Don't Abandon Your Silent Auction - Yet

The silent auction is one of the most exciting and engaging profit centers for gala attendees and can be very profitable. Most silent auctions target raising 65% of value and considering that all items are donated the number really should be 100% profit. The issues that turn off event planners and volunteers is the amount of time and energy associated with storing, cataloging, setting up and night of processing has caused the silent auction to become near extinct. I can't think of a single paid event planner who wants to include the silent auction process as part of their management proposal. Add that the software and services like BidPal are pricey, it doesn't seem worth doing a silent auction at all. I disagree. If your attendees like the silent auction and if your silent auction is carefully thought out and items are chosen by desire and value every gala should include a silent auction. 


A silent auction does not have to be huge. 20 years ago I used a plan I call the Value Per Minute Formula. I suggested one item for every guest. 200 guests would mean 200 items that were not part of the live auction. That can mean silent items, raffle prizes, giveaways and bidder incentives and bidder rewards. In those days there were fewer auctions and items were much easier to acquire. Today the competition for acquisitions is pretty tough and fewer women are stay at home moms with the time to volunteer hours upon hours procuring. Stay at home moms now operate home businesses and are busier than their 9-5 partners. The gala model must evolve based on the available free labor force. Very few event planners procure and very few event planners want to devote a minute to setting up and managing the silent. Hence the constant negative jabber about the silent auction and putting this fun profit center to sleep for good.

I suggest that every organization think about their supporters and what rings those guests chimes. The silent auction is for everyone. The games are for everyone. The raffles are for everyone. The live auction appeals to limited segment of your guests and the Ask often feels exclusive as well. I strongly feel that all your guests should connect with one or more profit centers and feel just as honored as the bigger spenders who attend. Shape your silent auction around what you know to be true from past events. If the silent has too many items, take 20% of the lowest price items and move them to a prize table. This will create multiple winners from the grand prize raffle. The prize table can be the source of all prizes for all games. Managing prizes is easy. The prizes are displayed and tagged with the donors name and displayed attractively on one more tables.

Read more about games and prizes here.

I wrote and produced the Money is Marvelous audio series a decade ago and it's still worth listening too. Scroll down and look through the exhibits in this post and try to avoid the obvious pitfalls that many people make due to lack of experience. 

The post below was written about a decade ago and much of this advice holds true today.

Successful Silent Auction 

A silent auction should increase visibility and stimulate business for donors while raising money and fostering good will for the organization. To do that, we must eliminate confusion and make it easy and fun for people to bid and win.

It takes a village

I like to think of an auction arena as destination full of interesting people, places and things.  Try this little exercise.  Imagine you are walking through the woods and as you peer through the trees you come upon a beautiful little village filled with laughter and chatter.  Music is playing, colorful lights and merriment abounds. Well appointed servants greet you with trays of delicious food and drink. You are surrounded by unique gifts and adventures all different from the other. You are a stranger, but you sense that you are a special guest and somehow everyone is expecting you! With every step your excitement builds as you discover fabulous stores with one amazing thing after another to buy. You continue to venture deeper into the village. There is so much to see you become confused.  As you wander about you decide you’d like to return to the beginning of your trek and buy something from the first shop you visited. Although just a few minutes have passed, the village sidewalks are now crowed with 300 people obliterating the storefronts. You look for a familiar face, a distinctive color, a sign marking the storefront. Our brain searches for clues to guide us to a familiar destination. We use our senses to navigate. What we see, hear, smell and touch guides us to a familiar destination.

Your Setup is Their Map

A silent auction is very much like this imaginary village. The setup of the tables, the colors we use, the signage and the physical displays are clues that guide shoppers in discovering the treasures up for auction.

Four Keys To Silent Auction Success

  1. The Silent Auction Bid Sheet

  2. The Point of Sale Displays

  3. The Position of the Display Tables

  4. The Management Procedures

Four Sales Traps

  1. Confusing Bid Sheets

  2. Crowded Displays

  3. Poor Traffic Pattern

  4. Shortsighted Procedures

Silent Auction Bid Form

The silent auction bid form is not simply a sheet of paper for writing down bids. It is a sales and management tool. The layout of the form, the item description and the mathematical formula and even the type size and physical placement of the form on the table influences bidding activity and the final sale. The bid form is also a procedure and critical for efficient inventory management.

What makes a good silent bid form?

