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How to hold a silent auction

When the Northeastern Lazy Daze Caravan Club gets together, one of our traditional activities is a "silent auction" in which everyone can bid for donated items. There are many ways of doing this, but ours is the simplest (and most fun!) I know of. If your group wants to try it, here's how we do it.

I should say up front that while many organizations use silent auctions to raise money, we like to hold ours with no money changing hands. It's just more fun that way, and there's less chance of hard feelings when a bidding war erupts. But if you want to raise a little money in the process, that's easily done, too—I'll explain how a bit later.

Getting ready
Before the event, I send out a reminder to everyone that if they have any items they'd like to donate, they should bring them to the get-together. (Important: you don't have to donate an item to participate in the auction. Anyone can be a winner!) We encourage people to bring RVing-related things, of course, but we're not purists by any means. For example, in our last silent auction we had not just camping gear, but some fresh cannoli, two pints of ice cream made in an organic dairy where the daughter of one of the members works, some handmade note cards, and a lovely gift box of hand-decorated napkins and towels. We also frequently get books on tape, tools, atlases and travel guides and the like. I often donate things like small toolkits and organizers that I get from my credit card company's "rewards" program.

We hold the auction right after the potluck supper. We lay out all the donated goodies on tables adjacent to the eating area, so people can look them over as they wander around getting food. One of the things we have to worry about is having enough tables for both dinner and auction. I think we used at least 8 tables (card table sized) for the auction last time. Once people get the idea, it's amazing how much stuff shows up!

Each item has a paper cup next to it. (If it's breezy, we put stones in the cups to keep them from blowing away.) The "bids" will go in the cups. And each person gets ten tickets, either preprinted with their name—I make these up from the attendee list and print them on my Canon portable printer—or blank so they can write in their own name. (Be sure to have several pens on hand for the latter.)

People place their bids by putting a ticket or tickets into the cup adjacent to a desired item. If you fancy several items, you can apportion your tickets among them—or you can risk all ten on one item. Obviously the more tickets you put into a given cup, the better your chances...but of course there are no absolute guarantees. (Unless, that is, you're the only bidder for an item, which occasionally does happen. Of course as auctioneer I make a big production out of these items, exclaiming over the unbearable suspense as with a theatrical flourish I draw the single ticket.)

For example, at our last auction I put one ticket in the cup for the cannoli and nine tickets in the cup for the organic maple walnut ice cream. That way I maximized my chances of winning the ice cream, but still had a slim possibility of getting the cannoli. (As it turned out, to my surprise, I won both!)

Fund raising
Here's where money-making can come in, if you want: at my local Mac user group's annual silent auction—where I first encountered this idea—they give each member five free tickets, but they also sell additional tickets at ten tickets for five dollars. This way everybody gets a few free bids, but if you really want to maximize your chances of winning an item, you can buy as many additional tickets as you like and stuff the bidding cup for that item. The Mac user group brings in about $150 each year this way; it's their only source of revenue other than membership dues.

The Mac user group, by the way, also uses commercial serially-numbered double roll tickets. Instead of filling in your name, you deposit the ticket and keep the stub with the matching number, and then listen for that number when the auctioneer draws a winning ticket. That's easier for the auction organizers than printing personalized tickets the way I do, but a bit more prone to confusion—sometimes people forget to look at their ticket stubs when the auctioneer calls off the winning number. This approach is best suited to a larger group.

The auction
We give people about half an hour to look over the items and place their bids; then we start the auction. My assistant and I go around with a hat. At each item I stop and dump its cupful of tickets into the hat; then I hold up the item and give a little tongue-in-cheek spiel just to build suspense. ("And now...all the way from Wisconsin, Land of a Thousand Cheeses...comes this brick of gen-u-wine cheddar, donated by Bob and Clara Smith!") Then I pick a ticket at random from the hat, and after a dramatic pause, read the name of the lucky winner.

After drawing a winner, we empty all the tickets from the hat into a plastic bag I carry, and move on to the next item. Usually we save the more desirable items till the end, in order to build to a dramatic climax. One of our members likes to provide a tongue-in-cheek "mystery item": a box wrapped in brown paper that is always the very last thing we auction. (This time it turned out to be an "All-Purpose RVing Kit": a can of WD-40 and a roll of duct tape.)

The "silent" auction (which is actually rather raucous!) is a lot of fun for everybody. Most people win something; many of us get rid of various things we no longer need; and there's a lot of kidding and merriment. No money changes hands, and everybody gets a chance to bid on things they really can use...while the anonymous nature of the bidding eliminates the excessive competitiveness of a traditional auction. Try it with your group!

By the way, here's what the Princeton Mac Users' Group silent auction looked like last year. Everything you see, including the working computer systems on the podium, was donated by PMUG members. It's amazing what people will bring!

PMUG auction
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