How to Host a Virtual Auction: 10 Steps for Nonprofits

Nonprofits of all shapes and sizes are adding virtual auctions to their fundraising toolkit.

Why? Large in-person galas aren’t the best option for donors and nonprofits right now, AND virtual auctions can help nonprofits raise a lot of money regardless of public health concerns.

After all, the chance to walk away with an amazing item while also supporting a worthy cause spurs more giving. Even better, virtual auction software makes giving easy.

Between directing your team, building your guest list, marketing your event, procuring items, and hammering down logistics, the right plan for a virtual auction is key in supporting your mission.

OneCause’s product suite includes the OneCause Fundraising Platform to meet the needs of those taking their auction virtual with livestream capabilities.

We’ve got all the bases covered for you to kickstart your next virtual auction. Let’s get to it and cover:

Virtual Auction Essentials

For virtual fundraising newbies, here are the essentials to keep in mind as you get started.

Taking your nonprofit’s auction online can have major benefits. These virtual events are highly flexible, engaging for audiences, and typically less resource-intensive to plan than in-person auctions.

You’ll need:

Check out our complete guide to virtual auctions for a comprehensive breakdown of these virtual events when partnering with OneCause.

If you’re new to virtual fundraising, you and your team may have a couple of questions that immediately come to mind. Let’s tackle some of those top FAQs when it comes to virtual auctions.

Virtual Auction FAQs

What is a virtual auction?A virtual auction brings all elements of an in-person auction to an online format. With large in-person galas not being the best option right now, virtual auctions allow supporters and nonprofits to meet virtually and still raise money for an important cause. With fundraising software, there are still ways to incite giving, create community, and power your mission forward in a virtual world.
How do virtual auctions work?Virtual auction execution is very similar to in-person auction execution. Setting goals, collecting auction items, creating an event marketing plan, building an event program (that includes your virtual auction), and promoting your virtual auction are all present in a virtual auction. The difference? Mobile bidding technology. After the tech learning curve, it makes fundraising easier. Gone are the days of paper bid sheets and executing in-person check-out.
What are the benefits of virtual auctions? The benefits of virtual auctions include: (1) Larger audience reach. You’re no longer limited to a certain number of tickets at a specific location. Share your fundraising site far and wide. (2) Lower cost. Your overhead cost is significantly reduced without a venue and similar event planning costs! (3) Flexible. Specifically suit your mission, community, and goals to your nonprofit’s virtual auction.
Do donors like virtual auctions?Yes! The nice thing about virtual auctions is that you literally meet your donors where they are. You can offer a more streamlined, convenient bidding experience that keeps the energy up, deliver immediate notifications to bidders, and provide a one-stop shop for all bidding on your fundraising site.

Of course, fundraising software is a necessity to execute a virtual auction. Let’s dive into the different options.

Building a Virtual Auction Toolkit

Especially if you’re new to fundraising software, it’s tough to know where to start when it comes to making the right choice for you and your organization.

Here are some of the tools available that you’ll need to plan and host a virtual auction:

Virtual auction software, including mobile bidding tools

Working with virtual fundraising software provides a more streamlined experience for your team and a more enjoyable event for your donors. Rather than piecing together a system of separate tools, dedicated virtual fundraising software can serve as the central hub for your event.

For virtual fundraising events that include online auctions—mobile bidding tools are a must!

Live streaming software

Live video feeds are an extremely effective way to engage donors during your virtual events. Any virtual fundraising event can be improved with live-streamed festivities or appeals, so explore your software options early. Don’t forget the cameras, too! 

Comprehensive virtual fundraising software will include built-in live-streaming capabilities. For small-scale virtual gatherings, platforms like Zoom can work, as well. However, larger events will benefit from a more immersive, branded live-streaming experience.

Platforms like OneCause help you centralize every aspect of your event, from its website to virtual auctions to live-streams. With an intuitive event center, your donors can focus on supporting your mission instead of navigating multiple, confusing platforms.

Marketing tools

To get people registered for your virtual auction, marketing and promotion is key. Here are a few tools to help you streamline your virtual auction marketing plan.

  • Buffer: Schedule social media posts in advance to be shared with the channels of your choosing that are automatically shared at the most optimal times.
  • Wistia: Boost video engagement while tracking video performance.
  • Canva: Design high-quality graphics to share on social media or marketing materials to be distributed before your big event.

