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Charity Auctions for Beginners: 7 Key Things to Know


As a nonprofit professional, you’ve probably heard that charity auctions are time-consuming. On top of the venue details, ticketing, and marketing you’re used to handling for general fundraising events, there’s item procurement and bid tracking to consider. The introduction of virtual and hybrid options has further complicated matters, too.

However, with a strong fundraising plan, you can hold a highly successful charity auction that can not only boost revenue but deepen engagement. Charity auctions are a great way to create a feeling of community—either in-person or online—and engage donors with friendly competition. 

Here’s everything you need to know to host your first successful charity auction:

  1. What is a charity auction and what does it look like?
  2. Which type of auction should you host?
  3. How can charity auction software help?
  4. Which team members do you need to recruit?
  5. Which items should you procure, and how?
  6. How do you promote an auction event?
  7. How can you maximize incoming auction revenue?

A charity auction may be more intricate to plan than your other fundraising events, but the payoff in fundraising revenue and donor engagement can be worth the effort. Use this guide for everything you need to get started. 

1. What is a charity auction and what does it look like?

A charity auction is a fundraising event in which supporters bid on donated items and packages. Your nonprofit is responsible for procuring items or booking packages (such as vacation stays or consignment travel) that will get supporters excited to bid. These items can be procured as in-kind donations from sponsors, purchased outright by your nonprofit, or through auction item consignment partners.

During the event, your supporters compete to place the highest bid on auction items. The person with the highest bid wins, and your organization earns the proceeds. In general, all charity auctions follow a similar four-step process. Use the following timeline as a guideline:

  1. Open the bidding. If you’re using mobile bidding software, regardless of whether it’s a live, silent, or online auction, bidding opens automatically at your preset time. If you’re hosting a traditional paper-based silent auction or a live auction, announce the opening of bidding to the guests.
  2. Begin with a starting bid. Each item is assigned a starting bid amount prior to the event, usually at 35-50% of the market value. This is the minimum amount that the first bidder can bid.
  3. Bid increments. Participants will compete to place the highest bid. Each consecutive bid on an item must typically be 10-15% greater than the previous bid value. Consider adding Buy Now options at 150%-200% of the item’s value to help drive bidding and make it easy for supporters who want to pay top dollar.
  4. Close bidding. Whoever placed the final, highest bid is the winner of that item. The winner will pay the agreed funds directly to your nonprofit. 

Bid increment instructions should be given to participants ahead of time or configured into your mobile bidding software so the auction can run smoothly. For more information on the basic outlines of a charity auction, check out this OneCause guide to planning a charity auction

2. Which type of auction should you host? 

Depending on your nonprofit’s budget and size, some auction types may be more favorable than others. There are four different types of charity auctions that your organization can host:

  • Live auction. A live auction is the classic in-person event led by an auctioneer. Guests announce their bids by raising a bidding paddle, calling out amounts, or getting the auctioneer’s attention in another way. For a live auction, you will need to rent a venue, hire an auctioneer, and likely supply catering to your guests as part of a broader evening of entertainment. 
  • Silent auction. Unlike a live auction, the bidding at a silent auction is more discrete and less public. Participants write in bids on sheets of paper and can check back to see if they’ve been outbid, then write in a higher bid amount. A silent auction can also take place with mobile software. Because of its flexibility, you can host an in-person, virtual, or hybrid silent auction. 
  • Virtual auction. A virtual auction incorporates traditional silent auction elements but takes the entire process online. Your nonprofit can reach people from all over. These events can be highly cost-effective while still generating impressive final revenue numbers. A virtual auction can also be longer in duration than an in-person event. To make your online auction more engaging, you can use a live-streaming platform to show off the items and generate bids in real time. 
  • Hybrid auction. A hybrid auction combines in-person and virtual elements for a memorable occasion. Typically, a hybrid auction will involve a virtual auction with in-person live or silent bidding for a smaller audience. For example, with a hybrid silent auction, you could invite a limited in-person guest list to a venue and allow a virtual audience to engage in real-time bidding. 