  1. Size: 81/2” x 11”

  2. NCR paper: 2 or 3 parts

  3. Fonts: Arial or Times New Roman

  4. Type: 12, 14, or 16 point

  5. Include a descriptive Title Line

  6. Include a short description

  7. Bold Business Name and Location

  8. Opening Bid

  9. Bid Increments

  10. Item Value

  11. Guaranteed Bid Amount

  12. Bid Number and Bidder Name

What makes a bad silent bid form?

  1. Half sheet: horizontal or vertical

  2. Fancy fonts

  3. Small type

  4. Long description

  5. No printed bid increments

  6. No opening bid

  7. Too high opening bid

  8. No guaranteed bid

  9. Too high guaranteed bid

  10. No donor name

  11. No business donor address

  12. No business donor contact information

  13. No place for the bidders name

  14. Vague Title

  15. One sheet

Anything less or a deviation from the above data will likely result in reduced sales. The look of the form should be simple and easy to read and include important information to help sell the item to the lookers. Use these tips for all printed materials, slide presentations and signage.

  1. AVOID USING ALL CAPS. The normal use of upper and lowercase characters is easier to read.

  2. Use italics rather than underlining to emphasize a point. Underlining makes characters with descenders, e.g., y, g, p difficult to read.

  3. Skip proper punctuation. Punctuation marks can be difficult to see and take up space.

  4. Use a large font size. Bid sheets are read from a distance of three to four feet and catalogs are oftenread in dim light by people who left their glasses at home. No less than 12 point or 14 point. 16 point type for title lines.

  5. A good rule of thumb for the length of a description for the silent bid sheet is 2 lines and an additional line for listing the neighborhood or restrictions and caveats.

  6. Use a simple sans serif font, e.g., Times New Roman or Arial. Never use script or clever fonts for important information.

  7. Leave a border of white space around your text.

Charity auction software offers the ability to create a silent auction bid form from the data base. Some programs may not allow you to choose some of the features that create a good sales tool.

Silent auction sales are a completely visual transaction.

The decision to place a bid is made in 3-6 seconds. The form needs to be simple, easy to read and give all the details in few words to provoke an action. Use full size bid forms. Half size bid forms do not have enough space to print the information in the format the brain requires to absorb the information.  

Always include the donor’s name or brand on the silent auction bid sheet. The donors name is a selling attribute. Make sure to include the location of the business i.e. physical location and/or web address. People tend to bid on items that are easy to redeem in the neighborhoods they work and live in. If you want to create an alliance with the business community put the location or neighborhood as part of the title line for every item donated by a business. The bid sheet becomes an advertisement and increases bidding activity. I once bought an auto detail in another county. Redeeming the certificate was so inconvenient we will never go back. More importantly, had the address been on the signage, another bidder living in the neighborhood may have bought the service and become a good customer for that detailer. 

Remember this is a shopping experience. People need to know immediately what is being offered for sale. Tangible items are easier to sell than items that require an imagination, like services and trips. Buyers want quick information.

Example:  A weekend stay at a hotel is often referred to as a “Romantic Getaway”. This tells the buyer nothing other than they might get lucky.  Rather use the following title description:

“2 nights 3 days and Brunch Hyatt Regency Bellevue”.

The buyer will envision how this package will fit into their life. The description can include the caveats: Monday through Friday. Excludes New Year’s Eve. Expires one year from today.

Here are a few examples of title lines commonly used. I’ve modified the wording to reflect what is actually being sold.

NO Pamper your wife with a weekday getaway  YES Snoqualmie Falls Lodge for 2

NO Queen for the Day   YES Bridgewater Spa Massage, Lunch, Manicure

NO Car Care Package    YES Jim’s Auto Detail, Lube, Oil, Filter

NO Girls Night Out  YES Scotts Bar & Grill for 6

In the description field think business card marketing-use about as many words as you will find on a typical business card. Do not use any clever or colorful wording to describe silent auction items, experiences or services. Shoppers take approx 4 seconds to read the bid sheet and view the display..

Printed bid increments make the bidding process simple and predictable. Bidders cannot decipher or do math, period.  Before you purchase software make sure it offers pre-printed increments, opening bids and guaranteed bids. Without those sales tools a silent bid sheet is worthless to the sales process.

The opening bid will either stimulate bidding or turn bidders away. I think it’s a good idea to start with a low opening bid at about 25% of value and a guaranteed bid amount of varying values.  The opening bid should be low enough that one person starts the bidding just because they can. A low opening bid says “Gee this is so cheap, I might win if nobody else catches on”. Now that item is on sale or discounted in the buyer’s mind. They are engaged and invested in the auction game and hoping to get a deal. There is nothing wrong with wanting to get a bargain. We all have stiff around our house that we’ve purchased just because it was on sale, even if the savings was just 10%. If the item has broad appeal other buyers will bid and compete and before you know it a bidding war has started and the item will sell at value or higher.

