Auction Tips

Charity Auctions: The Ultimate Guide [+ Software Tips]

Charity auctions can help your nonprofit raise funds while connecting with supporters and sponsors, alike. Start planning your charity auction with this guide.
Charity auctions can help your nonprofit raise funds while connecting with supporters and sponsors, alike. Start planning your charity auction with this guide.

Charity auctions allow charities to cultivate relationships with sponsors, earn revenue and engage supporters, making them a top fundraising option for nonprofits. Additionally, charity auctions are at a distinct advantage over other fundraising methods for connecting with new donors. Guests receive tangible benefits in exchange for their bids, making them more inclined to participate, even when they are unfamiliar with the organization.

However, a well-run charity auction requires planning, research, and solid technology. Like many fundraisers, auctions have evolved in the past few years, and modern nonprofits will need the right software and other resources to create the guest experience attendees expect.

To help your nonprofit plan a successful charity auction, we have created this guide that will walk you through the core steps of planning an auction, and provide insight into obtaining high-value items and assessing potential software solutions.

At Handbid, we’ve worked with thousands of organizations to host auctions that lead to lasting relationships with donors and sponsors, alike. We understand what it takes to plan and run a successful auction, and with our first-hand experience, we’ve pulled together this guide that features everything you need to know about charity auctions.

Let’s start with some questions we hear often.

Charity Auction Q&A

Before planning your charity auction, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the essentials. Charity auctions have several moving parts, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you begin planning without solid core knowledge of your event.

Here are three commonly asked questions those new to charity auctions often have:

How does a charity auction work?

Charity auctions help nonprofit organizations raise money by putting items up for bid. The items sold at the auction are usually donated or given to the nonprofit at a heavily discounted rate, allowing the nonprofit to earn the maximum proceeds from auction sales.

Unlike most charity fundraisers with only direct donation options, guests who win items in the auction will receive something in exchange for their donation. Sponsors who contribute items will gain recognition for their donations, earning goodwill in their community and potential promotion from the nonprofit.

In summary, at a successful charity auction, everyone involved, including the nonprofit, guests, and item donors, should benefit.

What items sell best at a charity auction?

Top selling items will vary based on the auction, location, and the guests who attend. However, items with unique appeal that can’t be easily bought outside of the auction, such as experiences, memorabilia, and unique services do well with most audiences, bringing in more bids. We’ll explore how to identify and procure high-value items later on in this guide.

How can supporters discover my charity auction?

Similar to most fundraisers, your charity auction’s success depends on your promotional efforts. However, the right auction software will help promote your efforts, as bidders will be able to search for auctions in their local area. This allows people who may not be familiar with your cause but are interested in winning items to drop in and join your auction, accumulating more bids.

Now that we got the most pressing questions out of the way, let’s talk about the various types of charity auctions available to nonprofits.

Charity Auction Types

Charity Auction Types

While all charity auctions follow the same pattern of presenting items and allowing attendees to bid on them, there are two distinct types of charity auctions: live and silent.

Live and silent auctions each have their own unique benefits, meaning different nonprofits may discover one works better than another for their specific purposes. By contrast, other nonprofits may find success with both and plan a fundraising calendar that includes live and silent auctions.

To help your nonprofit choose which type best aligns with your current needs, here is an overview of both:

Live Charity Auctions

As the name suggests, live auctions happen in real-time. Items are presented by the auctioneer, and guests begin bidding almost immediately. Some live auctions have guests wave physical paddles in the air to signal their bid, while others use modern software to allow guests to submit their bids remotely through their phones.

Regardless of how bidders place bids, live auctions are exciting and fast paced. While they may take place over a shorter period of time than silent or online auctions, the live format encourages quick, competitive bidding and can lead to higher winning bids.

For live auctions, your nonprofit will need to find an auctioneer. Experienced benefit auctioneers are experts in running auctions and encouraging participation from your best bidders. A professional benefit auctioneer is an investment, but they can help your nonprofit earn far more revenue for your charity than you might have otherwise. When hiring your charity benefit auctioneer, be sure to ask them about their previous experience, including previous events they have worked at and if they have videos of those events that your nonprofit can review. Moreover, make sure they are up to speed on and comfortable with the charity auction software you intend to use.

Silent Charity Auctions

Silent charity auctions take place over a longer period than live auctions, allowing guests to browse items either by looking at displays in-person or in a catalog. Guests bid on items through a printed bidding sheet or online means. The more leisurely pace of silent auctions makes them a popular activity to pair with other fundraising events, such as galas and golf tournaments.

