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Fishing for Bids? The Best and Worst Silent Auction Items to "Bait" Donors

Posted by Summy Lau

What sells best at a silent auction? We get this question all the time, and for good reason. As certified benefit auctioneer Danny Hooper noted in our recent webinar, one of the "10 deadly sins" of charity auction events is choosing the wrong items...

"My son is a great fisherman. One day last summer, we'd been fishing together all morning long with live bait. Hours later, we did not have a single bite. So my son suggested switching to a different lure. Lo and behold, two minutes later, we snagged this fish:


The moral of the story: The more distinct hooks you can throw into the water, the more fish you'll catch. I've gone to many events that have been run for over a decade, and year after year I see the same 10 auction items: the autographed hockey jersey, the dinner at the president's house... Successful auctions are be able to mix up the "bait" to entice virtually everyone in the room.

This is a real conundrum for a lot of committees. What are the right hooks?"

Indeed, not having the right bait can kill your revenue-earning potential. The best silent auction items suit your audience, work with your event theme, and have a high potential for income generation.

While every charity auction is different, sales in years past are one good indicator of what to expect from your audience. But what if your event is relatively new? Or better yet, you're looking to keep donors engaged and surprised with new and buzzworthy items?

As experts in event fundraising, we have discovered certain categories sell better than others. Read on to find out which are proven bestsellers, and which tend to be duds.

Best Sellers:
Sell often and get high bids

Food & Wine

Private dinners, vintage wines, brewery tours and sushi-making parties make Food & Wine a guest favorite. Does your silent auction selection channel your donors' inner "foodies"?

You may have to check with your local jurisdiction if it's legal to sell wine, but for the most part it's a safe bet. Try getting cases of custom-labeled wine or offering a wine-making lesson (like Become a Sonoma Valley Winemaker). Says Danny Hooper, "Wine is highly subjective in value, and time and again I have seen people pay crazy prices for wine. In one auction, the winning bidder paid $800 for a case that clearly listed a $300 retail value at the top of the bid sheet."

Wine_Tree.pngAnother fun option is creating a wine tree, or tiers of shelves that hold up to 100 bottles of wines (pictured left). You can sell the whole tree at once, or sort the wines by value and auction off one tier at a time. "I've sold wine trees anywhere from $1,500 to upwards of $27,000 for the whole tree," says Danny.

And to appeal to hungry guests' taste buds, try offering a catered barbecue for a group, high-end cooking gear, restaurant gift cards and top-of-the-line blenders, coffee makers and more.

Want to make your own wine tree? Check out our powerful new auction planning tool, Checklist Builder. With a free account, you'll automatically have access to four of the most important committees in the event planning process: Steering, Finance, Design & Printing and Volunteer Committees. These free committees are loaded with time-saving tasks and resources to help you stay organized while planning your auction.

Sign up free for Checklist Builder today

If you like what you see, sign up for a full paid version. For just $99 a year, you can get unlimited access to construction plans for the wine tree, plus dozens of other fresh and emerging revenue ideas for your auction.


When it comes to procuring auction items, we always recommend thinking outside the box. Unique, high quality items and Experiences fetch top dollar and keep your event from growing stale.

baby_looking_in_basket_small.pngThat said, there's a reason baskets are still a top seller at silent auctions.

The contents of these trusty standbys are relatively easy to get donated, plus provide a convenient way to bundle excess, similar or smaller items into one package. Therein lies the beauty of baskets: With a little creativity, the final product can be more valuable than the sum of the parts.

To create appealing baskets, obtain and bundle together items to maximize profits and minimize work. For example, two movie passes won't bring in more than $20, but a package dubbed "Ultimate Date Night" that includes movie tickets, a restaurant gift card and a babysitterplus pizza for the kids!can bring in $200 or more.

Be sure the accompanying bid sheet clearly and accurately states each basket's contents. Also try to decorate these baskets as professionally as possible. Investing time and resources into quality ribbon, tags and sleek displays (like our free templates) goes a long way to raising their perceived value and thus bids.

