Among nonprofit fundraising strategies, silent auctions stand out, and for good reason. When carefully executed, they have the power to garner plenty of revenue, they generate excitement among a nonprofit’s supporters, and they pair well with other events.
Like with any nonprofit fundraising event, planning will make or break your silent auction’s success. These lucrative fundraisers require multi-step planning from initial committee formation to final check-out. Preparation for a silent auction can take months of research, outreach, and organizing. The time commitment alone makes silent auctions a high investment fundraising event, and your execution will determine how profitable your return on investment is.
This isn’t meant to scare you away from silent auctions, but rather encourage doing the right research, making the right investments, and hosting a silent auction the right way for your nonprofit. This guide will walk you through the fundamentals of silent auctions, ensuring you can walk away understanding:
- What is a Silent Auction?
- How Does a Silent Auction Work?
- How to Run a Silent Auction
- Commonly Asked Questions
- What Silent Auction Software to Choose
Feel free to skip around if there’s a specific question you need answered. Silent auctions have many moving parts, but each part isn’t too difficult to understand by itself. Whether you want a general overview or need specific advice, this guide will provide comprehensive advice to get your nonprofit off on the right foot for its next (or first!) silent auction.
What is a silent auction?
A silent auction is an event where guests place bids on items, either by writing their bid down on a piece of paper or submitting through the event’s accompanying online auction website. Silent auctions can either be held as the central event or paired with another event such as a gala, dinner, or other gathering.
The items, prices, and layout of your fundraiser depend on your event’s theme, location, and guest demographics. Similar to live auctions, the goal of a silent auction is to raise funds from guests bidding on donated items, meaning you will want to tailor your items to the audience attending your event.
How does a silent auction work?
For your guests, silent auctions have two distinct parts: bidding and checkout. Unlike live auctions where items are auctioned off sequentially, silent auctions give guests the opportunity to browse through assembled items at their leisure before placing a bid. Some silent auction organizers implement additional rules such as a buy-it-now price in which guests can outright purchase an item for a set amount of money.
Set up a timeline for the night prior to your event’s beginning, so you can keep the auction on schedule and create a sense of urgency to encourage guests to get their bids in a timely manner.
It's best to clearly announce when bidding has begun, and drive participation throughout the event with tactics such as leaderboards and outbid notifications. Make additional announcements throughout the night to attract attention to items with few bids or spotlight an exciting bidding war to encourage further engagement.
Ahead of the auction’s close, give a warning to let guests know when final bids are due, and then close out the auction by announcing winners, letting guests collect their prizes, and processing final bids.
How do you bid at a silent auction?
Traditionally, guests placed bids at silent auctions by writing down their bids on a piece of paper in front of their chosen item. Mobile auction software has changed the name of the game, allowing guests to browse items and make bids through their phones by entering their payment information.
Most mobile bidding software guides guests through these steps to make their bids:
- View item information. All items should have basic information explaining what the item is and its fair market value. Fair market value is an item’s worth if they were to purchase it at market price, which helps event organizers set starting bids and allows guests to determine how much they want to bid on an item.
- View current bids and the next suggested bid interval. Display the item’s current going price as well as a recommended increase for the next bid based on the item’s value. Choose intervals that make sense for the item. For example, a gift basket of chocolate should have smaller bid increments than tickets to a ski resort.
- Enter bids and set maximum bid amounts. Your mobile bidding software should have clear displays that enable guests to enter their bids without confusion. Additionally, many bidding software platforms allow guests to enter maximum bids, meaning that if someone tries to outbid them, the platform will automatically bid at the next interval up until their max bid is exceeded.
- Track the auction for selected items. Your guests will likely want to do other things than hang around their desired items. Find software that comes with push notifications that will inform guests when they’ve been outbid so they can bid again as soon as possible.
Tip: register all guests and their payment information before they start bidding. This will make bidding and checkout smoother as all payment information will already be on file.
