Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Charity Auctions - Tips and Suggestions

Over the past few days, I have noticed many groups of people starting fund-raising drives to help support the relief efforts in Japan. Since I have been heavily involved in helping coordinate charity auctions for various anime conventions, it occurred to me that people may be interested in learning a few tips and tricks I have picked up over time. Please note that I do not run auctions as a profession, but there may be some valuable information I can share after six years of trial and error. This is not meant to be a comprehensive step-by-step guide; just a basic overview of the process.


Before you accept donations for any reason, always check your state laws. In some states, charitable raffles may potentially infringe on local gambling laws, so do your homework ahead of time.

Choosing a Charity

Charitable organizations are simply everywhere. So, how does one go about making the right choice? First, think about what you want to accomplish. If you want to directly impact individuals, choose a charity that suits your needs. Always research the organization's non-profit status, as well as the percentage of donations that will directly support the cause you want to help. Some NPOs need a large amount of money to run their organization and this may make people feel uncomfortable. Also, be cautious when donating money to a third party. There is no guarantee they will disburse the funds they promise, so keep in mind that you are sending your hard-earned cash into the wild at your own risk.

Live and Silent Auctions

When you run either a live or a silent auction, the preparation beforehand can make the difference between raising $500 or $5,000. Organization is a key factor and while my experience is specific to auctions at anime conventions, some processes will work across the board. First, you need to understand your target audience. If you have a room full of anime fans, it’s difficult to try to auction items specific to other genres of entertainment. I’m not saying there will not be any crossover appeal, but I cannot stress enough that it’s better to choose your items based on what the majority of people are looking for. The higher the number of interested parties, the higher the likelihood of starting a bidding war. Period.

Once you have chosen your items, think of a way to organize the information. Create a document or spreadsheet with the description of each item and its estimated value. For gift baskets or items normally available for purchase, the SRP is usually a good gauge. If you have an autographed item, ballpark what you think it’s worth and add this to your documentation. You may have a specific goal amount for the total donation at the auction, so this will serve as a reality check to see if you are likely to meet expectations. It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that you can raise $10,000 with a $5 item, just improbable.

When values of all items have been estimated to the best of your ability, think of a starting bid. Use your eBay skills! We all know sellers do not want to part with an item at the opening bid price. Since the auctions I am discussing here are for charitable purposes, it is even more important to try to maximize the bidder amounts.

If you are holding a silent auction, create a bid sheet to place near the item. All bid sheets should have a detailed description of the object and enough space for people to write in their bids. The rest of the information on the bid sheet will depend on the circumstances of your auction. If you have a group of people who will stay at the event until the end, you can leave a space for their name. To be on the safe side, you may ask for an email address so you can get in touch with the winning bidder at the end of the auction.


At a live auction, your auctioneer is critical to the success of the event. If possible, choose someone who is a good public speaker, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the items, charity and sponsoring group. Always acquaint them with the items ahead of time and make sure they know how to pronounce names correctly. I cannot count the number of occasions where auctioneers were unfamiliar with the items and mispronounced multiple names. This does not instill a feeling of excitement in your bidders, so this is a position that cannot be phoned in for any reason. It’s a tough job to maintain a high level of energy for hours at a stretch, which is why I usually leave this task to someone far more qualified than myself.

During the Auction

I have found the greatest success happens when someone is keeping detailed records (that’s me!) during the auction itself. While people are busy looking at items or furiously screaming at each other during a bidding war, I usually stay hidden behind a laptop with a spreadsheet, documenting the total amounts for each item, as well as the total amount for the entire auction. It is also important to remember that people who are serious bidders will want more than one item. While the auction is running, I am busy compiling receipts for each person and sorting their items into piles. This greatly speeds up the checkout process at the end of the auction when 30-40 people want to make payments at the same time. No one wants to wait 30 minutes to pay after sitting in a room for four hours. No one.

Extra Stuff

Try to maintain a water station and a snack table. People are more likely to be in a good mood if they are not thirsty or hungry. Depending on how you are running the event, you can break up the monotony of the auction by giving away freebies. In the past, we have given each attendee a numbered ticket and chose prize winners at random all throughout the auction. This was a really big hit and discouraged a number of people from leaving the room to attend other events.

Payment Options

This is a tough subject to tackle because there are many potential pitfalls. In addition to accepting cash, credit cards are an absolute must. This can present a problem if you do not have a way to process credit card payments. Paypal and other similar services charge a processing fee and will cost quite a bit of money. They are also an electronic record of income that may come into play during tax season.

The best option I have found is to get in touch directly with the charitable organization and ask if they can be physically present at the event. Most organizations will be able to process credit cards at a lower cost due to their status as a non-profit. This way, you can guarantee that all of the money is going to a reputable source and your bidders will be able to obtain a receipt for tax purposes. If you have specific questions about taxes, get in touch with a CPA and not someone like me. I have no clue.

In closing, there is a wealth of information online about the subjects I have covered. If there are any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I will address them as best as I can. Organizing charity auctions isn’t a science, but with good organizational skills and hard work, you can make your auction a success. When a few more projects are underway, I will create a follow-up post with a list of donation resources from the anime community and industry. If you have read this far, thank you! I have worked for 12 hours and I fear I may be a bit incoherent at this point.

1 comment:

Cuckoo Armadillo said...

This is fantastic info and so timely! You are the best!