Benefit Auction Planning Basics

Benefit Auction Basics

Planning a Benefit Auction: The Basics

As budgets shrink for schools, churches, and other non-profit organizations, more and more are adopting an annual benefit auction to fill the gap. An auction utilizes community connections and resources to generate revenue—and they’re a fun, community-building event, guaranteed to stir up enthusiasm and excitement for your cause.

Are you thinking about holding an auction? Well, here are some tips to keep in mind before you even start planning to make sure your event goes off without a hitch.

Start Planning Early

It takes time to scout and secure a venue, solicit and collect auction items, and recruit volunteers. Give yourself at least eleven months for the entire planning process before setting your event date.

  1. Outline your auction goals.
  2. Put together a realistic budget.
  3. Break the entire auction down into a timeline, and
  4. Create a detailed task list—with dates by which each item needs to be accomplished and wrapped up.


How many people do you expect at your auction? Choose a venue that can easily and comfortably accommodate your group. You’ll want to start thinking about entertainment and catering.


What’s the theme of your event? Put decorating on your to-do list, too, and consider what you might be able to get donated, or what you’ll have to buy yourself, to make auction night special for your guests.

Budgeting & Planning

While in-kind donations of items and services can make up for some of your hard costs, you’ll still need to make use of selling tickets and sponsorships to cover the rest. If you start planning far enough in advance, you can make a budget to meet—and exceed—your revenue goal.

Don’t Go It Alone

Establish an auction chair and an auction co-chair, who can put together a committee of staff and volunteers into areas of responsibility, or “teams”:

  • Procurement for the Silent and/or Live Auction
  • Invitations and Ticket Sales
  • Decorations and Set-up
  • Event Registration & Check-out
  • Volunteer coordinator
  • Entertainment
  • Item Pickup
  • Clean-up

Task-oriented Timeline

Create a task timeline that outlines each of your key event night activities, and all of the relevant planning tasks required in each area. Set a deadline for each task, and assign them to members of your auction committee. Establish who will do what by when. A timeline also sets a clear expectation with your staff and volunteers of what their responsibilities are and the required time commitment leading up to event night.

Staffing and Volunteers

Be sure to follow up regularly with committee members on action items—ask for progress reports to ensure consistent movement, and hold occasional recap meetings to stay on track as a group.

And how many volunteers should you have? On event night, it’s a good idea to plan for one volunteer for every 10 guests you expect. You’ll need volunteers to help set up and tear down, to work registration, to act as spotters during the live auction, and to staff checkout and item pickup. For a 250-person event, for example, you’ll be looking at six volunteers for registration, nine for set-up and take down, four spotters in the auction, and another six at item pick-up.

Seeking Attention-Grabbing Items

You want to get items for your auction that will appeal to your crowd and drive bids high. When you send out your procurement volunteers to solicit auction items, think about what will appeal to your target bidder, including their likes and interests; experiences, activities, or goods that are unique or not easy to buy; and consider what’s within their budget range.

At a school auction, for example, you could auction a family ski trip, the latest entertainment system, or a mother/daughter outing. Put kids’ artwork up for bid—parents can’t resist bidding on artwork made by their own children.

Use What You’ve Got

Getting great items is all about networking. Your procurement committee should be willing to go out and solicit not just local businesses and donors, but their employers, friends, and family.

Give committee members specific target categories, such as electronics, restaurants, entertainment and hotels. What connections do your committee members have? Who do they know? Make use of those relationships. Don’t be afraid to ask. Remember: you’re not asking for you, but for your charity.

Promoting Your Event

Start publicizing your event well in advance of the date—you want plenty of time to reach your audience and establish some visibility for your new auction before the big night.

Spread the Word

Establish a task-oriented timeline for publicity the same way you did for planning your auction.

  • Send out a “Save the Date” notice at least six months out from your event.
  • Six to eight weeks from the event date, mail out event invitations.
  • Recruit a local television or radio station to sponsor and promote the event.
  • Ensure your website includes current information about the event.
  • Update it often with links to buy tickets, auction item previews, and other important event details.

Tap Your Resources

Utilize any public relations or advertising opportunities you have to help increase your event’s visibility, including sponsors and volunteers, auction beneficiaries, and item donors.

Target publications for advertising your auction that will reach your key audience, such as a school flyer, local newspaper, or wine trade magazine. Offer benefits in exchange for publicity.

Hype It

Don’t forget to promote the items you’ve worked so hard to get! Showcase them in your online catalog prior to the event and generate some excitement around your auction.

Leverage an online auction, and put up a unique set of items for online bidding to allow donors who can’t attend the event to share in the fun. Give bidders as many ways as you can to contribute to the cause, even in absentia.

A 21st Century Fundraising Event

Fundraising technology is rapidly evolving. Now, with the streamlining of event night tasks, and a boost in revenue potential from expanded bidding methods (online auctions and mobile bidding), even small organizations can now afford to adopt new technologies.

Going mobile with an auction instead of pen-and-paper, using event management software—these products save you time during the planning and procurement process, as well as automating tedious event night tasks, so you can focus on fundraising.

Tools of the Trade

Event management software, for example, helps you manage the entire auction planning process from start to finish:

  • Procurement
  • Organizing volunteers
  • Selling tickets and tracking sponsor guests
  • Recording event night bids
  • Generating receipts

Adopting payment processing technology streamlines check-in, can virtually eliminate cashiering, gets funds to you quickly and lowers credit card fees, so more funds directly benefit your organization.

Wrapping Up

Even after the auction is over, there’s still work to be done. Thank your volunteers and staff for their hard work and dedication. Be sure to send appreciation letters to attendees and donors, emphasizing the importance of their contributions and highlighting the critical programs and services they are helping fund.

Make sure every participant feels good about their contribution, and they’ll come again next year.


Host a post-event meeting with volunteers and staff to discuss what went well, and what can be improved for next year. Make sure that the recap is positive and constructive. You worked hard to put on your event; celebrate your successes as a group.

Next Year

Early and thoughtful investment returns great dividends. With careful consideration and planning, auctions can be terrific fundraisers, social gatherings, and community-building events.

Having a great benefit auction is about establishing and nurturing your supporter base. Think about the following ways you can boost your organization’s relationships throughout event planning and execution:

  • Maximize visibility for sponsors and they’ll come back year after year.
  • Show donors and attendees a great time, and they’ll go away feeling a new connection with your cause. Use an event to turn a one-time guest into a lifetime supporter.
  • Demonstrate your appreciation for the hard work of your staff and volunteers with team-building activities and a meaningful thank-you.

Good luck with your event!

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