Auction Basics

These basic rules of preparing for and running an auction apply to every event, regardless of how many people attend, the number of live auction lots or how much money you raise. New events will benefit from insuring all of these bases are covered. Existing events would do well to refresh themselves and ensure they haven’t let anything fall by the wayside in their success.

The Importance of Sound
A good sound system will make or break your live auction, don’t skimp on it and don’t trust any sound company that isn’t going to send a technician to operate it during the auction. No auctioneer can succeed if your crowd can’t hear them, and the decision to save a few hundred dollars on the sound system can cost you thousands in lost auction revenue.

Engage a sound company early, preferably one who has done an auction in your event space before and has worked on many auctions in the past. Make sure that your sound company understands the need for an auction-specific sound system. Our needs as auctioneers are radically different from a band or DJ The goal is to create an environment where everyone in the audience can hear the auction at the same level, and chat with friends at their table without yelling.

A sound technician who stays at your event and operates the sound board during the auction is important. The ambient noise in a room changes radically between sound check and auction time. You need a professional who can adjust accordingly on the fly, and is there to troubleshoot any issues that arise.

Furthermore, if you are planning on using a microphone to close down your silent auction, it will probably require a separate sound system – unless you are doing the silent auction in the same exact area where your live auction will be.

Lighting a Live Auction
Lighting sets the tone for an evening, it creates ambiance, it affects mood and most importantly it enables your crowd and your auctioneer to see each other. Good lighting will strike a balance between ambiance and functionality, creating a warm atmosphere that we as auctioneers can still function in.

Our role as auctioneer is to be able to look people in the eye and encourage them to spend more in support of your cause.The ability to engage a crowd is based on trust, and the lighting impacts our ability to establish that trust.

If the lighting on the stage is dim it makes us look untrustworthy. If the lighting is too bright, or aimed right at our face with a follow-spot, it means we can’t see the crowd. It also means that we need to have the crowd lit well enough that we can see the expression on the face of a bidder in the last row of tables.

We don’t expect you to wash the crowd in a blaze of white-hot light, antiseptic light. It wouldn’t work for your crowd or us. But you do need to be thinking about lighting, especially if you are in a space that is not traditionally used for fundraising auctions – like a wine cave, an office building, a private home or a tent.

Lighting a Silent Auction

When you are setting up your silent auction, remember that attendees can’t bid if they can’t see the items. Since a silent auction is almost dependent upon text descriptions and written bids, it is important that people be able to see well enough to read the bid sheets and place bids.

There are a lot of ways to illuminate a silent auction, from bringing all of the house lights up to full blast to using trees of lights placed over each table of silent auction items. Reynolds & Buckley doesn’t advocate any one approach as better than another.

We just want you to be thinking about the ambiance and visible lighting when planning your silent auction. Plan for the darkness of the room, and make sure your attendees can see the items in whatever way works best for the look and feel of your event.

Registration & Check Out

We are strong advocates for making efficient use of attendees’ time. This means you need to have a system set up for easy registration, pre-swiping credit cards before the auction, and easy check-out when the event is over.

It is better to overestimate the number of people and check-in stations you need than to have massive lines at check-in. Plan on needing one check-in station per hundred guests, and at least 2 people to work each station in unison.

Set up a “Solutions Table” separate from check-in and staff it with specialists who can help solve any registration problems that may arise. Registration problems will always arise, and you want the people who are “causing” the problems to not feel like they are causing any problem at all. Make sure a waiter is assigned to swing by and immediatly offer wine to whoever winds up at the solutions desk.

Overcome your fears of asking people to pre-swipe their credit cards upon arrival. Having their information and being able to process their payment immediately after the auction is more important. Most everyone is accustomed to the practice. Offer attendees the chance to “skip the lines at checkout by registering for VIP checkout now” and they’ll jump at the chance to give you their credit card number

Train your staff and volunteers on check-in and check-out procedures in advance of your event. If you are using a software solution like Greater Giving, make sure everyone is well-versed in it before guests start arriving.

The last thing anyone remembers from an event is the last thing they experienced. Make sure check-out is smooth, painless, and has no lines.

Live Auction Slideshow/PowerPoint
A well-produced slideshow of the live auction lots provides a visual anchor that keeps the audience up to date on auction progress while also increasing the clarity, speed, and effectiveness of the auctioneer.

