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5 Common Auction Timeline Mistakes that Waste Time (and Lose Money)

Posted by Summy Lau


There are many different elements that can make up the program of a fundraising event, including speeches, videos, saying grace, singing the national anthem, presenting awards, having a special entertainer and more. But the most important components are the fundraising centerpieces of the night: the fund-a-need, live and silent auctions.

With just a few hours to raise as much revenue as possible, it's imperative the auction timeline keep everyone's focus on fundraising. A poorly planned agenda can sink an entire event.

If you're wondering...

  • Should we keep the silent auction open until the live is finished?
  • Is it okay to close a silent auction all at once?
  • Start to finish, how long should our event last?
  • Does the day and time of an event have an impact on its success?

Read on for the 5 most common scheduling missteps nonprofits make when planning events - then post your own questions in the comments below.

Mistake 1: Closing the silent auction during the live auction.

You never want to close the silent auction during your live auction, and here's why.

Your fundraising auctioneer is the quarterback of the night. In order to raise as much money as possible, he or she needs the complete, undivided attention and focus of the attendees in the room.

Check out benefit auctioneer specialist Danny Hooper's take on the subject.

"As an auctioneer, I'm trying to move that crowd in one direction and build momentum in the auction. The worst thing that can happen is to have an event volunteer come up, interrupt and say, 'Would you please announce that the Dream Silent Auction is going to close in two minutes?' Before you know it, a third of the crowd has gotten up and run off."

Closing any part of the silent auction during the live will disrupt the flow and momentum of the evening. And control of the crowd, once lost, oftentimes can't fully be regained.

Won't having the silent auction open during the live auction distract bidders?

Only if you close the silent auction during the live. Other options:

1. Close before the live auction.

Many nonprofits avoid the issue by closing the silent auction before guests walk into the ballroom for the highlight of the night's entertainment, the live auction. This ensures everyone is focused on the live auction, streamlines the night's agenda and ensures the event ends on a bang - plus gives your cashiers more time to identify winning bids and begin the checkout process on your items.

2. Close after the live auction.

You could also keep the silent auction open until after the live auction. If so, you can reassure guests, "Folks, don’t worry, sit back and relax - we won’t close the silent auction until after we've sold these incredible items in the live auction," then it’s not a distraction.

Auction_on_phone.jpgClosing the silent auction after the live auction works especially well if you are using mobile bidding rather than pen-and-paper. While you might be concerned about guests being distracted on their phones, keep in mind relatively few people actually participate in the live auction. Donors prepared to spend big on premium items will be tuned in to the live auction, while others can stay engaged with fundraising by bidding on the silent auction and other opportunities from their phones.

Try having the auctioneer announce towards the end of the live auction that the silent auction will be closing in 10 minutes or so. "Then, put a countdown clock on a screen," suggests benefit auctioneer specialist Scott Robertson. "You won't have to make an announcement that competes with the band or any other post-auction entertainment. After all, nobody ever misses midnight on New Year's Eve."

How will people know how much to bid on the live auction without knowing what they won in the silent auction?

The donors that end up bidding in live auctions typically don't have that tight of a budget or a capped spending figure set in their minds.

Read Next: "5 Reasons NOT to Hire a Benefit Auctioneer"

Mistake 2: Closing the silent auction all at once.

Instead of closing the silent auction all at once, try closing the silent auction in sections.

To close in sections, simply have an emcee or auctioneer announce the process as they are closing. If you organize sections by colors, for example, you'd announce, "Folks, the green section is closing in 5 short minutes, so hurry on over and take a look." Then do the same for the red section and so forth.

This has a few benefits that ultimately generate more revenue:

1. Creates a buying frenzy.

Closing in sections creates compression. "It's the difference between buying Christmas presents in early November and shopping in mid-December," Robertson explains. "Around December 15, people quit shopping for Christmas and start buying for Christmas. You want to create the same buying frenzy in the silent auction."


2. Allows bidders to focus on more than one section.

With pen and paper, bidders are probably only protecting one item per section. Closing in sections allows people to participate in each of them, generating more and higher bids overall.