The guaranteed bid was created with the idea that some items are more desirable than others and for the sake of the cause, bidders will pay much more than value in order to win the item. Rare items and experiences along with items with broad appeal usually attract a guaranteed bid. Sometimes a buyer will use the guaranteed bid out of frustration, simply because their desire fuels their determination to win. The sale amount may bring in double or triple value and therefore guaranteed bids are set usually 50 to 200% over value. Usually a small percentage of items will sell at the guaranteed bid. Examine the sales records from previous years and find out how many items sold on the guaranteed bid and the total dollars over value. Next, look at how many items sold under value and the total value of those items. Those numbers will tell you if setting the guaranteed bid over value is working for your buying demographic.

Remember the village?

Just imagine for a moment that 300 people enter any store anywhere and have 2 hours to peruse the entire inventory of the store. Factor in that hardly any two items are alike and all the merchandise is overpriced. As you can see, there is no other retail shopping experience like this. For buyers to pay overvalue they have to be convinced and sold on making a purchase. Keep in mind 70% of shoppers pay retail for most purchases, 20% want a deal and 10% pay the marked price. So plan your sales strategy around the way the public is conditioned to buy and adjust the opening bids, bid increments and guaranteed bid around the timeline and type of inventory being sold.

Use the guaranteed bid as a sales too.  It can be under value, over value or at value. Think of setting the guaranteed bid undervalue on the first silent as part of the Early Bird Hour. Set the second silent closing at value and the final closing over value. The goal is to sell items immediately which moves inventory out of the buying process into the reconciliation process, saving the clerking team time. By reducing available product early, bidders tend to buy remaining items at a higher price. Items rarely remain unsold.

The Super Silent or Almost Live

Sometimes procurement is so successful that many items could be live auction items but adding those items to the live would make the live auction ridiculously long. Consider creating another silent section commonly referred to as “Almost Live” or “Super Silent”. This silent closes during the live auction and is setup near or in the live auction arena. Limit the number of items in this silent to 10-20 items. The closing for this silent is immediately following the Paddle Raise.

The Silent Auction Setup

The layout of the silent auction area influences how people move through the venue. They are typically set in place by the venue staff and commonly arranged in long sections in the center of the room with tables along the perimeter of the room. This arrangement does not take advantage of the retail real estate and sales flow and works against competitive bidding.  It is important to remember that an auction is a competition requiring a visual sizing up of that competition. Tables positioned against the wall do not allow for cross table viewing. Buyers need to see each other bidding and respond quickly to another competitor. They need to discover and retain a visual destination and then return to bid again and again and again. Tables positioned end to end in long rows block the ability to make a quick return and place a bid.

It is more fun to group draped banquet tables in sets of four to 6 tables in varied configurations. These smaller configurations offer versatile display space, cross table viewing of the bidding competition. Shortening the linear path allows the buyer to move quickly from section to section and from item to item. These groupings also create another visual checkpoint so the bidder is able to find their way back to the items they are bidding on. Color code each silent section from the linens to the signage and colorful props. Use table configurations that compliment the items and create the feeling of separation or departments. Departments flush out a buyer’s interests and entice couples to split up and purchase separately. The fact is, people spend more money when they shop alone in the department of their choice.

Title cards are the display signs placed directly behind the item to draw bidders attention to the item and the silent bid form. They do not have to be identical in size and should be color coded to match the corresponding silent section. The text should be at least 36 point type and list the name of the donation and the donor’s name.  If possible, do not crowd title cards and bid forms or the displays. A legible title card will guide bidders back to the item during the competitive bidding process. Your goal is to make it fast and easy for people to bid repeatedly during countdown to close.

Make sure the silent auction area is free of tripping hazards. Tape down electrical cords and avoid using shaky tables and displays. Use table easels for art rather than floor easels and avoid placing items on the floor.

Point of sale displays are the actual displays that accompany the donated items. Encourage donors to provide product displays, risers, forms, hangers, whatever is needed to give their donation pizzazz. Invite them to include 10 brochures, 10 business cards and coupons and anything that might entice people to take a closer look at the donation. Those sales tools will increase buyer interest and bidding activity.


The slides below are a good example of silent auction setups that each has some good sales movement and display along with sales barriers. Use the arrangement that promotes competitive buying with the ability to monitor multiple bids and short distances between tables.