For many non-profit organizations, a dinner and silent auction is the most significant fundraiser of the year. The opportunity to generate substantial revenue is great, if the event is well-planned and well-executed.

While the items your team has procured for bid at the auction are sure to bring in buckets-full of cash, it is also important to seize every opportunity imaginable to make sure your guests leave with substantially lighter wallets. I think the Romans had an expression for this very directive: “Carpe cashem”.

So, when planning your auction evening, here are five suggestions for adding “points of donation” to your very important event.

Games of Skill

These types of fundraisers are present at many auctions. Popular examples include a putting green contest and a basketball free throw shooting contest. (These can prove to be quite interesting, depending on whether you serve alcohol or not.) People purchase opportunities to successfully complete the task at hand and win a percentage of the take. Very straight forward.

While these two, basketball and golf, may be popular, they generally appeal to a limited demographic. It’s rare to see a well-dressed lady in high heels shooting hoops. Therefore, do your best to come up with games of skill that will have a broad appeal and maximize your profits.

Photos of the Stars

Take a page from the last cruise you were on. Hire a decent photographer to stroll the auction, the dinner, and other activities. He will offer, for a price, to take pictures of friends, couples, and families that can be instantly developed and framed attractively.

Better yet, try to get the photographer to donate his services in exchange for a free dinner. Review the skill sets of your community to find such a willing (and hungry) participant.

Besides basic photographic abilities, the person you select for this task must also have the knack to smooze effectively with the crowd. An annoying photographer will sink your plans.

Merchandise Sales

From 1995 to 2004, I was the associate director of a children’s summer camp. Each year, we held a silent and live auction during the winter. This was easily our biggest fundraiser of the year.

At the auction, we displayed and sold (at a discount) much of the camp clothing merchandise left over from the summer. This was very beneficial, because we were liquidating inventory already paid for from our yearly budget.

Many of the people who attended the auction were alumni and many missed the chance to visit the camp in the summer, so this was their only opportunity to buy a t-shirt or a baseball cap for the entire year. We always sold many hundreds of dollars of apparel that we would have otherwise been sitting on until the next year.

Fund a Project

Another tactic that worked well from my summer camp experience was the idea of doing a mini-campaign to raise money for a specific project that had an attainable goal. For instance, one year, we at the camp decided we wanted to purchase one of those yellow and blue inflatable water trampolines for our lake front.

We had the notion to advertise this at our auction. But instead of just making up a poster, I contacted the company that sold these trampolines and asked if they would ship a model to us for display. I explained our situation and they agreed to go along with the plan. We only had to pay for the shipping.

At the auction, I inflated it and leaned it up against a wall in a prominent location. I put up a poster that explained our plan to buy this for the kids in the coming summer, and I taped three $20 bills (from my own pocket) to the front of the tramp. I set the roll of scotch tape on a nearby table, and I walked away.

Throughout the course of the evening, we collected several hundred dollars in this fashion, which almost paid for the entire purchase! The trampoline was quite a conversation starter, as well.

Sell the Centerpieces

This may not generate a whole lot of extra dollars, but it sure can help. In most dinners/auctions, there are lovely centerpieces on each table created by your volunteers. Make up little tent cards to place on each table that state the centerpieces will be for sale at the close of event.

Be sure that the emcee makes an announcement about this opportunity as well.


A raffle is an opportunity to generate a flush of extra money, although the process can be quite laborious and possibly cash intensive. I would suggest pursuing a raffle only under a narrow set of ideal circumstances.

First of all, it is to your extreme benefit to have an item of great value donated to you. Your team must decide whether that item would generate more money in a raffle or an auction.

Then there is the matter of actually selling the tickets once they’re printed. You are relying on an untested workforce (your volunteers) to put the squeeze on their family members and co-workers. This is also a calculated risk in the auction equation.

Finally, since many states govern the practice of raffles, there are a multitude of legal requirements that must be followed precisely. In fact, not all non-profit agencies are eligible to hold a raffle, so please check with your state’s charitable gaming division before proceeding too far.


People who attend your fundraiser truly desire to donate, or else they wouldn’t be at the event in the first place. They are just left wanting for an outlet to do so. Make sure that you provide a variety of opportunities for these people to share their wealth with your organization before they leave.

Posted on 21 March 2007

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