Mastering the Ask: 4 Silent Auction Donation Request Tips

As a nonprofit fundraising professional, you know that there are many factors to take into account when soliciting donations. Not only do you have to consider your organization’s goals and resources to determine when and how to ask for gifts, but you also need to appeal to your donors’ preferences, values, and giving capacity to craft a request they’ll be receptive to.

These are all important factors to keep in mind when requesting donations of silent auction items. However, there are some additional considerations with these requests since you’re asking for an in-kind donation rather than a monetary contribution and will likely approach businesses as well as individual donors.

In this guide, we’ll discuss four proven tips to help your nonprofit level up its silent auction donation requests, including how to:

  1. Choose the Right Items to Solicit as In-Kind Donations
  2. Assemble an Item Procurement Team
  3. Write a Compelling Request Letter
  4. Be Flexible With Your Asks

The most engaging silent auctions typically feature more than 100 items, all of which vary in type and value to align with different supporters’ interests and budgets. Make sure to start the donation request process as early as possible and stay organized so your nonprofit can reach this target with plenty of time to spare before the event. That being said, let’s dive in!

1. Choose the Right Items to Solicit as In-Kind Donations

Asking for in-kind donations of auction items rather than purchasing them outright helps keep your upfront event costs as low as possible. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to procure every prize on your organization’s wish list through this method. Keep your expectations realistic as you budget for your silent auction and set aside some money for item procurement.

To start determining your nonprofit’s ratio of donated vs. purchased auction items, first categorize the prizes you want to feature. According to Winspire’s charity auction item guide, the top 10 types of auction prizes are as follows:

A chart of the top 10 types of silent auction items, which are listed below.

  • Vacation packages—the more all-inclusive, the better!
  • Gift baskets that consist of many small prizes centered around a theme.
  • Event tickets to concerts, musicals, or sports games.
  • Signed celebrity memorabilia—always verify its legitimacy.
  • Artwork and antiques, especially those made by local craftspeople.
  • Certificates for services like childcare, dry cleaning, auto detailing, or massages.
  • Family-friendly activities such as birthday party packages or amusement park tickets.
  • Fine food and beverages that appeal to a variety of tastes.
  • Popular technology like new smartphones, video game consoles, and fitness trackers.
  • High-end goods such as designer purses, jewelry, or kitchen appliances.

Some of these prize categories are easier to secure in kind than others. For instance, vacation packages are very rarely donated, so it’s best to go through a travel company or consignment provider to procure those. Event venues are also unlikely to donate tickets, although they’ll often offer a nonprofit discount if you negotiate with them. However, most of the other items on this list are fair game for in-kind donations.

2. Assemble an Item Procurement Team

If you’re going to procure 100 items or more for your nonprofit’s silent auction, you’re going to need some help! Your event planning staff will form the nucleus of your auction item procurement team, but you’ll also need to recruit volunteers to fill it out. Consider getting some of your board members involved as well, since they might have connections with local businesses or know some individual donors who would be willing to contribute prizes.

As you put this team together, make sure to:

  • Choose people who have strong written and oral communication skills. In particular, they should be comfortable approaching both individual and corporate donors face-to-face to ask for contributions.
  • Brainstorm your item wish list as a group. This way, you’ll get a variety of ideas and perspectives on which items will bring in the most revenue, engage your event’s target audience, and be the easiest to procure.
  • Divide up sourcing responsibilities based on team members’ connections and skills. For example, you might ask a volunteer who works at a childcare center to ask their boss about donating a certificate for services. Or, assign a staff member who can negotiate effectively to secure a nonprofit discount on tickets to a local sporting event.

Train your procurement team on best practices for auction item donation solicitation before they get started, Additionally, make sure they can explain your organization’s mission clearly and passionately so potential donors understand the “why” behind your ask.

3. Write a Compelling Request Letter

Whenever possible, your procurement team should meet with prospective auction item donors in person or via video conference. This way, the ask becomes a conversation where both parties can reach an agreement they’re happy with.

However, a compelling donation request letter may also do the trick if the prospective donor can’t meet face-to-face. Plus, even if you schedule a meeting, the letter can help guide the conversation and serve as a leave-behind if the donor isn’t ready to contribute an item right away.

Make sure to include the following elements in your silent auction donation request letter:

  • Your nonprofit’s branding. According to Kwala, “Your [organization’s] brand is how you introduce yourself to others and gather support.” Incorporating your logo, color scheme, and standardized messaging into your letter makes it appear professional and trustworthy.
  • Mission information. Briefly describe your nonprofit’s background, current initiatives, and reason for hosting the auction. Leverage storytelling and statistics to make your impact more concrete.
  • Specific ask. Modify this section for each donor so they know exactly what item(s) you want them to contribute. This provides guidance for them and reduces the likelihood of your team accidentally asking for the same item twice.
  • Return date. Setting a deadline takes the pressure off the donor to decide whether to contribute in the moment, but it also makes it more likely that you’ll receive their item in time for the auction.

Along with this letter, give out an in-kind donation form where donors can share their contact information and a description of the item. This is important both for your nonprofit’s records and to allow the donor to claim their contribution as tax deductible. Ideally, the donor should also estimate the item’s fair market value (FMV) along with the description so you can price it accurately at the auction.

4. Be Flexible With Your Asks

Not everyone you approach will say “Yes!” to your initial donation request, and that’s okay! Don’t give up on an auction item donor just because they didn’t want to contribute one particular item. Instead, use these strategies to adapt your ask:

  • Suggest an alternate prize to donate. For example, maybe a spa said no to contributing a certificate for a free massage, but they would be willing to give you a gift basket of the skincare products they sell on-site—you won’t know unless you ask!
  • Offer other sponsorship opportunities to businesses. If donating an item isn’t the right fit, a company might agree to sponsor your event financially or through co-marketing opportunities.
  • Invite individual donors to participate in your silent auction. That way, you’ll still bring in revenue via their registration fee and item purchases.

Another key aspect of flexibility is not leaving money—or, in this case, items—on the table. If a donor seems very enthusiastic about contributing an auction prize, don’t be afraid to ask them for a second item or financial sponsorship as well!

Of course, your nonprofit’s actual silent auction donation requests will vary depending on what you need and who you’re asking to contribute. Approaching an art collector about donating a one-of-a-kind painting looks different from asking the owner of an electronics store to contribute a pair of bluetooth headphones. However, the tips above should provide your organization with a solid foundation for preparing and issuing your item donation solicitations. Happy fundraising!

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