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Your Best Nonprofit Auction Ever: Top Items, Procurement Tips, and Templates to Make It Happen

July 5, 2022
7 minutes

Giving back feels great, but part of the allure of an auction is giving back while getting something for yourself, too. So, it stands to reason that a truly awesome auction is one that features an array of jaw-dropping, must-have items and experiences.

But what auction items make donors raise their paddles and up their bids with abandon? That’s why we’re gathered here today, auctioneers. First, we’ll cover some general tips, tricks, and how-tos for procuring auction items. Then, we’ll dive into a veritable smorgasbord of auction items that are sure to drive a bidding war. Finally, we’ll share three auction templates to make all your auction dreams a reality.

Auction item tips and tricks

You’re doing an auction—congratulations! Now that you’re committed, you have a lot of planning to do to make it a success. And, as we’ve discussed, a big part of that success lies in your auction item bounty. As you embark on your auction item procurement journey, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind to gather items that are sure to sell.

Before the auction…

  1. Carefully consider whether you want to do a live auction, silent auction, or both. Then, consider which items you’ll include in each. Gift baskets and lower-value items work best in a silent auction. Save the big-ticket items and life-changing experiences for the live auction.
  2. Start the item procurement process early! Honestly, the earlier the better—but we’d say six months before the event is the absolute latest.
  3. Assemble an amazing (and very extroverted) procurement team. This can be development staff members, board members, and/or volunteers. Everyone should be outgoing, organized, and unafraid to ask everyone they know (and many they don’t) to help out.
  4. Stay organized. Have a shared spreadsheet to keep track of who’s asking who, who’s already been asked, items acquired, and next steps. Use procurement forms to capture donor information, track items, and keep everything above board.
  5. Create an auction item wishlist. Brainstorm all your dream items, write them down, and share them with your procurement team and board members. It’ll help guide and inspire everyone throughout the procurement process.
  6. Don’t overdo it. While you don’t want folks bemoaning their still-overflowing wallet at the end of the night, you do want to prioritize quality over quantity.
  7. Promote your items well in advance. Like any event, an auction is much more successful when you publicize it. And your items can help! Advertise your best and brightest auction offerings on social media, in marketing emails, on the event website, and via text. Unveil these exciting goodies one at a time to build anticipation.

At the auction…

  1. List it out. A paper program (we’re so old-fashioned!) helps guests know what to expect—and you can list out the big-ticket items to build excitement and let bidders know when to get those paddles (or phones) ready.
  2. Never publish item prices! After all, technically it’s all priceless because bidders are also bidding on the opportunity to do good. (Yeah, we’re using the term “technically” very loosely).
  3. Make silent auction items look ah-may-zing. Put them on pedestals, drape them in ribbons, and frame them with balloons. The better things look, the more folks want to bid.
  4. Make a special appeal item. Remember that not everyone who attends your event wants to walk away with an actual item—but everyone there wants to support your cause. Include a special appeal, as well as a silent auction item that allows folks to fund activities at your organization (e.g., $50 = one tutoring session), so that everyone has the opportunity to give.
  5. Space out the good stuff. Scatter the best silent auction items around the room rather than having them all in one place. If it’s an online silent auction, intersperse them throughout the digital catalog.
  6. Stagger your silent auction closing times to build anticipation. Further, having some items close after the live auction can ensure everyone sticks around until the end.

Procuring swoon-worthy swag items for your auction

In addition to great auction items, the best events include some swag so that no one walks home empty-handed. If you’re on the swag train, here are a few things to keep in mind as well as some swag-spiration that’s sure to put some swagger in your guests’ steps. (We just can’t help ourselves.)

