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Silent Auction Tips, Fundraising

7 Tips to Get More Donations Before Your Auction Starts

Auctions are one of the most effective, engaging, and reliable fundraising events for nonprofits of all sizes. This is especially true when they’re developed creatively and make use of the best possible tools!

Silent auctions are particularly effective because they reduce the competitive edge that can deter some guests, ensuring that all attendees feel comfortable participating.

You’ve already found the best tech tools to take your silent auction to the next level, but even then you can’t guarantee that everyone will receive their own unique item, experience, or package by the end of the night.

Silent auctions are more accessible for all your guests than traditional auctions, but it’s still crucial that you take some additional steps to ensure that everyone feels involved and valued by your organization. This makes them more likely to attend other events in the future, too!

Consider these key ways to provide extra engagement opportunities for your guests before the main event begins:

  1. Offer branded merchandise for sale.
  2. Follow some merchandising best practices.
  3. Create unique swag bags for your guests.
  4. Partner with a local restaurant or bar.
  5. Promote a donor recognition drive.
  6. Focus on your event’s theming.
  7. Take and sell professional photos.

Incorporating some additional fundraising elements into your silent auction event is a great way to boost donation intake. More importantly, it ensures that every attendee has the chance to leave with a unique memento of the evening that you’ve worked so hard to plan!

1) Offer branded merchandise for sale.

Branded merchandise items, particularly custom printed t-shirts, are a classic fundraising staple. That’s because they consistently succeed at increasing donations and engagement!

Set up a merchandise booth near your silent auction item display area to entice donors as they browse. Prior to your auction, create the perfect t-shirt to offer attendees. You might even design several variations, like:

  • An event-specific design
  • A shirt branded to your nonprofit
  • A simplified, stylish design featuring only your logo
  • A separate t-shirt design focused more on your mission or featuring a slogan

Merchandising has become a major revenue source for all kinds of groups, businesses, and individuals.

From nonprofit organizations to tech startups to internet personalities, starting to make your own custom merch is a smart, cost-effective way to increase engagement with your brand and offer your supporters new options.

2) Follow merchandising best practices.

Hand in hand with offering custom merchandise, it’s important to follow some merchandising best practices more generally.

Not only will this increase engagement with your silent auction items, it will also get your attendees more interested in your additional fundraising items and activities, too!

Improving the displays of both your auction and additional fundraising items will encourage more of your guests to linger and browse, increasing the odds that they’ll purchase merchandise or offer direct donations. Consider these best practices for auction merchandising:

  • Arrange the silent auction display area in a thoughtful, organized way that encourages attendees to gather, browse, and stay in the room.
  • Keep your item display area well-staffed with volunteers using tablets to answer any questions and keep guests engaged.
  • Place your additional fundraising items and booths in a central area, but make sure they’re clearly designated and not mistaken for auction items.
  • Display your top items on their own, with great lighting and clear labels.
  • Give attendees plenty of space and light to move and browse comfortably.

Following practices like these will increase guest mingling and improve visitor experience, which will then provide a major boost to any of your other pre-auction fundraising items or activities!

3) Create unique swag bags for your guests.

'Swag bags' are another effective technique for ensuring that all your attendees leave feeling they’ve gotten something special from the evening.

Include some branded merchandise, like t-shirts, water bottles, and notebooks, plus information on your organization’s work and membership program, all in an attractive canvas tote bag. Depending on the type of donor you’re looking to engage and the nature of your auction, you might offer swag bags in one of several ways:

  • As gifts for every attendee, like a door prize
  • As thank-you gifts for donations above a certain amount
  • As rewards for new members who join that night
  • As auction items themselves

Swag bags play on the simple fundraising concept of incentivizing support, but they’re open to a lot of possibility. Read through our swag bag ideas guide over at Bonfire for more examples of how you might adapt the concept to your event’s specific purpose, audience, and goals!

4) Partner with a local restaurant or bar.

This technique may not be immediately applicable depending on the specifics of your silent auction event and venue, but it’s still one of the most reliable fundraising ideas for organizations of any size that host in-person events.

Partnering with a local restaurant or bar can be a smart strategy because both sides will benefit. Plus, your guests will be more willing to splurge on fancy drinks, a juicy steak, or a beautiful dessert when they know you’ll receive a percentage of the profits from their order!

