How Does a Silent Auction Work?

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Not all auctions are noisy affairs with people shouting out the next highest bid in their determination to acquire the item up for auction. Some auctions are actually quite calm and quiet and are even known as “silent" auctions. Silent auctions have the same goal as a traditional auction – to sell the item to the highest bidder, often as a fundraiser for an organization – but are executed in a completely different manner.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

During a silent auction, the auctioned items are typically set out on tables. Bidding is done privately and often anonymously via clipboards or on sheets of paper set near the items on the tables.

What Is a Silent Auction?

In any auction, there is an item for which bids are placed. The item can be anything from jewelry to artwork to cars to personal services, like spa days or hotel stays. During a silent auction, the items are typically set out on tables if they are small enough, or a written description of them is displayed. Instead of a rowdy race to be the highest bidder, during a silent auction, bidding is done privately via clipboards or on sheets of paper set near the items on the tables.

A silent auction is a bit different from a traditional auction in that attendees do not always know the current high bid. While an auctioneer may be present, he is not calling out the highest bid amount on one particular item or closing bids once bidders stop bidding.

Silent auctions are often held as fundraisers for nonprofit organizations. The items auctioned off are typically donated by people or companies, and the money raised by the winning bids goes directly to the nonprofit group. Silent auctions are a great way for nonprofit and growing organizations to gain awareness and clients or customers.

How Does a Silent Auction Work?

During a silent auction, each bid is written down on an auction bid sheet dedicated to a specific category or auctioned item. In some cases, each guest has her own clipboard with all of the auction items listed upon it and bids the highest amount she would be willing to pay for whichever items are of interest. Silent auction attendees are not aware of other bid amounts when the auction is conducted using individual clipboards.

If guests are asked to write on a shared bid sheet at an auction table, they may be assigned numbers first so bidders only see the number assigned to competing bidders rather than the bidders' names. This sometimes results in higher bids because friends might not bid against friends if they see their names on the sheet.

You may bid on multiple items at once during a silent auction. Once the auction is closed, the written bids are examined, and the person who bid the highest for each item claims and pays for that item.

Putting on a Silent Auction

If you want to put on a silent auction for your organization, there is a lot of planning involved. You have to determine how many items to have, what types of items you want to auction and then go about getting those items.

You also need to consider how many attendees you want since that helps determine how many items to auction. If there are too many items auctioned and few attendees, this may result in some items receiving no bids or, at best, small bids. Offering approximately one item per two silent auction attendees helps guarantee interest and competitive bidding.

To get attendees at your silent auction, you’ll need to do some marketing that generates interest. Often, having a few high-ticket items is a good way to draw attendees. In other cases, the organization for which you’re raising funds may be enough of a draw for people.

Once you get participants there, you’ll need to make sure your silent auction is laid out in a way that gets people moving, bidding and engaging with the auction. You want to make sure people are actually bidding on items and not just milling around eating appetizers.

Types of Items to Auction

The possibilities are endless for the types of items you can choose to have at your silent auction. You can decide on only a particular type of item, such as jewelry, or have several different categories from which people can choose.

While physical items are always nice for people to walk out of an auction holding, sometimes the most successful items are experiences. Items such as all-inclusive trips, spa days, museum tickets, music lessons and golf outings may be more exciting for people to bid on since those are bigger expenses for which they may not regularly pay.

Other experiential items you can auction include:

  • Cooking classes
  • Wine and dinner pairing
  • Backstage passes to a concert or show
  • Yoga classes
  • Boat cruises
  • Hot-air balloon rides
  • Dog-training sessions
  • Sailing lessons

What you auction may be a combination of the types of items that are donated and those that you know would interest your audience. In either case, it’s likely going to require many phone calls or emails to fill up your silent auction with suitable goods.

Keeping the Audience’s Attention

At a regular live auction, the auctioneer's calls grab the attention of guests in the room, keeping interested attendees focused on the item at hand. Because a silent auction has no continual auction calling, an event host or auctioneer informs guests over a microphone that bidding on one item (or one section or table full of items) ends at a specific time, reminding them several times so as to increase interest.

At an event with many auction items, bidding usually closes in stages, with the bidding closing on the lowest-value items first. The best or highest-value items are often saved for the end of the auction.

When to Have a Silent Auction

Silent auctions are typically held at fundraising events, as this type of auction meshes well with other events such as charity dinners. Since a silent auction does not carry with it the usual noise of a live auction, it isn't as disruptive as auction calling would be during a formal event such as a dinner.

It also doesn't require paying constant attention to the auctioneer or host, as guests bid on what they choose, and the closing time for bidding on each item or section is announced. That allows guests to enjoy their dinner without being constantly interrupted.

What’s a Penny Sale?

There are many types of auctions that can be held. One that is similar to a silent auction is known as a penny sale. What’s a penny sale? During these types of auctions, a raffle system is used instead of a bidding system.

During a penny sale, there is a raffle for each item being auctioned. Instead of directly bidding on the item, you throw your desired number of purchased raffle tickets into the bowl for that item. The more raffle tickets you add to the bowl, the more potential there is to win the raffle for that item.

You can usually put as many tickets as you’d like into as many bowls as you’d like, allowing you to bid on multiple items at once. At the end of these types of auctions, one ticket is drawn from each item’s bowl, determining the winner of that item. That is the gist of the penny sale. If you are looking to hold an auction, a penny sale is another alternative to a traditional auction.

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About the Author

Leslie Bloom has worked in upper-level management positions in both publishing and the mental health field. In addition to years of business and management experience, she has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of online and print publications, including Metro Magazine. She holds degrees in both journalism and law.