participating? Do you need
You work with the donation data to generate a catalog and silent bid
sheets. Can you computerize the system, or is that a waste of time? What kind
of programs should you use? What information is needed in the catalog?
What details need to be included on the silent bid sheet? What should the cat2
alog look like when done? Do you list the silent auction donations, too?
Should the catalog be witty? Is the value listed in the catalog? Should you
require a minimum bid and minimum raise? If you set minimums, where do
you set them, and what if a bidder doesn’t follow the rules? Is there a formula
for setting the minimum raise? What if everything comes in at the last minute
and the data entry person gets burned out? How do you accommodate last
You train the volunteers so the evening will run smoothly. Should
you train them in advance or the day of event? How many volunteers do you
need, and what will their jobs be? Do you need to create job descriptions? Do
volunteers get to bid? How can you distinguish which attendees are volunteers? Will the volunteers want to participate again next year?
You set up the room for optimum money spending and easy traffic.
How do you run the registration desk? Should the packets be assembled in
advance? What about taking a check or credit card imprint in advance—will
that speed things up? How does the silent auction work? How will it be
closed? Under what conditions should you have a guaranteed purchase price?
How do you create general fundraising budgets and do record keeping?
You have the auction and make a fortune. How do you establish a hospitable atmosphere? How do you encourage attendees to participate in the
spending once they arrive? Can you plan on the amount you’ve decided to
make? How long should the event run? Do you need to take credit cards? How
can this year’s event help with next year’s auction?
You wrap up. Send thank you notes, create financial reports, and congratulate yourself and your staff. As you reflect on your success, answer these
questions about what transpired: Was it worth the time? Was your goal realistic? Did you reach it? How many allies did you gain? How many volunteers
did you burn out? Was there much follow-up work after the auction? Should
it be an annual event? What needs to be changed?
The hoped-for scenario
People donated a wide range of treasures: some of them commercial, some
personal, some outrageously adventuresome. The event planning went
smoothly: the work load was spread around to a number of willing volunteers,
and nothing was left to do at the last minute. The event was attended by the
exact number of people you had planned for, so there was enough food to go
around and items sold for appropriate prices. All attendees knew how to drive
to the event and found a place to park when they got there. The event was fun,
exciting, and profitable, which set you up for an even easier auction next year.
The day after the auction there was nothing left to do but thank people.
There were no loose ends to track, no unpaid bills. A service donated by one
of your supporters was purchased by another supporter, and this new friendship enhances your sense of community and consolidates support for your
other projects. New people who attended are now very interested in your
wonderful organization and all of the great people who are involved. The
event ended on time. Nobody ever had to stand in line. Everyone was honored, nobody was embarrassed. Everyone spent more than they intended, and
were proud of it. You made a little more money than you had planned to
make, which is comforting to your budget. You got home earlier that night
than you thought you would, and you felt great! You slept well because it was
a job well done.
A perfect score on that whole list would be great, wouldn’t it? Does that
seem impossible? It is not. You can make plans that culminate in complete
success. This is not guesswork, it is making good choices. You can even plan
how much money you’re going to make. That’s what this book will help you
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