You might incorporate a restaurant or bar partnership through:

  • Arranging a catering deal with the auction venue itself for the event’s dinner.
  • Recruiting a local restaurant to provide hors d’oeuvres in the silent auction area or lobby prior to the venue-catered dinner.
  • Partnering with a restaurant to cater the entire event for a percentage if your silent auction is being hosted in-house or at a venue without its own kitchen.
  • Inviting a local bar to set up a booth in the silent auction area for guests to purchase drinks separately from the catered meal.

Think about any opportunities you might have during the event to provide guests with extra refreshments, then consider how to use them to boost donation intake for the night. If a third-party venue is hosting your silent auction, make sure to fully discuss their catering policies and the possibility for percentage fundraising on food.

5) Promote a donor recognition drive.

A donation drive focused on commemorative items to honor generous donors is a win-win for everyone involved! Set up a booth to promote donor recognition items for your donation drive, including:

  • Customizable plaques to be displayed in your offices
  • Engraved bricks for a special donors’ wall or pathway
  • Printed or electronic signs for your events or lobby

Explain to your auction attendees that donors can have their support commemorated in a unique installation, allowing them to leave a lasting legacy with your organization and enjoy a concrete reminder of the important work that they’ve helped to support over the years.

A campaign of this style is typically part of a long-term project (or fits into an even larger capital campaign). Your silent auction is the perfect opportunity to promote it! Guests will be in high spirits, riding a high from winning an item, or eager to pledge some support if they didn’t win any of their bids.

Read up on some strategies and options for donor recognition drives with this guide from Double the Donation. Remember, expressing gratitude and building legacy is a great investment in securing lifelong support!

6) Focus on your event’s theme.

Chances are your silent auction has an engaging theme. If not, it should.

Event theming is a reliable way to boost engagement and lighten the tone of the entire evening, even when your organization’s mission addresses serious issues. After all, you’re trying to give your attendees a fun and unique night out!

Some reliable and fairly easy silent auction and fundraising event themes include:

  • The Roaring ‘20s or Swinging ‘60s
  • Casino Night (in Vegas or Monte Carlo)
  • Mardi Gras Ball or Venetian Masquerade
  • Kentucky Derby Party (hats required!)
  • A Night in Paris, Rome, Rio, or Anywhere

Get creative! Look at the calendar to see if any upcoming holidays could play into your theme, or take inspiration from your overarching mission or current projects.

Focusing on strong theming goes a long way to boost overall engagement. That doesn’t just mean decorations! Your entertainment, food, staff uniforms, background music, additional activities, even some of the auction items themselves should all be inspired by the theme.

7) Take and sell professional photos.

Offering photos for sale to event attendees is another reliable way to increase donation intake before your silent auction. Guests will likely be snapping their own photos using their phones, but nothing beats a physical, printed photo to remember the night.

There are several ways you can provide photos for sale to your silent auction attendees:

  • Purchase or borrow a professional-grade digital camera and recruit an experienced staff member or volunteer to snap some candid shots. Print them on-site and display the shots on a board for guests to see, pick out, and purchase.
  • Rent camera and photo printing supplies, then set up a designated area to take portraits of the guests before the auction begins. Have them pay in advance, then print the photos during the main event. This way they’ll be ready for quick pick up at the end of the night.
  • Partner with a photobooth rental service or freelance event photographer for the evening. You’ll likely be able to arrange a flat-rate service or possibly a percentage fundraising option depending on the photographer’s policies.

Photos are a smart move for most fundraising events, but particularly for auctions and other special nights out.

Plus, focusing on your theming can provide a boost to your photo sales! With a costume element to the night, fun-loving guests might get a real kick out of taking some themed portraits.

Your organization’s silent auction is a perfect opportunity to create additional fundraising options and engage guests in new ways. Stay focused on boosting engagement and attendee experience as you and your fundraising team brainstorm new ideas!


Kevin Penney - CEO of BonfireKevin Penney has been working in digital media for over ten years. He’s the CMO and co-founder of Bonfire, an online platform that’s reinventing the way people create, sell and purchase custom apparel. He enjoys strategizing, working closely with his team, and hockey, exactly in that order.

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