How to Run a Silent Auction (Online and in-Person, Step-by-Step with Silent Auction Software)

May 7, 2023
9 minutes

Silent auctions and nonprofit fundraising events go together like bread and butter, Lucy and Ethel, fireworks and the Fourth of July, Beyonce and Jay-Z. So perf; we rest our case. 

But seriously, if planning fundraising events is part of your job (or if it isn't, but you get tasked with it anyway #notasktoobig), you've probably considered whether or not to host a silent auction to raise more funds. Silent auctions are a great way to get people to donate in a way that's exciting to the donor while helping your nonprofit reach its fundraising goals. 

If you're considering hosting a silent auction, here's everything you need to know to make it as wildly successful as nachos and late nights. 

What is a Silent Auction and how does it work?

A silent auction is a fundraising event where items or experiences are displayed for attendees to bid on through a written bid sheet. Bidders write down their name (or number if it's anonymous) and bid amount, and the highest bidder at the end of the designated time period wins the item. Silent auctions can be held both in-person and online, and often include a wide range of items donated by individuals or businesses to support a nonprofit organization.

Why Nonprofits should consider running a silent auction

Silent auctions are a popular way for nonprofits to raise funds while engaging their donors in a fun and interactive way. But beware! Silent auctions can get competitive!! By offering a variety of items up for bid, from unique experiences to one-of-a-kind items, nonprofits generate excitement and friendly competition among bidders, leading to higher bids and more funds raised. Charity auctions also allow nonprofits to showcase their mission and impact to donors and supporters, while providing an opportunity for donors to make a tangible contribution to the cause they care about.

Running a successful silent auction takes careful planning and execution. Nonprofits need to secure high-quality auction items, create a user-friendly bidding system, and promote the auction to their donor base and beyond. It’s also important to set realistic goals and expectations, and to have a team in place to manage the logistics of the auction. However, with the right approach, a silent auction can be a fun and effective way for nonprofits to raise funds and engage their supporters in their mission.

Benefits of running an online silent auction

Running an online silent auction for your nonprofit can provide a multitude of benefits, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Increased revenue
  • Reduced costs
  • Enhanced engagement
  • Advanced accessibility
  • Partnership opportunities
  • Lots of flexibility

Increased revenue

Online silent auctions can reach a wider audience than in-person events, allowing more people to bid and potentially drive up the final sale price of items. 

Reduced costs

Without the need for a physical event space or printed materials, online silent auctions can save on expenses. Boom! Easy one.

Increased engagement

Donors are usually happy with that warm-n-fuzzy feeling that generosity delivers, but when there's more at stake—and more that they may want—donors turn into bidders, and bidders engage like nobody's business. 

Increased accessibility

Online silent auctions can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection, allowing supporters who may not be able to attend an in-person event to still participate and contribute. Holding your event on a school night? No problem. Items located on the East Coast? West Coasters (and even farther out!) can still bid. In-person plates are $500 a head? Virtual access can cost pennies on the dollar. 

Partnership opportunities

This is the perfect time to reach out for new partnerships, sponsorships, community relationships because you can do more than just hold your hand out. You can offer access to your event, advanced access to the auction, shared tasks and rewards, and build more than just surface-level acquaintanceships. 

Lots of flexibility

The sky's the limit when planning your fundraising activities. Everything from potential bidders to your "auction catalog" format or creating attractive virtual greeting pages. Oh, or the length of time that your silent auction will be open. How bidders can access it. The theme opportunities! There's so much you can do. 

A bunch of colorful illustrated balloons with dollar signs on the front of them.

3 stages of hosting a silent auction

  1. Pre-Planning
  2. Hosting the event
  3. Following up afterwards

1. Pre-Planning the Event

Assemble a powerhouse auction-planning committee

Whether you make the auction a part of your annual gala or a stand-alone event, you need a team dedicated to doing everything from soliciting auction items to logging the sourced items to setting bid prices to collecting payment to sending thank you notes. It's basically a whole event inside an event (hello Inception), and a big undertaking, so enlisting a powerhouse team to help make the magic happen is instrumental to your success.

