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Annual Service Auctions Generate Cash, Sociability

At the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, VA (664 members), the joke about the annual service auction is that if it weren't for the auction none of the members would have a social life.

The auction, which this year netted $30,000, consists largely of dinners and other social events in members' homes. "We joke that we buy our social lives at the auction," says auction chair Sue MacReynolds. "If we'd all just have each other over for dinner and contribute more to the church we wouldn't need to do this!"

Service auctions are an annual affair in many UU congregations, which have found them a reliable source of "extra" money. More than one congregation has organized an auction to quickly raise a couple thousand dollars for a furnace repair or to cover a budget deficit.

The secret to a successful auction is the auctioneer. MacReynolds recommends a professional who understands charity auctions. Resist the temptation to do it yourself. "I did it for three years and although I do a lot of public speaking, I didn't have a clue what I was doing," MacReynolds says. Another option is a glib church member who has the "gift" and can keep bidders interested and entertained.

Other tips:

  • Attend an auction at another UU church before holding your own.
  • Upscale the event with a sit-down dinner before the auction with good food, beer and wine, tablecloths, and decorations to attract the people who have money to spend and put them in the mood.
  • Require sellers to pick a date for their event before the auction.
  • Remember that UUs love to eat. Dinners and other food items usually account for the bulk of auction receipts.
  • Put together a catalog of auction items and send it to friends and members two weeks before the auction.
  • Avoid long lines at evening's end with multiple cashiers.
  • Throw a party for auction volunteers afterward.

"Two things have to be top-notch, the catalog and the dinner," says Edith Schwede, a co-chair of the auction at West Shore UU Church in Cleveland, OH (625), which this year cleared $18,000.

Sometimes enthusiasm overcomes size. The 180-member Orange Coast UU Church in Costa Mesa, CA, raised $15,000 last year with a fast-paced auctioneer and lots of member participation.

To keep the fun in an auction, use the money for a special purpose. Auction chairs complain about boards of trustees building auction revenues into the budget. To keep the auction from becoming an annual chore, Schwede recommends diverting proceeds to a specific purpose that bidders can be enthusiastic about.

The Bellingham, WA, Unitarian Fellowship (182), whose auction raised $7,000 this year, has set the money aside for partner church and social justice programs, by special action of the board.

Don't ignore an auction's social value. "Even without the money, it would be worth doing because of the many social events and the community-building that results," says Paul Vancouver, UU Fellowship of Grand Traverse in Traverse City, MI (233), which cleared $7,000.

Not all auctions have to be mega-events. The UU Congregation of Glens Falls, NY (75) raised $2,900 this year at its fifth annual auction. The UU Fellowship of Tuscaloosa, AL (87), raises from $1,500 to $2,500 annually. "The real benefit for a smaller congregation is it lets us know what some of our hidden talents are," said Chuck Vosganian, president at Glens Falls.

"There are no doubt, ways of raising money that take less time and effort," says John Zottoli, UU Church of Arlington, VA (832), which raised $20,000, "but we have fun at the auction."

For more information on organizing an auction, see below for guidelines from the UU Congregation of Fairfax.

Successful Fund-Raising Options

By Sue MacReynolds, chair of the annual auction at the UU Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, VA, 1998.

There are three key ingredients to a successful auction:

  • Quality items.
  • Bidders who are ready, willing, and able to pay a premium price for the items.
  • An auctioneer and silent auction set-up that gets the best price possible for the items.

Quality items are often donated by the members and friends of a congregation. Most of the revenue of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF) auction is from "auction events" offered by members, hosting two to twenty people. Theme dinners, outings, exclusive tours, and one-of-a-kind performances are all popular items. Vacation get-aways, sports tickets, and "in-demand" services are also great items. And don't forget those items that are unique to your church—"choose the sermon topic," "reserved parking," "name the drive-way"—can often bring a good price at very little cost.

