Introduction: Fundraising - Online Auction

I am involved in a local non-profit organization. We charge no admission fee for tours and all our funding is through donations and volunteers.

This Instructable will document the process we used to host our first major fundraiser. We held an online auction using our organization's social media page.

For the sake of consistency in this Instructable, I will refer to my organization as WIDGET.

Step 1: Need Anything Special?

Here is a list of a few things we used:

Well, most obviously we needed the items we planned to auction off.

Time!!!! – We began the process eight weeks in advance. A successful auction fundraiser is not done overnight!

Tenacity – There is a lot of actual foot work involved.

Post-it notes - We had to tag the donations when captured them from the wild.

A social media outlet - WIDGET is on one of the major social media sites, so we decided to use it as the auction site also. If your organization does not have a social media page, I suggest it. Besides, you cannot have an online auction without it.

Other than those few things, there is nothing special we needed to make this fundraiser a success.

Step 2: Save the Date!

This was the first thing we did, and suggest the same for you. I do NOT recommend just arbitrarily picking a date a random. We had to do a little local research. I advise you try to pick a date that does not correspond with other charitable organizations holding their own fund raisers. A saturated market is hard to break into! If more than a few charitable events fall during the same time frame, many potential donors will blow that quarter’s charitable deduction budget and not have anything left for you. Even worse, getting dozens of requests will turn them off from donating altogether, and that benefits no one. I was already familiar with some of the major non-profit organizations in the area, so I was aware of their fund raising schedules.

I would also suggest contacting your Chamber of Commerce for a list of events are going on in your community. Generally speaking, they know what is going on in town.

Step 3: Research Research Research

Learn what other non-profit organizations are in your community. Like I said, I had the benefit of knowing many of the other non-profits, but during the research phase, we learned of quite a few new ones.

I also recommend you watch your local newspapers for event announcements. We have a Community Calendar section of my paper that lists dates and times of events going on and which non-profits they represent.

Some of the other non-profits holding larger charity events will take out ads in the paper including a list of sponsors. These sponsors either gave cash donations, or a material donation for sale during the event itself. Take note of these sponsor lists. These are organizations who donate to worthy causes. And let's face it, your organization is a worthy cause, otherwise you would not be involved with it.

Go out and become familiar with other non-profit organizations. Get to know them. Chances are they have been around and have done the whole fundraiser thing in the past, and as long as you are not a service competitor, may be willing to share insight.

Step 4: Compile a List of Donors

We sat down and made a very comprehensive list of potential donors in your service area. ANYONE who offers goods or services can be a potential donor. Get creative in your list. Look at places that were not on the lists of other events. We learned that many smaller, locally owned and operated businesses were apt to donate something because they definitely want to get their name out in their own community. Maybe they had never been contacted and appreciated a way to get their name out to a broader audience.

Believe it or not, many large, national companies will provide donations. We discovered it by checking out various corporate websites. Many actually have a promotional page that specifically lay out how your organization can acquire a donation for your event. There was usually paperwork involved, and a specific deadline for a request, but it is a fantastic way to get big ticket items. We didn't just limit myself to local, but we did have to keep my target audience in mind. Ask yourself, "Is it something my community would appreciate?" A good example we learned was major and minor sports teams and events are willing donors. We have a few within a few hours of our community, and they were practically throwing tickets and passes our way.

Next, we put our list into a spreadsheet. We used the following columns:

  • Status – This is a quick item indicating the donation status of the business. A simple “yes/no” is not sufficient in most cases. When we began pounding the pavement, some would commit and asked me to return at a later date to pick it up, others handed me the donation on the spot. Some had to defer to a higher authority. Whatever the reason, we found it best to indicate it on my form. We use statuses of “No” if they chose not do donate, “In hand” if we walked away with an item, “committed” if they say they will donate, but did not know exactly what at the time, and “deferred” meaning, contact was made, but we have to return to meet with the owner or manager.
  • Category – Is the business a "service" business, like a hair salon, or a "retail" establishment, like a department store, or "entertainment" like a movie theater. This is purely an optional column, but it made it easy on us to ensure a decent mix of donors.
  • Location- This is the name of the business, plain and simple.
  • Donation – Describe the donation. Be specific. If it was a gift certificate, we stated so, if it is a tangible item, we described it. It made it easier to create the listing later.
  • Value – What is the item worth? Specifically, for gift certificates, we needed to list how much it is worth. Otherwise, the value of actual merchandise was more for our own records. This gave us an idea of a starting bid or bid increments.
  • Contact Person – The name of the owner, manager, or marketing person. This is not necessarily the name of the person we made contact with. This is the actual person responsible for the decision.
  • Responsible Staff – I did not have to do this alone, so this is where we list the name in WIDGET who was responsible for contacting and following up with the business.
  • Notes – Any special instructions related to the business. ANYTHING!!! It is all important information!

Step 5: Create the Literature

On company letterhead, we created a brief letter containing the following information:

  1. Described WIDGET
  2. Described the type of event we was planning
  3. Stated the date of the event
  4. Specifically stated how the funds were intended to be used
  5. Described what type of advertising we planned on using to promote the event. (Businesses like to know how many ways their name will be seen in the public.)

We made several color copies. If your budget can handle it, use the good paper. You want to look professional. It lent credibility to our cause, and demonstrated that we were serious.

We also had LOTS of extra brochures printed and on hand.

Step 6: Pound the Pavement

This is the most time-consuming and difficult step!

We began this step six weeks from the auction date. We learned that any further out and businesses may not be interested. If we waited until too close to the actual auction date, and businesses would not have time to put something nice together, let alone, feel like they are getting a good amount of exposure in all my advertisements.

