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Fundraising Ideas

Silent auctions: Start here

Learn what a silent auction is, how silent auctions work, and the resources you need for planning a seamless event.

Reisa Shanaman
September 12, 2022
August 26, 2021

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Whether you’re planning a silent auction as an add-on to a bigger event or hosting a stand-alone silent auction online, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about what a silent auction is, how it works, and top tips for planning, including how to:

  1. Plan and procure items ahead of time
  2. Take advantage of silent auction software and mobile bidding apps
  3. Promote your silent auction
  4. Arrange your silent auction items strategically
  5. Set your opening bid
  6. Capitalize on competitive spirit

🤿 Dive deeper: Check out our other silent auction guides for more ways to take your silent auction to the next level: 

What is a silent auction?

A silent auction is a fundraising event that allows donors to “silently” bid on items you’ve procured for a set amount of time without an auctioneer at the helm. Each auction item goes home with the highest bidder when the event ends, and because auction items are donated, your organization gets all of the proceeds.

How does a silent auction work?

Traditionally, in-person silent auctions display items around a room with enticing descriptions and designated opening bids. Guests bid on items using paper cards or mobile devices. Mobile bidding platforms can improve the bidder experience, save your team time, and allow bidders to participate from anywhere in the world. 

You can also host silent auctions entirely online with silent auction software. Instead of exploring items in a venue, participants can view auction items online and outbid one another from their computer or mobile device.

6 top tips for success

No matter what kind of silent auction you decide to do, we’ve got resources and best practices to ensure your event goes off without a hitch.

1. Plan early, procure often ✨

A successful auction is not something you can throw together at the last minute—we don't recommend it, anyway. For in-person events, you need a venue that can accommodate your auction items. Most venues require you to book weeks (or months) in advance.

You will also need time to round up donated auction items—whether your silent auction is in person or online. Think about your donors, and procure auction items they will be excited to bid on.

Exclusive or rare items that interest your supporters—and are within their price range—will be the most successful. Here are some popular auction item ideas:

  • VIP tickets to a concert
  • Luxury suite at a sporting event
  • Private dinner with an area chef
  • Meet-and-greet with a local celebrity
  • Spa certificate
  • Travel package

Ultimately, you know your donors best. Always consider your audience when asking local businesses for donated items.

⭐️ Pro tip: Put together a procurement team of all-star volunteers and board members. Invite individuals who have a broad network you can tap into to help you reach out for items and sponsorships.

2. Use the online tools available to you 🛠

From end-to-end event management to strictly mobile bidding, there’s a lot of silent auction software to choose from. We strongly encourage using a mobile bidding service to streamline your auction operations regardless of whether your auction is online or in person.

Even less tech-savvy donors will enjoy the ease these services offer. Features like real-time push notifications, the ability to set a max bid that allows the app to bid for them, and a swift check-out process make these services worth implementing. According to Double the Donation, silent auctions conducted with mobile bidding software result in nearly three times as many donations because it makes bidding so convenient. Cha-ching!

⭐️ Pro tip: Givebutter has everything you need to host a stress-free silent auction that's fun for you and your donors! Plus, Givebutter Auctions integrates directly with all of our other 100+ free fundraising tools that make managing donations, promoting your event, and selling tickets a breeze.

3. Promote, promote, promote! 📣

The best way to bring in bids on your big night? Make sure people know about it! Encourage people to register for your auction ahead of time, so there’s less for you to do (and troubleshoot) on event day. Consider making your auction a hybrid event—giving attendees the option to attend online or in person—to allow bidding to begin ahead of the event and to reach a wider audience.

Create a timeline for when and how you’ll promote your silent auction:

  • Website: Add a page on your website with important event details, including date, location, and where people can RSVP (and get a sneak peek of items!).
  • Email and social media: Promote your silent auction in e-blasts to donors, as updates to ticket buyers, and as shareable posts to social media followers. Include photos and descriptions of items they’ll be able to bid on to build excitement. You can also add links to businesses for cross-promotion and incentives for registering early, like early bidding, in these promotions.
  • Snail mail: If you send out physical event invitations, include information about the auction like how to register and pictures of hot ticket items. 

⭐️ Pro tip: Communicating about your silent auction shouldn’t just take place before your event. Make a plan for how you will engage your supporters during and after the event, too. 

4. Layout matters 🗺

Arrange auction items strategically to encourage attendees to take their time perusing. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Think about traffic flow: Arrange your tables and items in a way that’s easy to navigate and doesn’t create congested areas. Likewise, make sure to spread items out. Crowded tables can overwhelm donors and make it hard to bid. 
  • Arrange items by price point: Placing a lower-level item next to a more expensive item can increase its perceived value. But the opposite is also true: Placing a high-ticket item on a table with several low-tier items may make it less appealing. Instead, arrange your items from the lowest to the highest value. 
  • Display your items properly: Use easels and stands to make your auction items stand out. Each item should have a card in front of it with the item name, a brief description, the Fair Market Value, who donated the item, and a lot number to make it easy to look up and bid on (QR codes work great for this). You can even frame these cards to kick this idea up a notch.

⭐️ Pro tip: Treat your auction display like the showcase of a store. Tables can have tablecloths, runners, balloons, and other decorations to draw in donors, but the items should be the star of the show. 

5. How to set your opening bid 🤑

Set and post the Fair Market Value (FMV) of each item. This may require a bit of research, but if you do this as each item comes in (and enlist the help of its donor), you will save time and stress later. 

You will also need to determine each item's starting bid and bid increments. Starting bids are commonly set at 40% of the FMV and increase in increments of 10%. For example, an item with a retail value of $99 would have a starting bid of $40 and go up in increments of $10. You can also have a few items with a buy-it-now option for 150-200% of the FMV, but these should not be your most exclusive, exciting, or high-value items. 

⭐️ Pro tip: Aim to have one item for every two guests. If you get more items donated, bundle them into a themed gift basket.

6. Capitalize on competitive spirit 💪

People will be excited about your mission and in the mood to give. You might as well capitalize on the competitive spirit in the room! Here are some ways you can go beyond silent auction bidding to raise more at your fundraising event:

  • Build excitement: Kick the silent auction off by live auctioning a few special, reserved items.
  • Keep attendees engaged: Share inspiring stories from your organization and provide opportunities for people to donate throughout the night.
  • Finish strong: As your event draws to an end, make sure you take time to thank supporters and sponsors, announce winning bidders, and make a final live appeal. 

⭐️ Pro tip: Clearly communicate with guests what time the silent auction will be closing, and have your emcee make announcements throughout the event so guests know how much time they have left to bid. Instilling a sense of urgency will encourage higher bids, especially in those final minutes!

Let the bidding begin

If you follow these tips, procure items that excite your donors, and give yourself time to plan properly, your silent auction is sure to be a smashing success and a highlight for your guests. 

You may find that planning a silent auction isn’t a good fit for your organization right now, and that’s okay! Consider some fun and lucrative silent auction alternatives that are less time intensive. 

But, if you’re ready to plan the silent auction of your dreams, we’ve got all the tools you need with Givebutter Auctions! Best of all, Givebutter Auctions is free—just like all of our other 100+ best-in-class tools. 

Sign up for a free Givebutter account to get started today. Our team is here to help every step of the way. 💪

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