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Silent Auction 101: How to Plan the Perfect Event [Updated]

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Silent auctions are some of the most popular fundraising events that nonprofits regularly host. Auctions are extremely effective at raising support for a few reasons, but they can be somewhat challenging to plan, especially if you’ve never hosted one before. While it’s definitely possible to scale the silent auction concept to suit any budget, they generally require an investment of time and resources that other fundraising events might not.

If your nonprofit, school, community group, or other organization is interested in hosting your own silent auction fundraising event for the first time, there are a few must-do tactics that will ensure you execute a seamless event.

Let’s walk through the essential steps for planning a silent auction:

  1. Review the basics of silent auction planning.
  2. Set some guidelines for your event.
  3. Choose the right silent auction tools and recruit a team.
  4. Solicit your silent auction items and promote the event.
  5. Set up an easy silent auction registration process.
  6. Enhance the bidding experience during your silent auction.
  7. Optimize the silent auction checkout process.
  8. Follow up with your silent auction’s attendees.

It might seem like a lot of work to plan and host your first silent auction, but taking your time to do it right the first time always pays off! Not only will your auction be more effective at raising money and engaging donors, but it’ll also help your organization develop strong event planning habits that will benefit your work for years to come.

Ready to get started? Let’s begin by covering a few basics about silent auctions, how they work, and what types of auction items tend to perform well.

Start by reviewing the basics of silent auction fundraising events.

Step 1: Review the basics of silent auction planning.

Before settling on any specifics for your auction event, it’s important that you have a clear understanding of how they work. Let’s review the basics:

How does a silent auction work?

During a silent auction, guests will browse your items on display and place bids by either writing on paper bid sheets or using mobile bidding software on their smartphones. At the end of the silent auction bidding period, the highest bidder wins that item and their donation is processed.

How long does a silent auction last?

The length of a silent auction will depend on other specifics of the event, although a 2 to 3 hour bidding period is a good general goal. However, how you close the bidding at your auction is just as important as its length.

Close your auction at a time when there are no other fundraising activities competing for guests’ attention, like dinner, games, or live appeals. Be sure to announce the auction closing multiple times, and use countdown clocks on your mobile bidding software and scoreboards. This will ramp up the excitement and drive more bids in the last minutes.

Why do donors enjoy silent auctions?

Silent auctions are reliably effective fundraising events for all kinds of organizations for a few reasons:

  • They offer an exciting auction experience without the pressures of a live charity auction.
  • They create a ‘give/get’ experience for guests — they can give to charity and get something for their contribution.
  • They’re flexible and can be adapted for any type of mission or donor base.
  • They can be easily combined with other event elements and activities to make a highly engaging evening for guests.

How many silent auction items should I have?

This depends on a number of factors, including the general size of your silent auction event and guestlist. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to have one item per two bidders.

This ensures that there’ll be plenty of demand for your silent auction items and will make it easier to generate some healthy competition. If you find yourself with too many items, try creating silent auction packages to reduce the number of individual prizes.

What are some top silent auction items?

Big-ticket items like artwork and luxury vacation packages are almost always a smart move, but there are plenty of other types of items that reliably perform well in silent auctions. Here are a few of the most popular categories of silent auction items with examples:

Food and drink packages are reliably popular items for silent auction fundraising events.

Food and Drink Packages

  • Dining experiences at upscale restaurants
  • Curated baskets of  wines and cheeses
  • Pig roast or crawfish boil party packages
  • City bar crawl tickets

Sports and Fitness Auction Items

  • Super Bowl party packages
  • Signed sports memorabilia
  • Pointers from a pro-golfer
  • Private yoga lessons

Travel and Outdoors Packages

  • Camping equipment bundles
  • Exotic getaway packages
  • Private river cruises
  • Fancy luggage sets

Themed Gift Baskets

  • A Night at the Movies basket
  • Spa Day at Home package
  • Wine or picnic package
  • Gardening basket

Travel and outdoors packages are always exciting silent auction items and can be adapted for any budget.

