How to run a silent auction

Our guide to holding an event to remember

A silent auction is a crowd-pleasing way to raise income with very little outlay, so it’s no surprise that these type of fundraisers are on the increase, frequently run as an additional draw at events such as Christmas fairs and school balls. Instead of a noisy auctioneer shouting out bids to a room full of raised hands, a silent auction requires bids to be submitted online or on paper, either before or during an event. Winning bids are announced – ideally by a lively compere who can whip up plenty of excitement – once bidding has closed. All you need to get started are a few eye-watering ‘prizes’ that people really want to compete for.

Sourcing prizes

This is often the biggest challenge. Start as early as possible and reach out to everyone you know who can potentially donate items with strong bidder appeal. Aim for between five and ten high-value items, as this will give you more profit than multiple smaller items. The more unique the prizes, the more anticipation (and bids) you will generate. Seek out one-of-a-kind items such as VIP tickets to sporting events, a meal on the chef’s tasting table at a Michelin-starred restaurant, or use of a luxury car for a weekend.

Tell local companies what you are looking for – and what kind of coverage they can expect in return. Tap into the resource base of your community. Can you get someone to give away a week at their holiday home? Could an artist offer a bespoke piece of artwork?

Give donors as much publicity as you can: offer them an advert in your programme, link to them on your Facebook page and announce their name during the event.

On the day

A good master of ceremonies is paramount. A silent auction doesn’t have the competitive aspect of a live auction, so you’ll need someone to inject some drama. Your MC should let the audience know if any lots haven’t been bid on and where potential bargains are to be had. For silent auctions there are no licensing requirements, however you should bear in mind the Sale of Goods Act when providing descriptions and stating the value of each item. Parents provide their contact details voluntarily, but these should be destroyed at the end of the event.

What kind of auction?

  • Paper-based: Make an information and bidding sheet for each lot and attach it to a noticeboard or clipboard. Include a recommended retail price and ‘sell-by date’, if appropriate. Leave room for people to write their name, contact details and bid amount. For higher value items, suggest an opening bid as a guide.
  • Blind auction: If bidders would prefer to remain anonymous, invite them to register for a unique number they can use instead of their names.
  • Sealed bids: Make up a bid box and get bidders to write their highest bid on a sheet of paper and place in the box.
  • Online auction: Set up an online silent auction as a fundraiser in its own right or to attract bids before a live event. Post each lot on Facebook and use the comments section for bids, turning this off before the event. Sites such as PTA Events provide an easy way for people to view lots, do some research and start bidding.

Call in the experts

If you are organising a big-ticket event, you could hire a specialist company who will run the whole auction for you.

Kamran Tirmizey, managing director of fundraising at charity fundraiser D&G Group says: ‘A specialist company should produce a brochure (or provide auction tech), source prizes tailored to your audience, provide an event manager and support staff and even chase up payments for you.

‘At D&G, we charge no fee and shoulder all the financial exposure. Reserves for our supplied items in the auctions include a modest, fixed supply margin per item, which only applies when an item actually sells. Most of the prizes we supply generate hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds, so schools can expect to raise a significant sum.

‘We’ll discuss the client’s requirements on a video call or at a meeting before producing a proposal. We’ll then advise on either a paper-based auction or, if appropriate, a technology solution. For a paper auction, we produce a glossy brochure highlighting any prizes the school has sourced and supplementing these with  a selection of carefully selected prizes from our own range.

With the tech option, we’ll set up a digital leader board that shows each bid as it is placed – an excellent way to encourage engagement and healthy competition between peer groups. Guests are able to browse through the brochure/tech interface, select items of interest and make a bid. All bids are processed in accordance with Data Protection and GDPR regulations. At the end of the night, we communicate with all the winners and take payments on behalf of our clients. We then chase up any remaining payments and the account should be settled within five days.’

Case study ‘Our small school auction raised over £2,000’

‘We began planning our silent auction in January by posting on local Facebook groups and also asking parents for donations using Classlist. Our auction was held as part of the summer fair so we advertised it on the same posters. We listed the lots in the fair programme to raise levels of excitement.

We had 23 lots in total, the star prize being two Wimbledon Centre Court tickets with access to the Debentures lounge. We don’t usually use reserve prices but for that one we did. If prizes weren’t big enough to be auctioned individually, we put them together to make them more attractive. Where possible, we attempted to make the lots compatible, for example dinner for two combined with a babysitting voucher.

The silent auction had its own tent at the fair. Each prize was listed on a piece of paper along with a description and the recommended retail price, if known. People wrote their bids underneath. We called time half an hour before the end and our compere read out the winners, but not how much they paid. Most people were still at the fair and claimed their prizes straight away, paying cash. We also allowed BACS transfers, but prize envelopes weren’t handed over until payment had been made. We raised a total of £2,092.’

Mikayla Ellmer, PTA co-chair, Kemsing Primary School PTA, Kemsing, Kent (196 pupils)

More on events and activities