Why a silent auction might not be the best fundraiser, and what to do instead

Here’s why you should skip the silent auction for your next event. Learn about the hidden downsides of silent auctions and get amazing alternative event ideas.





Fundraising Ideas

Why a silent auction might not be the best fundraiser, and what to do instead

Here’s why you should skip the silent auction for your next event. Learn about the hidden downsides of silent auctions and get amazing alternative event ideas.





Here’s why you should skip the silent auction for your next event. Learn about the hidden downsides of silent auctions and get amazing alternative event ideas.





You’re scrolling through your library of fundraising ideas, and see the phrase silent auction scribbled across the list. “Well that can't be too terribly difficult," you think. You'll collect some signed memorabilia, organize a weekend getaway, and solicit local businesses to donate gift cards — that sounds pretty easy, right?


Silent auctions — while they have the potential to be done well — can be a burden to plan. More importantly, there are a number of tax and legal confines that you should be aware of before you begin soliciting donations.

Legal confines of silent auctions — and why you might want to choose an alternative

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Silent auctions have certain legal and tax requirements that your organization may not be prepared for (or want to deal with).

Here's one example: The IRS allows winning bidders to claim a tax deduction for more than the fair retail value. However, the donor must be able to prove they knew the item's value was less than the amount they paid. Meaning you, the event organizer, will have to publish a catalog with the market rates for every single item auctioned off (plus item descriptions!), then distribute said catalog to every supporter in attendance.

Sounds like a hassle? That's just the beginning. Silent auctions may also require you to register for a charitable solicitation requirement, charge sales tax on winning items (which fluctuates based on the item's market value), keep records of any silent auction items that aren't taxable (such as services), and … whew. Is your brain spinning yet?

At Givebutter, we like to keep things simple — which is why silent auctions are at the bottom of our list of favorite fundraising events. If you're looking for a fun, alternative solution to silent auctions, you're in luck. Below, we share 10 silent auction alternatives to raise funds for your cause.

10 silent auction alternatives to reach your fundraising goal

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Looking for a genius idea to replace your silent auction? Below, we offer 10 alternative fundraisers to replace the auction.

1. Try a charity golf tourney, instead of collecting sports memorabilia 🏌

Why sell signed sports gear when you can let supporters relive their glory days instead? As an alternative to a live auction, run a charity golf tournament at the local course, and invite businesses to purchase different sponsorship packages. To increase donations, consider selling concessions, adding upsells (like VIP tickets or drink vouchers), or hosting a driving-range challenge.

2. Try staycations, instead of auctioning off vacation packages 🌴

Sure, you could orchestrate a trip to Paris as a high-ticket item … or you could invest those dollars back into your local economy.

Take the "staycation" route and brainstorm fun events you could organize at local businesses.

Rent out a cafe and hold an open mic night, take over a parking lot and create a drive-in movie theater, or host a food truck fiesta where patrons can sample local vendors.

3. Try pub crawls, instead of giving away a wine tasting 🍺

It's not uncommon to auction off booze at an auction event, whether it's top-shelf bottles or a four-course dinner with wine pairings. To switch things up, organize a local pub crawl in your town. Work with local businesses beforehand to reserve one drink per guest per stop, then sell tickets to supporters in advance of your event.

4. Try fundraising software, instead of investing in auction software 🎥

Here's what most mobile bidding platforms don't want you to know: These apps take a cut from each winning bid amount. In the end, this means less total dollars earned for your cause. Rather than invest in bidding software, search for a fundraising platform that offers the tools you need — like SMS and email invites, automated thank-you messages, live streaming, and the ability to collect unlimited payment options. (Psst! With Givebutter, you don't actually have to "invest" anything — because we offer $0 platform fees!)

5. Try a sweatgiving event, instead hunting for gift certificates 🏆

Local fitness studios are constantly asked to donate free classes or memberships for charity auction events. Instead of offering one workout experience to one supporter, why not share those endorphins with your entire supporter base? Create a "sweatgiving" event where people pay a fixed amount (roughly $20) to enjoy a charity workout class. Want to take your #fitspo event to the next level? Invite local businesses to donate water, sports drinks, T-shirts, and raffle prizes to the athletes.

6. Try a field day, instead of bidding on sports tickets 🏐

Tickets to professional sporting events are high-ticket items for both in-person and online silent auctions. But if you're anything like us, you would rather play than sit on the sidelines. Organize a field day to bring out a supporter's inner athlete, hosting sand volleyball tournaments, roller skating races, capture-the-flag tournaments, and tug-of-war competitions.

7. Try dress up to give, instead of dress up to bid 👗

OK, let's be real: One of the best things about a silent auction is the opportunity to glam it up for an evening. Allow your donor base to don their best black-tie-optional attire for a nonprofit gala event — whether held online or virtually. Invite organization executives or volunteers to speak, sharing your mission and values with the public.

8. Try a paint and sip, instead of auctioning off artwork 🎨 🍷

Sure, you could sell artwork to the highest bid … or you could allow supporters to create their own. Organize a paint ‘n’ sip event as a fun night out for potential donors. Here's how it works: Sell tickets in advance, then hire an instructor (ask the art teacher at your high school!) to help supporters paint a scene while sipping wine. You could also host a pottery class, jewelry-making class, or embroidery class to get your donors' creative juices (and glasses of wine!) flowing.

9. Try a run to the finish line, instead of running a silent auction 🏃

If you're considering putting together your next silent auction, consider this idea instead: Organize a charity walk/runinstead. There are limitless ways to put your own creative spin on this classic fundraising idea: Invite supporters to run with their pace, do a 24-hour team relay race, or choose a theme and offer a special promo code to those who dress up. (If you choose to put on a relay race, take advantage of multi-team fundraising to raise money through peer-to-peer networks.)

10. Try a hometown sidewalk day, instead of soliciting gift baskets 🛍

While gift baskets are an extremely popular item donors bid on, they can be a headache to piece together. To help streamline your efforts, host a "sidewalk day" in your hometown.

Invite cafes, artists, makers, and other creatives to sell their jewelry, food items, crafts, and housewares via tents and tables posted up on the sidewalk.

Charge a novel entrance fee (suggested: $5) that supporters can quickly pay via cash, credit card, Venmo, or text-to-donate at the gate.

Swap out the silent auction for another creative fundraising idea

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Is a silent auction right for some organizations? Of course. But before you start planning, you should understand the legal constructs you must abide by — which, more often than not, are more hassle than what it's worth.

Instead, trade in the bid sheets for a charity golf tournament, gala, 5K run/walk, or drive-thru movie. With Givebutter, you can easily sell tickets, invite contributors, promote events on social media, and accept a number of payment types, including Venmo. In fact, Givebutter offers 70+ free features to easily run your next fundraiser.

Ready to see how Givebutter can help raise more funds for your organization? Get started with a free account today.

Rachel Mills

Rachel Mills

Givebutter Marketing & Contributing Writer

Rachel is a fundraising and marketing consultant for nonprofits whose aspiration since she was 16-years-old is simply this: help others, help others.

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