The flexibility of formats allows organizations of any size to host an auction. Take any one of these auction types and scale them to your audience size. An online auction can be an especially useful tool for smaller nonprofits to expand their reach. 

3. How can charity auction software help?

Planning and hosting a charity auction is time, resource, and manpower-intensive. There are a ton of moving parts and managing them all can easily get overwhelming. However, working with charity auction software from the start of your planning process drastically eases the hassle. This software can help you:

  • Raise more money. This software takes the bidding process online, so those physically in attendance and those who aren’t can both participate. Further, you’re able to provide guests with additional channels to donate outside of buying auctioned items. For example, you can add a “Donate” button to your auction webpage so supporters can simply donate any amount to your cause.
  • Simplify the planning process. All logistics are automated and run through the same platform, removing much of the stress of coordination. Plus, once your auction is up and running, your supporters won’t have to worry about navigating to several different sites to participate, which helps to keep them engaged. 
  • Add convenience for participants. Donors can purchase tickets, place and track bids, and checkout online. This simplifies the donor experience and eliminates the hassle of waiting in long lines to check out after the fact.
  • Access valuable metrics. Software brings all of your planning into one platform, so you can easily access a complete view of your event’s success and review opportunities for improvement. 

Hosting a charity auction is a great way to boost revenue and engagement, but you also need to make the planning easy on your staff. This is where auction software can come in handy, especially to streamline the behind-the-scenes organization and execution. Plus, if you choose the right software it can be adapted for all types of auction events you host in the future.

4. Which team members do you need to recruit?

Just as with any other fundraising event, charity auctions require a dedicated team of staffers and volunteers to run smoothly. You’ll need helpers before, during, and after the event to make sure it goes off without a hitch. Delegate tasks across your team, ensuring you have individuals or groups to handle the following parts of your auction:

  • Event planning. This team plans the event, including choosing the date, booking the venue, recruiting volunteers, and even spreading the word. Your team will need a strong nonprofit marketing plan to attract as many people as possible to your auction (thereby increasing the amount of revenue it will generate!). If you’re hosting a virtual or hybrid auction, you’ll benefit from having a dedicated sub-team or committee for handling technology, as well.
  • Item procurement. This team solicits auction items for the event. Each member needs to be comfortable soliciting donations and familiar with which types of gifts would do well among your nonprofit’s audience. 
  • Event volunteers. Volunteers are essential to pulling off any in-person auction events, whether they’re helping with set up or tear down, assisting as auction spotters/monitors, or running registration and checkout.
  • Emcee or auctioneer. You’ll need to recruit an emcee or an auctioneer, depending on which type of event you’re hosting. An emcee keeps an in-person or virtual silent auction on track while an auctioneer is the ringleader of a live auction.

To make your auction as successful as possible, be sure to plan early. Choosing and setting up the right software and procuring items can be a very lengthy process. The best way to avoid overwhelming your team is by preparing as soon as possible. 

5. Which items should you procure, and how?

The charity auction items you procure will depend largely on what your donors are willing to pay and where their interests may lie. Brainstorm which items might appeal most to your specific donors using the following tips: 

  • If you’ve held an auction in the past, reflect on its success. Review which items were popular sellers and consider bringing them back or similar items that would equally attract interest. 
  • Consider your guests’ price range. Don’t procure expensive spa weekends if your donors would be more likely to bid on moderately priced restaurant gift cards or even nonprofit merchandise like t-shirts.
  • Understand your guests’ interests. Consider what’s popular in your community and what would genuinely be desired. For example, if you’re an animal rescue nonprofit, your supporters would probably enjoy a day hanging with puppies or kittens! 
  • Remember supply and demand. Auction items that are rare or unique are much more likely to be of interest to most audiences.
  • Vary your items. Avoid procuring items that all fall in one category, such as only experience packages or only merchandise. 

