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Complete guide: Plan a successful silent auction in 7 steps

Discover the nonprofit’s guide to planning a seamless silent auction fundraiser. Plus, all of the tools your nonprofit needs to run a successful in-person, hybrid, or online silent auction.

Anna Bean
June 30, 2023
August 26, 2021
Nerd Mr Butter

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Whether you’re organizing a silent auction fundraiser as an add-on to a bigger event or hosting a stand-alone online auction, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about how to run a silent auction, including these seven essential tips for planning:

  1. Plan and procure items ahead of time
  2. Take advantage of online silent auction software and mobile bidding apps
  3. Promote your event
  4. Arrange your items strategically
  5. Set your opening bids
  6. Capitalize on the competitive spirit
  7. Don’t forget to follow up

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 paddle-raising or a fast-talking auctioneer at the helm. Each auction item goes home with the highest bidder when the event ends, and because businesses and individuals donate all the items, your organization gets to keep 100% 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 at the event bid on items using paper bid sheets 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 plan a fully online silent auction with auction management software. Instead of exploring items in a venue, participants can view auction items online and outbid one another from their computer or mobile device. Hybrid or fully virtual online auctions for nonprofits are increasing in popularity for several reasons, including: 

  • Keep the bidding going longer: With an online auction, you’re not limited to what you can raise in one evening. Set your event to run for a few days (or longer), and see how high your bids can go.
  • Reach a broader audience: Anyone can attend your silent auction when it's virtual. And more bidders means more funds for your organization. 
  • Spend less and raise more: In-person events can get expensive. Online auctions let you skip paying for things like printing materials, renting a venue, and providing food and drink for your guests.

How to plan a silent auction fundraiser: 7 tips for success

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

How to plan a silent auction infographic

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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. Set your fundraising goals, pick an auction theme, and for in-person auctions, find a venue that can accommodate your auction items. Most venues require you to book weeks (or months) in advance.

You’ll also need to start procuring your auction items well ahead of time. 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, make a wish list of bid-worthy silent auction items, brainstorm businesses and people in your network, and start soliciting. 

Think about your donors, and gather unique 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.

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2. Use the online silent auction tools available to you 🛠

From end-to-end event management to strictly mobile bidding, there are many quality silent auction websites to choose from. We strongly encourage using a mobile bidding platform to streamline your auction operations regardless of whether your auction is online or in person.

Shop around and choose auction management software that has the customizations, features, and price point your organization needs. If you’re running an online silent auction as a part of a larger in-person event, you may want to select an all-in-one fundraising solution to help with things like ticketing, team fundraising, donor tracking, and marketing automation on top of offering online auction features.

Consider these auction-specific features as you’re choosing software:

  • Outbid notifications and other push notifications
  • Image uploading capabilities
  • Variety of page customizations
  • Automated text and email communications 
  • Donor-friendly registration and checkout
  • Robust reporting features
  • Intuitive backend management

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 checkout process make these services worth implementing.

💪 Pro tip: Givebutter has everything you need to host a stress-free silent auction that's fun for you and your donors! Plus, Givebutter’s free auction software for nonprofits integrates directly with dozens more free fundraising tools that make managing donations, promoting your event, and selling tickets a breeze.

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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. 

Design your auction registration page to make it eye-catching, engaging, and reflective of your organization’s mission and character. For each item, upload high-resolution images, a brief description, the fair market value, and the starting bid. Once you have the backend set up, register as a bidder to see how the frontend looks. You can work out any kinks and identify what questions registrants might have.

Then, 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 automated 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 tag and add links to businesses for cross-promotion and incentives for registering early, like early bidding.
  • Snail mail: If you send out physical event invitations, include information about the auction like how to register and pictures of hot ticket items. 
  • Reach out personally: Connect with major donors, volunteers, and board members 1:1 to invite them to participate and offer help with registering.

💪 Pro tip: Offer incentives! Encourage donors to get their friends, family, and colleagues to register for your event. The more people they refer, the more times their name is entered into a special drawing.

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4. Layout matters 🗺

For in-person and hybrid silent auctions, arrange items strategically on the big day to encourage attendees to take their time perusing. 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. 

Here are some more things to keep in mind:

  • Consider 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.

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

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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 or minimum 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 amount 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.

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6. Capitalize on the 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 make additional donations 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!

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7. Don’t forget to follow up

Once your auction is over, there’s still more to do! Follow this post-auction checklist to keep donors thinking about your online auction long after it ends:

✅ Thank all of your participants: Post on social media and send a big thank-you email celebrating everyone who made the auction a success. Include a list of all the winners, shoutout sponsors and volunteers, and let everyone know the final amount you were able to raise for your organization. 

✅ Ship out prizes: Reach out to winners privately to coordinate prize distribution. This may include choosing a pick-up location for locals or shipping to winners who live far away. If you are shipping items, send these items ASAP and provide tracking numbers to recipients.

✅ Send personalized thank-you notes: Write thank-you notes for your planning committee and anyone who donated auction items. You can also include handwritten thank-you notes with each auction item for a more personal touch.

✅ Record your online auction results: Download all of the data your auction software has captured, run relevant reports, and add notes in your donor database to maintain your records and note improvements for next time.

Free online silent auction tools for stress-free planning

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’s free auction software for nonprofits. And with Givebutter, you aren’t just getting free auction software. You also get a full suite of services, including dozens of fundraising tools, a built-in CRM, and marketing automation to help make your charity auction a success. 

Get access to free silent auction software

See for yourself how Givebutter can take your fundraising strategy to the next level. ‍Sign up for your free Givebutter account today and start planning the silent auction of your wildest dreams. Our team is here to help every step of the way. 💪

Additional silent auction resources

Looking for more inspiration? Check out our other silent auction guides for more ways to take your silent auction to the next level: 

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