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4 silent auction tips for a successful nonprofit fundraiser

May 13, 2022
This group of nonprofit professionals is planning a silent auction to raise money for their organization.

Hosting a silent auction is a popular way for nonprofit organizations to engage event attendees and bring in significant fundraising revenue. During a silent auction, organizations take bids on auction items either on paper or electronically, then sell each item to the highest bidder. Silent auctions can serve as standalone events or be paired with another fundraiser like a gala or garden party.

Whether you choose to host your silent auction in-person or virtually, there’s an art to making it as successful as possible. In this guide, you’ll learn four silent auction tips to raise more funds and create a memorable experience for supporters. Let’s get started.

1. Start planning well in advance

With some creativity and the right resources, you’ll likely find that running a silent auction isn’t as daunting as you might think. However, the most successful auctions are typically the ones that are well organized, so the sooner you can start planning your event, the better.

Some key decisions you’ll need to make in the planning process include:

  • Whether your auction will be in-person, virtual, or in a hybrid format.
  • The event date, time, and location.
  • Which staff members will be in charge of each event planning responsibility.
  • How many volunteers you’ll need and what their duties will be.

You should also consider the kind of atmosphere you want to create for event attendees. Will this auction be part of a formal gala that attracts mid-level and major donors? Or do you want to host a more casual, family-friendly event for supporters of all ages and giving levels? Consider which donor segments you want to appeal to and plan the details of your auction accordingly.

2. Procure auction items that sell well

Understanding your audience through donor segmentation will also help you plan the most important aspect of your auction: what items you’ll sell. As you go about the procurement process, consider your supporters’ preferences as well as the types of items that typically sell well at auction, including:

  • Vacation packages. Travel-related items are best sellers at many auctions because of their uniqueness and broad appeal. Try to feature a few vacation packages and tailor them to the supporter segments you’re trying to attract. For example, major donors might prefer stays at luxury resorts, while attendees with young children may enjoy a theme park vacation.
  • Gift baskets. Gift baskets are a silent auction staple because they allow organizations to increase the value of small donations by selling them as a bundle. Create several aesthetically pleasing baskets for your auction, each designed around a specific theme. For instance, a “Spa Day” gift basket could combine a gift certificate for a massage with at-home spa supplies like facial masks, bath bombs, scented lotion, and fluffy slippers.
  • Community spotlight items. Highlight local businesses by asking for donations of goods and services specific to your community. These partnerships are mutually beneficial—the business receives publicity in exchange for providing an auction item. Community spotlight items can range from a painting by a local artist to a custom birthday cake made by a nearby bakery to auto detailing work by an area mechanic.

Once you’ve brainstormed a list of potential auction items, narrow down your ideas by sending a survey to supporters. Doing so engages supporters early in the event planning process and helps your nonprofit procure items they’ll be excited to bid on when the auction opens.

3. Develop a multi-channel event marketing strategy

As soon as you know the event date, start promoting your auction to supporters so they can mark their calendars. It’s okay if you don’t have every detail finalized at that point—you can always share more information with participants after they register.

To spread the word, leverage all of your organization’s marketing channels, including:

  • Your nonprofit’s website. Create a page dedicated to upcoming events, and set up an online registration form for your auction that includes secure ticketing and payment processing capabilities.
  • Email marketing. In addition to including auction information in your nonprofit’s regular newsletter, send out a separate email blast with a link to your registration form.
  • Social media. Focus your social media promotions on the platforms that your auction’s target demographics use most frequently. For example, Facebook is often the preferred platform of donors in their 30s and 40s, while supporters in their 20s are more likely to be active on Instagram and TikTok.
  • Direct mail. This traditional fundraising method is still valuable to supplement your digital marketing efforts. Include an easy-to-type link or QR code to your event registration form to streamline sign-ups.

Developing a multi-channel marketing strategy creates multiple touch points for more supporters to learn about your auction and register in the way that is most convenient for them.

4. Invest in the right silent auction software

If your organization’s silent auction will be hosted virtually or in a hybrid format, investing in mobile bidding software is essential, and livestreaming capabilities are also helpful to engage supporters from afar. Even nonprofits hosting fully in-person auctions can benefit from using event fundraising software to streamline registration, operations, data collection, and more.

To get the most out of your investment, look for a solution that includes all of these tools in one, such as Bonterra Guided Fundraising (formerly Network for Good). User-friendly, all-in-one software allows you to focus on your sponsors and attendees while having the confidence that the bidding and payment process will be seamless.

Use your silent auction to show supporter appreciation

As you collect bids and track fundraising data in your event software, remember that your work isn’t quite finished when your silent auction closes. Thanking each of your participants, volunteers, and event sponsors for their contributions after your auction goes a long way in building strong relationships that can benefit your organization long-term.

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