- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

I have been asked to help organize silent and live auctions that will take place at a local charity’s annual benefit in the fall. Though I have helped with such efforts in the past, I have never been directly in charge of asking for donations from businesses, restaurants and other potential donors and could use some advice about how to approach them.

The live auction also has me worried, though the organization already has secured the two top items: a car and a luxurious, all-expenses-paid trip. I will be humiliated if no one bids on them.

A: First and foremost, if you don’t already have a committee to help solicit donations, you need to form one as soon as possible. Once that happens, host a meeting to discuss strategy and exchange information and contacts. Each person then will be charged with approaching (I hesitate to use the term “hitting up”) likely contributors to the cause.

Common sense dictates that each person’s personal and business relationships can be used. If someone patronizes a particular restaurant, gallery or shop, he or she is far more likely than a non-customer to secure complimentary dinners, artworks or gifts of merchandise for your auction.

It is much more difficult to succeed with “cold calls,” although certain committee members are likely to be more successful at this than others. In any event, I encourage you to take a there-is-no-harm-in-asking attitude. All someone can do is say “No.” Sometimes you may be able to offer donors free tickets to your event, especially if their contributions are on the pricey side. This practice also helps keep them involved and onboard for the next time.

Don’t be too shy about asking for donations. This is a charity-auction town (to say the least), and almost everyone you will approach has been asked many times before. Stores, airlines, eating establishments, etc., all have general guidelines dictating how much they can give away over a given period. Preference is given to top clientele, of course, and that is where you and your committee members’ “little black books” come in. Even if you are turned down, be sure to ask about next time and make a note of the contact for your successor. Some of the refusals may come through at a later date.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask private persons to participate. Many people have beautiful porcelain, silver, jewelry, antiques, vintage designer clothing and other fine objects they may be willing to donate, especially if they are longtime supporters of the charity. Just remember that it is important to ask whether a donor wishes to have his or her name appear because many “old school” types prefer anonymity in such matters for various reasons.

Also important is to inform all contributors that their gifts are tax-deductible to the maximum extent allowed by law. Make sure the charity’s accounting department issues policy guidelines to each committee member.

As for the live auction, most of your work seems to be done because two pricey items already have been acquired. My experience covering such events over the years tells me that it is extremely unwise to have more than three live-auction items at a large charity event. It is hard enough to keep the crowd’s attention after dinner (when such auctions usually occur) and the buildup of conversation throughout lengthy proceedings can be embarrassing even if you have a professional auctioneer or a very experienced amateur (which is an absolute must).

Finally, you are correct to be concerned about the absence of bidding. I well remember a number of events where live auctions of expensive lots proceeded at a snail’s pace or failed a find a single bidder. This embarrassing predicament should be avoided at all costs unless you are counting on your spouse or a very dear friend to rescue you (which I have seen happen more than once). The bottom line: Discreetly find someone who can be counted upon to make the first bid on each offering — in full expectation that it also may be his or her last.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@washingtontimes.com.

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