How do you win a silent auction item?
Your guests want to know what it takes to win their desired items. Have your team explain the auction’s rules at the event’s start, so there are no surprises once bidding gets underway. There are generally two ways to win a silent auction item:
- Having the highest valid bid at the end of the auction. To avoid confusion, specify rules that guests must abide by in order to have their bid count. Common rules include only accepting bids made before the auction closes, bids that follow the minimum increments rules, and bids placed by individuals over 18 years old.
- Bidding the buyout price. Your nonprofit can choose to give some items a buyout price. A buyout price is generally 150-200% of an item’s fair market value, and when placed, it will automatically end bidding on that item before its closing time. Be strategic about which items have buyout prices. A buyout price can cause low or medium-value items to sell for more than they would have at the auction, while also creating a sense of urgency for other guests who see items that have already sold. However, items that are likely to already generate excitement like unique experiences might be harmed by buyout prices as the silent auction can end before picking up momentum.
Once an item is won, guests should receive an alert on their phone letting them know what they have won and how they can pick it up. For in-person auctions, create a designated checkout location somewhere that won’t interfere with foot traffic from guests leaving the event. For online auctions, guests should be able to redeem their purchases and receive delivery information for physical items immediately after the silent auction’s end.
How to Run a Silent Auction
Silent auctions may seem hands-off at first, but planning and running the event will require a team of dedicated staff and volunteers. Take your time and do your research to ensure your nonprofit can gather the necessary resources before diving headfirst into a silent auction.
Hosting a silent auction can be broken down into three parts: preparation, the event, and the follow-up. Here’s an overview of each component to get your nonprofit started.
Preparing for your auction may take more time than you might first assume. Make sure you have the energy and resources to devote to planning, especially if you intend to run another event alongside your silent auction. A few things you’ll need to consider in this stage are:
Forming an Auction Committee
A dedicated auction committee will handle all auction-related activities. It may seem like overkill to devote an entire team to one event, but the responsibilities that need to be fulfilled from booking a venue to dispersing items justify it.
Your dedicated auction team should consist of:
- The auction chair is the team leader and will coordinate between team members, volunteers, and your nonprofit to keep them in the loop. Appoint an auction chair with previous experience as their actions will direct the entire team and, thus, the entire silent auction.
- The procurement team includes the people responsible for obtaining your auction items. They will reach out to businesses, your nonprofit’s connections, and other leads to collect items your guests will want to bid on.
- The logistics team handles all the easy-to-overlook but vitally important details like finding a venue, registering guests, and ensuring all purchased items go home with the right bidders.
- The marketing team gets the word out about your auction to attract guests, creates compelling invitations, and promotes the event to your supporters.
- Volunteers help where they are needed, whether that’s with the other teams or with ensuring the event runs smoothly by setting up the venue or checking in guests.
The number of people on these teams will vary depending on the size of your nonprofit and the size of your event. Keep scale in mind for each part of your preparations as it is also possible to over-prepare for a silent auction and have items that don’t go home with any of your guests.
Planning and Researching Guest List
Tailor your event to your guests. Silent auctions benefit from a focused purpose or theme, so choose one that will get your guests excited for bidding. If the auction is hosted alongside another event, consider how the two work together and what sort of people are attending your main event.
Guests will want to bid on items that match their interests. It’s a smart move to have a range of items that vary in value, but try to match the bidding prices to your guests’ budgets. Higher-end items that your guests can get a bargain on are great, but to truly raise funds, you’ll need items with a price range in which guests will be comfortable one-upping each other’s bids.
Acquiring Auction Items
Your procurement team should begin its process with a strategy. Before conducting outreach, establish who the silent auction’s audience is, what the theme is, and what the goal is.
The acquisition process will depend on the number of sponsors you reach out to, but a few universal steps are:
- Establishing a price range of acquired items. Your auction items should fit the budget of your guests. However, this doesn’t mean keeping all prices the same. A range of prices will engage bidders at all levels and can work towards building relationships rather than just selling off high-value items.