Remember, get creative to find and package the perfect items for your auction guests. Not every crowd will respond the same way to the same items. If you choose to offer a major prize like a vacation package, be sure to explore your options for securing it on consignment.

Explore our longer list for even more charity auction item ideas!

Next, set some concrete guidelines and goals for your silent auction.

Step 2: Set some guidelines for your silent auction.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics of silent auctions, it’s time to start nailing down specific planning guidelines. These include:

  • A budget. How much can your organization pay to plan and host this event? How much will you need to raise to make your event a success?
  • A date. When do you want to hold your silent auction? Is it a standalone event or part of a larger activity your organization has already planned?
  • A venue. Where will you host your silent auction? How big will it need to be to accommodate the number of guests you want to invite?
  • A timeline. Based on your date and the size of your silent auction, when will you need to accomplish certain event planning tasks to be ready for the big night? Event marketing and item procurement can take a while, for instance.

As with any fundraising event or major project, it’s crucial to establish these guidelines early in the silent auction planning process. They’ll give you a structure to build your plans around and help to ensure that everything stays within budget, on time, and properly geared to your target donors.

Recruit a silent auction planning team to help you organize the event.

Step 3: Choose the right silent auction tools and recruit a team.

Digital tools and platforms have made it easier than ever to streamline your silent auction from start to finish. Chances are you’ve already used some type of event software in the past, but silent auction software is specifically designed to handle the unique needs of these events.

Why do I need silent auction software?

The logistics of a silent auction can easily become overwhelming without tools to keep them organized.

Keeping track of all the items and separate bids can be complicated when you’re only using paper bid sheets. Checking out winners, processing their payments, and packaging their items can be even more confusing.

Plus, dedicated silent auction software that guests can access through mobile devices actively helps to keep more donors engaged for longer. Remember, with the dominance of mobile tools and online payment processing today, donors now expect a seamless giving and event-going experience! Encourage more bids and interaction by making it extremely easy to get involved.

What are the essential silent auction software features?

The right tools make all the difference. Your charity auction software should contain a range of essential and extra features to streamline your event from start to finish. Look for features like:

  • Mobile bidding capabilities that simplify the bidding process for donors
  • Item and package management tools for your team to compile the auction catalog, track bids, and identify winners
  • Online ticketing and event websites to help generate interest and streamline registration, including ticket assignment options
  • Scoreboards and thermometers to keep guests energized and engaged with your fundraising goals all evening
  • Easy options for donors to cover credit processing fees for your organization
  • Mobile engagement options, including text-to-give and text-to-register tools
  • Reporting and analytics built-in for easy data and post-auction analysis

Remember, silent auctions are effective fundraising events because they’re flexible. Make sure whatever silent auction software your organization uses doesn’t limit your event’s flexibility! You should be able to engage your guests in the best ways that work for your organization.

Who should be on a silent auction planning team?

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. There are a few essential team members to recruit:

  • Auction chairs, one or two leaders to oversee the event’s organization and execution
  • A procurement team to reach out to solicit auction items for the event from local businesses
  • A logistics team to handle all other aspects of event planning, like marketing and ticketing
  • Volunteers to support the team during event setup, registration, and checkout
  • Auctioneer, emcee, or designated volunteer to make announcements and execute programming

Even for smaller teams, it’s useful to divide up the roles like this. Procurement, for instance, requires special attention and can’t be neglected. Besides, extra pairs of eyes working from different perspectives will help prevent any blind spots or glaring issues making it past the first planning phases.

Remember to think of creative ways to get your volunteers involved other than simply as logistical support! For example, ambassador fundraising is a popular new trend that pairs very well with silent auctions, particularly for smaller or local organizations looking to engage their communities.

Procure items for your silent auction, and then begin promoting it online.

Step 4: Solicit your silent auction items and promote the event.