Download Silent Auction Item Display Sheet Templates

Sports & Gadgets

Something to keep in mind if your procurement committee is mostly women: Men are generally known to be more impulsive when it comes to spending. And since bidders are seeing items for the first time and given a very limited time frame to make decisions, impulse buys are essential for your silent auction's bottom line.

Sports-related items generate plenty of interest from both men and women. Sporting equipment (like golf clubs or fishing tackle), tickets to games and tournaments (like a trip to the Masters, donated box tickets from your MLB team or a trip to the NCAA Final Four Champtionship) and memorabilia (like a signed jersey) are perennial auction favorites.


Other options that get men reaching for their wallets: electronics (like flat-screen TVs), gadgets (like smartphones and watches), cigars and games (like a "guys' night" set with poker chips, cards and a nice set of darts).

Hotels, Trips & Vacation Homes

Travel is a proven best-seller at charity auctions. Trips are exciting, out of the ordinary and have universal appeal. Who doesn't like to take a vacation? With over half of all American households taking multiple trips per year, offering travel at your auction is a great way to capture some of their designated annual travel budget. Try pairing together donated hotel stays with restaurant gift cards and theater tickets for a romantic weekend getaway.

One caveat: It can be incredibly difficult to procure donated travel that's exciting enough to get bids, particularly for any destination outside your local area. As Danny points out, "The biggest hooks get the biggest fish."

In our experience, bidders are more likely to buy complete packages that include airfare, transportation, deluxe accomodations, exclusive Experiences and so forth. That's why, in addition to smaller "hooks" like donated hotel stays, no-risk consigned travel is an appropriate solution for many nonprofits. Fact is, the trips that "wow" donors most—like a Bloomingdale's shopping spree, behind-the-scenes tour of the U.S. Capitol or a ski trip to Whistler—are virtually impossible to get donated.


How about a tropical getaway? Check out our catalog of over 200 unique, high quality Experiences to easily reserve for your next event.

Partnering with a no-risk consignment provider like Winspire means you don't pay a dime unless the item sells for the minimum profitable price you set. It really is no risk!

When selecting consignment travel partners, look for reputable providers and items that offer good returns on each item. (At Winspire, we recommend nonprofits set a minimum bid of 20% above the Nonprofit price.)

For more information on what trips and Experiences are best sellers for your audience, we have designated regional Fundraising Specialists across the U.S. and Canada who work with other nonprofits in your area.Request a Call Back →Simply click here to request a call back, and one of our fundraising experts will reach out to begin brainstorming new revenue ideas together.

Poor Sellers:
Attract few bids above retail value


While it's tempting to get services donated from your local accountant, dentist, salon, personal trainer, beautician, optometrist and more, people are typically not interested in buying services. After all, your supporters attend the gala looking to have fun socializing and spending money. Local services are just too humdrum, practical and widely available to go out of their way to purchase that night, plus bidders tend to assume they can get a better deal somewhere else.

Home & Garden

Yard_sale.jpgThis category can be the largest one at a silent auction: think donated home knick-knacks, store donations, anything used, furniture, appliances, apparel, regifts and more. All the donations are great, but offering too many turns a high-end shopping spree into a garage sale.

(For more, check out our infographic, "Turn Your Silent Auction into a Luxury Shopping Experience".)

A general rule of thumb: Be selective and only offer the very best from this category. With professional displays and high retail values, you can certainly make good returns. Consider using the lower-value items as door prizes, thank-you gifts for volunteers and sponsors, extra goodies bundled into bigger baskets and so forth.

For more help brainstorming top-selling silent auction item ideas, request your free copy of the ultimate list of over 400 amazing auction item ideas, below:

Download our free list of over 300 amazing auction item ideas

You spend months meticulously preparing for the annual silent auction, your organization's "one night only" storefront. The night is too important to make easy mistakes like putting out the wrong items for your audience, so we hope this list helps you avoid some common silent auction "duds." If you liked the tips here, be sure to try our latest resource, Checklist Builder. This powerful tool acts as event planner and fundraising auction expert in one to help nonprofits raise more money at events. Sign up free today!

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Your turn - What did you think of our assessments? What have you seen sell well and/or poorly at your auctions? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Event Production, Silent Auction Ideas, Procurement
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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