Assemble your team with the following in mind:

  • Committee chair (someone to reel everyone in and keep 'em organized)
  • Donation and auction item go-getters (the folks making the calls, getting the items, logging the donations, writing the descriptions, etc.)
  • Marketing team (the folks building hype)
  • Logistics team (the people creating the bid sheets, bundling enticing swag packages, day-of set up)
  • Auction manager (the head honcho in charge of the day-of schedule)
  • Auction checkout and payments team (the gang entrusted with making sure winners' payment experience is smooth, and they receive purchased items)
  • Thank you committee (the folks in charge of thanking all and sundry, senders of receipts, tax-deductible information, yada yada.)

Now, we know what you're going to say—"I don't have enough volunteers to fill all these positions!" We hear you, nonprofiteer. This is simply an example of an ideal auction committee and can be scaled to fit your nonprofit's size whether you're a one-person dynamo or 30-people strong.

Set a goal for your event

Before you start planning your silent auction, set a specific fundraising goal for your event so you can determine the number and value of items needed to reach your target. Keep in mind factors like the size of your audience, the average income level of attendees, and the amount of money you need to raise. Having a clear goal in mind will also help you measure the success of your silent auction event and make adjustments for future charity auctions.

Select a silent auction software

Gone are the days of manually tallying bids on paper sheets. Selecting a silent auction software can make the entire process much smoother and more efficient. Look for silent auction software that allows you to easily input and organize auction items, track bids in real-time, and send automatic notifications to winning bidders. There's even mobile bidding software! Mobile bidding software makes it easier for attendees to participate and bid on items from their smartphones. Online auction software is an important aspect of your silent auction planning, do don't skimp!

Start sourcing awesome auction items wayyyyy in advance

The most successful silent auctions are planned months in advance so that your planning committee has plenty of time to secure high-interest auction items.

It's important to look for items that fall in line with your target audience; want to really hone in on what your audience likes? Create a Twitter or Facebook poll to see what your followers would shell out the big bucks for.

If getting feedback through social media isn't an option, fear not! According to Winspire, the most successful auction items include:

  • Food and wine gift certificates
  • Bundled gift baskets
  • Sports-related items like equipment and sporting tickets
  • Concerts, theatre, or other entertainment tickets
  • Hotel vouchers
  • Vacation packages
  • Gift cards

But you know us, we're definitely going to suggest that you add some out-of-the-box auction items to your lot—but that doesn't mean you should invest a lot of cash. Here are a few silent auction ideas: try offering mission-related experiences that guests can't get anywhere else: a behind-the-scenes tour of your nonprofit's clean water work in Kenya, or a donation of 10 iPads to your nonprofit's after-school youth program in an underserved neighborhood, or gifted spa days for people who've made it through domestic violence.

Hey, if Phyllis can auction off a hug, you can auction off a clown suit or a daily affirmation or a Twitter takeover.

Create an auction catalog and item descriptions

One of the most important pieces of a successful silent auction is a well-curated and organized auction catalog (or "auction catalog"). Make sure to include detailed descriptions of each item, including any restrictions or limitations, as well as high-quality photos that showcase the item's unique features. This will help bidders make informed decisions and increase the perceived value of each item. You can also consider grouping items into themed packages or creating a special section for high-value items to create more excitement and competition among bidders.

If you've got virtual auction software, enter the images and descriptions into the platform and test the online charity auction software before going live.

Decide on minimum bids, bid increments, & package deals

Before your silent auction begins, establish minimum bids and bid increments for each item to ensure fair bidding. Be sure to clearly display all bidding rules and guidelines to avoid confusion or disputes. Additionally, consider offering a "buy it now" option for those who may not want to wait until the end of the auction to secure their desired item.

Make a list of potential bidders and invite them to the event

Before your silent auction, make sure to create a list of potential bidders and personally invite them to attend the event. This could include previous donors, sponsors, supporters of your organization, or individuals who have shown interest in similar causes or events in the past. This personal touch can go a long way in increasing attendance and ultimately raising more funds. Additionally, make sure to provide clear and enticing information about the auction items and any incentives or special offers for bidding.

Prepare bidding sheets & print out raffle tickets (if applicable)

Before the event, make sure to prepare bidding sheets for each item up for auction. Bidding sheets include the item name, description, starting bid, and bidding increments. Additionally, if you're running a raffle as well, print out raffle tickets with space for the buyer's name and contact information. Make sure to have plenty of extra paper bid sheets and raffle tickets on hand in case of high demand. By having all of these materials prepared ahead of time, you'll be able to smoothly run your silent auction and maximize your fundraising potential.