  • Swag branded with your nonprofit’s logo keeps on giving by promoting your organization long after your event has ended. If non-donors see your swag, they see your organization. For this reason, consider swag that supporters can wear (beanies!) or take out and about (eco-friendly water bottles!). Raising donor spirits and raising brand awareness at the same time? It’s a win-win.
  • Try Insta-worthy swag—and share your hashtag. If supporters share photos across social media, you’ll benefit from free advertising.
  • Keep it green. We know money is tight, but buying poorly made goods that are going to wind up in a landfill benefits no one. In fact, since so many donors are concerned with the environment, those items that seemed like a great deal might actually turn some people off from supporting your cause.
  • Looking to get swag without taking a chunk out of your event budget? First, ask your event sponsors. Sure, they’ll get promoted—but they’ll also foot the bill.
  • Some larger corporations will donate bulk products. Focus on organizations that align with your nonprofit’s work and get that online application in as early as possible.
  • Try a virtual swag bag. Different businesses donate lots of small gift cards—say, one free donut at a donut shop—with you emailing the swag to attendees. This is often more appealing for local businesses because it can bring in new customers. After all, who walks out of a donut shop with just one donut?
  • If you’re stuck, turn to your volunteers. Maybe one’s a baker. If so, host a baking party, then bundle those brownies with a ribbon and a gift tag with your logo. Yay!

The best auction item ideas

You’ve done your prep work and secured your swag. Now, it’s onto those auction items. You want to appeal to a wide range of people, so we’ve broken the items below into four main categories that are sure to sell out.

Experiences for auction

After spending so much time at home, everyone’s all about making memorable experiences these days. Give the people what they want by offering an array of unique real-world adventures.

  • Foraging dinner: Guests can have their fiddlehead ferns and eat them, too, with a local foraging outing followed by a delicious meal using the fruits (er, mushrooms) of their labors.
  • Cooking lesson: An oldie but a goodie. Ask a local chef to auction off a private cooking lesson followed by a private meal. If they can hold it at their restaurant, all the better.
  • Drink tasting: Whether bidders are sipping their way through the wines of the Rioja or sampling an array of Kahlúa cocktails, everyone loves a guided beverage tasting.
  • Guided rafting or kayaking trip: Get the adrenaline pumping and the bidders buzzing with a family-friendly, all-inclusive rafting or kayaking experience.

VIP perks for auction

We all like to feel special—it’s human nature. By offering exclusive experiences that make anyone feel like a VIP, your donors will raise their paddles as they dust off their suits and crowns.

  • Reserved seats: From seats at a sold-out show to a skybox at the big game, exclusive seats are sure to attract a crowd.
  • After-hours experience: When the doors close at 5:00, the party’s just beginning. Auction off a private after-hours tour of an animal sanctuary or a late-night shopping trip at a boutique (don’t forget the coffee!).
  • Private lesson: From ikebana to candle-making, kombucha to macrame, private lessons with an expert are a great way to bring in the bids and build your supporters’ skill sets.
  • First-class airline seats: Shockingly, first-class seats are a lot nicer than economy seats. Maybe your attendees can’t get behind a $2,000 plane ticket, but we bet they’d give those warm nuts and unlimited mimosas a try for a good cause!

Special trips for auction

Travel is always popular, and what’s more exciting than having the winning bid and getting that sweet sense of anticipation for the next few months? One tip: now that we're pandemic experts, it’s wise to offer a range of trip types, near and far, by bike and by plane.

  • Weekend getaway: Do your board members have a beach house or a lakeside cottage just a short drive away? Auction off a few days away from the hustle and bustle, being sure to mention any special amenities to up the bids. Hot tub, anyone?
  • Local staycation: Encourage your guests to be tourists in their own town by planning a dream staycation package. Include a hotel stay, meals, and tickets to local activities. Include a few made-here treasures, too, such as locally made chocolate.
  • Road trip: Road trips are great, but they take a lot of forethought. Instead, plan out an incredible road trip for your guests and take care of every detail. Map stops along the way, pre-purchase the tickets, and book all the lodgings. Don’t forget a AAA membership and a playlist!
  • Luxury trip abroad: If you offer international travel, make sure it’s flexible and make sure it’s incredible. After all, bidding on a $10,000+ trip is a big commitment. Include reviews of the property, lots of photos, and a list of activities so bidders can feel confident in going big.

