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The basics of hosting a virtual fundraising auction

March 30, 2022
Diverse nonprofit staff members look at a computer, working on their upcoming virtual fundraising auction.

Modern innovations have led to creative and flexible fundraising initiatives for nonprofit organizations. Events from conferences to auctions are going virtual to prioritize convenience and boost attendance. With a variety of tools at your disposal, from digital marketing channels to auction software, your nonprofit can take its next fundraising auction online to enhance your results.

To equip your organization with everything you need to host a successful virtual fundraising auction, let’s discuss effective auction formats and five best practices to raise more revenue.

3 engaging virtual fundraising auction formats

There are several ways your nonprofit can plan and execute your virtual auction, each with its own advantages. Evaluate your goals, resources, and priorities to determine which of these three formats works best for your organization:

1. Open before the event, close at the event

By opening your virtual fundraising auction before the actual event day, you’ll provide attendees with more time to browse the items at their leisure and decide what they’d like to bid on. Create a pre-event auction page on your website, then direct your supporters to that page through your marketing and event promotion materials

Then, closing your auction at the event creates a sense of urgency that motivates attendees interested in last-minute deals to act.

2. Open at the event, extend bidding after the event

Alternatively, launch your virtual fundraising auction at the event to build up excitement among your guests. Once the bidding begins in full force, extend it for a predetermined amount of time after the event to drive higher bids.

The key to this format is timing. Offer your supporters enough time to continue bidding on the items they desire, but close the auction before it extends beyond attendees’ interests. Ideally, a virtual auction should remain open for no longer than 10 days.

3. Open at the event, close at the event

Launching your auction and closing it at the event condenses bidding into a short, exciting burst of activity among attendees. Depending on your nonprofit’s supporters, this format may boost attendance and keep your guests engaged throughout the event. Keep in mind that there may be fewer bids but more ticket sales for this format.

5 best practices for a successful virtual fundraising auction

As with any fundraising event, there’s more to your nonprofit’s virtual auction planning than the auction itself. To set your event up for success, drum up excitement in your marketing and optimize your auction strategy to maximize bidding. Follow these best practices to get started:

1. Understand your audience

The success of your nonprofit’s virtual fundraising auction hinges on how well it appeals to your supporters. Different audiences have different preferences, so take the time to find out what your potential attendees expect out of an auction and how they’d prefer to engage. Gather their input through online surveys or polls. This will let you know the types of items on which to focus your procurement efforts. 

Additionally, you can refer to data collected in your donor profiles to pinpoint shared interests or characteristics among your potential attendees. For instance, if many of your nonprofit’s supporters have young children, then you could include theme park or petting zoo tickets among your auction items to appeal to them.

2. Procure your auction items

Offer a variety of auction items so that every attendee will find something that catches their eye. Some supporters may have larger financial capacities to bid, while others may attend with limited budgets. Engage all of your auction’s guests by considering these item ideas:

  • Gift cards: These items are simple for your nonprofit to acquire and convenient for winners to use. Consider reaching out to local companies to partner with your organization—they can provide gift cards in exchange for boosted promotion for their business.
  • Memberships: Partner with local museums or zoos to offer annual memberships at a discounted price to your bidders. In return, you promote their businesses in marketing materials and during your auction.
  • Big-ticket experiences: For especially large-ticket items, such as a dinner at a famous restaurant or a getaway cruise, encourage people to bid together and share the prize as a group.

Since supporters will be looking at your auction items on their device screens, try combining items into packages so they can easily scroll through everything that you’re offering. If you have numerous auction items that either can’t be combined or have high price points, consider staggering their release announcements to sustain interest and make it easy for bidders to view them.

3. Determine your starting bids and increments

Be strategic with your starting bid amounts by conducting research on each item’s fair market value online. Additionally, keep supporters’ giving capacities in mind. Start opening bids low enough to encourage bidding with no limit for how high bids will go. Combine your strategic starting bids with bidding increments low enough to entice attendees to bid, such as around 10% of the item’s starting bid.

4. Promote your virtual fundraising auction

Once you’ve tailored your virtual fundraising auction plan to maximize supporter engagement, it’s time to focus on event attendance. Spread the word about your upcoming auction, incorporating links in your communications that direct potential attendees to register and view your auction items. 

Some effective ways to promote your upcoming event include:

If you’re expecting certain items to be highly sought-after at the auction, such as sports memorabilia and tickets to exciting experiences, highlight these items in your communications to make all of your attendees aware of them.

5. Create an engaging event experience

On the event day, open the auction slightly ahead of your programming. This way, people will have plenty of time to look through the items before getting wrapped up in other event activities. Arrange for speakers to discuss your nonprofit’s recent projects and impact with attendees to remind them that all their bids are going to a good cause.

Maintain your virtual fundraising momentum

After your nonprofit’s virtual fundraising auction comes to a successful end, promptly follow up with your attendees to distribute items to winners and thank them for their participation. Be sure to gather and review data that will inform your future virtual auction planning and improvements. 

With a solid strategy and effective auction technology, your organization will be well-prepared to host virtual auction experiences that will increase engagement and generate revenue to drive your purpose.

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