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3 Ways a Sloppy Auction Timeline Could Cost Your Organization $100,000

Posted by Summy Lau

Sloppy Auction Timelines - Alarm Clock

We hope you enjoyed our recent three-part webinar series all about auction timelines.

Three parts? you might be asking. Is planning the night's agenda really as important as event must-do's like procuring donations, handling logistics and promoting the event?

Read on as benefit auctioneer Scott Robertson shares his firsthand experience of what can go wrong if you don't create (and adhere to!) a streamlined agenda:

"I recently did an auction at a school event. These typically draw younger crowds that start the cocktail hour earlier and have so much fun talking to each other, it's hard to get them seated. Since no one was in charge of the timeline, they fell behind 15 minutes. Then the organization refused to start the event until everybody was seated, which cost another 10 minutes. Fires continued having to be put out here and there, until we were a full 40 minutes behind schedule.

Finally, we got the ball rolling on the live auction. Their plan was to only do a few items, and to do it before dinner. Now that's all well and good. The only problem? They forgot to tell the dining room manager and chef we were lagging 40 minutes behind.

A donor was bidding on a gorgeous $25,000 diamond necklace, and just as she was about to place another bid, suddenly here come the entrees. In the middle of a live auction, she was presented with a huge piece of beef rib! There was commotion at the table, the waiter was standing in front of her, she was looking back and forth between me and the waiter...

It was awkward and overwhelming. She stopped bidding.

I bet this particular event missed out on $100,000 because of the auction timeline mishaps. That’s real money, and it's painful to watch."

A sloppy agenda or mistimed auction can end up being your event's greatest cost.

In today's post, learn 3 reasons a sloppy auction timeline can hurt your bottom line, plus concrete strategies to plan and get an off-kilter timeline back on track.

1.  Creates confusionA Confused Bidder That Will Not Donate

Confused bidders don't donate, Robertson asserts.

Completely eliminating confusion is the first step to raising more profit and getting higher bids. 

This is the same reason clear room signage, detailed item descriptions and a good sound system are all vital to capturing high bids: They provide instruction and information to guests interested in giving to your cause.

There are countless points during your event program that have potential to create confusion. But having a clearly outlined program and sharing it with guests (if that makes sense for your event) keeps everyone on the same page and your event moving like a Swiss watch.

Your timeline to-do: When planning and executing the night's agenda, always have eliminating confusion at the top of mind.

2. Takes focus off the big bucks

A big issue costing fundraising events thousands is when nonprofits "let the tail wag the dog," says Robertson.  This means letting smaller revenue enhancers (like raffles and silent auctions) take the place of the big money-making opportunities of the night (meaning the live auction and fund-a-need, or special appeal).

There might not be enough bids in the silent auction. Guests may arrive late due to an accident on the highway, stormy weather, you name it.

Do you keep it open 15 minutes? More to the point: Is it worth the cost?

It's tempting, but here’s what really happens: If you postpone the silent auction by 15 minutes, the rest of the agenda is pushed back. This includes food service, the live auction, the exit time. Now donors are on the wrong side of the "alcohol bell curve", meaning the enthusiasm from drinks is turning into exhaustion. And when they're tired, they aren't buying anything. 

You've successfully created more time for the silent auction, but at what cost?

"Get stopwatches if you need to," Robertson suggests. "That way if you’re even three minutes off your timeline, you know ahead of time and can find places to make it up. A lot of folks postpone one thing, which leads to another, and another... The next thing you know, more important revenue streams are cut." 

Your timeline to-do: Determine what percent of the night's revenue is expected to be brought in from the silent auction. If it's in the minority, plan accordingly. You might make a whole lot more money sacrificing time from the smaller revenue pull, and making up the time with the big picture in mind.

Get 26 Ideas for Creative Attractive Silent Auction Baskets

3. Disrespects donors' time

How do you know when to end your event?

"I’ve never started an auction too early but I’ve sure finished ‘em too late," Robertson quips. "The best time for your event has a lot to do with geography, and also the demographics.

"In my opinion, if the doors open at 6, the fundraising (meaning live auction and special appeal) needs to start by 7:30."

This leaves time for a cocktail hour, valet line, raffle ticket sales, the silent auction...all the pre-live auction revenue enhacers plus food and drink service that you want to include in your event.

Read Next: "Profit Plans: Generate More Revenue from Every Minute of Your  Fundraising Event"

As mentioned, it's tempting to want as much of your donors' time as possible to keep extracting money. But respecting the outlined agenda will do much more for a sustainable, long-term, positive relationship with guests. This typically means keeping events under 4 hours.

"The timeline is so important, Robertson concludes. "It needs to be well thought out, long before the event, so nobody’s flying by the seat of their pants. When the event comes up, everybody is now loyal to the timeline. And if an adjustment needs to be made, you need to think about the ramifications of that adjustment."

Your timeline to-do: Pick the time that you want your auction to end, then build the timeline backwards. 


Whether your event raises $1,000, $10,000, $100,000 or more, a rigid timeline eliminates confusion, keeps your event's focus on the biggest profit potential, and respects donors' time. If you're able to create and follow your program, you're virtually guaranteed to raise more money at your next event.

This is the first post of a weeks-long series all about event auction timelines. If you like what you read today, stay tuned for more concrete tips to planning your silent auction, live auction and fund-a-need timelines - and invite a friend or colleague to subscribe and never miss a post.

Download Silent Auction Bid Sheet Templates

Event Production, Auction Timeline
Summy Lau
Summy Lau
As Fundraising Editor, Summy brings hands-on experience in nonprofit development, event fundraising, publishing, copywriting and design to Winspire News. She creates blog content, infographics, templates, eBooks and other resources to help fundraising professionals and volunteers exceed their fundraising goals. Her two favorite perks of working at Winspire: hearing nonprofit success stories and dreaming of new bucket list destinations.

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