11 Charity Auction Tips and Tricks

It’s bad enough that your company bought tickets to a charity dinner, and you drew the shortest straw. But then you noticed that the invitation said “Black Tie Optional,” which, depending on where you live, for men means “wear a tuxedo or look like an idiot” or “wear a tuxedo and look like an idiot.” And for women means, “spend hours trying to find a dress you like.”

It’s a given that the food, wine and entertainment will be bad, and that there are hundreds of ways you would rather be spending your Saturday night. In search of a silver lining, you desperately hope that there will be decent stuff in the obligatory charity auction. 

So to help, here are our top 11 charity auction tips.

#1 Never get into a bidding war with a table of drunks

This is a sure sign that you’re going to end up paying too much for that particular item. Some warning signs are uproarious laughter and loud talking during heartwarming charity videos.

#2 Skip the puppy

You don’t want the puppy. If you did, you would have been researching reputable breeders or visiting shelters instead of sipping marginal wine. Besides, as your parents probably told you, “a dog is a big responsibility.”

#3 If you really want it, start your bid high

Most people scan the silent auction table searching for bargains. If you really want an item, go ahead and start with your maximum bid. It will scare off the bargain hunters, and a bid sheet with just one bid on it is pretty safe.

#4 Inquire about doubling items

If an item really isn’t one of a kind, ask a staff member if it’s possible to award two items instead of just one. If the charity can figure it out (especially if the donor of the item is present at the event) you might just be able to pay whatever the final top bid is. Charities really love this because they’re doubling their revenue. This is more likely to work for “priceless” items, like special tours, company box seats at sporting events, or vacation rentals.

#5 Steal the pen

Underhanded, but effective: if a potential silent auction donor can’t find a pen, they won’t bid. “Ask for a pen? Too much work. Next item!”

#6 Search out the ugly duckling

If you’re desperate to win anything at all because you’re hyper-competitive and that’s the only way to salvage your wasted evening, you can always look for the really strange item that nobody else wants. I own some ugly, useless, hand-made pottery for just this reason.

#7 Hover

This is an old strategy, but it does require some inner strength. Stand right in front of the bid sheet of your choice, blocking everyone else from bidding. It’s helpful to have a “you’re welcome to bid on this, but I’m just going to immediately outbid you” look in your eye, too.

#8 Write legibly

Lots of charity auctions now assign bidding numbers, but if they don’t, be sure to use your best handwriting. Harassed volunteers at the end of the night would rather find the second highest bidder than try to figure out who Endlx Scnkplbb is supposed to be.

#9 Don’t cheat

It is possible to be too clever. On bid sheets that let you write in your bid amount, there’s always a jerk who tries to trick everyone by writing in a lower dollar amount than the bid above (or ignoring the required bid increment.) Play dumb if you like, but the already harassed volunteers won’t have it.

#10 Find the weird bundles

Remember that most auction items are collected by volunteers, who may just accept a bunch of random items. Then the poor person in charge of the auction needs to figure out how to bundle them together into something they can stick a bid sheet on. These items usually list a very high fair market value, which can discourage bidding (or have an artificially high starting bid.) If an item has no bids, ask a volunteer if it’s possible to bid lower than the starting bid “to get it started.”

#11 Arrive early

Some silent auctions have rolling start and end times, and people generally arrive late. If you get there early, you’ll have far less competition.

Do you have any other charity auction tips? Let us know in the comments!