Don’t juggle with success: learn the optimum number of auction items for your fundraiser.

How many auction items should you have to raise the most money?

This is the number one question I am asked as a consultant and professional benefit auctioneer.  My answer — well, it depends.

There actually are a blend of five key factors to help you determine your optimum number of benefit auction items: first: what are your financial goals; second: what type of charity auction you are hosting; third, what else is happening at your event; and fourth: how many guests are attending your auction, and fifth: did you retain a professional auctioneer.

Remember, auction guests are increasingly strategic in their giving and bidding behaviors. Leverage this trend in the new economy — the old adage of LESS IS MORE applies liberally to reducing the number auction items – solicit fewer items for greater value.

Yikes! Less is More: greater value - fewer items!

Let’s review the symphony of fundraising event factors and some simple charity auction income forecasting formulas to determine the best number of auction items for your next benefit auction event.

1. How much money do you want to raise?

Think first about your financial goals for both the silent auction and the live auction?  Some simple auction revenue forecasting is invaluable here.

The most important factor is to calculate how well each of your auction items will sell to achieve your financial goal for the silent and live auctions. This will give you insight on how many items it will take to raise the money you need at your benefit auction.

Consider your Benefit Auction ROI! In business this is called the ROI or Return on Investment.  For benefit auctions, ROI can be called: Return on Items, which is the ratio between the value of the auction item and the final high bid. (For example, a live auction item of a vacation trip for four to the Caribbean for $4,000 sells for $3,000, this is a 75% return. Or, if you auction a VIP sold-out concert package with a meet and greet with the star and hotel and gourmet dinner for $5,000 and the value is $2,500, your ROI is 200%.)

When calculating your ROI return (auction item yield) consider how the items have historically performed in past auctions. Study the last three years of your live auction results to determine exactly what percent of value your items achieved. Understanding these numbers will assist you to forecast how many items it will take to reach and exceed your financial goals.  Go into your auction with you eyes open!

2. What type of charity auction event you are hosting?

This is a big factor because it will determine how much TIME you have to conduct your live auction! Decide what type of auction you will conduct before you can finalize the number of auction items. Why? Because each event type has unique characteristics that will affect your final number of items.  Did you know that there are 4 different categories of fundraising auctions: gala auctions, classic dinner auctions, school, youth and sports auctions, and specialty auctions such as wine, art and golf auctions.  All of these types of auction events raise significant funds for the organizations.

If you are hosting a gala auction, there are many other program elements that may occur during the event such as awards and dancing and the auction is just one but key fundraising activity. So you may conduct a live auction of only two to eight items of high value for the gala style auction.  (Oh, by the way: Bid Now and Dance Later at Gala Auctions.)

In the classic dinner auction the auction is the highlight of the event with no or few other activities other than silent auction, live auction, fund a need and some revenue activity games. For classic dinner auctions the average live auction number is about 8-12 live items.

School, youth and sports auctions are unique as they are typically THE main annual fundraiser event for parents, supporters, members, teams and alumni. The auction is the centerpiece and contains unique school specialty items such as class gifts and principal for the day with 15 – 40 live items.

For specialty fundraising auction items: golf, art and wine, each event has it’s own culture and varies from year to year. Here’s a benchmark for specialty auctions: fewer live items of higher value sold earlier is best as the attention span of the guests are limited due to many other program elements.  As you can see each category of benefit auction event has a different number of ‘right’ auction items. Let the history of the event, past results and the insights of the auction committees, staff and board guide you to factor in the best number of auction items each year.

3. What else is happening at your event?

In this new economy, guests are leaving earlier than ever – which means fewer items of higher value best sold as early as possible at our event. You must be strategic to offer fewer unique items to raise more money. Remember to focus on fundraising first. So, consider what other program elements are scheduled during your fundraiser. Is there a silent auction, a live auction, dinner, awards and dancing, entertainment? Get key members of your auction committee together and list out all the program elements and how much time you will allot to each element and create a minute-by-minute timeline.

(====>TIP FROM KATHY:  You are committing fundraising suicide if you hold your Live Auction and Fund a Need Appeal at the end of your benefit auction! Instead, conduct the Live Auction and Fund a Need Special Appeal BEFORE DINNER or DURING DINNER.)  

4. How many guests are attending your charity auction?

In many cases, guests tend to bid as a couple. So remember to consider the number of households attend. This in effect will cause your bidding population to be divided approximately divide by half. Seriously consider having fewer than one item per household. In fact, you many consider a 1:4 ratio for silent items– that is one item per every four guests.  If you flood your auction with too many items you can actually cause “bidder fatigue” and guests will be too tired and too confused. They actually stop bidding and leave your auction early.  Don’t risk loosing money with too many auction items!

5. Did you retain a professional auctioneer?

If you have retained a professional benefit auctioneer, congratulations. His or her pace will be about two minutes per item. Uniquely trained and dedicated to raising money for nonprofits, a professional benefit auctioneer will increase your net profits, engage your audience and generate fun and excitement. How? A professional auctioneer can sell more items than a volunteer or celebrity, plus he or she can maximize bidding and momentum that keeps those bid cards waving.  Volunteers or celebrities who conduct your live auction, will take as much as five plus minutes per item costing you time and loss of revenue. (The most expensive cost to you is sometimes a free volunteer auctioneer!)

Additionally, many professional auctioneers also provide invaluable pre-auction consultation to assist you to design your auction timeline, flow of the event, determine what goes in the silent auction and what goes into the live auction plus places your live auction items in the proper selling order to maximize excitement and fundraising.

Each auction and organization is unique, some auctions have 200+ auction items and some have only three. It’s important to consider and review all five factors to determine just right number of items for a record breaking benefit auction!

Need help? If you or your auction committee needs assistance on the best number of auction items for your fundraiser, feel free to contact Kathy Kingston at kathy@kingstonauction.com or 603-926-1919.

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