I want to share a new idea for silent auctions or raffles.
Let’s kick it off with a related story.
Many years ago, one of my clients was annoyed.
She oversaw the fundraising for the local chapter of a national nonprofit. The national management team had recommended she and other fundraisers working in major cities change the model of their silent auction.
This new silent auction model was based on the success another major metropolitan area had experienced when all of the silent auction items had become “mystery gifts.”
As I understood it, the silent auction tables had attractively wrapped boxes where displays used to be. A sign might say “A Trip” or “A Night Out.”
Guests were asked to pay a substantial flat rate for the box, perhaps from $250 to $5000, without knowing what was inside.
Re-read that. These aren’t $25 mystery boxes, but $2500 mystery boxes.
There were no silent auction bid sheets — only “buy” sheets.
She told me that this other metropolitan area had remarkable success. Guests swooped in to buy all the “mystery silent auction items” in short order. The development team didn’t have to write descriptions, create bid sheets, take photographs, or create other marketing promotions.
My client rolled her eyes.
“That might work fine there because the donor base is “old money” with families who have supported them for years,” she explained, “But here in D.C., my donors work for their money. They have jobs; they need to know what they’re buying.”
“Not every major market is the same,” she concluded.
When it came time for her event, she didn’t follow the advice of her national organization. She kept a traditional silent auction.
I share her story because a few of my clients use a modified concept of this ‘mystery box’ idea.
To avoid jargon confusion, for the remainder of this blog post, I’m calling this idea a “Surprise Box.”
The fundraising auction industry already has a concept called “Mystery Boxes.” I don’t want us to confuse these two ideas.
Instead of having the entire silent auction become “surprise items,” set aside one or two items and market them as having secret contents.
The Surprise Box will be displayed as you do your other items — a bid sheet, a vertical descriptive sheet, a prop (that is, the box itself) — but the description will indicate that you’re not revealing the contents.
For example, last fall I worked with a disease-based nonprofit that offered 50 items in its silent auction. Three of the silent auction items were “surprise boxes.”
Every box sold at twice its value (the value was around $30), without guests knowing what was inside.
Another example — this spring one of my school clients had a bucket raffle. Multiple baskets were on display. Guests could stuff tickets into the jar of the basket they hoped to win.
The last basket on the table was labeled “Mystery Basket … you never know what you are going to get!”
Here’s a tip for keeping this successful. Be sensitive to what your audience is willing to pay for unknown items.
The first time I saw this concept was in 2007, when I was a fresh-faced auctioneer.
The client had a mix of donations that were too nice to individually sell in a $10 or $20 Mystery Box, yet she lacked space in the silent auction to add any more items.
She took many of the donations — two crystal wine glasses, two or three bottles of wine, tickets to smaller area theaters, picnic supplies, car-related tools, kitchen utensils, etc. — and packaged them together in a bright red, 24″ square box with an enormous white bow. It looked spectacular.
The value was over $600. The opening bid was ~$300.
When everything closed, the Surprise Box was the only item without a bid.
At the time, even I didn’t know what was in the box. But boy, I hated that her idea was the only item that hadn’t sold.
“I’ll buy it,” I told her.
“It’s got great stuff in it,” she reassured me.
In hindsight, I recognize the room didn’t have an audience ready to commit to an unknown $300 purchase. It was a smaller auction with many social workers and mental health therapists. They were prepared to spend $300 on a known item, but it was too steep of a price for an unknown investment.
Have you used a Surprise Box in your silent auction? How did it go?
I encourage you to post your thoughts below.