Start with asking coworkers, friends, family members, and any other personal and professional connections to donate items. Turn to local businesses and retailers to see if they’ll donate products or services as in-kind gifts. When seeking corporate gifts, you’ll need to do your research on prospective corporate partners and pick a business with similar values. 

6. How do you promote an auction event?

Begin with compiling a guest list, keeping the size of your venue in mind. Send out invites and, if you’re using auction software, bring the ticketing process online for convenience. It can be helpful to tap into multiple marketing channels to bring attention to your event, such as:

  • Social Media. Social media is a powerful tool to expand your nonprofit’s reach and get hundreds (or even thousands) of people to learn about your event. Decide on which platform may be most effective to spread the word about your event. This will be based on your intended audience’s demographic and which platform they’d be most likely to use. Then, create engaging graphics or video content creating excitement around your auction with instructions on how to sign up. 
  • Email. Send out an email to your supporters highlighting your event with a link directly to your registration page. Your email should emphasize the most important information and include several visuals to break up long paragraphs. 
  • Text. If you have your supporters’ phone numbers and a text-to-give platform set up, texting is a great way to reach out to supporters and make sure they see the message. According to 360MatchPro’s fundraising statistics, text message audiences grew by 26% last year, which means that texting is a great opportunity to market your auction. You can even include an option in your message to donate before the event. 

By giving guests a taste of what your auction will hold in advance, you’ll be able to effectively drum up excitement. You can also set up an online auction website through your auction software to serve as a catalog for the event, giving you another valuable marketing asset.

Include all essential information about the event itself on the website. This includes a short introduction to your organization, the event name or theme, the schedule, what the proceeds will benefit, the rules for bidding, and instructions for using your mobile bidding platform if applicable.

7. How can you maximize incoming auction revenue? 

Auction events tend to get donors in the mood to give, so prepare to make the most of this momentum while it exists!

Consider the following ways to maximize revenue at your next charity auction: 

  • Make a live appeal. Your emcee or auctioneer asks guests for donations, reminding them of a fundraising goal your organization hopes to reach by the end of the night. Display a fundraising thermometer throughout the event so guests can track how close you’re getting to the goal.
  • Sell fixed priced items. These are items that are sold, not auctioned, for a set price. This includes extra event activities (such as gift cards or a mystery box drawing) and even event merchandise and accessories.
  • Create party sign-ups. Plan a fun event and sell guest spots at the event. Examples of this would be a movie night, a group cooking class, or even a themed party. These work well for virtual or hybrid events and can be led by volunteer ambassadors.
  • Use a donation booth. This is a good way to provide a giving opportunity to those who don’t end up leaving with an item. Instead of waiting in a long checkout line, guests can give quickly and easily. If you’re using mobile bidding software, there’s no need for a physical booth as donors can give through their phones.
  • Target your audiences. If you’re hosting a hybrid auction, you’ll need to develop strategies that will engage both in-person and remote attendees. For example, invite a smaller group of major donors to the in-person event and everyone to the virtual event. Then, target your different items to each audience as needed—live bidding for luxury vacation packages, hybrid bidding for the fuller range of items in your catalog, etc. This helps you fundraise more efficiently and save money on the in-person logistics.
  • Sell ads in your catalog. Every attendee will browse your auction catalog whether it’s a printed version or online, and that’s a huge selling point! Provide item donors and local businesses with the option to buy an ad in your catalog (digital or paper) and have their logo featured somewhere within.

These are only a few ways you can maximize revenue at your next auction. You know your audience best, so tailor your fundraising strategies to your supporters to increase your event’s success. 

Wrapping Up

Auctions can be a lot to plan, but the fundraising potential of these events is high. Whether you plan to host your auction in-person or virtually, you can effectively engage your audience with friendly competition, fun items, and opportunities to give back to your nonprofit. With the help of charity auction software, the planning process will be much smoother for your team. 


About the Author

Kelly Velasquez-Hague

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors and raise more funds for their cause.

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