How to Select the Right Auction Items for Your Fundraiser

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Although the primary goal of a fundraising auction is to bring in as much money as possible, there are other goals that your charity should be keenly aware of — specifically, the satisfaction of the other parties involved.

A win-win situation

Early on, you will need to decide on plenty of things, from using fashion auction sites to exploring the idea of auctioning off experiences of all kinds. But at the end of the day, you have to make your event a win-win situation for everyone involved, including your donors, bidders, and solicitors.

How exactly do your choices affect the event stakeholders, especially in terms of selecting auction items?

Charities should carefully tread the fine line between interest and affordability. Simply put, you can’t coax people to turn in bids if the items you are auctioning off are uninteresting. And in the same vein, if the auction items are priced beyond what your bidders can afford, you won’t see as many bids as you initially expected.

Some of your donors will closely watch the bids for the items they donated. If no one bids for their items, they might not feel good about it, or worse, their reputation in your community may be tarnished.

Items that fare poorly during the auction can also frustrate solicitors. And as for your organization, the poor performance of these items translates to less money raised for your cause.

Quite simply, your choice of auction items sets the tone for the outcome of your event.

Choosing the right items

But how do you find auction items that perform well?

A lot of that has to do with getting to know your primary audience. Auction items that may appeal to the younger set may not fare well with people from an older generation and vice versa. However, there are some types of items that get good bids across different demographics.

  • If you are looking for items that typically sell above donor value, consider auctioning off gift certificates from restaurants and wines.
  • Next, you have items that almost always sell near donor value. These include vacation packages, hotel accommodations, tickets for sporting events, entertainment packages, and a combination of these.
  • If you and your team are willing to perform research and the associated legwork, you can auction off special items and experiences that resonate with your target bidders. These may include personal services, community experiences, and for the big spenders, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

But what about the auction items that you should avoid?

Unless you have the commitment of an industry’s rockstar, avoid auctioning off professional services. These fare poorly in auctions, primarily because people are either uninterested in these or because they can get these services on their own.

Art pieces usually fare poorly in auctions, unless your audience is composed primarily of art lovers. Art is subjective, and what may appeal to some may not interest the majority of your bidders. Also, if you auction off art pieces, you are taking a gamble on the idea that there will be people in your audience that will appreciate these. Worse, you are likely to get the lowest bids for these items because of the absence of stiff competition. The same principles apply to antiques.

Fashion items like clothes, accessories, and jewelry are similar to art pieces in a sense that interest for these can be subjective. However, unlike art pieces, fashion items are comparatively more affordable for your bidders. Plus, having tangible items in your line up of auction items can draw in more interest from prospective buyers.

Finding the right auction items

If auction items are crucial to the success of your fundraising event, how do you get these?

The first thing that you need to do is to round up your staff and volunteers to brainstorm ideas for the perfect auction items. Ideally, one brainstorming session is enough. However, if your staff and volunteers are spread across different locations, you may need to conduct a few more sessions.

During these sessions, your goal is to identify as many auction item ideas as well as potential donors. However, you also need to be realistic with the ideas you generate. Sure, the idea of having a fancy dinner with a local celebrity may sound appealing, but if nobody can make that pitch a reality, you have to strike it off your list.

You should attach a name to every idea you generate. This creates a sense of accountability and makes it easier for everyone to know who to follow up with.

To make these brainstorming sessions more inclusive, you might also want to make online forms for the people who cannot attend. However, you may need to follow up with these people and coax them to add their ideas.

After coming up with different auction item ideas, you should divide your staff and volunteers into smaller groups. This allows you to take advantage of the competitive spirit of each individual. To coax more members to participate actively, you might want to consider offering rewards. As an added benefit, these rewards can make finding auction items and solicitation fun for everyone involved. And when your staff and volunteers are fully engaged, they are more likely to bring in people from their networks to participate in the auction or even volunteer for your next event.

As you and your staff and volunteers run through every idea that you have generated, it is a good idea to leverage each person’s personal and professional network. This might lead you to exciting and unique auction items.

As much as possible, avoid smaller items which can take up too much space on the auction floor. Alternatively, you can bundle together smaller items with each other.

What’s next?

Finding the right auction items is just a part of a larger equation. Apart from sourcing auction items, you also have to put in work to write compelling descriptions and to promote these on every available platform to generate interest and excitement.

While all of these do not necessarily guarantee that you will reach your targets for your auction, the chances of satisfying the goals of all stakeholders for the event increases exponentially.


Darran Brown is the CEO and Founder of Go Charity. A graduate of UMASS Amherst, Darran has spent the last 20 years managing auctions across the United States. Having run some of the most successful live and silent auctions in the US, Darran has the insider know-how to every aspect of the industry. From memorabilia to trips and experience hospitality to fundraising 101, Darran is the leading expert on auction management and fundraising success.