2. During the Event

Display items so your bidders can't resist

First impressions are key, so make sure your auction items are displayed in an eye-catching and organized manner. Create a sense of excitement and anticipation for online events with high-quality photos and detailed descriptions to showcase each item's unique qualities and potential benefits. And don't be afraid to get creative with display methods, like using mannequins or decorative props to showcase clothing or artwork. The more irresistible your items look, the more bids they'll receive.

Monitor and update bidding activity throughout the event

This is an easy one to lose track of, so stay alert! During the event, you'll nee to keep a close eye on the bidding activity, whether it's an online or in-person auction. This allows you to see which items are generating the most interest and adjust your strategy accordingly. For example, if an item isn't getting any bids, you may want to announce a lower minimum bid or adjust the item description to make it more appealing. On the other hand, if certain items are generating a lot of interest, you can use that information to promote them further and encourage more bidding. Staying on top of the in-person and online bidding activity means you can maximize your fundraising potential and for a super successful auction.

Offer various payment options (cash, credit card, check)

If you want the money, you've got to make it easy for people to give it to you, friend! Get every payment method option you can get your hands on: card, cash, check, ACH, Venmo, PayPal, stocks, pirate's booty, dinglehoppers, magic potions...

Have volunteers ready to assist with any questions, issues, and delivery arrangements

You've got this! We know it's difficult, but your volunteers can handle it. Write out frequently-asked questions and answers ahead of time, list out things that could go wrong and their workarounds, and initial payment and delivery options. With all the information laid out, your volunteers can guide your bidders, and any event hiccups will be just that: hiccups.

3. After the Event

Send Thank You emails to all attendees and donors

It sounds obvious, but we always say it. Personalized notes, person-to-person emails, congratulations to winners, maybe even texts with quick thanks. But don't just say thanks, ask them what their favorite auction item was. Or whether they had any ideas for the next auction. Keep the genuine engagement going. 

Follow up with unsuccessful bidders

Those unlucky suckers who didn't get the auction items they wanted may be a bit bummed. But a little pick-me-up message is just the thing they need to get it next time. If you have a few additional items up your sleeve, see if there's any interest! Make someone's day.

Arrange for delivery and leftover item repurposing

Your shiny silent auction items need to get into the hands of their happy new owners! If you have to ship or deliver items, take your time and get it right. No one wants to be left holding the bag if something is lost or broken in transit. 

Similarly, if you have items that didn't get bidding love, hold onto them for a future nonprofit event. If there's an opportunity to refurbish, add to a gift basket, or update an experience, make it happen!

Issue receipts for tax purposes

Make sure to issue receipts for tax purposes to your auction winners. This is especially important for larger bids and can help incentivize donors to bid higher. In the case of an online auction, Funraise's automated system will send out receipts immediately after the auction ends. Make sure to include all necessary information for tax deductions, such as the winning bid amount, the date, and your organization's tax ID number. Donors will appreciate the convenience and further trust your organization.

Analyze results to improve future events

After the auction is over, gather all the data you can gather, including auction results, bids, and donor engagement. Analyze this data and look for patterns. For example, did certain items receive more bids than others? Was there a particular time of day that bidding was most active? Did donors prefer bidding on specific types of items? Use this information to improve your future charity auctions and make them even more successful.

Best practices for silent auctions, aka our tippy-top-top-secret silent auction tips and tricks

When it comes to getting silent auction items, start with your friends in high places

Now that you know what type of auction items you want to focus on, it's time to start reaching out to peers, colleagues, businesses, your mama, and your cousin, too, to source some goodies.

But we have to give it to you straight (again)—this is by far the most time-consuming part of planning a silent auction, and here's the reason: your committee is tasked with calling and emailing tons of contacts to get donated items for people to bid on. Please note that the keyword here is donated. Your nonprofit should not be paying for any items in the silent auction. This is a fundraising event, after all, not a fund-losing event! (Or save some time by checking out TheShareWay!)

Have the procurement head create an outreach strategy that includes sponsorship offers and the lure of tax write-offs. You may be able to get items donated as a part of a larger event sponsorship, which benefits your overall event, not just the auction.