Such a presentation provides essential information about each lot, including:

  •  The auction lot number
  • A visual representation of the lot
  • A caption summarizing the contents
  • The opening bid or lot value

Such presentations clearly identify the lot being presented for auction, eliminating audience confusion. They showcase the contents of each lot with larger-than-life photos that pick up where your catalog leaves off, and help transport attendees to a place where they must bid.

Aloha!Nothing says “Aloha!” quite like a giant photo of an empty Hawaiian beach.

Slideshows also provide you with an opportunity to complete the look and feel of your event. Every element of your event should add up to a cohesive whole: the save the date, the invitation, the catalog, the bid sheets of the silent auction, and the PowerPoint presentation.

Finally, a slideshow presentation helps focus the room, serving as a constant reminder of the real reason everyone is there.

Purchasing Auction Lots
There is a trend in fundraising auctions to purchase auction lots auctions. Numerous companies exist that solely serve the fundraising world, and they have all made it incredibly easy for any charity to add wonderful looking auction items to an auction with “little or no risk” to the charity.

We’re not opposed to spending money to make money. However, we do believe that if you are going to take money out of your auction and give it to a third party, you better be able to realize a 300% profit.

In other words, if you are going to spend $1,000 on an auction item, you should be able to sell it for $3,000. If any of the lots you are looking to buy don’t meet this criteria, do you and your attendees a favor and skip it. You’ll be better off selling a donated experience with a member of your immediate support base for $1,000 than selling a trip to New York that cost you $3,000 for $4,000.

For more on this, read Greg’s blog post: “Don’t Resign Your Auction to Consignment Lots“.

Catalog Design

Your catalog/program is the single most important marketing tool for your live auction lots leading up to your event and the night-of your auction. The catalog gives bidders the vital information they need about what you are offering for auction, shows donors that you are handling their donations responsibly and offers a showcase for your sponsors.

Odds are, you program is going to be read in a dark room, by a crowd whose average age is over 40 years old who have all had a few glasses of wine or cocktails. Plan for that in advance by making sure the program is legible in a low-light environment. Use a large font, and make sure there is adequate  contrast between the text and background.

A gorgeous design will only cost you money if your attendees can’t see it when the time comes to make a decision on participating in your auction or not.

When it comes to reading the catalog there are two types of bidders: those who peruse the whole catalog well before the auction starts, and those who maniacally skim the catalog during the auction trying to make a decision. Plan on both types, and create a catalog that enables both.

Sell the sizzle of each lot with a well-written description, but also use bullet points to highlight the basics of each lot. For example, you can use poetic license to describe the sunset views from the lanai of a condo in Hawaii, and in the bullet points succinctly outline how many days for how many people, the restrictions, etc.

Whatever you do, make sure you have a catalog, that the lots are listed in the order they will be sold, with numbers, and that the fund-a-need has its own description as well.

Bidder Paddles
Make sure you have bidder paddles for each attendee. Make sure you know who each paddle number has been assigned to, preferably getting each bidder to pre-swipe their credit card.

If this sounds like Auction Basics 101, it’s worth noting that we get contacted at least 10 times a year by events who don’t use paddles. It is impossible to do a successful fund-a-need without paddles, regardless of what the salesperson for the latest, greatest mobile bidding platform tells you.

The paddles don’t have to be fancy, they just need to be legible from across the room by the auctioneer. Some of our favorite paddles have been created by the youth the auction was meant to serve that night. Our only caveat is that homemade paddles not be hand-written. You can easily print large numbers on large Avery labels and apply them to the back of the catalog. Or simply print a numerical run on card stock.

What matters most is that every attendee has a bidding number assigned to them, and understands that they are responsible for any bids made on their paddle.

If any of these basics have raised questions, or you would like clarification on any of our points please feel free to contact us. You can reach our main office at (415)695-1683.


“Knowledge is a collective enterprise. Without it understanding is impossible. Ignorance is too often a murderous vulnerability.’
– Jane Rule

Wine Auctions
History of our involvement
Wine as a component for auctions
Advantages to wineries
How to treat a guest vintner
How do you create a successful wine fundraiser
How to procure wine lots

School Auctions
Building community
Why you need the $
What kinds of lots work
Art projects
The Dig
Grazing, sit down, buffet
Role of Silent
Scheduling your auction.
Etc. etc. etc.

Golf events
What does it take to have a successful auction during a golf tournament?
Role of celebrities
Etc. etc.