BE PREPARED! I cannot stress this enough!

We had my letters in hand, a hard copy of my spreadsheet from Step 4 so we knew where we were headed, a pen to keep notes and plenty of brochures. If your organization provides business cards, I recommend having plenty of them available to hand out, as well. We had many businesses actually ask if we could leave some of WIDGET's brochures with them for customers that come in. This is a fantastic way to get your organization’s name out!

LOOK SHARP! Remember you are representing your organization and asking for donations. Businesses are more receptive to a sharp dressed requester than a slob. But also realize what "looking sharp" means in your own region. My community is not a suit and tie kind of place. For us, clean cowboy boots and starched jeans is looking appropriately sharp.

We reviewed the letter several times to have our well-rehearsed sales pitch ready. That is what we were doing; selling our event and asking business to buy-in with a donation. Some points included in our pitch:

  1. I Introduced myself and clearly stated the name of my organization.
  2. Next, I asked if the manager or owner is available. When I met that individual, I re-introduced myself and my organization. If the manager was not available, I asked for the name, and when they were expected to be in next.
  3. Since my non-profit was a relatively new organization, ask if they have heard of it.
  4. I always made sure to invite them to check out the organization.
  5. I briefly summarized what is in the letter.
  6. I handed them a copy of the brochure and letter.
  7. I asked if there is anything their business, (stating their business by name) was willing to contribute.
  8. If they said something like, “I would like to help, but I have already been contacted by several other organizations and have donated quite a bit already.” I genially replied with something like, “That is fantastic! I understand. Organizations like mine would not be able to function without the generosity of businesses like yours. Thank you anyway. Do you mind if we make of note of for our future events?”
  9. I always end by saying thank you, even if they did not donate.


If they handed us a donation on the spot, We scored! We would also try to get a business card from the business. We would include this with them item when the bidder collects.

If they needed time to think about it, we made sure my contact information was available to them if they have further questions. In some cases, we asked when would be a good time to follow up.

If they said yes, but did not have something in hand, we asked when would be a good time to return to pick up the item. Often we would remind them, the sooner a donation is provided, the sooner their name is put on all the promotional materials.

Immediately after leaving the business, we made all our notes on our spreadsheet printout while it is fresh in our minds. There are few things more damaging than forgetting the name of the manager we needed to follow up with.


Step 7: What to Do With the Donations

Now that we had something to auction, we had to figure out what to do with it.

When we got back to the office, we would take a very good picture of the item. This was used in the online listing. I recommend the item should be the only thing in the shot. Use a clean, clear, well lit location to take the picture. We used a clean, plain white sheet as my table cover and backdrop is an easy photo booth for the shot.

We attached the business card to the donation. If a card was not provided, this is where we used a post-it note. We labeled the items we received with just the name of the business. Our spreadsheet had the rest of the details.

WIDGET has an enormous store room to keep all the items together. I suggest you make sure you have a secure location large enough to store all the donations. It would be a real inconvenience to have items in multiple locations when it comes to for the bidders to collect.

Step 8: Advertise Advertise Advertise

No body will bid, if they don't know there is an auction! We needed to let my community know we had an event coming up!

Every time we received a donation, we posted the picture on the social media site thanking the donor and including a brief description of the item. We finished the post with the date of the auction as a simple reminder.

We contacted our local newspapers at least four weeks from your auction. We utilized the Community Calendar section of the paper mentioned in Step 3. It is a free listing. If it is in your budget, take out an ad stating pretty much the same information on the letter you had in step four. The ad department of the paper can assist with a helpful layout.

A week or so before my auction, we published in the paper and online, a full list of all the sponsors, all the items, and the date and location of my auction.

We, also, contacted all our local radio stations. The nice thing is they make on-air announcements of non-profit events for free!

Step 9: The Big Day!

Alright, we had all our donations. We had the community buzzing about our auction. Finally it was time to actually hold our event.

We had to establish the auction rules before it even opens!

Since we was running the auction over the course of an entire week, and the listings were open the whole week, we had to state the starting date and time of each item and an closing date and time.

Our simple rules included:

  1. State the beginning date/time and ending date/time of the entire event
  2. All bids posted prior to the beginning times and posted after the ending times will not be counted.
  3. State bids are placed by entering a desired price in the comment section of the listing.
  4. State payment options. We chose cash and check only.
  5. State the deadline the payment is required. Have a plan what to do in the even the highest bidder does not pay for the item before the deadline expires! I suggest, contacting the next highest bidder through the social media site and asking if they are still interested.
  6. Identify when and where payments can be made and where to pick up the items. For us, it was WIDGET's location.

Each individual listing included the picture of the item, a description of the item, the donor’s name, the closing time for that specific item, and the expected bid increments. This varied on the value of the item. Some big ticket items, we wanted to have a minimum bid. It doesn't do anyone any good to just give cruises away.

When the item listing closed, we contacted the highest bidder to let them know they had won the bid, and reminded them the payment terms and pickup plans.

Step 10: Not Done Yet!

About a week after the auction closed, we updated our spreadsheet to indicate the buyer, and the purchase amount. This will help to generate a list of interested parties for our next event.

We composed a very nice and personalized thank you letter to each and every donor. It specifically listed the item they donated, and expressed how much we appreciated their support of my organization. We did not feel it was a good idea to state the amount of money received for the item. It may not be a high as they expected and they may not believe they got a good return on the investment.

We had every letter personally signed by the person in our organization who made the contact, as well as, the president of WIDGET's Board of Directors. If your organization has and Executive Director, including them on the letters is a nice touch.

While this Instructable may not work in all instances, it could serve as a general plan to organizing your own fundraising event.

Good luck!

And as always, thanks for checking out my Instructable!

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