A guide to silent auctions

Secure a few big prizes, whip up some excitement and watch the bids roll in.

Would your supporters enjoy a week in a holiday home in France? A new iPad? Dinner for two? A silent auction is a great way for participants to get prizes they really want, while the PTA makes money with very little outlay.

A silent auction is exactly that - an auction, but with no noisy auctioneer shouting out bids to a room full of raised hands. It's an effective way to raise extra funds and is often held alongside other PTA events such as Christmas fairs and summer balls.

Typically, items are donated by parents, members of the community and local businesses, and all the money raised goes straight to the PTA coffers. People only bid on items they would genuinely like to have, rather than winning a 'potluck' raffle prize.

Running an auction

Sourcing prizes is often the biggest challenge. Start early by letting local companies know what you're looking for and what kind of coverage they can expect in return. Give donors as much publicity as you can: offer them an advert in your programme; link to them on social media and have your compere announce their name during the event.

There are no licensing requirements for running a silent auction, however you will need to bear in mind the Sale of Goods Act when providing descriptions and stating the value of each item. Parents provide their names and contact details voluntarily, but these should be destroyed after the event.

Explain that winning bids need to be collected and paid for within a certain timeframe and that it is up to the winner of each lot to arrange collection. If two people bid the same amount, invite them to submit a sealed bid on a piece of paper - the highest bid wins.

What kind of auction?

Paper-based auction: Make up an information sheet for each lot and attach it to a noticeboard or clipboard. Write a description of the prize and use a photo, if possible. Include a recommended retail price and 'sell-by date', if appropriate, and leave room for people to write their name, contact details and amount bid. For higher-value items, suggest an opening bid as a guide.

Blind auction: If your supporters would prefer to remain anonymous, invite anyone who wants to bid to register for a unique number. They then write down their bidder number and bid amount against each lot.

Sealed bids: Make a bid box and get bidders to write their highest bid on a sheet of paper and place in the box.

Online auction: Set up an online silent auction as a fundraiser in its own right or to attract bids before a live event. Post each lot on Facebook and use the comments section for bids. Remember to turn off comments before the event starts. Sites such as JumbleBee and PTA Events provide an easy way for people to view lots, do some research and start bidding. There's usually a fee for this kind of service: either a percentage of the proceeds or a set amount for the year.

Fully managed auction: If your PTA is running a big-ticket event, you might consider hiring a specialist fundraising company. They will usually take a percentage of profits but will run the whole show for you.

Kamran Tirmizey, managing director of fundraising at charity fundraiser Exceed Group says: 'PTAs are time-poor and volunteers may not have experience of managing events. People are doing the best they can but have other commitments, which make it hard to be efficient. A specialist company will produce a brochure, provide an event manager and even chase up payments for you after the event.'

'Our small school auction raised over £2,000'

'We began planning our silent auction in January by posting on local Facebook groups and asking parents for donations using Classlist. It was held as part of the summer fair so we advertised it on our event posters and promoted it on Facebook too.

We had 23 lots in total, the star prize being two Wimbledon centre court tickets with access to the debentures lounge. We don't usually use reserve prices but for that one we did. If prizes weren't big enough to be auctioned individually, we grouped them together to make them more attractive to bidders. Where possible, we attempted to make the lots compatible - for example, dinner for two was combined with a babysitting voucher.

The silent auction had its own tent at the fair. Each prize was listed on a piece of paper along with a description and the recommended retail price, if known. Attendees wrote their bids underneath during the afternoon. We called time half an hour before the end, and our compere read out the winners but not how much they paid. Most people were still at the fair and claimed their prizes straight away, paying cash. We also allowed BACS transfers, but prize envelopes weren't handed over until payment had been made.

We have such a generous parent community, so it didn't cost us anything to run the auction, which raised £2,092.'

Mikayla Ellmer, PTA co-chair, Kemsing Primary School, Kemsing, Kent (196 pupils)

Call in the experts

Exceed Group's Kamran Tirmizey explains how a charity fundraising company can work with your PTA:

  • Once we've spoken on the phone, we arrange a face-to-face meeting or a Skype call. It's good for us to see the school and meet the people involved.
  • As your fundraising partner, we'll produce a proposal. Depending on the event size, we'll suggest either a free, paper-based auction or provide a technology-based option where guests can review lots and bid before the event using a website or smartphone. Mobile and tablet bidding continues at the event, where we can set bids to appear on a screen at the back of the stage - an excellent way to start bidding competitions between peer groups.
  • We produce a 20-page glossy brochure highlighting any prizes the school has sourced and adding a selection of exclusive experience prizes from our own contacts.
  • On the day, we provide an event manager and hosts, depending on how many guests are expected.
  • When people arrive, they can look through the brochure, select items of interest and then make a bid; all bids are sealed in a locked box to comply with GDPR.
  • At the end of the night, we text the winning bidders and take payment straight away by credit card.
  • After the event, we chase up any remaining payments and the account should be settled within five days. Our team look after winners for up to a year after the event to ensure they can book their experiences at a convenient time.

Five top tips

  1. Reach out to everyone you know. Find as many members of your community who can donate items of true worth that will appeal to your bidders.
  2. Don't be afraid to aim high. Tell potential donors what prize value you're after - in monetary terms. Use low-value items as raffle prizes.
  3. Provide prizes with enough variety to appeal to your audience. Seek out one-of-a-kind items such as VIP tickets to big sporting events, a meal on the chef's tasting table at a Michelin-starred restaurant, or use of a luxury car for a weekend. Can you get someone to give away a week at their holiday home? Could an artist offer to do a bespoke piece of artwork?
  4. Between five and ten high-value items is an ideal total to aim for, and will give you more profit for less work than many smaller items.
  5. A good master of ceremonies is key. A silent auction doesn't have the competitive aspect of a live auction, so you need to whip up excitement, let the audience know if any lots haven't been bid on and where potential bargains are to be had.