3. Puts a firm cap on bidding time.

As the old adage goes, don't let the tail wag the dog. If your silent auction brings in, say, 30% of the evening's revenue, ensure it does not overshadow your greater income generators: the fund-a-need (or cash appeal) and live auction. So you want to focus on the main event by closing sections quickly.

A common misconception among event organizers is that you need a half an hour between closing sections. Fact is, offering more time doesn't encourage more bids. Instead people think they have enough time to wander around, use the restroom, get a drink and converse before bidding, which negatively affects revenue.

Since each section closing cuts into (or extends) the night's agenda by another few minutes, aim to close each section in 5 to 10 minute increments. More people will bid competitively.

Read Next: "3 Profitable Tips for Closing Out Your Next Silent Auction"

Mistake 3: Not encouraging guests to bid ASAP.

Time_money_hourglass_small.png"This is one of the most common mistakes I see nonprofits make," Hooper notes. "It's perfectly fine to start off the night with a champagne reception as guests are coming into the ballroom or the venue. They're having cocktail hour, socializing and visiting with each other.

The problem is, nobody's paying attention to the silent auction."

As we mentioned, you have a very limited amount of hours to make money during your event. Time really counts, and you want people over at the silent auction right away.

The best way to do that is have your emcee or auctioneer announce from the stage: "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be closing a portion of the silent auction before dinner. The early deals are usually the best, so be sure to get over there and check it out prior to sitting down." This helps break up conversation circles and gets guests bidding.

Note: This first section closed will probably be your smallest one. The primary goal here is the attention of the crowd early - not necessarily the bids themselves.

Mistake 4: Scheduling the event without your audience in mind.

Is there a particular time of day or weekday that's the best? For example, are there any pros to having a Saturday brunch event versus a Saturday dinner?

Successful charity auctions can be conducted at all times of the day. The best time for you depends on the nature of the event (an evening gala versus a daytime golf tournament, for example). Keep in mind no two events or audiences are the same, so if you think you'll be able to get people out for a Saturday afternoon brunch, go ahead and give it a try.

women-golf-event.pngAs for a day of the week, weekends are the clear favorite for fundraising events. People are available and looking forward to a fun social excursion. However, there are a couple considerations that might make trying a weekday smart:

First, if it’s a women’s event, daytime works great. If it’s a men's event, have it at night druring the week. Why? Weekends tend to be reserved for couples, and partners don't like spending the better portion of a weekend evening split up or attending events alone.

You might also be operating on a smaller budget. Weekdays have significantly better availability and thus lower rates for the venue, catering and more.

Finally, if you're planning an event in the peak of fall or spring fundraising season, weekdays pose significantly less competition from other nonprofits and social events.

Bottom line: You'll know soon enough if an unconventional day or time is a fit. It's worth a try! For the most part, there’s no day or time (at a reasonable hour) that definitely would not work.

Mistake 5: Running too long.

That said, no matter what day or time you choose, it's critical to keep your auction from running too long. If the event starts to drag on, guests will become tired and head for the exits rather than the silent auction or checkout tables. As Robertson quips, "I’ve never started a live auction too early, but I’ve certainly finished them too late."

Most events are 3 to 4 hours long and end around 9:30 pm at the latest. (On Sundays, the entire event timeline should be shifted at least 1 hour earlier.)

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

If you suspect your event will creep above the 4-hour mark, it's time to ruthlessly trim everything that doesn't bring in revenue for the cause: the long-winded speech from an administrator, the tap dancing from the event chair's grade 4 granddaughter, the drawn out awards ceremony... you get the idea.

This might mean spending less time on these program elements, removing them altogether or, even better, finding a creative way to turn those "dead minutes" into income generators.

You’ve invested a lot of time, energy and resources into planning a fantastic event. Don't let an inefficient or bloated schedule get in the way of your success.


Want even more easy ideas and best practices for your auction? Check out our new charity event planning tool, Checklist Builder. It contains shareable to-do lists for easy task delegation, plus a wealth of resources and time-saving templates. It's free to sign up and could be extremely helpful for you and your team as you plan your next fundraising event. Here is a little video showing how it works.

We are looking for feedback so please check it out and let us know what you think!

Try Checklist Builder free today.

Event Production, Fund A Need, Live Auction
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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