If you’ve been to any kind of charitable fundraising event in the past 25 years, you’ve probably encountered a “silent auction.” That’s where various items — signed sports paraphernalia, artwork, one-night stays at a hotel, golf bags, massage treatments, wine, weekend stays at a condo in Cancun, and other potentially enticing options — are displayed on tables for attendees to examine. Rather than making bids at the behest of a live auctioneer, the interested parties write their bids on paper and then lurk around to see if somebody else outbids them before the auction closes at the designated time.
Kish and I have bought things at silent auctions, but they’ve been tangible things that you can carry away, like a needlepoint stool or a small hand-painted table. We’ve never been the prevailing bidder on any kind of silent auction item that involves any element of personal service. I’ve wondered how, say, a guitar lesson or a restaurant visit obtained through a silent auction would work out. After all, the proprietor who donated the item isn’t getting paid at the time you show up; they’re just redeeming the coupon they provided weeks or even months before and probably long since forgotten. Would that fact affect the quality of the experience?
We’ve now seen different answers to that question. Some months ago two of our friends won a silent auction item that allowed them to bring a group to a local place called The Kitchen to make a meal with the help of the gourmet cooks on hand and drink selected wine pairings with each course; they invited us to join and we all had a wonderful time. More recently, other friends won a silent auction item that involved a special fixed-course meal at a local restaurant and graciously asked us to come along. In that instance, the service of the food was very slow, with long gaps between courses even though the place wasn’t crowded. With old friends for company the time passed very enjoyably, with a lot of laughs — but the delays were noticeable and remarked upon, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether we had second-fiddle status in the eyes of the restaurant.
So now I’ve developed a multi-faceted theory about silent auctions. I think you’re always safe bidding on a tangible, displayed item, because you know exactly what you might be getting. The signed, framed photo of your favorite sports star isn’t going to change. But when it comes to the personal service options, I think you need to assess the source. If you have reason to believe that the offeror has some skin in the game — because, say, they are offering one free yoga lesson and hope that you’ll be so impressed you come back for more, or they’re a new business and are counting on your positive experience to get a good comment on their Facebook page and help with their word-of-mouth — you’re probably on solid ground. If it’s an established restaurant, though, and the items relegates you to an off-night, you might need to brace yourself for less than stellar service.