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The Sun Never Sets On The Silent Auction

Rural Intelligence CommunityEven as the days grow shorter and summer segues into fall,  Silent Auction Season continues. Actually, it’s always Silent Auction Season in the Rural Intelligence region. When was the last time you attended a benefit for a library, theater company, day care center or museum and weren’t handed a bid number with your name tag? Though silent auctions verge on becoming supererogatory, they remain vital fundraising tools and a permanent part of the not-for-profit landscape.

The best silent auctions offer both the fantastic (a week at an apartment in Paris) and the prosaic (a Rural Intelligence Community dump truck of cow manure for the garden) so everyone feels there is something for them to buy. For the past few years, interior designer Bunny Williams has offered a luncheon for twelve and a garden tour at her estate in Falls Village for the David M. Hunt Library’s annual auction (coming up on September 26); it usually sells for about $600, which makes it one of the big ticket items for the small town library. This year, Williams is offering a cocktail party for 20 in her barn (right), but she’s insisting that the minimum bid be $1,000. “For my effort, I want to raise real money for the library,” says Williams, who, coincidentally, has donated another cocktail party for 20 to the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation silent auction on the same night at Hammertown Barn.

Bidders seem to take a two-pronged approach to shopping at auctions, choosing things they might not otherwise buy as well as gift certificates to businesses that they already patronize. “It’s especially fun to find one-of-a-kind works,” says Madeline De Vries Hooper, who’s on the board of the Berkshire Botanical Garden. “We won a great garden bench at the Shaker Museum benefit this year, and we always bid on dinner for two at the Old Inn on the Green when it is offered because it is one of our favorite restaurants and it is always used and appreciated.”

Rural Intelligence CommunityMany businesses and organizations see donating to silent auctions as a way of cementing relationships with their loyal patrons and attracting a new clientele. “We actually have a Donations Committee for both Porches and the Red Lion Inn,” says marketing manager Carol Bosco Bauman. “Our reason for giving is two fold: It’s a part of our company’s core values that we participate in our community and donations are a way to market our businesses. We generally give to arts organizations and local organizations, especially those for which our employees volunteer.”

Gift certificates, tickets and passes are an easy way to entice new visitors and customers. “Also, gift certificates allow the recipients to come in and select his or her own prize,” says Serine Hastings, co-owner of Paper Trail in Rhinebeck, who notes that the store gets daily requests for donations and having to choose an item from their inventory for every auction would be quite time consuming; thus, she always donates gift certificates. “The requests have become overwhelming,” says Lester Blumenthal of Route 7 Grill in Great Barrington, who can’t say “yes” to everyone.  “We get one or two calls per day asking for donations. The set policy is to donate a $25 - $50 gift card as the auctions are usually local and community focused and supporting these efforts is what we are all about.”

Rural Intelligence CommunityThe Norman Rockwell Museum  (right) donates all sorts of items—books, prints, private behind-the-scene-tours, memberships—to other not-for-profits’ silent auctions. “Anyone who is willing to purchase a Norman Rockwell experience at a silent auction is someone who has expressed interest in our museum, and I look forward to meeting them,” says president Laurie Norton Moffatt. “It is another form of marketing that reaches philanthropically minded individuals and supports the fabric of the community.”

Katherine Myers, the marketing director of MASS MoCA who gives away scores of museum passes to silent auctions for other charities, has built her own personal art collection at silent auctions. “I’m a bit loathe to share my secret, but the A Better Chance program in Williamstown—which offers promising students from underperforming urban schools the opportunity to live and study in Williamstown—runs an art auction every few years that is phenomenal,” she says. “Because of the artistic community here, they have a very impressive gallery of work to sell, and we’ve scooped up some excellent pieces over the past decade.”

Hunter Kerr Runnette, who co-chaired Jacob’s Pillow‘s silent auction last summer, thinks the low-key nature of silent auctions make them right for fundraising in our region. “They seem to take the pressure away from the buyer and giver to allow for a more organic, friendly transaction, as opposed to the live auctioneers, who seem to be only as good as their vocal manipulation, interrogation and sometimes humiliation,” he says.

Rural Intelligence CommunityLaury Epstein, the former president of Berkshire Grown, remembers when silent auctions were not ubiquitous. “They were few and far between so they tended to the unique side,” she says, noting that the most money was usually raised by people bidding on a week at vacation homes in place like Provence and Santa Fe. Epstein says the best thing she ever won at a silent auction was a ten-day tour of northern California wine country. “We won it at a James Beard Foundation auction and we have never been treated so royally.”  Epstein has donated a practically new “fancy” Schwinn bicycle to the Berkshire Grown silent auction on September 21 at the Eastover Resort in Lenox.  “I bought the most expensive bike in the store, figuring it would shame me into riding it, but I simply can’t get over the fear of falling off and breaking bones, so it’s going to the auction.”

While many people think of silent auctions as enlightened shopping sprees, others think they undermine the spirit of charity. “It’s sad that philanthropy has been reduced to bidding on things,” says one prominent Berkshires cultural leader who asked for anonymity. “I wish we could concentrate instead on helping people be joyful givers and purposeful philanthropists, focusing instead on the good they are doing and the difference they are making in the world. In some way it is taking the focus off the higher purpose and tremendous difference donors make and putting it on things, the antithesis of what most not-for-profits are about.”

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 09/16/09 at 07:27 AM • Permalink