Musings On Silent Auctions

Give a Little Bit / Sunday, November 5th, 2017

Musings On Silent Auctions, Raffles, Basket Fundraisers

True story. I’ve been a nonprofit professional all my life. And I’ve probably planned approximately a million fundraisers, give or take a few hundred thousand. And the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that I CAN’T stand silent auction, raffle, basket fundraisers and benefits.

The mere thought of walking into an event and seeing a hundred gift baskets, wrapped in a festive seasonal bow with a clever name attached makes my skin crawl. Someone had to make that basket, that someone, many times a person just like you and me who is a volunteer or a supporter of the organization holding another annual fundraiser. (If you’re lucky there’s only one…many times there are several a year. Same organization.)

There’s the wine and chocolate basket, the lottery basket, the relax and pamper basket, the kid related basket, the outdoorsy type basket, the kitchen basket, the doggy parent basket, the basket o’cheer, the movie basket. The many pieces of artwork that are listed as “priceless.” And the oh so many gift certificates for $10-$100 for local restaurants.

I once donated an adult coloring book basket.

At the last minute the committee in charge tries to pull together baskets made of orphan donations by well-intentioned donors.  Oh crap, four coupons worth $25 off an iPhone purchase? A $10 gas card? A salt and pepper shaker set valued at $25?  No one is going to bid on these things. Or they might bid out of obligation because that is what YOU are EXPECTED to do at one of these events, but well, a salt and pepper shaker set? Um.

And oh wait, isn’t that a gift basket of random essential oils that was at last silent auction?

Most of the time, most of the items don’t even go for the value. So a lovely small business that donates a $100 hat/glove/scarf combo from their store, really ends up becoming a $45 donation from the winning bidder.

Small businesses and large businesses and volunteers and their friends are asked over and over and over for donations for events. There’s never a shortage of asks.

That lovely $100 gift certificate for a dinner out? Just sold for $32. WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER for the bidder, but not for the organization.

It’s difficult to get around to all the baskets while trying to mingle with people you know and getting drinks and appetizers. If you do get around and put some bids out there, the chance of you getting back to put another bid—well I guess it depends on how much you REALLY want that one-year membership to a gym valued at $400, but—-sold for $63.

Sure, sure there’s an occasional gem that everyone loves that might get into a bidding war and go above value. Usually involving booze or lottery tickets. But I would estimate that in my not-very-statistical but years of practice background with these events—probably 80% of the donations don’t end up bringing in the value they are worth.

And it makes me sad.

Don’t even get me started on the live auctions. Same idea. Rare RARE occasion that it goes for what it is valued.

The other side of the coin—-setting starting bid amounts for these baskets. If you set too high, people aren’t going to bid. It’s the idea that you have the chance to get a good deal that makes the competitive nature of this game work. A $100 valued item with a $35 bid? Nyah. Pass. But if it had a $10 bid? And the next person says $15. And then wait when did it go to $30—NOW THAT $35 bid is a steal because there’s no way your neighbor Joe is gonna beat you!


I’ve found that if baskets are going to be involved at all, I prefer the random chance bidding. Where you walk in the door, by an arm full of tickets for $20 and get your chance to win whatever basket you choose. Put in 100 tickets if you love it. Put one in each if you are feeling lucky. Pretty much everyone attending the event will purchase tickets—right? It’s what is expected of you! Everyone buys 50/50 tickets not expecting to win. Same concept.


Keep it simple. Let’s say you have 10 baskets “worth” $100 each. WOOO! That’s $1000 in donations! RIGHT?

  • 3 made $100= $300
  • 2 made $75 = $150
  • 5 made $50 = $250
  • 2 made $25 = $50

$750. 10 people won 10 baskets at about $75 per person.

But 100 people attended the event. Let’s say 60 of these people came in pairs. 40 with friends.

  • 30 people spend $20 on tickets = $600
  • 30 people spend $10 on tickets =$300
  • 25 people spend $10 on tickets =$250
  • 15 people spend $0 on tickets =$0

$1150. 10 people won 10 baskets at average of $13.52 per person.

To me, this is a no-brainer. One quick look at the baskets and then drop in your ticket! Visit with friends. Eat some food, go check on that gift certificate for a free tattoo worth $100 and see there aren’t that many tickets in the drawing, decide to buy $10 more in tickets on the way to the bar because you’re feeling lucky.

Like I said, MOST people attend these fundraisers expecting to spend at least $10-$20 on a raffle chance or even win a basket for $50-$100. When people lose out on silent auction bids, the organization loses out on donations.

In reality? I would pay more for a ticket for an event where I didn’t feel like I had to spend my time creating a basket to give as a donation in the first place. So many SO MANY of the donations you see at these events are purchased by volunteers of the organization, out of their own pocket book—-just to make sure there are enough items to make it an event. It breaks my heart—-just make that $50-$500 donation instead. At least a dollar donation is guaranteed to be, worth the value of the donation.