Matching gift software

When setting your virtual auction fundraising goals, look beyond just bidding on items and registration fees. Consider incorporating a corporate philanthropy strategy into your event so that you can raise more for your cause without asking your supporters to donate more. Instead, introduce them to matching gifts. 

In your registration process, include a matching gift database so that your donors can look up their employers’ matching gift programs. If they are eligible, they can submit the forms necessary and support your cause even more!

A database or CRM

Your nonprofit’s database will be essential for planning and hosting virtual fundraising events.

Use your database to help you research your audience during the planning process, and then ensure all new engagement data is automatically reported throughout your event.

Although these tools on their own are incredible, a more comprehensive platform will return more value over time than a piecemeal approach of tools that don’t work well together.

VIRTUAL FUNDRAISING TOOLS: OneCause wants to help you fundraise in a virtual world with ease. Take a tour of our virtual fundraising software and see if it’s the right fit for you!

How to Plan a Virtual Auction

To plan a virtual auction, there are several core steps you should follow:


#1 Form a team to execute your virtual auction.

Don’t try to tackle the entire event on your own! Form a team of staff and volunteers and designate specific responsibilities to different team members. These responsibilities could include:

#2 Set goals and guidelines for your virtual auction.

Determining these guidelines early in the process will keep your plans focused from start to finish. Begin by setting a budget, including any new tech you’ll need, and then specific revenue and engagement goals for your virtual event.

In addition to setting monetary goals, you might also use a fundraising event to facilitate other goals, such as:

  • Acquiring new donors.
  • Promoting your cause or gaining publicity.
  • Stewarding existing donors.
  • Engaging prospective major donors.

#3 Review and upgrade your virtual auction fundraising toolkit.

For your first virtual fundraising event, you’ll need to invest in new software to help plan and host it. If you’ve already hosted one or more virtual events, take some time to review your toolkit and fill any gaps.

If you’re ready to see the software for yourself, take a test drive of the OneCause virtual fundraising suite of products.

#4 Create an item wish list and begin virtual auction item procurement.

Your virtual auction can only be as successful as the quality of its auction items.

While there’s no secret formula to procuring the best auction items for your event, we can help you get started!

The best items for an online auction will appeal to your demographic. Think: What particular items would my donor base be excited about? When identifying the best items to procure, follow these top tips:

  • Review your past auction’s performance. With online auction software, data from previous events will be invaluable for guiding your procurement process. What types of items were popular? What types of items only had few bids? Use this data to procure even better items for your guests.
  • Use donation request letters. Using donation request letters when soliciting items for your school auctions is a smart way to save your team time, give them a solid framework to expand on, and simplify the donation process.
  • Get creative! Your offerings need to be unique and interesting to draw as much attention and competition as possible. Get creative with your procurement team!

#5 Develop a plan to market your virtual auction.

For your auction to succeed, you’ll need registrants! Marketing your virtual auction will be essential for a few reasons. Effective promotions help with:

  • Inviting supporters to your auction
  • Securing early registrations
  • Promoting your auction items
  • Generating excitement and competition

Marketing is crucial for any type of auction, live, silent, or virtual. For online auctions, digital promotions are especially important to make up for the lack of in-person engagement and to reach wider audiences to drive more bids. We recommend taking a multichannel approach to marketing your auction.

Here’s how it might work:


The main idea of a multichannel marketing campaign is to use each of your digital outlets to drive more traffic both to one another and to your target action – in this case, your auction’s registration page.

#6 Set up your online auction site.

Your online fundraising site will serve as your fundraising headquarters and your “virtual venue.” Once you’ve picked your virtual auction software, start building your site. Make sure to include:

  • Custom pages. Create unlimited custom fundraising and informational pages specific to your event and mission.
  • Fundraising drivers. Put your auction catalog, donation appeal, fixed priced items (raffles, parties, merchandise) on your site.
  • Virtual auction items. Track, manage, and package your auction items.
  • High quality visuals. Bring your event to life online with graphics that communicate your theme.
  • Social media integrations. Maximize your reach and communicate your cause on social.

#7 Plan other auction event logistics, like programming.

To incite bidding and bring your community together, a virtual program might be the perfect pair for your virtual auction.

Design your event program just like you would a normal in-person gala, just tweak for virtual adjustments.

We’ve found a shorter program holds the attention of donors better than a typical 2 hour gala event. Check out an example run-of-show that includes your virtual auction:

Virtual TV Format

#8 Heavily promote your virtual auction.