Procuring Silent Auction Items

For your silent auction to be a major success, you’ll need to procure a fairly diverse range of items so that there will be at least one item that really appeals to each guest. Look for items that are unique, appealing to your supporter base, and 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. If you’re also looking for corporate or local sponsors for your event, this

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. Add them to your auction catalog as they’re secured, then you’ll be ready to easily open the bidding on the big day.

Explore our more comprehensive guide to auction item procurement for more information.

Promoting Your Silent Auction

When it comes to promoting your silent auction, no digital strategy is as important as optimizing your fundraising website. It should act as a central hub towards which you direct email recipients, social media followers, ticket purchasers, and online supporters. 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.

For the best results, take a multichannel marketing approach, with promotions across direct mail, email, social media, and any other outlets through which you contact donors.

Of course, your attendees will come to your silent auction to show their support for your mission, but don’t forget about the real stars of the evening: your auction items. The best way to market your items is by creating an auction catalog. While you can certainly compile a physical catalog, it’s much easier and more cost-effective to create one online using auction software:

Compiling an online catalog for your silent auction streamlines the event and provides marketing benefits.

There are a few essential pieces of information that you need to include in your auction catalog, including details about the items and the event itself:

Organization and Event Details

  • Information about your silent auction, organization, and cause.
  • A tentative event schedule and instructions for using your mobile bidding software.
  • An acknowledgment of all contributing parties (item donors, corporate sponsors, volunteers, etc.)
  • Sponsor advertising (if applicable).

Auction Item Details

  • The rules for bidding.
  • A name, number, and short description of each auction item.
  • The starting bid and estimated market value of each item.
  • Any restrictions applicable to each item
  • A high-quality photo of each item
  • Buy-now options

Using an auction site as your catalog not only lets you cut out printing costs but it also allows supporters to bid online before the event. Just make sure your auction software is configured to support and manage online auctions.

Chances are your organization has hosted a fundraising event before, although possibly not one as planning-intensive as an auction. Remember, whenever you invest in an event, promoting it is the single best way to ensure you make a return on that investment!

Be sure to follow a few marketing best practices as you get started, and you’ll have a growing guest list in no time. Download our nonprofit event marketing guide for more information.

Configure the registration process for your silent auction.

Step 5: Set up an easy silent auction registration process.

How does the silent auction registration process work?

Ideally, your silent auction guests will be able to pre-register with plenty of time to spare by using your event website and registration tools. This will save them time at the check-in line on the big night, and it’ll also streamline logistics for your team.

With a dedicated website for your silent auction, guests will be able to accomplish a few things early:

Creating a dedicated website for your silent auction is a smart move for a few reasons.

  • Buying tickets to the event, if it’s ticketed, or simply registering to attend
  • Pre-registering a credit card for the auction to streamline bidding and improve the check-out experience
  • Making meal choices, if you’re serving dinner during the event
  • Bidding early on select items, if you choose to incorporate online auction elements

Even without a fundraising website for your silent auction, you can still streamline registration by asking guests to pre-register early on and encouraging them to put a payment method on file. Then on the big night, create an easy check-in experience by setting up two booths, one for walk-in guests who haven’t yet registered and another for pre-registered attendees.

Best Practices for Silent Auction Registration and Check-in

Let’s walk through a few main tips your team should keep in mind leading up to the auction:

Streamline registration at your silent auction with these best practices.

Enlist the help of silent auction software.

Using effective charity auction software will make the whole registration and later check-out process go much more smoothly. Since all attendee data is tracked in the platform, registering guests and taking tickets should be a breeze.

Have plenty of volunteers in place.

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.

Pre-register payment methods whenever possible.

If guests haven’t registered their credit cards on the auction site before the event, you should do it during check-in. Pre-registering credit cards will streamline the checkout process and ensures that guests will follow through on their bids.

Get your guests set up with mobile bidding tools.

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 and explain the paper bid sheet process.

Remember, charity auction software both improves the guest experience and simplifies your team’s job by streamlining the registration and management processes from start to finish. Even if you’re not using dedicated software to plan and manage your event, make sure to put careful thought into your silent auction registration ahead of time.