Today, silent auctions should also be run using leading charity auction software. Charity auction software eliminates human error and allows bidders to bid from anywhere, freeing them up to participate in your event instead of hovering over bid sheets. Unlike live auctions, which require guests to be intensely focused for a set time, silent auctions can span several days when held online. This setup can provide your guests with added convenience, allowing them to check in on their items and make bids as needed while continuing to go about their day.

Learn the three charity auction types.

Charity Auction Hosting Method

In addition to choosing between live and silent auctions, your nonprofit should decide whether to host your event in-person, online, or both (hybrid). A hybrid charity auction consists of both remote and in-person bidders. Similar to live and silent auctions, each hosting option has its own advantages and challenges, and nonprofits may find more success with one method over another.

When choosing your hosting method, consider your nonprofit’s audience, potential public health concerns, and whether you are planning a live or silent auction. Silent auctions can make the transition to online and hybrid hosting methods with relative ease, while it might be more complicated to put your live auction online. If you decide to host your live auction online, good charity auction software is a must.  

To help your nonprofit make an informed decision about your auction’s hosting method, here is an overview of in-person, hybrid, and online auctions:

In-Person Charity Auctions

In-person auctions gather all of your guests together in one location to socialize, enjoy your event space, and view the auction items up for bid. Along with allowing you to interact with your guests face-to-face, in-person auctions also allow guests to physically see your items, which may increase excitement.

In-person gatherings do bring logistical concerns that may add to your team’s planning timeline. You will need to rent an event space, decorate the venue, ensure you are following public health guidelines, and usually hire a caterer.  

Fortunately, with auction software, you can remove one organizational concern: bidding sheets and pens. Even while gathered together, mobile bidding is still more convenient than having guests write down their bids. Your organization will have less loose paper to manage, can ensure all bids meet the necessary bidding increment, and determine auction winners much faster at the end of the night.

Hybrid Charity Auctions

Hybrid charity auctions have guests attend both in-person while others connect virtually. These events give your guests added flexibility in how they choose to attend, increasing your overall potential audience.

When hosting a hybrid auction, select an auction software platform that can handle both in-person and remote bidders. The software must update items, bids, and users in real-time, and live stream with no latency so that remote bidders are not at a disadvantage. Running both silent and live auction types at a hybrid auction is entirely possible, you just need to make sure you select the right software.

Online Charity Auctions

Online charity auctions have increased in popularity over the last year and a half. In addition to keeping guests safe from public health concerns, online auctions provide a variety of other benefits, including increased accessibility, the ability to host auctions over the course of multiple days, and a wide potential audience.

While both live and silent auctions can benefit from auction software, online—and hybrid—charity auctions require a software platform to function. Explore auction platforms and assess them on their user-friendliness, customizability, customer support, and additional features.

Now that we have covered the three main types of charity auctions, let’s dive into the steps required to plan a successful charity auction.

Follow these six steps to plan your charity auction.

Planning a Charity Auction: 6 Steps

Charity auctions can become complicated if not carefully planned out. Before planning a charity auction, your nonprofit should have a team identified who will plan and execute your charity auction.  

While the exact planning process will look different based on your nonprofit’s size and charity auction type, most nonprofits will find themselves following these six steps:

Step 1) Determine your event type.

When planning a charity auction, start by determining what type of auction you’ll run. This includes deciding between live and silent auctions, as well as in-person, hybrid, and virtual auctions.

Choose your auction type based on your target audience. Analyze your donor base and conduct prospect research to determine the following traits about your potential guests:

  • Interests. Make sure your auction items are prizes your guests would want to win. While guests may be inclined to spend more than they would otherwise, knowing their money is going to a good cause, they’re unlikely to bid on items that don’t align with their interests. For instance, a candy and sweets themed gift basket may be a big hit at a family-oriented auction but do poorly at an upscale gala.
  • Location. Does your nonprofit have widespread support spanning multiple states or countries? Or are you primarily a local cause? Make sure your auction accommodates your guests’ ability to travel, making attending as convenient as possible. For example, a local school is likely to only have interested guests in their own community, making it logical to host an in-person event, while a university with alumni across the country may benefit from hosting primarily virtual auctions.
  • Capacity to give. Your nonprofit can successfully host a live auction with only high-value items and a community-focused silent auction. However, you wouldn’t invite the same guests to these events. Use wealth screening tools to evaluate your supporters’ capacity to give, allowing you to make sure your auction features items within their price range.

When planning your auction, remember that you don’t need to invite your entire supporter base. While a range of prizes helps give all of your guests something to bid on, you may also find success running a more selective auction specifically for your major donors in addition to an auction open to the general public.

Make sure to invest in the right software for your charity auction.

Step 2) Invest in the right software.

No matter your type of auction, the right software is a necessity. Your software solution should allow your guests to browse your item catalog, make bids, and stay updated throughout your event. In addition, look for software with the following features:

  • Mobile bidding. Mobile bidding can benefit both in-person and online auctions. For your virtual auctions that last several days, guests will be able to monitor their items with ease without fear of stepping away from their desktop computers or walking out of the ballroom during your charity’s presentation. Then, at your in-person events, guests use the same software to make bids through their phones then return to socializing, having dinner, and participating in other activities without interruption. This also gives guests the opportunity to see your auction packages in-person allowing for more bids based on interest.
  • Text-to-give. Use of mobile bidding charity auction software also allows you to offer a text-to-give or mobile donation option to guests. Text-to-give allows your supporters to make a donation straight from their phones. During your event, announce your text-to-give keyword and phone number and ask guests to make a donation. As attendees pull out their phones to give, other guests will be promoted to follow suit, earning your nonprofit extra donations.
  • Integrated live streaming with a zero-latency option. Live streams help ensure that guests attending from home still feel like they are part of an event. Engage guests through your stream and interact with them through chat features, adding an element of social interaction to otherwise remote gatherings. It is important for charity auction software to integrate the live stream with bidding and donations so that guests are not asked to use different interfaces to watch the live stream and bid. Finally, if you are planning a hybrid auction, your live streaming solution must have no delay (zero-latency) so remote bidders are not at a disadvantage to in-room bidders.

Your charity auction software will shape the rest of your auction. Create a list of must-have features for your event before reviewing providers. We’ll explore core auction software features later on in this article to help your team kickstart your research.

Before starting your charity auction, you'll need to procure items and sponsorships.

Step 3) Procure items and sponsorships.

Charity auctions need a wide range of items to appeal to guests. Procuring high-value items can be a challenge, especially for your nonprofit’s first auction. When assessing potential sponsors and item donors, ask these questions before making your pitch:

  • Have they given to other charity auctions? Businesses that have shown an interest in supporting philanthropic causes in the past are more likely to continue supporting them. Research your potential sponsor’s history of giving and check if they have given to causes and events similar to yours.
  • Do they have the capacity to give? While you are unlikely to be intimately familiar with the exact finances of your sponsors, you should have a general idea of their capacity to give. This ensures that your ask is appropriate, fitting both your budget and theirs.
  • Does their mission align with yours? Many businesses have philanthropic missions and strive to support nonprofits with similar objectives. Before approaching a business, research its mission to ensure that it aligns with yours. For example, if your nonprofit supports education for children in low-income communities, you may not be successful with businesses interested in supporting environmental causes. However, with the right framing, you might receive assistance from a business with a mission focused on economic development.
  • Does your nonprofit have a connection to them? Before resorting to cold calling businesses, see if anyone at your nonprofit has a connection to a potential sponsor. This will include members of your procurement team, as well as your board members, volunteers, and even donors you have a personal connection with.

The relationships you form with sponsors can last far beyond your auction, laying the groundwork for future financial support. When approaching businesses, be polite and grateful even if they can’t offer anything. After all, a business that says "no" is still a potential connection and may be able to donate to your next auction.

Use these tips to market your charity auction.

Step 4) Market your auction.

Your marketing campaign will ultimately determine your event’s turnout, so make sure your marketing team works alongside your core event planners to make creative promotional materials that accurately represent your auction. To get the word out about your charity auction, consider:

  • Using a multi-channel approach. Not all of your potential attendees use the same platforms. With a multi-channel approach, you can reach more guests and build additional touchpoints with your core support base. Consider reaching out to your supporters through personalized emails, promoting your auction on your website, and creating posts on your social media accounts.
  • Promoting select items. While most of your guests are likely invested in your cause, others might be equally excited to win an auction. Choose high-value items to showcase in your promotional materials to intrigue potential attendees, or even consider making your entire auction catalog available beforehand.
  • Asking your sponsors to help. In addition to providing auction items, your sponsors can be one of your biggest assets for promoting your event. Ask businesses you partnered with if they would be willing to hang up your fliers in their windows, share your cause with their employees, or promote it on their social media profiles. By promoting your event, your sponsors can also publicize their connection to your nonprofit, boosting their reputation in the process.

Start your marketing campaign well in advance so your guests will be able to clear their schedules ahead of time. Additionally, marketing early can help your nonprofit estimate how many guests will likely attend, which will help your planning team’s organization and venue setup for in-person auctions.

Host your charity auction after all of your planning.

Step 5) Host the auction.

While planning might be done, your event team will need to continue seeing your charity auction through to success. Along with helping guests enjoy the auction, your team should also help encourage bidding, network with donors, and handle any problems that may arise. To make sure your auction runs smoothly, have your event team plan for:

  • Check-in. Help your guests get to your auction as quickly as possible by creating a streamlined check-in process. For instance, at the beginning of your event, you can have more volunteers help check guests in to reduce lines, then slowly transition some of them away to handle other responsibilities after the majority of your guests have arrived.
  • Venue setup. Auctions with an in-person component will need at least basic setup before your guests’ arrival. Have your volunteers help decorate your venue and display auction items, ensuring that guests will have space to view items without creating crowds or lines that block off other parts of your event. Think of your auction area like a retail store. Layout, space, and proper lighting are all very important. For your virtual events, your software functions as your store. Carefully consider how your catalog layout presents your items and walks your guests through your auction’s item selection.
  • Check-out. Make sure you have a streamlined checkout process ready for your guests to begin immediately after bidding is done. Your auction software should automate this process, allowing guests to pay for their items straight from their phones. This is a necessity for virtual auctions, and doing so at in-person and hybrid gatherings will help reduce long checkout lines and help put items in the hands of your winning bidders faster.

Your event will likely also have other unique considerations, such as managing catering, live music, and more. For virtual and hybrid events, get creative about how you can bring these aspects of the auction experience to them. For example, you might hire a remote catering service to deliver meals to their donors or get a band to play live and take requests from guests through your live stream’s chat.

Follow up with guests and sponsors after your charity auction.

Step 6) Follow up afterward.

Charity auctions aren’t finished until you’ve completed your follow up process. Immediately after your event, you’ll need to follow up with guests to thank them for attending and supporting your cause. Additionally, make sure all of your auction winners’ receive their items in a timely manner.

Don’t forget to follow up with your sponsors, either. Personally get in touch with them to thank them for their contributions and let them know if their donated items sold particularly well. Maintaining a positive relationship with them after your charity auction can help open the donor for support at your next event.

Improve your charity auctions with these item tips.

Charity Auction Items: 3 Tips

Your auction items are your charity auction’s main draw, but obtaining high-value items may be challenging, especially for less experienced procurement teams. To help your team get started, here are three tips for auction items:

Learn how to identify high value items for your charity auction.

1. How to Identify High-Value Items

While your auction should have a range of items to allow all guests to participate and bid within their spending range, a few high-value items can encourage bidding wars, be used in promotional materials, and generally get attendees excited about bidding. Here are a few characteristics of high-value items to look for when procuring items:

  • Unique. The highest value items usually can’t be bought at a store. Rare and one-of-a-kind items can have added value due to their limited availability and may be worth quite a bit more than their estimated market value for the right bidder. Memorabilia, signed items, and unique commissioned artwork are all examples of unique items your nonprofit’s procurement team may be able to get a hold of with the right connections.
  • Experiences. While many auction planners automatically start thinking of physical items when brainstorming auction ideas, experiences can feel more unique and exciting for many bidders. Travel opportunities, vacations, classes, and day trips are all fun experiences, and sending your guests on them will help them remember your charity auction long after it ends.
  • Added value. Often when reaching out to sponsors, your procurement team will receive many items of medium or lower value. While these can be put for auction individually, it’s often more effective to bundle them together to create a gift basket. Doing so can help create a sense of added value as guests can earn many items for winning one auction, encouraging more bids at a higher price.

Nonprofits struggling to acquire high-value items can also partner with item services to attain unique prizes such as trips and vacations. Before signing up with one of these services, make sure to review their offerings, price model, and terms and conditions carefully so you know exactly what you are getting and what is expected of your nonprofit in return.