For your virtual event to succeed, it has to stand out online. Donors need to know about your event, how to sign up, and what to expect on the big day. Get them excited with promotions via email, social media, and peer-to-peer tactics.

How to Host a Virtual Auction

Now your virtual auction day is here! Let’s walk through the steps and best practices for actually hosting your auction once you’ve planned it.

#1 Drive early registration.

Whether your online auction is in-person or virtual, a seamless registration process gets the event started off on the right foot.

Robust online auction software will simplify and streamline the entire registration process from start to finish. By using mobile technology, your organization can:

  • Assign bid numbers. Automatically assign bidders numbers in the platform to ensure things run smoothly when it’s time for the auction.
  • Pre-register credit cards. Encourage guests to pre-register their credit cards on your auction site or at check-in. It will significantly expedite checkout and you’ll thank yourself later!

#2 Clearly define day-of roles.

Most important in a virtual world, have a staff member on hand to answer questions and troubleshoot tech challenges.

It’s a good idea to consider the many facets of your event and delegate a person (or a few people) to tackle specific aspects, such as:

  • Sponsorships
  • Marketing and promotions
  • Ticket sales or registration
  • Major donor involvement
  • Auction item procurement
  • Event follow-up
  • Delivery of Auction Items

#3 Start the bidding early.

One of the smartest strategies you can implement in your virtual auction is pre-biddingPre-bidding allows you to jumpstart your fundraising, build excitement for your main event, and extend the life of your auction!

Follow these top tips to make sure you’re set up for success:

  • Set parameters. Clearly define the exact date and time at which silent auction pre-bidding will become available on your online auction site.
  • Prepare an e-mail blast. Amp up the excitement for pre-bidding with an e-mail communication before the online auction is published including your friendly URL allows them to start bidding from their own smartphone right away.
  • Communicate the benefits. It’s simple! Let your guests know they can get a leg up on the competition. Pre-bidding allows your attendees to walk into an event with bids already on the table.
  • Don’t show all your cards. You don’t need to release all of your items for pre-bidding – you’re trying to build suspense, not take it away. Stagger in items to keep up bidding momentum and keep people coming back to bid!

#4 Use live streaming and multimedia.

Live streaming ‘works’ because it’s an engaging alternative to in-person events that can open up new opportunities for multi-channel engagement with supporters.

With the right recipe of virtual storytelling, energy, mission moments, and fun, live streaming your fundraising event can be very effective (not to mention the exponentially greater donor reach than in-person).

The most popular and accessible options include:


Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube Live, Zoom

For more on how to use live stream in your next virtual auction, head to this guide.

ONECAUSE FUNDRAISING PLATFORM: If you’re looking for a fundraising platform with live streaming capabilities all in one place, the OneCause Fundraising Platform could be your answer. Check it out here.

#5 Give real-time updates and shoutouts.

Virtual auctions are successful because of their fun, competitive nature. On the day of your online auction, amp up the excitement!

Create an atmosphere that has energy and use a variety of communication strategies onsite to drive engagement and bids. OneCause makes it easy with fundraising progress bars.

#6 Engage directly with bidders with text notifications.

When you don’t have everyone in the same room, it’s tough to try to control the distractions around your donors. BUT, the good thing is your virtual fundraising software includes text notifications.

Virtual auction software gives you the ability to instantly notify participants of changes or announcements. This is huge for boosting engagement. After all, how many times a day do you look at your phone because it buzzed?

Typical reasons for sending notifications include:

  • Outbid notifications. Notifying participants that they’ve been outbid on an item, encouraging them to immediately jump in and up their own bid.
  • Fundraising announcements. Sharing announcements about deadlines, like when there’s only one day or one hour left to place your final bids on your favorite items.
  • Additional offerings. Promoting additional offerings in your online auction, like buy-it-now options for items or extra raffle tickets.
  • Energy boost. Upping the energy by directing participants to hot items, or drawing attention to items that haven’t received many bids yet.

Text messaging is the perfect feature for online auctions because it gets guests back on their mobile devices and back to bidding!

#7 Streamline event close and check out.

With online auction software, you can streamline this process.

  • Guests can check themselves out. If guests have pre-registered their credit cards, check out should be easy as pie. Attendees are automatically be charged if they win.
  • Quickly match guests with their items. With instant access to auction transactions, you can easily unite auction items with the appropriate winners with the help of your volunteers and technology.
  • Auction item winner data is recorded. For future reference, recording the winner’s name and winning bid amount for each item happens automatically with virtual auction software.