Your procurement head should also get your long-term board members and C-Suite employees in gear to poke around for biddable items. At the next networking level are people or businesses already familiar with your nonprofit, like those that your nonprofit has worked with in the past.

After you've exhausted your list of close-knit connections, it's time for your auction committee to expand their outreach. If you need inspo, Fundraiser Help developed a list of 101 donation sources for nonprofits that's chock full of ideas.

Log, track, and keep everything intact

Now that you've got a pile full of awesome gifts growing in the ED's office, keep it organized! You never want to wonder who the heck gave you those Dodgers tickets or where that iPad came from. Mayday, mayday! Not only should you keep track of who donated what item, but carefully list the market value, plus the information below:

  1. Donor's name
  2. Donor's contact info
  3. Item number
  4. Item name
  5. Item description
  6. Item fair market value
  7. Item starting bid (recommended 30%-40% of fair market value)
  8. Item bid increment

Promote, promote, promote your online auction through social media & other channels

The most successful silent auctions are the ones that have been promoted and included in your overall event marketing.

In order to attract a larger audience and increase bidding competition, it's important to promote your silent auction through multiple channels. Social media is a great place to start, as you can easily share updates, photos, and teasers about the items up for bid. You can also send out email newsletters to your organization's supporters, post flyers in community spaces, and even reach out to local media outlets for coverage. 

Even further, if you've got hot ticket items, tease them in your newsletters, email blasts, and text messages leading up to the event. Build out a quick silent auction campaign site where you can feature sneak peeks of items that'll be a big draw. Shout it from the mountain tops.

Get all hands on deck for the day of the auction

It's go time. You've got amazing items donated, and fingers are crossed that you're going to sell out. Here's what you'll need day-of to ensure everything runs as smooth as a freshwater lake at sunrise:

  • Donated auction items (obvi, but had to mention for good measure)
  • List of all auction items
  • Item displays and decorations
  • Bid sheets and item descriptions
  • Pens and clipboards
  • Volunteer list assignments with contact information
  • Payment processing devices (cash, card, Apple Pay—the more ways, the better)

When the auction closes, winners will be scampering to gather their winnings and head home, so make sure you have an appropriate volunteer-to-item ratio (1 volunteer for every 30 items is a good place to start). How you organize checkout is up to you, but organization is key.

While all the winners will be super excited, remember that there's gonna be a ton of folks who lost out on a bid, so provide an alternate opportunity for them to donate and feel great. Make an announcement that winning bidders aren't the only champions at the event; donations toward the mission are still needed and appreciated.

After all, this is a fundraising event! Make sure you leverage all of your event attendees and make soft appeals toward the end of the night.

Follow up with winning bidders to create lasting relationships

Now that the event is over, it's time to make follow-up a priority. In the same way that you plan on following up with event attendees, you'll want to segment out auction winners to thank them for their donation and provide tax-deductible information.

If the winning bidder is new to your nonprofit, this is a perfect opportunity to nurture the relationship by including valuable information about your nonprofit. Include a video of your nonprofit story or a case study so they become familiar with your work. Add them to an email nurture stream to keep them engaged over time with the intent to get them to donate again and eventually become a recurring donor.

Nonprofit Silent Auction FAQs

Finding auction items seems impossible! Is it supposed to be this hard?

Well, no, nothing about fundraising is supposed to be impossible. But we know what you mean, and we sympathize. That's why we suggest you start sourcing items way in advance. If you waited, take the time to sit down and get creative, because online or in-person, charity auctions with well-thought out biddable items and experiences encourage engagement and help you build relationships.

Why is a silent auction better than a regular auction?

There's no better or worse. But there is better for your nonprofit. And if your audience is far-flung, has mobility issues, would find it difficult to find caretaker assistance during the time of your in-person event, or just likes to sit on the couch (our people), you have the potential to get far greater engagement and more bids with an online auction

How do I know if my silent auction was successful?

Well, if you brought in more money than you spent. But it's not that easy, is it? As you debrief, consider how much time you spent preparing, running the event, and following up. Also, consider any shipping or delivery costs associated with getting the goods to your supporters. And factor in new or renewed relationships that have blossomed as a result of your event! Wait, do you have any leftover auction items or any items that did particularly well that you can replicate for next year? 

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