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Procure With Purpose: 5 Tips to Find Nonprofit Auction Items

When your nonprofit plans an auction fundraising event, you’ll quickly find that there are many decisions involved in the process. You need to choose whether your auction will be live or silent, held in-person or virtually, and most importantly, what items you’ll sell at the event.

Effective auction item procurement involves finding a wide variety of high-value prizes while ensuring you can produce a positive return on investment (ROI). Plus, your items need to cater to your nonprofit’s specific supporter base—after all, your auction’s fundraising success depends on whether participants make purchases!

To help you balance all of these factors, this guide will walk through the following five tips for procuring nonprofit auction items:

  1. Hold a Strategy Session
  2. Choose Items That Sell Well at Auction
  3. Keep Costs as Low as Possible
  4. Establish a Gift Acceptance Policy
  5. Acknowledge Item Providers During the Event

The auction item procurement process might seem daunting at first, but remember that careful planning often leads to more profitable fundraisers. Start early, do your research, and play to your nonprofit’s strengths whenever possible. Let’s dive in!

1. Hold a Strategy Session

Before you begin your search for auction items, gather your event planning team and determine the strategic approach you’ll take to procurement. Make sure everyone is on the same page about the answers to the following questions:

  • What is our event fundraising goal?
  • Who is our target audience for this auction?
  • How many items do we need to procure?
  • What types of items are at the top of our auction wishlist?
  • What existing connections can we leverage in the procurement process?
  • What new connections do we want to form?

Once you’ve outlined your strategy, create a full auction item wishlist and assign a specific team member to look for each prize. Winspire’s guide to auction item procurement recommends providing your team with procurement packets that include the wishlist, an in-kind donation form, and a letter explaining the event’s purpose and how to contribute items. This helps everyone stay organized and make a good impression on prospective auction item providers.

2. Choose Items That Sell Well at Auction

Although you could procure practically any type of item to sell at your auction, there are certain categories that tend to be more popular to purchase in that setting. Consider adding the following kinds of items to your wishlist:

  • Themed gift baskets. Bundling multiple related items to sell as a single unit increases their total value. Plus, they’ll be even more appealing if you package each basket attractively and give it a catchy name.
  • Unique goods. Auctions are often a good place to buy items that aren’t readily available in retail stores. These items can also spotlight your community—for example, you could sell paintings by a local artist or signed memorabilia from a sports team in your area.
  • Exclusive tickets. Some auction participants will likely prefer winning experiences over buying physical goods. Look for tickets to popular concerts, plays, or athletic events that might be difficult for supporters to secure on their own.
  • Travel-related items. Although vacations are often the most challenging auction items to procure, they also sell extremely well and bring in a lot of revenue.

To determine which of these auction items your supporters would most like to win, you could send a survey to your target audience about their preferences and shape your wishlist around the results.

3. Keep Costs as Low as Possible

In addition to finding unique goods and experiences, another reason many people enjoy auctions is because they can often buy these items at a discount. When creating your event budget, keep in mind that you’ll likely sell many items below their fair market value. So, to maximize your ROI, you need to minimize your upfront costs.

Some ways to procure high-quality auction items for little to no cost include:

  • Taking advantage of nonprofit discounts offered by some event venues.
  • Seeking out dedicated auction item providers — this method can be especially useful for procuring travel packages.
  • Soliciting in-kind donations from individual donors or businesses.

No matter which methods you use, it can be helpful to work out an agreement with the provider in case a prize doesn’t sell. Ask them whether you can save the item for your next fundraising event or return it to reduce the risk of your organization losing money on your auction.

4. Establish a Gift Acceptance Policy

The one disadvantage of soliciting in-kind donations of auction items rather than purchasing them is that you have slightly less control over what you receive. This can lead to situations where a well-meaning donor contributes an item that would be extremely difficult to sell or could even be dangerous to offer at your auction, such as cosmetics with broken safety seals or live animals.

To avoid accepting a donation that will just go to waste or potentially coming off as ungrateful by rejecting a gift, develop a gift acceptance policy. One of the core guidelines to include in your nonprofit’s financial management policy handbook, your gift acceptance policy should outline the types of donations—both monetary and in-kind—that your organization can and can’t accept, as well as the procedure for accepting each one.

If your nonprofit has to reject any in-kind donations of auction items, having an official policy to back up your decision can lessen the blow of your “thanks, but no thanks.” Plus, by publicizing your gift acceptance policy in the lead-up to your event, you may encourage more supporters to donate prizes!

5. Acknowledge Item Providers During the Event

Finally, make sure to publicly recognize the individuals and organizations who provided your auction items. On each item’s silent auction bid sheet or under its description in your live auction catalog, include a short blurb that reads something like, “This item was contributed by [donor/business name].” This quick acknowledgement helps thank everyone who made your auction possible, in addition to the individual thank-you notes you’ll send after the event.

If an item was contributed by a corporate sponsor, make sure to add the business’s name and logo to your other auction marketing materials and event signage. Getting Attention’s guide to securing corporate sponsorships explains that the most effective partnerships between businesses and nonprofits are mutually beneficial. Your organization benefits from receiving a free auction item, and they benefit from the free publicity you provide in return.

By acknowledging item providers in these ways, you can cultivate long-term connections that you can leverage the next time you need to procure items for a fundraising auction, making the process even easier for your nonprofit.

Although procuring auction items is an involved process, the first time your nonprofit undertakes it will almost certainly be the hardest. As you continue to host auction fundraising events, your team will gain more insight into which items are most popular with your organization’s unique supporter base and be able to hone your strategy accordingly. Plus, you’ll form more partnerships and discover more nonprofit discounts that can help maximize your ROI.