#8 Have a plan for packaging and shipping items.

Time to close out and ship your items off to their lucky winners. Be sure to ship the item to the winning bidder in a timely manner.

When packaging items, be sure to:

  • Package all items securely. Take time to package your items to prevent any damage. This will save you and the winners the heartache of refunds and broken items.
  • Say thank you. Show donors you truly value them.  Not just for their money, but for their generosity and support. Think hard about why you’re grateful to them; then spread that gratitude back to them.
  • Give them more information. Let your auction item winners know exactly how their donation will be used to power your mission. Have another event coming up? Let them know the details and include a link to register.

#9 Immediately follow-up with all donors to say thank you.

After any fundraising event, following up is critical. Express your gratitude to everyone who attended and donated and begin studying your engagement data for ways to improve your next virtual event!

We understand that after an online auction is over, it’s easy to want to take a deep breath and say, “All done!” That is why OneCause online auction software automates the thank you process for you.

After guests check out, an email receipt with information about their winnings and a special thank you from your organization is sent.

When your nonprofit is consistent in its gratitude, outreach, and engagement, your supporter relationships will blossom.

#10 Study your performance data.

The last, crucial best practice for any nonprofit – track your performance! After your virtual auction, gather your team and address these questions:

  • Did we have a good turnout?
  • Did we reach our fundraising goal?
  • Which items were the most popular?
  • Did any items not receive bids?
  • Who were the top bidders?
  • What could we do better next time?

The good news is online auction software has your answers! OneCause’s robust online auction software allows you to generate a wide variety of reports that will give you detailed insights into your auction items and bidders.

When you learn more from your past events, you’re able to continually host better, more effective auctions in the future.

Virtual Auction Examples

Diving headfirst into the world of virtual fundraising can seem daunting when all you’ve done in the past is traditional in-person fundraising. It’s easier to gain the courage of making the leap when you see others have executed it (with success).

We’ve compiled some of our top OneCause Success Stories to spark online fundraising inspiration.

How Morgan Marie Michael Foundation Launched Their Annual In-Person Event into a Virtual Celebration

Determined to shift their annual in-person fashion show virtual, Morgan Marie Michael Foundation made it happen with OneCause. Check out their virtual fundraising success story!Read Now

Avery Coonley School: Shifting Virtual to Support Their Community


ACS weighed their options and knew they had to move their 38th Annual Auction online.

After strategizing how to create engagement in a virtual world, they were able to design their program to include an online auction, Fund-A-Need, and raffle while also having a short video to kick-off the event followed by Zoom rooms for different grades to socialize. Read how they made it happen below!Read Now

How in One Virtual Night Tennessee Kidney Foundation raised $238,000

How in One Virtual Night Tennessee Kidney Foundation Raised $238,000

Tennessee Kidney Foundation’s annual black-tie gala attracts of 500-600 attendees and is a vital funding source for their mission. Due to COVID-19, the team decided to keep fundraising and turned their gala into a One Virtual Night Only fundraiser with a virtual auction!

By going virtual, this nonprofit was not only able to keep fundraising, but open up their mission to a wider audience via social media reach. Read more about their event in this OneCause Success Story.Read Now

We’ve even picked out a few favorite samples to help you generate ideas and see how you to can create an online event with OneCause.

Click on an image below.

Purfect Pet AuctionBlossoms of Hope Brunch invitation in teal and pink color blocks with floral accents, with schedule of events.Spring Gala 2020

Virtual Memphis LiveA Shining LightBe Great Online Benefit page featuring children smiling, performing, writing, and using computers against a blue background.Sofa Soiree

 How OneCause Can Help

A comprehensive virtual fundraising platform like OneCause can save you time, provide a better experience for donors, and ultimately help you raise more.

Although virtual fundraising has quickly become a new necessity for many nonprofits amid the COVID-19 pandemic, online-only campaigns and live stream events are a trend that’s here to stay.

A virtual auction, powered by virtual fundraising software, is the perfect tool to engage with your guests virtually.

The benefits of flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to reach wide virtual audiences make these strategies a no-brainer for many organizations.

The world of fundraising has gone online and we can help! Request a consult today.

Wrapping Up!

Not done with virtual auction content? We’ve got your back. Here are some more resources to make sure your next virtual event is seamless: