This article is contributed by Jeff Cova, President of Winspire. 

When your nonprofit hosts a fundraising auction, your catalog is a vital resource for connecting with supporters and sponsors before, during, and after the event. Not only does it serve as a guide to the event, but it’s also a component of your marketing strategy and a resource for thanking everyone who made your fundraising success possible. Additionally, an auction catalog with a professional design and well-written content can motivate event participants to bid on high-value items.

According to the fundraising experts at Winspire, a fully fleshed-out auction catalog is best suited to an in-person live auction because the item list is usually short and finalized well in advance, making the catalog relatively easy to put together. For silent and virtual auctions that feature more items, well-designed bid sheets serve a similar purpose in catching supporters’ attention. However, you might still create an abbreviated catalog to preview a few carefully selected silent auction prizes.

In this guide, we’ll cover the key elements of a nonprofit auction catalog and discuss how to distribute the catalog when it’s complete. Let’s get started!

Contents of a Nonprofit Auction Catalog

It’s no secret that at a fundraising auction, the items are the star of the show. Although you should reflect this by making your item descriptions take up the bulk of your auction catalog, this isn’t the only section you should include.

Let’s walk through each component of a well-designed catalog in more detail.

Cover Page

Because your cover page is the first thing supporters will see when they pick up (or download) your auction catalog, it needs to be eye-catching and have a professional feel to entice them to look inside. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to feature your nonprofit’s brand front and center.

Kwala’s guide to nonprofit branding recommends including the following brand elements in your organization’s marketing materials, including your auction catalog’s cover page:

  • Color palette. Ensure adequate contrast between the text and background colors. Dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background improves readability.
  • Typography. To add visual variety to your catalog, consider choosing two brand typefaces: one for titles and one for body text. But avoid using more than three fonts so as not to create a cluttered design.
  • Logo. Place your logo at the top of your catalog’s cover page to ensure it’s immediately visible and recognizable to auction participants.
  • Tagline. A tagline is a short, memorable phrase that captures the essence of your mission. Include it on the cover next to your nonprofit’s name and logo so new supporters can quickly understand the cause they’re supporting by participating in your auction.

Additionally, include photos or another interesting visual design on your auction catalog cover page. These visuals should relate either to your mission or to your auction items, depending on what would appeal most to your nonprofit’s supporters.

Mission Information

Once you’ve drawn supporters in with a visual overview of your event and its purpose on your cover page, dive deeper into the cause your auction will support. On the inside cover of your catalog, write out your organization’s mission statement and provide specific examples of how you’ll use the funds raised to further that mission.

You could also convey this mission information with a letter from your nonprofit’s executive director or board chair addressed to auction attendees. This approach not only provides space to include data and tell stories that demonstrate your organization’s impact, but the signature from a leader at your nonprofit also boosts credibility to reassure participants that they’re supporting a good cause.

Event Agenda

The event agenda section is fairly straightforward: include the order of events at the fundraiser, the start and end time for bidding on live auction items, and any other logistical details participants should know, such as where to collect their prizes and whether food will be served. Once the live auction begins, bidding can quickly become intense, so it’s helpful for attendees to know how the event will proceed beforehand.

Item Descriptions

This section should take up the majority of your catalog, and it’s best to include about 12-15 live auction items in total. This way, you can highlight two or three per page, add relevant photos, and write detailed descriptions that encourage supporters to bid.

Here are some tips to make your descriptions more persuasive:

  • Give each item a catchy title. For example, “French Countryside Chateau Getaway” will pique supporters’ interest more than “Vacation to Bordeaux, France” would.
  • Write concisely. Keep your sentences short and use bullet points where possible to make your descriptions skimmable.
  • Include all essential information. List everything included in a prize bundle, along with any limitations on its use (such as the dates when tickets are valid), so supporters can make an informed decision about whether to bid on each item.

Accompany each description with a tracking number so you can find the winning bidders and ensure they claim their items at the end of the auction.

Sponsor Acknowledgments

Securing sponsorships is critical to maximizing your auction’s fundraising ROI. Corporate partners can either provide financial support to offset event planning costs or assist you in procuring auction items at little or no cost. However, sponsorships need to be mutually beneficial to succeed.

One benefit you can provide your event sponsors is free publicity by recognizing them in various event materials, including your auction catalog. If a corporate partner donated an auction item, add their logo to the description with a short blurb such as, “This item was provided by [business name].” On the last page of your catalog, list financial contributors according to their sponsorship level to thank them for their support.

How to Distribute Your Nonprofit Auction Catalog

Once you’ve designed an auction catalog that includes all of the above elements, you should send it to a print shop to make physical copies and save it as a PDF for digital distribution. There are two main reasons for using both distribution methods. The first is to allow supporters to choose their preferred method of following along during the event—some participants might like a hard copy, while others would rather download the catalog on their smartphones.

Additionally, having both print and digital versions of your auction catalog ensures you can seamlessly incorporate it into all of your marketing materials. Include a physical copy with mailed invitations, and link to the PDF in emails, social media post captions, and the events section of your nonprofit’s website. This way, no matter how supporters find out about your auction, they can get a sneak peek at your auction items and come prepared to bid on their favorites.

While some nonprofits solicit professional graphic design services for their auction catalogs, there are also free tools and templates available online if you’d prefer to take a do-it-yourself approach. By including all of the elements listed above, incorporating your organization’s branding and high-quality photos, and ensuring your design translates to both print and digital distribution methods, you can create a polished-looking catalog for your nonprofit’s next auction no matter your level of design experience.

About the Author

Jeff Cova

Jeff has over 17 years of experience in the Nonprofit and fundraising industry. Prior to Winspire, Jeff worked for 5 years as the Director of Development at Cal State Fullerton before co-founding a company specializing in producing charity auctions for Nonprofits where he successfully produced the auctions for 250 of Southern California’s most successful fundraising events.

In 2008 Jeff founded Winspre with the goal of helping non-profits across the country increase their event fundraising revenue and identify new fundraising sources. Jeff and his team at Winspire have helped over 12,000 non-profits to date.

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