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Silent Auction Planning Basics
As a night of glitz and glamor, a gala can be an excellent silent auction setting.
People will already be feeling lavish, so hopefully this sentiment will translate into big bidding!
Additionally, silent auctions tend to be less engaging than live ones, so it’s ideal to pair them with other fundraising events instead of making them the centerpiece.
Since a gala is a night filled with all kinds of entertainment, a silent auction fits well into this type of event.
Your major donors play a huge role in helping your organization reach its fundraising goals.
Why not do something special and show your appreciation for them by hosting an exclusive silent auction?
Since your major donors have the capacity to make big monetary gifts, they will be the ideal auction attendees.
They’ll be able to bid on even the biggest ticket items, so your silent auction should be a huge success!
A golf tournament at the country club is another silent auction setting that’s sure to make guests feel elegant and get them into the bidding spirit.
Plus, the leisurely nature of a day on the golf course lends well to the addition of a silent auction.
Because the tournament will take place over a few hours, guests will have plenty of time to browse your items if they need a break from the heat.
Whether they’re playing or bidding, it will be a day that everyone is sure to enjoy!
Silent auctions can work just as well in informal settings, too!
If your school needs to raise some money to cover costs over the upcoming school year, you can hold a back-to-school night that includes a silent auction.
Schools have many large, open communal spaces, like cafeterias and gyms, that can serve as great auction locations.
Auction items don’t have to be expensive, either. Since school auctions are family and community-oriented, see if you can get some students to create some low-cost items for you.
With items so sentimental, your bidders (a.k.a. proud parents) won’t be able to resist!
For more on school auctions, make sure to check out our step-by-step guide!
Galleries and art museums lend themselves perfectly to silent auctions.
Purchasing art is entirely based off of personal preference, so your guests will more than likely want the chance to see each piece up close and in person.
Silent auctions are the best type of auction for showing off items. Because each piece of art will be hung or displayed around the room, donors will have plenty of time to check out each item.
Because art is often one-of-a-kind, none of your attendees will want to miss out. Let the bidding wars ensue!
Is a silent auction the right type of event for us?
Silent auctions are just one of the many types of charity auctions that nonprofits can host.
While planning both silent auctions and live auctions requires a good amount of time and money, silent auctions are less dramatic and structured.
Because they’re more casual, silent auctions are very flexible. They can easily be incorporated into any number of fundraising events to help your organization raise more. Plus, since they’re less structured, you’ll have more time to interact with supporters.
However, because you won’t have an auctioneer running the show and making your silent auction the focal point, it can be easy for this type of event to fade into the background if you don’t take an active approach to engaging guests.
Whether or not a silent auction is right for your organization will really depend on the feel of your event and what would best suit your supporters.
Do we have enough people to run our silent auction?
Silent auctions have a lot of moving parts. In order to pull one off successfully, you’ll need to have plenty of hands on board to help.
First, you’ll need to form a cross-functional team of staff members and volunteers committed to planning and marketing the event.
Additionally, you’ll need volunteers to ensure the event runs smoothly. Make sure you have enough hands to cover set-up, checkout, and clean up.
Most importantly, you should also have volunteers to serve in more auction-specific roles, such as emcee and auction monitors. Because these roles are more specialized, it can be helpful to find people who have experience with silent auctions.
Make sure you’ll have enough staff and volunteers to help plan and execute your silent auction from the beginning, so you can pull off the most successful event possible.
What is our budget?
As silent auctions require many logistics, the expenses needed to host one can quickly add up.
You’d never want your event to put your organization in a bad financial position, so before you start planning, set a clearly defined budget.
Here are some expenses you might need to factor in:
Luckily, it’s fairly easy to control how much you spend when planning an auction. Although you might want to splurge on some items, you should be able to get many of them donated to cut down on expenses.
Will silent auctions be a recurring staple of our fundraising?
While your organization can certainly raise a lot of money from hosting just one silent auction, you should consider making them a recurring staple of your fundraising events.
The more times you host a silent auction, the more successful your silent auctions will be. This is true for a few reasons:
Host one silent auction, and your organization should see excellent results. Host multiple silent auctions, and your results should be even better!
It will be much easier to track the success of your silent auction if you have a goal to work toward!
Step one of planning your event will be setting a clear and achievable fundraising goal.
Your goal should take into account the size of your audience and their financial ability to support your cause, as well as your budget.
Keep it realistic, but don’t be afraid to dream big!
Since the date of your event will likely be determined by when the venue is available, these two steps will go hand-in-hand.
When it comes to timing, weekends work best. Avoid holidays and summer months, if possible.
