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by By Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | May 01, 2010

One of the more popular ways for companies and associations to raise funds for charities, scholarships or foundations is by staging a so-called silent auction -- an auction that dispenses with an auctioneer. There is a true art and science to planning a successful bidding event. To ensure that yours is foolproof, consider the following:

How they work Silent auctions traditionally are set in prefunction or function areas with the highest foot traffic.

Auction items (or photos of the items) typically are donated by sponsors and displayed on tables, which attendees can peruse during the set auction time. Atten­dees can make their bids on sheets placed next to the items, with a starting bid amount established.

Auction start and end times are very strict and are noted on bidding sheets. The end of the auction usually is announced over a PA system, and bidding sheets are collected. Winners are announced at a designated time or they can be posted via electronic signage.

At the close, the winning bidders pay for their purchases. Cash and checks are easiest; for credit cards, you'll need a point-of-sale system, which costs thousands of dollars to set up if your company does not already have one. A better option is to set up an account on PayPal for a fraction of the cost.

First steps Once the event date and time have been set, sponsors and gifts or services need to be secured.

Be sure there are a variety of items and a range of price points -- for example, items available for a minimum bid of $50, as well as marquis items with bids starting at $1,000. You can sabotage your auction if you have too many items for bid in proportion to the number of attendees, as well as items too similar in nature or not in sync with attendees' tastes.

To set bid minimums, most pros recommend asking for half the item's retail value. Since multiple bids are what drive the fun and revenue of the event, you should also set bid increments (e.g., $25 per bid).  

Build buzz prior to the auction: Showcase photos and descriptions of notable items for bid on the event website and via social networks such as Twitter, e-mail newsletters or printed materials. While it's not necessary to include a starting bid in promos, be sure to list the retail values.

Tools of the Trade Among the various elements and tools you'll need for the day of the auction:

• A payment system
• A lock box (for cash, checks, credit card slips)
• Pencils and pens
• Bidding sheets (Micro­soft makes great ones, found here: tinyurl.com/y68qfrs)
• Draped tables, typically six feet long, to display auction items
• Spot or strategic lighting for key items
• Brief, detailed descriptions of items
• Staff and volunteers to answer any questions about the process and/or items, take payments, etc.

Post-event ploys Even in the best-planned silent auctions, there might be some items that don't receive a minimum bid. But there still are ways to solicit offers, generating revenue after the event. First, contact individuals who were invited but were unable to attend. Items also can be sold at specialty online auctions like ReadySetAuction.com, BiddingForGood.com or even eBay. (Note: Make sure you get permission from the donor first.)

As a last resort, items can be offered as gifts for volunteers or VIPs, saved for future auctions or even offered back to the donors.