Silent Auction: Not Just a Place for Overflow Items

Silent Auction: Not Just a Place for Overflow Items

Silent auctions are a great way to increase your event revenue. However, like anything else in this world, not all silent auctions are created equal. There are numerous factors to consider when putting on a silent auction, and today we’re going to focus on the importance of curating your silent auction items. 

Oftentimes, when an organization tells me their silent auction doesn’t do as well as they would have liked, it comes down to one of two reasons:

  1. They do not take the time to carefully select the items that go into the silent auction.
  2. They use it as a dumping ground for items that they do not know what to do with.

Your silent auction is a great place to make a lot of money, but throwing everything but the kitchen sink into it isn’t going to help you make that money. Just as with your live auction, you want to choose items that are exciting to your audience. By carefully choosing the right items, your donors will be much more interested in the silent auction, which will increase bidding and your silent auction revenue. It also provides a better experience for your guests, as they now associate great items and packages with the event instead of a smorgasbord of stuff.

Some people think that the more items you have, the more opportunities there are to make money. This is not the case. More items does not equal more money. More items means your audience has to sift through more tables, more packages, and try to keep track of what they are interested in (was that item we liked at table 12 or table 24…?). Think of it like a google search. You’re looking for your search inquiry, and you will most likely stay on page 1 of google. Maybe you’ll go to page 2, but you will never go to page 3. If you have a huge number of items, your audience will look at the first few tables of items (page 1), maybe go into the next few rows (page 2), but they’ll never get through all of the items, let alone be able to keep track of all of them (page 3 and beyond). Plus, a lot of the excitement of a silent auction is wondering who will get a given item. Too many items means fewer bids per item and fewer chances of getting into an exciting bidding war and creating a bidding frenzy at the close of your silent auction. 

Too often, we see duplicates of the same (or very similar) items. While your crowd may value a professional photography package, when there are 4-5 of those in the silent auction, each one becomes less valuable. This often results in all of the items selling for well below value, rather than 1 or 2 of them being bid up to a higher price point; there is simply less incentive for guests to keep bidding when there is so much to choose from. 

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “but we got these donations from people and/or local businesses, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings by rejecting them.” And that is a valid point. However, the purpose of your event is to make money for your organization, and if nobody is interested in the free dental cleaning that was donated to you, then having that time take up valuable real estate in your silent auction only for it to receive few (or no) bids doesn’t serve anyone. We also know that when individuals and/or businesses donate their items, they want to see those items make the organization money and feel they have made a valuable contribution! It can be disheartening for donors to see an item they donate receive no bids or sell at a small fraction of its value. 

If you have a surplus of donated items that you’ve determined aren’t the best fit for your silent auction, consider using them for another fundraising opportunity – perhaps a raffle or online-only auction a few months down the road. And then when planning for your next event, try a more targeted approach to obtaining items that really fit your silent auction’s needs (more on this topic another time). 

Allow me to share the story of a client of mine who was having these exact problems. They received tons of donations from their community, but they didn’t consider whether the items they were getting were right for their donors. They would spend hours writing up descriptions for all the items, packaging the items into baskets and boxes, and displaying them in a huge silent auction area. At the end of the evening, only around 45% of the items would sell. The others would have no bids. They were beyond frustrated and disappointed. 

The following year, they looked at me and said, “Johnny, we’re not doing a silent auction this year. It’s just not worth it and we don’t make enough on it to warrant the work.” While I understood the frustration, I urged them not to do this. Completely giving up their silent auction would have meant giving up a good revenue stream. It’s not that the silent auction doesn’t work, it’s that the wrong items were in the silent auction.

So, I did what any good benefit auctioneer would do: I looked at the data! After carefully reviewing many years of silent auction data, we were able to come up with a specific list of items and packages that got high traffic from their guests. The client agreed to give it another go, and that year, there wasn’t a single silent auction item left. All items received bids, with a heavy majority receiving multiple bids. Using about 60% less items than they had the previous year, and the assortment carefully selected, they had increased their silent auction revenue by 80%! Now, every year, we sit down and look at the previous year’s data and work to select the right mix of items and categories for the donors to make sure we are always capitalizing on the silent auction. At the end of each evening, the client never feels as though we have left any money on the table.

Don’t let your silent auction be a place for overflow items! It is a great place to make money for your organization! If you’re having trouble with your silent auction, it might just need a little tweak to become your great event revenue generator. If you need any help with it, feel free to contact us at