As far as the venue goes, think about your cause and supporter base to determine which setting would best cater to your organization.
As we touched on earlier, pulling off a successful silent auction requires many hands.
Get a dedicated team of staff and volunteers together to help you with the rest of your auction planning and execution.
Having a large and devoted team on your side will ensure that all of your bases are covered, so you can pull off your silent auction without a hitch!
For the best chance of success with your silent auction, you’ll need to procure a range of amazing items to auction off.
Look for items that are unique, appealing to your supporter base, and somewhat varied in value.
How do you get these items? Send out your procurement team and have them start soliciting!
Have the procurement team start by leveraging personal connections, then move on to local businesses and retailers.
Make sure to record the auction item solicitation process in your event planning software as they come in, so it’s easy to keep track.
Unless you’re hosting your auction for a specific group of donors, for the biggest turnout, you’ll want to market to your entire supporter base.
While you might not have room to accommodate your entire base in the venue, if your event sells out, that only means you’ll need a bigger venue next year!
Make sure to include the link to your event registration and ticketing page in all event correspondence, so those who want to attend can RSVP, “yes!”
For the best results, take a multichannel marketing approach, with promotions across direct mail, email, social media, and other platforms.
While we would all like to believe that most supporters will attend your auction out of the goodness of their hearts (and some will!), let’s be honest—many will attend for the chance to bid on your amazing items.
The best way to market your items is by creating a auction catalog.
While you can certainly compile a physical catalog, it will be much easier and more cost-effective to create one online using auction software. You can set up a website dedicated entirely to your silent auction that features all of your items.
By using an auction site as your catalog, not only will you cut out printing costs, but you can even allow supporters to bid online before the event.
The day of the auction, you and your team should arrive at the event space early to set up.
You’ll have to arrange all items so that they’re readily visible and so that browsers will have plenty of room to place their bids.
How you display your items will play a huge part in how well they do during the bidding, so you’ll want to be strategic! The more appealing you can make your items look, the more bids you’ll receive.
During this stage, you’ll also want to print out table tents and bid sheets (if you’re using them) and set up a registration and checkout with multiple lines to get guests in and out efficiently.
For some silent auction display best practices, continue reading or jump down to the next section of our guide.
The big night has finally arrived! Your silent auction will probably look a little something like this:
While you’ll still need to break down the set up and clean up the venue, don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate a job well done.
We hate to break it to you, but you’re not done with your silent auction just yet.
You’ll want your next silent auction to be even better, so set yourself up for future success by tracking your results.
Evaluate which items were most popular and which didn’t perform as well as expected, so you can choose the best items for next year.
If you’ve been using an event planning software to help you with your auction, tracking your items should be easy. Since you’ve been recording all of your items in one platform, you can generate a variety of highly accurate and up-to-date reports, such as full item analyses, proceeds by category, and more.
Additionally, you’ll want to evaluate your own performance. What aspects of event planning or execution could be improved next time to see better results?
Running a Silent Auction
For your silent auction display, you’ll need an open event space with lots of tables for displaying items. You should have enough tables to show off all of your auction items, but be mindful of your arrangement. You’ll want to set up tables in a way that promotes traffic flow around the room so browsing is easy for bidders.
The items you pick can really make or break your silent auction. To find the items that will most appeal to your guests, you’ll want to consider the interests of your supporters and the general income level of your attendees. Additionally, the most competitive items tend to be those things and experiences attendees can’t find anywhere else.
Just as important as your items is how you display them. Group your items into categories (e.g. sports, travel, gift baskets, etc.) and designate tables for each. Stick to one row of items per table so that no items are obscured by others. Place table tents in front of each item that include the package name, lot number, value, starting bid, and minimum raise.
If you want to give your auction a modern flair, consider trying mobile bidding software, which makes bidding more convenient for guests and will streamline your checkout significantly. If you want to host a more traditional auction, you’ll need to provide bid sheets for each of your items. Make sure to put each sheet on a clipboard and have plenty of pens handy for supporters to place bids.
The emcee will be the volunteer in charge of hosting the event. Their job will consist of opening bidding, making announcements throughout the night, and closing bidding once the auction is over. Because they’re running the show, this person should be energetic and engaging.
Auction monitors will help the emcee ensure that the event stays on track. They’ll be placed around the venue to answer any questions guests have, double check that bidders are playing by the rules, and talk up items to increase bidding.
You’ll likely also need volunteers to help you with more general tasks like set-up, registration, checkout, item running, and clean-up, especially if you’re hosting a large-scale event.
The master list is a record of all auction items that includes all the relevant information about each. If you’ve been staying on top of tracking your items in your event planning software platform, it should be fairly easy to generate.
Auction programs are crucial for orienting guests at your silent auction. If you’re using auction software, you can skip out on printing auction programs. All of the information included on your auction site will be translated over to the mobile bidding platform, so guests can browse items and learn more about your organization and sponsors from their phones.
With robust mobile bidding tools now available to nonprofits, bid sheets are quickly becoming the way of the past.
Check out 5 Bid Sheet Challenges and How to Avoid Them for an in depth look at how mobile bidding solutions revolutionize the silent auction game.
However, some organizations will still opt to use traditional paper bid sheets for their auctions. If you’re one of these organizations, just keep in mind that it’s important to format your bid sheets correctly to help you stay organized and raise as many funds as possible.
Here we’ve laid out what you should include on your bid sheets to help your silent auction go smoothly and successfully!
Using auction software will make the whole check-in process go much more smoothly. Since all attendee data is tracked in the platform, registering guests and taking tickets should be a breeze.
Your volunteers should be ready and waiting at check-in to greet and register guests, take tickets, and pass on any important information. Make sure your check-in is equipped with all the right tools, so volunteers can get guests in efficiently.
If guests haven't registered their credit cards on the auction site before the event, you'll want to do it now. Pre-registering credit cards will streamline the checkout process and ensures that guests will follow through on their bids.
If guests haven't registered with mobile bidding, have volunteers explain the interface and get guests set up. If you're not using mobile bidding software, you'll need to manually assign bidder numbers for each guest.
If guests are using mobile bidding and they've already submitted their credit cards, their payments will automatically be processed when they win an item. They can even instantly send a receipt to their email address. No waiting in line required!
Before the auction, you should also set up a physical check-out booth for guests who wish to pay by cash or check or for those who feel more comfortable making a physical transaction. Make sure you have plenty of volunteers and the right payment processing tools.
To get guests out as quickly as possible, you should create a separate area for item retrieval. If guests have paid through mobile bidding, their payments will be recorded in your auction software, so verifying which items have been paid for and matching items and winners is simple.
Once the winners have been determined, you'll want to record the winners' names and winning bid amount for each item. If you're using auction software, this information will automatically be tracked, so you'll have one less thing to worry about!
Silent auctions are too difficult to plan.
While silent auctions are one of the more involved fundraising events for organizations to plan, planning one is certainly not as hard as it may seem!
However, you’ll definitely want to use the right tools to make planning as simple and straightforward as possible.
Nonprofit event and auction planning software was built to help organizations make planning and executing their silent auctions much more manageable.
With the help of the right software on your side, your auction is sure to be a success!
For more detailed information on how software can better your silent auction, jump down to this section in our guide.
You don’t have enough space in the venue to display all of your items.
Avoid the urge to cram your items together at all costs. An overloaded table will be distracting to your bidders and will obscure the visibility of your items, making them appear less valuable.
Before you give up and rearrange your display, try to get creative. Is there any way you can create more space?
If not, you can try grouping some similar items together to create packages that can be displayed together. Oftentimes packages sell for a higher price point than if items were sold on their own.
You may also want to consider implementing mobile bidding. Mobile bidding allows more room for your items as it eliminates the need to place paper bid sheets and pens on each table.
If all else fails and you do end up having to double up rows of items on each table, make sure to place the less valuable items in the back row.
You have more auction items than people bidding.
When your auction items outnumber your bidders, you’ve created a buyer’s market. When they’re overwhelmed with choices, your guests can become indecisive and refrain from bidding.
You’ll want to transform that buyer’s market into a seller’s market to create more competition for each item.
Group similar items together to create packages. For example, seven restaurant gift certificates could become “Dining Out For a Week.”
Another option is to place commoditized items in an online auction and sell them for full price. For instance, most of your donors will need to have their oil changed in the near future, so why not offer an oil change gift certificate that benefits your organization?
Aim for a ratio of one item to every two guests. This is the ideal ratio for creating the most competition while also providing guests with plenty of options.
People are camping by the items they want and waiting until the last minute to bid.
Your guests aren’t mingling and enjoying the event. Instead, they’re camping by the items they want to protect their bids.
Furthermore, since people aren’t using most of the time allotted to them to bid, your organization runs the risk that you won’t receive the highest bid possible.
Consider trying mobile bidding software, which will allow guests to place bids from anywhere. The software even sends guests text messages when they’re outbid.
If your organization would prefer to use bid sheets, you can solve this problem by filling out the bid amount fields on your bid sheets before the auction starts.
Start with the minimum bid amount in the first row, then incrementally raise that number for each row by adding on the minimum raise amount.
With this system, bidders no longer have to do the math or wait to place their highest bids, speeding up the bidding process significantly. To place a bid, they’ll only have to write their bidder number next to their maximum amount.
Leave the camping for the outdoors!
The auction is closing and some items have yet to receive a bid.
You should not, under any circumstances, mark items down or extend bidding time the night of the event.
Why? Lowering the starting bid amount will only teach your attendees that it’s okay to wait until the last minute to bid, because that’s when they’ll receive the bargains. Additionally, you’re devaluing the items so generously given to you by your donors, which can lead to hard feelings.
Extending bidding time, on the other hand, is unfair to those who have been playing by the rules and bidding at your auction from the beginning.
The best way to solve this problem is by being proactive. If you expect that some items aren’t going to be as popular, set them at a lower starting bid amount (about 20-25% of the market value).
If you still have items left over after your auction, consider holding an online fire sale where you can re-auction the items to a wider audience and, if necessary, lower the starting bids.
People are placing bids after you’ve closed down an item.
During the bidding, competition can get fierce. Some of your attendees might want to win an item so badly that they resort to bending the rules and sneak in bids after the emcee has closed an item down.
If you’re using mobile bidding software, you won’t have to worry about this one! The software will automatically shut bidding down at the set time.
If you’re using bid sheets, including the bid amounts on the sheets should mostly prevent this problem, because people will initially be able to bid at the highest amount they’re willing to pay.
However, it’s better to be safe than sorry. As your emcee is closing down each item, have your auction monitors close at hand. The minute the item closes, monitors should pick up the pens, circle the final bid amount, and collect the bid sheet from the table.
This will make it clear who really put in the final bid and give sneaky bidders little chance to place another bid after the fact.
You have two identical items competing with each other.
It’s a common occurrence to receive identical items, either from the same donor or two different ones. When this is the case, bidders will keep an eye on both and bid on the one with the lower current bid.
If you received the items from the same donor, you can display one item and keep the other under wraps.
Once the auction is over, approach the bidder who bid the second highest amount. Let them know that you have an identical item up for grabs if they’re willing to pay the same amount as the winning bidder. Since they usually lose by a small margin, the bidder will likely agree.
If you received the same item from two different donors, you should display both. You would never want one of your donors to think you didn’t value their item or didn’t receive it.
Just make sure to display the two items apart from each other so the competition is less apparent.
In order to stay on top of all of your important auction item information, you’ll want to thoroughly track your items in your event planning software as soon as you receive them.
Once you’ve entered all items in the platform, you can easily generate a master list to serve as a comprehensive record of your items.
This will make will make keeping track of all of your items much more manageable as you’re marketing them, displaying them, and distributing them to winners.
Additionally, if you’re hosting another auction next year, you’ll be able to look back and get the most insights into how your items performed so you can keep improving!
During your silent auction, it’s important to be strategic about how you close your items.
If you’re using paper bid sheets, you should stagger closing times and shut items down by category, with the least popular categories being the first to close.
If you’re using mobile bidding, you won’t have to stagger item closing. Because you won’t have to worry about collecting and sorting bid sheets, you can keep all auction items open as long as possible, thereby maximizing your revenue.
With mobile bidding you can even start to move the items to checkout while the auction is still going, since guests will be able to access pictures and descriptions of the items on their phones.
Not all of your attendees will walk away with items or even make a bid in the first place.
But that doesn’t mean that they don’t still want to support your organization!
That’s why you should offer your guests other opportunities to donate beyond just bidding.
Providing other donation opportunities will allow guests to contribute in the way they want and increase your fundraising results!
Check out some of our favorite additional silent auction fundraising strategies below.
Because silent auctions aren’t as structured as live auctions, the bidding can easily fade into the background as guests mingle.
Make sure that the bidding is always the focus of the night! While they may be called silent auctions, they definitely shouldn’t be silent.
Throughout the night, you should be actively engaging your guests with announcements, visuals, and other strategies.
Consistently drawing guests’ attention back to the bidding will keep it at the forefront of their minds and should result in more bids.
If you want to receive the most bids, make bidding as convenient as possible for your guests.
One way to do this is by assigning each bidder a number.
That way, in order to place their bids when using paper bid sheets, bidders will only have to write down their number instead of taking the time to write down their name and contact information.
Many event software programs will automatically assign bidder numbers for you.
If you’re using paper, go down your guest list alphabetically and assign each bidder a three-digit number. This ensures you’ll only be working with three-digit numbers (as opposed to one-, two-, and three-digit numbers), which will prevent confusion.