Some reminders on running a successful auction:
* Try to have a dinner in conjunction with the auction. "If you only have hors d'oeuvres, people don't want to stay," advises professional auctioneer and consultant Timothy Duggan. Most auctions run two or three hours, and a hungry or thirsty audience will bolt. The dinner tickets should be high enough to cover all basic costs. Keep them within the price range of your audience, but not so low you can't pay the bills.
* Get a good auctioneer. A big talker who spends five minutes per item will encourage people to go home early.
* Use an efficient p.a. system. All is lost if it's impossible to hear the auctioneer above clinking forks and dinner chit-chat.
* Keep close track of bidders. Art Buchwald recalls one person who bid on six items at the Martha's Vineyard auction and then disappeared. Now he has someone write down the name of the losing bidder as a back-up. All auctions should have a system of numbers or spotters to identify all winning bidders immediately.
* Select items for the live auction carefully. Jewelry often is too personal for people to bid on in public, and people often react subjectively to art. The order for putting items on the block also is important. One hot item should be put up early to spark bidding, with the bulk of big-ticket items in the middle, and one reserved for the end to hold the audience's attention.
* Don't set minimum bids too low or items may be sold too cheaply. Most silent auctions set opening bids at 50 percent of market value; if the minimums appear too high during the auction, it's easy to mark them down and let people feel they're getting a bargain.
* Be careful purchasing items for auction sale. Some organizations have been burned by buying trips or products because they were unable to obtain bids high enough to cover costs.
* Don't set your sights too low. The same amount of work can raise $100,000 as easily as $10,000, claims Duggan, if people have the confidence to go for the big-ticket items.
* Pay attention to display. Silent auction items must be easy to find and fully described to attract active bidding. One group had a near-disaster one year when the auction was held in a three-story town house, where it was difficult to move quickly from room to room to view and bid on the items.
* Don't rule out anything. Many corporations are familiar with charity auctions and have established policies for donating products or services to legitimate fund-raising groups. Hotels, restaurants and retailers often will provide free items to an audience they'd like to attract. Auctions sell everything from tennis racket stringing to Russian easter eggs, dessert-of-the-month services to TV station tours. There's little that someone won't bid on.
* Don't forget the tax benefits. Donors of auction items to a nonprofit institution can deduct the product's market value as a contribution. Bidders in a charity auction who pay more than market value can take a deduction for the amount overpaid.
* Let people know where the money will go. They'll be more generous if they realize it's for a new playground, scholarships or for new equipment for a public soup kitchen.
* Keep the auction fun. In addition to raising money, most charity auctions serve as social events that promote camaraderie among school parents and organization workers. The benefit of an auction is that everyone comes out a winner: Donors receive publicity for their goods and services; bidders obtain services and experiences available nowhere else and the organization can raise a lot of money -- all for a good cause.