Next, determine the bidding process for your silent auction and look for ways to enhance it.

Step 6: Enhance the bidding process during your silent auction.

There are a number of ways you can make silent auction bidding easier and more exciting for your attendees. Consider these best practices:

  • Encourage your guests to use your mobile bidding tools. Mobile bidding can drastically improve the auction experience for guests by simplifying the bidding process. Plus, they’ll automatically track the important data for your team.
  • Don’t make your silent auction silent. Make sure the bidding is always the focus of the night by having your emcee make regular announcements on special items and closing upcoming deadlines to bid. With mobile bidding software, you can even send text reminders to guests when bidding is about to close on their favorite items.
  • Use an auction scoreboard or other visuals to keep up the energy. Visuals like scoreboards and thermometers can go a long way to encourage some healthy competition and remind guests that the purpose of the event is to support your organization’s mission.
  • Assign each bidder a number to simplify the bidding process. If you’re using charity auction software, this will be done automatically. Number systems are more convenient for guests and create a more anonymous bidding process.
  • Close your bidding strategically. Make sure no other activities will distract guests from the last minutes of the bidding period. Make plenty of announcements, direct bidders to specific items as needed, and even use a countdown timer to get everyone excited and drive final bids.
How Can We Help?  Request a consultation of OneCause Auction Software.

Optimize the silent auction checkout process to ensure a positive experience for guests and donors.

Step 7: Optimize the silent auction checkout process.

As your silent auction begins to wind down, make sure your checkout process is ready to go. Follow a few best practices to make sure everything goes smoothly:

Checkout can be a breeze when you use the right silent auction software.

Check out with mobile bidding.

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.

Set up a physical check-out booth.

Before the auction, 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 on hand.

Designate a separate item pick-up area.

As soon as winners are determined, record their names and winning bid amount for each item. If you’re using auction software, this information will be automatically recorded. Then, have volunteers move the won items to a designated pick-up area near the check-out booth.

Record all winner data.

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.

For more guidance on the check-out process, familiarize your team with our more detailed list of silent auction checkout tips.

Finally, make sure to follow up with the attendees and donors from your silent auction.

Step 8: Follow up with your silent auction attendees.

How should I follow up with silent auction attendees?

As with any fundraising event, it’s important to reach out to your silent auction attendees after the event. Donor follow-up is essential for strengthening your relationships with them.

Retention should always be a goal from one event to another, and making sure your attendees feel valued for participating is the single best way to encourage them to come again. Consider these tips:

  • Say thank you. Express your gratitude to every attendee, paying extra attention to winners who went home with an auction item!
  • Personalize your greetings. Use your auction software to see what item each winner went home with, and mention it in your thank-you letter or email. That kind of personalization shows you care about their experiences at your events.
  • Try offering new promotions to attendees who didn’t win anything. For guests who enjoyed your auction but didn’t go home with an item, invite them to a different event they might enjoy.

How can I increase repeat attendance with silent auction tools?

Once again, silent auction software is a strong tool to have in your event planning and follow-up arsenal. With software that streamlines registration, improves the donor experience, and automatically records key data, it’s easier than ever to increase repeat attendance at your next silent auction.

For example, with a clear view of your auction data, you can determine which items performed very well and which didn’t. Use these insights to guide your procurement process next time, focusing on big-ticket or main attraction items that you already know your donor base responds well to.

Plus, the easy experience of pre-registering, bidding using their smartphones, and checking out smoothly can be a major draw in and of itself! This is particularly true for donors who have attended other, more traditional auctions in the past and have felt frustrated with inefficient processes.

Now that you’re an expert in planning your organization’s own silent auction, it’s time to get started! Before you and your team dive headfirst into choosing venues or procuring items, though, you might want to continue your research with a few additional resources from the auction experts at OneCause:

Mobile Bidding & Online Auction Software Demo Request