All the Things You Need to Know to Host A Wildly Successful Silent Auction

July 1, 2019
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. 

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.

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

On the other hand, items that draw crickets include professional services (massages, salon visits, accounting services), arts and antiques, and home and garden items like kitchen appliances. 

But you know us, we're definitely going to suggest that you add some out-of-the-box auction items to your lot, just for funsies. 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.

When it comes to getting donated 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.  

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

Log, track and keep everything intact

Now that you've got a pile full of awesome gifts piling up 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

Imagine this: People start arriving at your event and see that there's a bunch of tables set up with all kinds of fun items. But as you make small talk, you hear over and over that no one had any idea an auction was going on. Uh oh, spaghetti-o. Had they known an awesome auction was taking place, they would have planned ahead of time and been ready to spend major bucks. 

If your event attendees don't know you're hosting a silent auction, you're setting yourself up for failure. The most successful silent auctions are the ones that have been promoted and included in your overall event marketing.

If you've got hot ticket items, tease them in your newsletters, email blasts, and even text messages leading up to the event. Build out a quick silent auction page on your website 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 recent blog post or 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. 

And that's all, folks! Now that you're a silent auction savant, you're ready to plan the most wildly successful silent auction ever. May the funds be forever in your favor.

Start For Free