Fundraising bleg

So we’re hosting a fundraiser for the national support group for my son’s Ridiculously Rare Syndrome. We are doing an email/FB beg as well as holding a silent auction at a local art gallery.

Question for those of you who have done fundraisers or silent auctions: what works? What silent auction items get high bids? Did a particular fundraising technique pay off? This is only the second time we’ve done this, and I’d love advice.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I have very, very strong opinions about how to do this, that are very dependent on a lot of ancillary questions. We should talk via email.

  2. I used to put together the auction catalog for a private high school’s major fundraising event.

    I can tell you three things from experience: the order in which you put stuff into the catalog is really important, writing the descriptions of those items is really important, almost nothing beats a puppy for ROI in an oral auction if there’s a couple of rich grandmothers in the room, and the gimmick item that is the in-joke is always a winner. I’ll explain that after lunch.

    • Looking forward to the explanation. Also curious what order is helpful.

      • Okay, so at the high school (which will go unnamed although you could figure it out with out much effort), early on in the history of the auction, somebody donated one of those big CINZANO umbrellas that were popular in the 80s.

        You know, this one:

        So towards the end of the auction, two really drunk guys both got it into their heads that they needed that goddamn umbrella like nothing else in the Universe, and somebody wound up winning it for a lot more than anyone rightly should pay for an umbrella. And his wife heckled him in the checkout line for being so foolish as to bid on this thing and there was no way it was going to be in their backyard, etc. So a bit less than a year passes, and lo and behold they’re collecting auction items for the next year’s auction and the umbrella shows up in the donation bin.

        And at that next auction, the guy that lost the previous year decides he really needs that umbrella. But some smartacres decided to drive up the price and make him pay extra for it, and he got miffed and dropped out. So the smartacres winds up with the umbrella.

        And he donates it the next year.

        When the thing shows up in the catalog again, it becomes a sensation among those who remembered how funny the bidding was for the stupid umbrella… and for the next decade, it’s just a symbol of who loves the school most that they outbid everyone for the umbrella, and take it home like it’s the Stanley Cup and hold onto it until they donate it for the next year.

        I have no idea what broke the cycle, but after about 11 years of being one of the top-grossing items, it stopped showing up. I’ve only heard myths and legends about what happened to it.

        Of course, it’s difficult to do anything deliberately as a “bid on this and then donate it back again” item. But – particularly if you have, say, someone who quilts or something like that – having an item that can be marked with a name, kept for a year and then re-donated gives you a (a) an easy big-ticket item and (b) something that people feel really good about donating money for/bidding on.

        As for the order, you want the catalog to tell a story. It works best if a goodly number of the descriptions are all written in the same narrative “voice”, so that people feel like there’s a guy or gal convincing them to buy something, instead of just reading banal descriptions. For a not-very-well-executed and klunky example, think the SkyMall catalog.

        You can’t have all the “like items” bunched together or they blur together and none of them will make as much, in toto, as they would if they were auctioned off more discretely. People like reading creative auction descriptions, they will routinely bid more for stuff that has a funny description than they will for something that says, “$100 gift certificate for Burke Williams. Have a spa day”. Give people reasons to bid on groups of items that aren’t actually packaged together… but don’t package them together. You want someone who wants Item A to be bidding against someone who wants Item A and Item D who is bidding against someone who wants Item D. That middle person will get you the most bang for your buck, even if they lose one of the auctions, because they get gripped on getting a complete experience and will fight for both items.

        Something like this:

        “Forget a birthday? In the doghouse? Need to rebuild a lost legacy of brownie points? Or are you just looking to soften someone up to request a guy’s night out? Put down a real down payment and give her a day off first! Take the kid’s to a minor league ball game (see item #213 in the ‘Blue Table’ section) and let your wife have a day getting pampered, and you’ll get credit for being thoughtful while eating a ball park frank and enjoying a game, guilt-free!”

        • This is really helpful! I can totally do that…thanks!

          • The sneaky thing about linking the items, if you go for a “daughter and son” combo or “younger sister older sister”, or “tomboy and princess” or a “husband and wife combo” or whatever… is that when couples see that one of them is bidding on the one item (where maybe they don’t care about the other thing, whatever it is), the partner reads the description and they say to themselves, aw, that other thing would be neat, too!

            If you know ahead of time who is going to show up at the auction, you can also make it work it by tailoring descriptions and bundling items to them. If you know Bob likes gardening and his partner Dave likes the opera, and you have two tickets to Carmen as one of the items, take one of the cash donations down to the local nursery and buy a new rose bush, and bundle the rose bush with the tickets. That sort of thing. But that’s a lot of extra work and it’s only worth it if Bob and Dave are the sort who might by one or three things but they’ll just bid double what the thing is worth because it’s a donation to a good cause.

            A good third of your crowd – at least – is going to be looking to get a good bargain on stuff. They won’t bid a lot, or they won’t bid on a lot of things, unless they get really caught up in something. Some number of people, though, are going to show up with $X dollars already intending on bidding that on whatever. If you can give them a couple of items tailored to them (particularly if it’s the sort of thing that few other people would bid on anyway), they will be very much more likely to show up next year.

          • How far in advance do you distribute the catalog?

        • Based on your story I’d guess that after 11 years the umbrella broke in some very obvious way.

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