Gift baskets for auction

While you want to save your big-ticket items for a live auction, themed gift baskets are perfect silent auction items. Guests can ogle the many goodies, and smaller items are much more appealing when there are lots of them—especially if you add bows.

  • Spa day: It’s been a stressful year. Longer than that, actually. Ugh, and remember 2016? The point is: everyone needs to de-stress and focus on wellness these days, which makes a spa-day-in-a-box a sure-fire hit. Plus, you can use up a lot of odds and ends. Candles, mugs, individual face masks (the non-pandemic kind), chocolate, a bathrobe… anything’s spa-worthy with enough twine.
  • Dinner for two: Who doesn’t want to break out of their dining rut with all the ingredients needed for a romantic dinner for two? You can also include any specialized equipment (perhaps a mortar and pestle for grinding spices) and a bottle of good vino. And instead of a basket, how about a pot? One more idea: switch it up and make it a brunch basket in an ice bucket!
  • Wine cellar: Wines do great at auctions, and a basket of excellent wines from around the world is sure to sell. You can choose wines from a single region, or really mix it up and procure all different kinds of whiskey. Add some glasses, a couple of snacks, et voilà! (We love French wines, what can we say?)
  • Puppy love: There are bound to be some fur-parents in your audience, so put together a wonderful assortment of goods for their lucky (but deserving) pups. Treats, toys, and accessories galore, and put everything in a cozy dog bed. Throw in a gift card for a grooming session and nail trim, too.
  • Mystery boxes: Put small or out-of-place items together in mystery baskets. Donors have no idea what they're getting until they buy one. Make sure that one box includes a high-value item, like a piece of jewelry or even cash.

Auction troubleshooting

Now you know what types of auction items you want. But what about those you don’t? First, let’s check out a few items that usually don’t pay off—or run the risk of actively offending your guests. Then, we’ll run through what to do when local businesses or key donors approach you with items that you reaalllyyy don’t want to include.

Auction items to avoid

  • Artwork. Generally, artwork is very personal, so it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of folks bidding on a piece unless it’s done by a well-known artist or the subject matter is relevant to your audience. Get that Thomas Kinkade, friend!
  • Items with a lot of restrictions. Don’t make your donors regret their generosity by including 200 black-out dates for that villa stay in Italy.
  • Items or experiences you’ve offered many times before. Keep it fresh!
  • Anything political that’s unrelated to your cause. Just … don’t. (Political + cause-related? You decide!)
  • Items that have expiration dates. Not that we'd auction off funky expired food, but check restrictions on product warranties, availability on services like photo shoots or haircuts, and limitations on personal offerings that are only good for a season.

How to decline an auction item donation

  • Be as gracious and appreciative as possible. Let the donor know that you are truly grateful for their generosity and explain that you’re so sorry that you can’t accept their donation.
  • Be honest. Tell them why you can’t accept it or why you won’t auction it off. Maybe you tried to auction off a similar item last year and it didn’t sell. Maybe that particular item doesn’t make sense with your mission. Maybe it’s psychedelic mushrooms, and in your state that’s illegal. Whatever the reason, be authentic and respectful.
  • Provide next steps. Don’t leave your donor hanging! Let ‘em know how their donation can still be put to use (unless it’s actively offensive or illegal, of course). Here are some questions to consider:
  • Is there another organization that would appreciate the item?
  • Could you sell that vintage lamp on eBay for way more money?
  • Can you thank a great volunteer with a free teeth whitening section?
  • Be flexible. Sometimes, it’s better to put up an item that won’t sell than risk alienating a key donor. If it’s an ugly coat that they really, really want to donate, start the bidding low and ask your aunt to bid $30 on it.