- Tracking items as they come in. When your team receives an item, immediately document it. This includes a description of the item, its fair market value, and who donated the item. This will enable you to create a catalog of all items with less hassle and will ensure all items are accounted for.
- Engaging with sponsors. For any item offered, thank your sponsors profusely, even if it does not fit with your acquisition strategy. Remember, silent auctions are about more than just the event itself. The acquisition process is an opportunity to build relationships. Invite your sponsors to the silent auction and follow up with them afterward to fully express your gratitude.
For the most part, you will have better luck engaging with sponsors whose business aligns with your nonprofit’s interests, have supported similar events in the past, and are doing well financially. Create a list ahead of time of the most desired sponsors and start asking sponsors lower on your list first to hone your approach. Be prepared to adapt your acquisition strategy based on the responses you get back from sponsors.
Purchasing Auction Software
Even at in-person silent auctions, guests and event planners alike prefer mobile bidding software to writing bids down. Keeping track of bids on a piece of paper can lead to confusion over indecipherable handwriting and opens up the possibility of guests writing invalid bids.
Auction secure software prevents these problems and also removes the hassle of tracking down winners after an auction closes.
When assessing auction software, look for the following features:
- Online and in-person capabilities. Purchasing separate software for online and in-person auctions wastes money that could go to improving your event. Look for tech features such as cloud accessibility. This allows for real-time bidding, a necessity for hosting hybrid events.
- Security. Find auction software that is committed to security. Your guests need to be comfortable sharing their financial information on your silent auction software’s app, and a security breach will hurt your supporters’ trust in your nonprofit. Look for software that is PCI-compliant, and ask questions about user password protection, incident response plans, and credit card information storage.
- Reporting. The right auction software will give your nonprofit the ability to review the results of your event in a comprehensive report to better plan for your next silent auction. Make sure you can pull detailed reports showing top bidders, item performance, and overall revenue performance.
Plus, the right silent auction software will come with a variety of add-on features such as ticketing and registration. Compare different platforms to find one that comes with any additional support your nonprofit needs without going over your budget. Check to see if the software has a demo or other preview feature to test it out before purchasing.
Marketing your Event
Events of any kind need guests. Silent auctions have vast marketing potential as well by previewing special or unique items to let guests get a glimpse of what they could purchase if they attend. Choose a few items to showcase ahead of time, take eye-catching pictures, and spread the word across multiple platforms such as email, social media, and direct mail outreach.
If your auction is paired with a crowdfunding or a peer-to-peer fundraising event, ask your volunteers to help with getting the word out. Volunteers should link to your silent auction’s dedicated event page to direct their friends and family to help support your nonprofit. Some auction software supports additional fundraising tools, allowing your nonprofit to monitor every part of your silent auction from one integrated system.
Running the Event
Even after months of planning, the event itself will still need a dedicated team, a time-conscious schedule, logistical event space, and the right auction items.
Silent auctions generally occur in three parts: guests arrive, guests wander the auction floor and place bids, and participants check-out the items they’ve won. Have volunteers on hand to facilitate each of these processes, ready to swoop in to solve any problems that might occur. Let’s go over a few commonly overlooked areas.
For physical venues, event setup usually means setting up the physical space. Survey the venue ahead of time to ensure you will have enough space for your silent auction and its accompanying foot traffic. Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind for your event layout:
- Place auction items near similarly valued items. Perception determines value, especially at a silent auction where guests are competing to buy something flashy. Guests will often assume everything on a table is of similar value, meaning placing high-value items near lower value ones will depreciate their worth in the eyes of potential bidders.
- Create foot traffic paths. Silent auction areas can get crowded as guests pause in front of items to debate what they want and how much they want to bid. Set up your tables to give guests plenty of room to move around without bumping into each other or your potentially fragile silent auction items.
