How to Succeed with Silent Auctions

Today I want to talk about silent auction donations:  when to do them, who to donate to, and what to expect in return.  I hope I can offer some helpful tips!

Almost every photographer I know has donated a session to a charitable event, and for most of us it was a huge disappointment.  We have expectations of getting our name out, of impressing people with our art, of making a big sale and of forming relationships with our new, previously unknown clients.  But what ends up happening is the auction winner sometimes never contacts us to do the session, and when they do it turns out that they aren't a good match - they want to bring extra people, they want a style we don't offer, they don't spend anything past the amount that they won.  Our hopes and expectations are dashed, and eventually we stop donating because we aren't getting the results we wanted.

For me, the answer has been to change my expectations and adjust my thinking about what a successful donation looks like.  Here are my top top 3 tips for how I run a silent or live auction:

  • Decide on a reasonable number of donations for the year.  I donate one in the spring and one in the fall of each year.  That is all I can handle; if I have any more than that I feel resentful because I am giving time that could be spent with paying clients or with my family.  My donation certificate expires 6 months after the auction, because I don't want to run the risk of having them pile up.  If I decide to only donate one for the year, I would allow that certificate to have an expiration a year later. 
  • Choose the organizations that you want to support.  I use my donations to support a very small handful of organizations that I personally have a deep connection to. It might be the PTA at my child's school, a charity event for a cause that resonates with me, or something that my close friends or family are connected with. I don't donate to just anyone that asks.
  • Donate with a giving heart and DO NOT EXPECT ANYTHING IN RETURN.  This is the big one, and the one that I think trips up most of us.  When I donate I'm not looking to gain clients, or to make a sale, or even to "get my name out there." I do it to give of myself and to help the charity with the gifts that I have.  My typical donation consists of the session, all of the full-resolution digital files and one 8x10 print.  I give them my absolute best service and I don't expect a sale.  I deliver the files electronically so the only hard costs I have are for the 8x10, a folder and postage.

The advantages of doing it this way are huge!  It allows me to feel good about my donation because I fully support the organization since it is one close to my heart.  By donating to the same ones year after year, I have developed relationships with some of the organizers as well as the auction bidders.  I've found that people actually look forward to seeing how my display changes from year to year and there have been times that people arrive with the intent of bidding on my session.  Of course all of this makes the bidding go up ,which helps the organization even further by bringing in more money.  I do benefit by the added buzz, but the thing to remember is that it isn't about me.

The big takeaway here is to give without expecting anything in return.  When you do that, you will be rewarded in ways you didn't expect (and that pretty much applies to everything in life, not just silent auctions!).