Charity auction templates to seal the deal(s)

It’s all well and good to plan to procure great auction items. But when you actually sit down to write that all-important auction item donation request, your palms get kinda sweaty, and suddenly, you’re drawing a blank. Never fear! Funraise is here—with a few templates to get those persuasive juices flowing. Keep in mind that these are for individual donors. If you’re writing to a business, be sure to highlight how their donation will benefit them, too.

And of course, with all of these scripts, you’ll want to mix it up! Personalization is key when it comes to donor communications, so if you want to make an impression, try to show that sparkling personality.

Auction item donation request template

Dear [Name],
This [month] is our [event name], and I couldn’t be more excited. Here at [organization name], we [mission]. And this year, we’ve already [whatever amazing feat you’ve accomplished]. With the funds from this event, we’ll be able to [whatever goal you aim to achieve], bringing us even closer to [vision statement].
You’ve been an incredible partner over the past [number] years, and I am so grateful for your support as a [donor’s role(s) at the nonprofit]. Now, I’m reaching out to you again. To [reiterate mission/vision], we’re planning an amazing event with and for our community—and we’re planning to make it our most successful auction yet. That’s where you come in.
We need exciting and unique items and experiences for our live and silent auctions. Specifically, we’re looking for [wishlist items and experiences].
Additionally, we would love to see you at [event] on/at [event details]. You can learn more about the event [here] and purchase tickets [here]. You can also call or email me any time at [contact information]. I hope to see you there!
[Name], I’m so grateful your continued generosity as we [reiterate organizational mission]. With supporters like you, we can [reiterate organizational vision]. Thank you, thank you.
All the best,
[Name]
[Title]

Auction item donation thank-you template

Dear [Name],
Last month, we held [event name], our biggest fundraising event of the year. It was a festive and fulfilling evening, and thanks to the compassion and dedication of hundreds of donors, we raised over [amount]—and we couldn’t have done it without you.
On behalf of everyone here at [organization], thank you so much for your generous donation of [item information]. With your support, we will continue to [mission statement], with a goal of [vision statement]. Already, we’ve [what you’ve accomplished this year]. With the success of our event, we’ll be able to do so much more.
In addition, please note that your item donation is tax-deductible. Our tax ID number is [number].
Thank you again for standing with us in [reiterate mission]. We look forward to partnering with you in the months and years ahead.
Gratefully,
[Name]
[Title]

Template to decline or repurpose auction item donations

Dear [Name],
On behalf of everyone here at [organization], thank you so much for your donation of [item information] for [event]. While we so appreciate your support, we can’t accept your item at this time. Unfortunately, [reason you can’t/don’t want to accept the item].
We are happy to [what you can do with the item]. Alternatively, you can [other actions to take].
Thank you for your understanding and for continuing to stand with us in [reiterate mission]. We are truly grateful, and we look forward to partnering with you in the future.
All the best,
[Name]
[Title]

Running an auction is a lot of work, but it can really pay off for your nonprofit in terms of fundraising and community building. With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to a white-glove sale. (It’s an auction thing; look it up!) Ready? Let the bidding commence!

All about charity auction items: FAQs

Which items sell best at a nonprofit auction?

While it depends on your audience, unique experiences or items are most likely to start a bidding war. Focus on sourcing once-in-a-lifetime experiences, exclusive perks, special trips, or one-of-a-kind items.

How many items should you include in a live auction? In a silent auction?

You don’t want folks to fall asleep, so around 8-12 items is a good baseline for your live auction. When it comes to the silent auction, it depends on the size of your space and the size of your audience. But a general rule of thumb is to have about one item (or package) for every four attendees.

Are items donated to a charity auction tax-deductible? What about items purchased?

Donations are tax-deductible. Purchases are tax-deductible beyond the fair market value of the item. So, if someone pays $400 for an item worth $300, $100 of their purchase is tax-deductible.

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