- Establish dedicated check-in and check-out areas. Check-in and check-out can turn into bottlenecks if not carefully planned. Create separate spaces for these tasks so other guests won’t have to walk around or through lines to get where they need to be.
Virtual events also require setup, but not in the same way as physical events. Before the event’s start, run through all of your technology to make sure everything is in working order and have tech support on standby in case anything does breakdown.
Similar to in-person silent auctions, consider how you organize your online item catalog. Do you want to group items by value? Category? Alphabetical order? Think about how your guests will interpret the way you display items to ensure all items have their full value come across—even through a phone screen.
Registration and Check-in
Registering should be welcoming, fast, and organized. At registration, guests should be warmly greeted, have their tickets collected, and have all important event information conveyed to them in a timely manner.
You can optimize your registration process by:
- Distributing event handouts. Guests will need to absorb a lot of information very quickly before moving forward in line. For physical events, print out handouts containing item prices, the event schedule, and rules to keep in mind for valid bids. You can further optimize this step with mobile bidding by putting all information on your silent auction webpage.
- Having multiple check-in stations. To avoid lines, have multiple dedicated check-in attendants at the beginning of your event. Consider creating separate lines as well for walk-in guests who need to be walked through the registration process and guests who already pre-registered online.
- Using registration software. Registration software will reduce wait times and improve your check-in staff’s lives by allowing them to quickly find guests, fill out forms, and distribute bidder numbers without digging through stacks of paper.
Your event staff will have other responsibilities throughout the night, too, such as chatting with guests and hyping up certain items to attract more bids. Pick someone outgoing to be a dedicated emcee, who can make regular announcements throughout the event.
After the silent auction closes, people will leave en masse, which can cause long lines, ending a fun event on a note of frustration. Mobile bidding software is your best friend for automating check-out. Guests can register their payment information ahead of time, meaning after they win an item, they can grab it and go (after being confirmed the winner by a volunteer), while guests who want to pay in cash or by check can stand in shorter check-out lines.
Your work isn’t done even after your silent auction’s conclusion. A silent auction is ultimately a fundraiser, meaning it’s a great opportunity to make connections with guests and sponsors to later convert them into donors.
Be sure to collect guests' and sponsors’ contact information so you can reach out to them after the event’s conclusion. Here are just a few reasons why you’ll need to stay in touch.
Send Out Gifts
For an online auction, you’ll need to deliver auction items as promptly as possible. Your auction software should keep track of which guest purchased which item, but double-check before shipping items to correct for any mistakes.
Thank Guests and Sponsors
Mail out personalized thank you cards to let guests know how much you appreciated their attendance. Even if they didn’t purchase anything, guests who attended your event are worth making a connection with so they’ll be inclined to come back to your next silent auction, which might have something that catches their eye.
Don’t forget to thank your sponsors, either! Send thank you cards and include pictures of the event. If their item was a big hit, let them know.
Pro Tips: 3 Commonly Asked Questions, Answered
Silent auctions are complicated, and it’s normal to have more questions crop up during the planning process (or even in the middle of the event!). Here are a few more common questions new planners have:
What items are the best for a silent auction?
The best items will depend on your guests. However, in general, items that can’t be purchased in a store, like experiences, tend to attract more attention. Unique or bundled items can also do well as they can also be pitched as an experience. For example, soaps, chocolate, and wine could be bundled into a relaxing day themed gift basket.
Here’s a bit more information on these strategies for your acquisition team to consider as they start reaching out to sponsors:
- Acquire items that are experiences. Different audiences will get excited about different items, but silent auction items that are unique, intangible experiences tend to attract a certain level of intrigue. These items could range from private music lessons, wine tasting, to a massage. Hit up local businesses in your community to see if any of them are willing to donate a voucher for a one-of-a-kind experience.
- Bundle together low-value items. Some sponsors may give small items to your nonprofit that are more trouble than they’re worth to auction off individually. Use these items to create themed gift baskets, which can seem like a higher combined value to potential bidders.
