Live Auction: Bringing in the Dough

Our landlord offered my roommate and I tickets to a fundraising event happening close to our apartment last night. There’s not much we love more than a random adventure, so we of course accepted. This event in particular was called Funding the Foundation, and it was a fundraiser for the Old Strathcona Foundation – we were happy to have the chance to support our historic neighbourhood.

Whyte Avenue, part of Old Strathcona
Whyte Avenue, part of Old Strathcona

The night included live and silent auction items, food from various Old Strathcona restaurant locations, live music, and other entertainment in the form of a magician and an improv group. I was happy to have the opportunity to attend a fundraising event given that I am in the process of planning two of my own (the Hummingbird Gala on October 19, and the Halloween Howl on October 27), and I always love to see what other organizations are doing for events like this.

We definitely enjoyed the evening – spending our time eating, bidding on silent auction items (the live ones were out of our budgets) and chatting with the auctioneers. The event took place at the ATB Arts Barns, which was a great venue for the size of the event – there were definitely less than 100 people in attendance. At the end of the night, I took home a set of music lessons from the silent auction… I’ve got plans to resume my attempt to learn to play the guitar.

Throughout the night, I was at my event coordinator best. Between planning a large gala event at work and chatting with the auctioneers, I could not escape thinking about things I would have done differently. One area that could have been looked at a little more strategically was the live auction. They had only three items, they were all trips (to Whistler, to Quebec, and a VIA Rail trip), and one of them did not even sell. I personally think there was not the right crowd in the room to sell 3 large items like that. If I were running this event, I would have looked at including a couple smaller live auction items – experience packages that were a little unique, which could also function to “warm up” the crowd and loosen people’s grips on their money. Things like a hot air balloon ride, any sort of day-long excursion trips, or passes to one of Edmonton’s many festivals may have worked well. Given that I am apparently full of opinions on this topic I want to take this opportunity to outline a few things that I’ve learned about running a live auction.


1) Hire a professional auctioneer.

Most auctioneers can be invaluable resources for you leading up to your auction, providing expertise on how to present your items, what order to put them in, and how to get the biggest bang for your buck. Remember, this is their living – you hire a plumber to fix your sink, or a mechanic to fix your car, so why not hire an auctioneer to auction your items off? These guys see so many fundraising events and they are just full of ideas as well as past knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

2) Know your room.

It is important to know who will be in the room for the event. How much money will they be willing to drop on an item? What types of items will interest your audience? How many items will the room be able to afford? For example, at the event I went to last night, there was not enough money in the room to support three trips. Tickets to attend were only $40, so it’s far more likely that the people in that room won’t be able to drop thousands of dollars each on auction items. I’m not saying that is out of the question, but I think it would have been far more effective to auction off more items at a lower price point.

3) Give thorough descriptions.

When people are bidding on items, especially things like travel, it is important to make the audience aware of all the details about the item. I know that personally, I always feel that anyone who’s spending thousands of dollars on something that I am advertising needs to feel extremely happy that they bought it. Often, with fundraising events, you have a returning crowd year after year, and you don’t want to alienate any attendees by having some “negative press” about an item you sold the year before. If the guests are aware of what it is they are buying (ie. extra fees, black out dates, etc.), then they will be less likely to be upset when they cash in on their purchase.

4) Provide variety.

This is one of the points I brought up earlier with regards to the event I was at last night. If you are going to have three items in your auction, they probably shouldn’t all be travel items.  You could incorporate unique experience packages for right in your town, larger physical items (such as musical instruments, sporting equipment, or electronics), or opportunities to go to local events. The possibilities are endless.

5) People have enough “stuff”.

There are a few points I want to make under this tip. The first is that experiences sell. In today’s world, most people are up to their ears in junk, so though they want to support your cause, they might not be willing to take anything that can clutter up their life home with them.  For this reason, the opportunity to do something cool will often sell much better than a physical item. So unless you know that you will have someone in the room that will want a specific large physical item, think carefully about how you include it.

The next point that I want to make under this tip is that it is important to do an ask for straight donations at some point during the night. Many people don’t have the time for experiences and don’t want to take home junk, but really care about your cause. Others might not have the disposable income to purchase any of your live or silent auction items, but would donate a smaller amount. It is important to make sure that everyone in the room has the opportunity to give, whether in the form of a donation container that you call attention to during the program, an envelope at each place setting, or any other creative idea you can come up with.

I think that’s all from me for today. Have you ever been to an event with a live auction? What types of unique items did it have? How were they presented? What are your live auction tips and tricks? I’m always looking for new and exciting ideas!

Love KG