2. How to Procure Auction Items

Asking sponsors for items can be intimidating, and your procurement team will likely need to get used to hearing “no” throughout the process. While this can be discouraging, there are several strategies your procurement team can use to improve their chances of receiving a donation, such as:

  • Explain how donating benefits your sponsors. When pitching to a sponsor, it’s easy to start by explaining your nonprofit’s work and the importance of supporting your cause. While these are important details, remember to focus your appeal to your sponsor’s interests. Offer tangible benefits to being associated with your nonprofit and what your nonprofit will do in return for a donation. This can include publicly thanking your sponsors at your event, adding their logo to promotional materials, and more.
  • Start with low and medium priority sponsors. After identifying potential sponsors, arrange them in order of priority. Then, make your first pitches to those at the bottom and middle of your list. This will help your team get extra practice and better refine their pitch in lower-stress situations before approaching your top sponsors.
  • Accept multiple kinds of contributions. Not every sponsor you approach will have items available for auction. In these cases, be open to other types of support, such as cash donations and marketing assistance.

Of course, the best way your procurement team can prepare themselves for speaking with sponsors is to do their research. Understand what each sponsor you approach does, if they have a history of giving, and what types of support they would likely be willing to give.

3. How to Price an Item

Your items’ initial prices and bidding increments should be priced to encourage as many bids as possible. Finding the right price is a careful balancing act. While you don’t want to underprice your items, you also need to be aware that high starting prices can discourage bidding, leading to items selling for less than they potentially could have.

To price your items, first determine their fair market value (FMV). You should get a value estimate from the item’s donor, but in some cases, you may need to do additional research to see how its value compares to similar items. Your starting bid should be approximately 30-40% of an item’s FMV, adjusted based on your audience’s interests and price range. In some cases, it may make sense to start at a lower initial price than this to encourage increased engagement.

For your bids, remember that your goal is to start a bidding war. Doing so gets your guests excited, creating a better auction experience and helping boost your fundraising potential. This means that in most cases, nonprofits benefit from making bidding increments low, yet encouraging for your guests.

The goal for setting bidding increments is to help interest in items gain momentum. After all, if your other guests notice a bidding war is going on, they’ll likely become curious about what is so valuable and may jump in with their own bids, driving revenue even further.

Learn how to assess charity auction software and find a solution that fits your nonprofit's needs.

Charity Auction Software

Charity auction software allows your team to manage every part of your auction from your initial planning stages to final follow ups. There are many auction software providers out there, which may make it difficult to determine which solution best fits your nonprofit’s needs. To help your organization find the perfect software solution, be on the lookout for the following features and take a moment to consider our top recommendation, Handbid.

Features to Look For

All silent auction software should have a few core features, such as an item catalog and bidding options. However, every provider specializes in a different aspect of auction software, and some will have more functionality than others. When assessing auction software, look for:

  • Mobile bidding. Mobile bidding lets guests make bids while on the go. Look for an auction software provider with enhanced mobile bidding capabilities such as push notifications and native apps for a more user-friendly experience.
  • Automated check-out. Make sure your auction software can smoothly handle payment and check-out when your event ends. Ask software providers about their payment processors and what steps guests will need to take to purchase their items.
  • Intuitive interface. Your auction software should have a user-friendly interface for both your guests and your team managing backend operations. Before investing in a software solution, ask for a demo so you can see how core processes such as adding items, checking guests in, and managing reports are completed.

The right auctions software will also accommodate your nonprofit’s size and growth goals. Avoid the complications of having to change software providers every few years by opting for a scalable solution that can grow with your organization.

Top Charity Auction Software: Handbid

Handbid is one of the top charity auction software providers available, helping thousands of charitable organizations run successful auctions. Handbid’s mobile bidding software is an accessible, easily navigable, and secure solution built to encourage engagement, making it one of the most convenient platforms for both front and back end users.

In addition to core auction software features, Handbid also has a variety of add-ons, providing nonprofits with even more fundraising opportunities and engagement tools. These include peer-to-peer and crowdfunding support, gamification options, and text-to-give features.

Plus, if your team needs help getting started, Handbid has several training and support options, so your team can get your auction software up and running as soon as possible.

Conclusion and Additional Resources

A well-run charity auction has the potential to earn your nonprofit significant revenue, while also building relationships with both your supporters and sponsors. While these events can be complex, the right resources and practices can help your team stay organized throughout the entire process and even provide guidance for how to plan your next auction.

To learn more about running a successful charity auction, check out these resources: