Live auctions are among the most popular and reliable fundraising events for nonprofit organizations. They’re a perfect way to raise financial support while hosting an unforgettable night that will keep your donors engaged with your work for years to come.
If your organization is considering hosting its first live auction, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll walk through all the ins and outs of these classic events and point you to some handy resources to get you started planning your own. Let’s start with the basics:
Live auctions are a type of charity auction. During live auctions, an auctioneer runs the bidding by introducing each item and guiding bid amounts. Guests place bids by calling out amounts, raising bid paddles, or otherwise catching the auctioneer’s attention.
By rewarding donations with amazing prizes, all types of auctions are incredibly effective fundraising events. Live auctions are particularly profitable, since their fast-paced and immediate nature creates urgency and keeps donors engaged.
Let’s walk through all the essentials you and your team will need to know before getting started with your live auction. We’ll cover:
To participate in the auction, each bidder must pre-register at check-in on the night of the event. They’ll each receive a unique bidder number and a bid paddle with their number on it, which they’ll use to place bids throughout the live auction.
Once guests are settled at their tables, the auctioneer will open the program by announcing the first item. Volunteers will either bring the items onto the stage for guests to view, or an image of the item will be displayed on a projector behind the auctioneer.
The auctioneer will start the bidding on each item at the starting bid amount. As with silent auctions, the starting bid is set at around 30-50% of the item’s market value. The starting bid dictates the minimum amount that the first bidder can bid.
While there are other ways to facilitate live auction bidding, bidders will most commonly bid by raising bid paddles to get the auctioneer’s attention. Once spotted and prompted by the auctioneer, the bidder will call out the amount they wish to bid.
Bidding must start at the minimum bid amount. While there’s no official minimum raise set, the auctioneer will generally guide the minimum raise amount by calling out increments based on bid activity.
The bidding for each item remains open until no more bids are placed. Bidding on that item will close, and it will be sold off to whoever placed the final, highest bid. The winner is up to the sole discretion of the auctioneer.
By placing a bid, the winning bidder has agreed to buy the item at the stated amount and assumes full risk and responsibility. Make sure guidelines are clear from the start, so bidders know what’s expected.
Live auctions are fast-paced and often imperfect. To make quick decisions and keep up the pace, it will be the auctioneer’s sole responsibility to settle any disputes and have final say over all proceedings.
Before committing to hosting your own live auction, you and your team should carefully consider a few major pros and cons. Live auctions are highly effective and engaging fundraising events, but they’re not for every nonprofit or audience.
A number of settings and venues are tailor-made for live auctions. Explore some of the most popular spaces for live auctions and consider which might be the best fit for your organization:
Planning a live auction has many components, and expenses can quickly add up. You’ll need to set a clearly defined budget to make sure that the event doesn’t break the bank.
Additionally, you’ll want to decide on a fundraising goal. This will help you determine how many items you need to auction off and at what amount you should set your starting bids.
Live auctions require many hands, and you’ll need a dedicated and diverse team to help the event planning process run as smoothly as possible.
You’ll also need to recruit lots of volunteers to ensure that the event itself goes off without a hitch.
You’ll need volunteers to handle three distinct aspects of your live auction:
Of course, if you want to host an auction, you’ll need items to auction off!
Although the items you procure will depend largely on what donors are willing to give, it can be helpful to brainstorm about what items might appeal most to your donors. That way, you can send your procurement team out to look for the items that will be most profitable.
If you’ve hosted an auction in the past, and you kept detailed records, you can look back on previous years to see which items were the most popular sellers.
You might also want to consider featuring consignment items, which are big ticket items that you only have to pay for if you sell. They work particularly well for live auctions, where each item receives solo time in the spotlight.
Now, have your team go out and start soliciting!
About 9-6 months before your auction, you should pin down a date and location.
When deciding which venue to book and when, think about how many people will be attending, the ambiance of the event, and your supporters’ general availability.
For live auctions, your organization should ideally find a venue with a stage so that the auctioneer has a place to run the show and guests can clearly see the items. There should also be plenty of seating (or room for tables and chairs!).
The auctioneer will be the ringleader of your live auction. They’re the person who will run the program by introducing the items and scoping out the audience for bids. In other words, they’re one of the most important parts of your auction, so choose wisely!
Seeing as the auctioneer’s role is so specialized and integral to the success of your auction, your organization might want to consider hiring a professional.
Need help finding a great auctioneer? Explore the services of our preferred fundraising partners.
Now that you have all of the essentials for hosting a live auction in order, it’s time to start telling supporters about your event!
You’ll first want to compile a guest list. When thinking about who to invite, consider the size of the venue and who in your donor base has the capacity to bid on your auction items. Then, start sending out invites! If you’re using event planning software, you can sell tickets online to provide supporters with more convenience.
Make sure to include the link to your online ticket page when you send out invites so that donors who want to attend can RSVP “yes”!
Giving guests a taste of your amazing auction items ahead of time is sure to get them hyped up about the event! If you’re using auction software, you can set up an online auction site to serve as an auction catalog.
Continuously update your catalog as new information and items become available. You can even open up online bidding in advance to raise even more money!
There’s some essential information that needs to be included in your auction catalog:
Congratulations! It’s now the day of the event and most of your planning is over.
The day of your auction, you and your volunteers will want to get to the venue well before the event starts to set up.
Here are some of the major tasks you’ll likely have to complete:
During this stage, make sure you also have volunteers appointed to each task and that everyone is clear on their responsibilities.
Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to enjoy your event! All of your team’s hard work will pay off tonight as your guests have a great time and as your organization raises support for its work. Auctions are among the most engaging fundraising events, so enjoy it.
Your auction will probably unfold a little something like this:
Once all the guests are gone, break down your setup, clean up the venue, and celebrate a job well done!
Your event might be over, but you’re not done quite yet!
It’s important to track your performance, especially if you’re going to make auctions a recurring staple of your fundraising events.
Consider a few useful questions for evaluating your performance:
The most robust auction and event planning software will allow you to generate a wide variety of reports that will give you detailed insights into your auction items and bidders.
After familiarizing yourself with the general process of planning a live auction as outlined above, copy or bookmark this checklist. Use it as a quick reference to make sure you and your team don’t forget any of the most crucial steps.
Of course, you can’t host an auction without an event space to host it in! Book an appropriate venue 9-6 months before your event.
You’ll have no way to fundraise if you don’t have items to offer! All charity auctions need a range of amazing auction items to see fundraising success.
The auctioneer will be in charge of running the show. Your organization should consider hiring a professional to fill this role.
Auction catalogs are great for creating hype. If using auction software, you can create an online catalog by setting up an auction site.
Spotters help the auctioneer scope out the audience for bids. You’ll also need a team of volunteers to cover more general event-day tasks.
While there are plenty of other ways that the audience can bid during a live auction, bid paddles help the auctioneer spot bids.
Event programs highlight contributors, provide a schedule for the night, and overall orient guests with your event.
Having trouble thinking of or finding the perfect live auction items? Remember that high-performing auction items tend to have a few characteristics in common:
To help get you started thinking of auction items to locate and solicit, we’ve compiled a few top performing ideas in various categories:
Tip: Check out OneCause’s travel packages full of all the adventures your donors & supporters could be looking for at your next live auction.
Even after familiarizing yourself with the planning process and carefully considering what sorts of items to procure, it’s important to keep a few live auction best practices in mind as you move forward:
It’s important to show off your auction items as much as possible during your event. Being able to view your auction items in person will make them more tangible and will help guests see their full value, resulting in more bids.
Have volunteers bring each item on stage as it’s being auctioned off. Remember to choose a venue with good lighting so guests are able to see your items clearly!
To maximize bids, your organization must be strategic about the order in which you auction off your items. We recommend holding your Live Appeal (Make A Donation, Fund A Need) BEFORE you do the Live Auction. This allows everyone to participate in the fundraising, before going to a revenue activity that focuses mainly on high-end donors (i.e., Live Auction).
Once your Live Appeal is done, time to turn to the Live Auction. Again, order is important when creating the flow of this part of your event. If you auction off the most popular sellers too soon in your live auction, many guests will leave before the bidding has closed.
Featuring the biggest sellers 3/4 of the way through your auction will maintain interest without making guests wait too long for what they came for.
Emphasizing philanthropy at your auction will help your organization receive more bids. When guests are reminded that they’re at a charity auction, it puts it into their minds that it’s OK to spend money, since it’s going to a good cause!
On your event site and at your auction, introduce supporters to your organization and tell them specifically how you plan to use the auction proceeds.
If you serve dinner before your live auction, you run the risk that people will get tired and leave before the bidding even starts. Make sure guests are fresh and ready to bid by serving dinner during your auction instead.
We have a lot of experience helping nonprofits host their most profitable auction events ever. There are a few reliable ways to boost the return on all the hard work you’ve put into planning and organizing your own event, so study up! Consider these tips:
When making a live appeal, your emcee or auctioneer will ask guests for donations to help your organization reach a fundraising goal by the end of the night.
Guests can donate through a text-to-give service or by filling out paper pledge cards. As guests are submitting their gifts, display a fundraising thermometer so they can keep track of how close they are to reaching the goal!
A donation booth provides guests with a donation opportunity in case they don’t walk home with an item (or in case they just want to give more!).
By setting up a booth, guests who want to donate can do so quickly and conveniently instead of having to wait in a long line at checkout. If you’re using text-to-give at your event, guests can make gifts right from their phones, so there’s no need to set up a booth.
Hosting a raffle can be an excellent way for your organization to supplement the money you raise at your auction.
Use one of the items you’ve received as a raffle prize. Sell tickets as a fixed-price item on your event site or at a booth during the live auction itself. Remember that raffle regulations vary by jurisdiction, so check with your local authorities to make sure you’re complying with the rules.
Corporate sponsors can help you increase your auction ROI by helping your organization fund and market the event. Many will even donate auction prizes.
The business receive additional advertising from your event marketing materials and the image boost that comes with being associated with a good cause. For the best chance of finding corporate sponsors, see if you can leverage any relationships in your network.
Since not all of your attendees will walk home winners, nevertheless place bids, your organization might consider charging an admission price.
Many event planning software platforms have ticketing tools that will allow guests to purchase ticket packages and sponsorships online. You can set multiple ticket packages (for example, individuals, couples, and VIP) and sponsorships to provide guests with more flexibility.
When your team is out soliciting auction items, have them provide donors with the option of buying an ad in your auction catalog. Many businesses will jump on the opportunity for additional advertising!
If you’re creating a catalog online by using an auction site, feature sponsors’ logos directly on the homepage. If you’re printing a physical catalog, leave the most prominent spots for your biggest sponsors!
Centrally record all data about each of your items for straightforward tracking throughout the planning process. Group items into packages and auto-generate item numbers.
Auction software enables you to generate a site branded to your event. Promote your items, sell tickets, take standard donations, and more. You can even open up online bidding before your auction to raise even more money!
All RSVPs, ticket sales, and attendee data are tracked in the same platform, making it easy to stay on top of your guest list. You can even assign guests seats and tables.
Run a myriad of reports on anything from your guests’ habits to your item performance to the overall health of your event. Using auction software is the only way to gain detailed insights, so you can improve for next year!
Now that we’ve covered all the ins and outs of planning and running a live auction, you’re ready to get started! As you begin working, though, it’s still a good idea to continue researching best practices, success stories, and other fundraising techniques to incorporate.
Explore these additional resources for even more ideas:
Powerful missions need powerful fundraising software! The OneCause Fundraising Platform makes giving modern, flexible, and seamless to drive deeper engagement and grow your fundraising. Take a look at this versatile all-in-one fundraising software that meets the expectations of today’s donor, supporting any event, in-person, virtual, or hybrid.