Live and silent auctions are a staple of non-profit fundraising for one simple reason: they work. People like to attend events and browse auction items… and they get a kick out of competing to win experiences, gift cards, sports memorabilia, and other items at those events.
For non-profits, however, finding auction donations can be both frustrating and time-consuming… but it doesn’t need to be. After running hundreds of fundraising events and dozens of non-profit auctions, I have found the following strategy to be the simplest and most hassle-free way to find amazing items to auction off at your next event:
#1 – Ask Your Key Supporters for Help
The place to start when seeking auction donations for your fundraising event is with your board, your event host committee, and your other key supporters. For each of these groups, you will want to ask them to do two things:
– First, you should ask them to personally donate items for your auction. These items could include donations from the companies where they work (or businesses that they own), as well as other items such as sports tickets, collectibles, gift baskets, etc.
– Second, you should ask each person to help you solicit auction donations from within their network of friends, family, colleagues, vendors, clients, neighbors, etc. Many of your board members and other supporters have connections to local businesses that might be willing to donate items for your event.
Reach out to each of your board members to ask them to donate items as well as reach out within their own network to ask other people to contribute items for your auction. Then, ask your event host committee to do the same. (Don’t have an event host committee? You should! To learn more about the power of host committees, read How to Raise More Money at Your Non-Profit Events).
Finally, talk to any other key supporters who might be interested in helping you find auction items, including donors, volunteers, and staff members.
Be sure to give your board, host committee, and other key supporters everything they need to successfully solicit auction donations on your behalf, including information on your non-profit and the event you are holding, clear instructions on how to contribute an auction item, a number they can call to have a staff member come to pick up the item, etc. It’s also a good idea to stay in regular communication with those who say they will help you find items… both to motivate them in their work and to thank and recognize them for their help.
#2 – Send Out a Letter Seeking Auction Donations
Once you have your board, host committee, and others out soliciting auction items, the next step is to send out a “silent auction mailing.” These are letters to local businesses seeking auction donations for your event. I call this a “silent auction mailing” because, while you may get an item in response to your letters that is large enough and compelling enough to be featured in a live auction, most donations that come in through the mailing will be gift cards and small items in the $25-$100 range.
The first step in sending out an auction letter is to compile a mailing list of local businesses that would be appealing donors of auction items for your event. This includes restaurants, spas, jewelers, gift stores, museums, theme parks, theatres, sports teams, etc. If this is your first year doing a mailing, it’s ok to start small… try putting together a list of 100-200 local businesses to include in your mailing. Then, each year, you can add another 25, 50, or 100 businesses to the list, depending on the number of companies in your area.
Once you have compiled your list, put together a simple letter asking for auction donations for your event. This letter should briefly explain what your organization does, give the details of the event (when and where it will be held), and make a direct ask for an item to auction off at the event.
Include a pledge form and self-addressed envelope with the letter that individuals and businesses can mail back to you to let you know they want to donate an item. Give your auction donors several methods for donating, including:
- Mailing the item to your non-profit (this works for gift cards and other small items)
- Dropping the item off at your office
- Having someone from your organization come to pick-up the item
Be sure to include a phone number and e-mail address that people can use to contact your non-profit to arrange for pick-up of auction items. Auction items can be picked up by staff members or volunteers.
#3 – Follow-Up with Phone Calls
The final step for supercharging your auction event is to follow-up on your auction mailing with phone calls. Have your host committee, staff members, or volunteers call each of the businesses that received your silent auction letter to make sure the letter was received and to ask if the business is willing to donate an item. These calls shouldn’t be long… just a simple check-in to boost the response rate on your letters.
The calls should be made about 1-2 weeks after the letters are received by the businesses on your prospect list. Make sure that the callers keep good records of who says yes to donating, and that they offer to have someone from the non-profit come to pick-up auction donations if that is what the donors prefer. Adding these phone calls to the process could boost the number of items you receive for your auction by 20-50%
Your staff should also call the board, host committee members, and other key supporters who promised to help you find auction donations. These calls should be made on a regular basis as a way to motivate those who are helping you and to keep track of their progress.
Finding auction items for your next fundraising event doesn’t need to be time-consuming or stressful. Use these three simple steps to find more donations and to hold the best auction event in the history of your organization!
Photo Credit: Palos Verdes Library District