- Ask sponsors to give a cash donation instead. Sometimes sponsors don’t have appropriate items or will offer items that don’t fit your silent auction at all. In these situations, thank them profusely for offering the item before politely declining and asking if they could donate the item’s cash value in its place in exchange for being recognized as a financial sponsor of the event.
Work these practices into your acquisition strategy by reaching out to a variety of potential sponsors. The more acquired items you have to work with, the more creative your marketing team can get at how they pitch them to guests.
How should you price items at a silent auction?
Create starting bids that are about 30-40% of an item’s fair market value. After you receive an item, research its value instead of just taking your sponsor at their word. While some sponsors will be honest, others may inflate prices due to prestige or sentimental value.
However, remember that your goal should be to create a bidding war to generate higher revenue and guest engagement. This means your incremental bids should be as low as possible to encourage guests to continue bidding. This is especially effective for mobile bidding where guests won’t even need to leave their tables to continue chipping in bids.
Can you run a silent auction virtually?
Yes! In addition to mobile bidding, silent auctions can be run entirely online. The right auction software will make this process as easy as possible by including event tracking capabilities, an item catalog, and a dedicated bidding app.
Choosing Silent Auction Software
Your silent auction software should suit the needs of your nonprofit. Set a budget ahead of time so as you browse through features and add-ons, you’ll know what is a must-have and what you can do without.
We recommend our customizable auction software. Handbid offers everything you need to get up and running with your silent auctions. From the initial planning stages to execution and follow-up, our powerful tools were built specifically to help nonprofits create standout events that nurture donor relationships. Here’s a preview of what Handbid will enable your nonprofit to accomplish:
- Access Handbid’s mobile bidding app. Our mobile app allows guests to submit bids, input maximum bids, and receive push notifications when they’re outbid. That way, they can stay engaged on the go.
- Host online and in-person silent auctions. Handbid works whether you’re hosting your event online or in-person. Guests can use the app to place bids while mingling at your venue or they can track online auctions from their own homes.
- Livestream to audiences. It can be difficult to excite your audience when their auction is confined to their phones. Livestreaming will let you deliver real-time updates to your guests, while interacting with chat messages, further building a connection between you and your donors.
- Manage and organize all aspects of your event. In addition to bidding features, Handbid has managerial tools to track ticketing, registration, reporting, and check-out. Using one system to track your auction will allow you to monitor every guest and item from beginning to end, ensuring nothing gets lost in the shuffle between stages.
- Receive coaching. Need more one-on-one help with Handbid? Reach out to our team to receive virtual assistance, walkthroughs, and consultation. Handbid’s Headstart feature will let your nonprofit hit the ground running by uploading items and images for you.
If you want to test out the Handbid app, try a demo to get a sense of what our tools can do for you. Explore Handbid’s features to determine what add-ons you’ll need, and choose a package that fits your nonprofit’s size and budget. By investing in our powerful tools, you’ll be well on your way to pulling off standout silent auctions.
Silent auctions raise funds for your nonprofit, while also giving you a chance to connect with supporters and local business sponsors. A well-run silent auction takes a dedicated team and months of planning to execute, but the right tools can help ease the process and ensure the event runs smoothly.
To get started learning more about what your nonprofit can do to prepare for its silent auction, check out these resources:
- Nonprofit Auction Software: Best Practices and Top Providers. Want to learn more about nonprofit auction software? Read more here to learn tips for making the most of your auction software and find a provider that fits your nonprofit.
- Cybersecurity Tips For Charitable Fundraising. Security needs to be a top priority whenever you handle donors’ money. Learn how to protect your supporters’ financial information with this guide to cybersecurity.
- Virtual Fundraising Events: Top Tips and Ideas for Success. After your silent auction, your nonprofit should get started in planning its next fundraising event. Check out this article to get inspired for your next event.