The auction catalogue is your advertisement for the auction and the auction items. Make sure your bidders get a copy far enough in advance to do look it over and decide what they want to buy. Look at your catalogue through the eyes of the bidders. Does it portray the auction as a "not-to-miss" event? Are the items described accurately? Will the bidders be able to find the items they want when they arrive at the auction? Don't forget the revenue potential of selling advertising space in your catalogue. Local businesses are often willing to buy an ad—especially if they are located close to your church or have some association with the church. UUCF gives a special mention to businesses associated with our membership and other UUs if they donate items or buy an ad.

Bidders who are ready, willing, and able to pay a premium price for the items are enticed to attend your auction in a number of ways. Promise them an entertaining evening—great food, an opportunity to talk with their friends, a room set-up and auction "agenda" that makes them want to stay (and bid) until the last item is sold. List the market value of items in your catalogue so the bargain hunters can recognize bargains, and the philanthropists will feel good about an extravagant bid. An elegant dinner, decorations that transform your space (starting with the outside), and good service (minimum standing in line, drinks and food included in the entry price) will put your guests in a frame of mind to relax and spend money.

A professional auctioneer can make the difference in your auction. He or she knows how to "work the crowd," where to start the bidding and when to stop for the best price. They keep your live auction "on time" so you avoid running past your advertised closing time. They treat your bidders and donors with the respect they deserve. And, they are great fun to watch!

Many auctioneers specialize in fundraising auctions and will run workshops for your auction team, make suggestions, and give you ideas of new things to try with your event. Our auctioneer sends out a newsletter, calls the chair to offer his help, recommends items that have worked at other auctions, gives a written evaluation of the auction, and runs a "catalogue exchange" among his clients that has given me great ideas on how to improve our catalogue, thank our donors, and schedule the auction event.

Plan your silent auction set-up carefully, too. Make sure the items are easy to find in the auction room and the bidding sheets are easy to reach and well lit. Provide enough room for a crowd of "down to the wire" bidders to fight over the last bid of the best items. A silent auction set-up that keeps everyone within hearing range of the auctioneer also helps keep the bidding going through the auction.

Other tips for a successful auction:

  • Solicit donations and advertising from local businesses, particularly those with an association with your congregation, are often willing to support your church (and do a little advertising to your membership).
  • Watch your bottom line. I like to go into auction night with a positive "bottom line." Some goals to give your team are a) advertising and cash donations that pay for the costs of printing and mailing the catalogue, b) entry fees that cover all costs for the dinner, c) raffle ticket sales that cover the cost of any "consignment items" in your catalogue.
  • Don't forget to include raffles in your auction event. The prize can be as simple as 50 percent of the raffle proceeds (which a generous winner donated back to the church at our last auction!). Buying raffle tickets is a great way for those who choose not to come to the auction event to show their support.
  • Sell premium tickets and services—we sell a "Gold Club" table which includes reserved seating for eight, premium wines served at the table, and a full-page ad on the back cover of the catalogue—at a package price that is more than the ticket price.
  • Ask religious education classes and other church groups to donate group items. Recently I heard from the winner of the Junior High class item—spring lawn services—that he was so impressed with the work these youth did he was going to make an extra donation to the church. That's a contribution that those young people can be proud of! Our second grade class made jewelry from clay in wonderful colors. The bidding was tremendous and I (the lucky winner of two pins) get compliments from my coworkers when I wear these unique accessories!
  • Automate as much of your auction accounting as possible. Inexpensive (< $100) database programs, computer networks set up in the "command center" at the auction to record bids, and a small team of dedicated computer programmers and data entry people can put your auction into the computer age. We use a database program for almost everything—cataloging the auction items, tracking bidder numbers and winning bids, generating bills for the bidders to pay and notices to the donor about who won their items and how much they paid, and analyzing the results of the auction. We have volunteers who are experienced in newsletter production work on the catalogue layout. And I use a personal accounting program to track expenses and income for my financial report to the Board of Trustees.
  • Appreciate your volunteers. An auction requires lots of people to work before and during the event. Be sure to thank each volunteer—with a thank-you note from a team member, with special mention in the newsletter, or a dinner party to celebrate your success.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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