This is the fourth post in a series about holding your first fundraising event on a short timeline. While Greater Giving usually recommends our nonprofits start planning at least nine months ahead of time, that’s not always possible—so we created the The Definitive Guide to Successfully Running Your First Fundraising Auction to help you prioritize your time and resources on a short timeline. Watch for more tips, tricks, and time-saving ideas to get to the finish line.
Whether you’re a new organization, or this is just your first auction, soliciting auction items is a tough job.
Budgets are already tight, and convincing local businesses to donate items can be a tough sell when they don’t know you or your potential reach.
When most people think of soliciting auction items, they go wide. We tap our personal connections first, then visit every local business we know to ask for whatever donations they can spare. We send out a call to the organization, or school parents, asking for whatever they can get donated.
This usually results in receiving the items businesses have lying around that they can’t sell, or random donations from friends and family with no unifying idea or theme. And with a first-time event, often we have to take what we can get to fill out the catalog.
These “off-cut” items may not drive a ton of interest from your group (and maybe won’t even sell)—but you will learn what your audience is interested in buying for future solicitation opportunities. Most importantly, you’ll have established yourself with donors, and learned more about your audience for next year.
A Route to Better Auction Items
There’s another way to procure high quality auction items and secure higher auction sales: designing the package you want to sell with intention, and soliciting only what you need.
Imagine the sort of experience your audience would like or enjoy, and set out to design an appealing auction package around it. Some ideas to consider:
- Do you have a lot of wine lovers at your event? A winery tour with included transportation, and maybe even a nice accompanying dinner, would be a great package to offer in your auction.
- Perhaps your audience cares a lot about local or national sports. Can you procure seats for a future sporting event? A signed jersey, a baseball, a football? Both?
- For an outdoorsy crowd, you could put together a cool local camping experience or a rafting trip with accompanying equipment.
If you’re not sure what your audience might be after, ask them! Call up your sponsors, donors, and anyone else planning to attend, and learn about their interests. Include a few questions with your online ticket purchase about what people like to do in their free time and consider gearing your procurement around those areas of interest.
Once you know exactly what items you want, you can approach chosen businesses with specific asks. It’s easier for a decision-maker to respond to a targeted ask (“Can you donate a 24-ounce camping thermos?”) because they don’t have to think of something to donate—you’ve already told them what you need!
Instead you can focus your solicitation on selling your mission and your organization to the business. Why this cause, why now, and what’s in it for them?
Of course, creating a luxury package from scratch might be a pie in the sky for a lot of budding organizations. There are also plenty of smaller opportunities to be found locally! A great auction has a little of both—big and small packages to fit every budget, so every attendee can participate.
Think of the simple things everyone does. Ask your hairdresser for a gift card, or solicit a bakery you like, and create a package around that by soliciting similar or complementary items. Here are some more modest ideas:
- Spa day! Reach out to local estheticians, nail salons, and design a “day of pampering” package. Include some indulgence products like a fluffy towel or fancy chocolates.
- If you have a crowd that loves to cook, consider a basket of items for a specific recipe donated by a grocery store—or organize a group cooking class with a local chef!
- Lots of coffee lovers? Put together some baked goods, gourmet coffee beans, and solicit a kitchen store for a fancy brewing device.
And as always:
- Use photos of your beautiful packages in all your materials (catalog, online bidding platform, etc)
- Design a nice table placard to show off everything included in the package, and who donated it (because this is the big selling point to donors!)
- And, of course, make it clear how to bid!
More tips for first-time auction organizers
Sell Your Organization
Instead of soliciting item donations as charity, try to frame your ask as a mutually beneficial business arrangement. Offer something in return!
Before going into your solicitation meeting, have an idea of how many people will peruse the auction. Each person participating in the auction will see the business’s name and logo on the product being displayed, and this number of “eyes” is a great selling point for why they should donate.
You can also frame making a donation as a good PR move for the business. Partnering with nonprofit organizations gives a company’s brand the image of being charitable and philanthropic, which is good for everyone.
And all those guests who bid on an item and don’t win it? They’ll leave the event thinking about the item they wanted but missed out on, and might interact with the company on their own later (maybe to buy that thing for themselves!). The winner may become a repeat customer now that they’ve had their introduction to the company’s brand or products. It’s a great way for a business to get their name out to the community in an organic and positive way.