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 organizations to cultivate relationships with sponsors, earn revenue, and engage supporters, making them a top fundraising option. 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 organizations will need the right software and resources to create a positive guest experience and maximize their fundraising revenue potential.

Are you looking to plan a successful charity auction for your nonprofit organization? We've created a comprehensive guide that will walk you through the core steps of planning an auction, from start to finish.

At Handbid, we’ve worked with thousands of organizations to host charity auctions that lead to lasting relationships with donors and sponsors, and raise a ton of money in the process. Our guide is designed to help you navigate the complexities of auction planning with ease, so that you can focus on what really matters - raising funds for your cause.

As you prepare to host your first charity auction, you may be wondering where to start and what to expect. To help you navigate this exciting but often overwhelming process, we've compiled a list of three commonly asked questions that newcomers to charity auctions often have. From setting realistic fundraising goals to selecting the right auction items, we'll provide you with the information you need to ensure that your event is a success. So whether you're a seasoned fundraiser or new to the world of nonprofit events, read on to learn more about how to make your charity auction a memorable and profitable experience.

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 item 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.

At the heart of every successful charity auction lies a common goal - to benefit everyone involved. From the nonprofit organization to the generous item donors and enthusiastic guests, each party plays a vital role in creating a memorable and impactful event. By working together to set clear goals and expectations, and by leveraging the power of technology and social media, you can ensure that your charity auction is a win-win for all involved.

What items sell best at a charity auction?

This question has several possible answers, and depends greatly on factors like audience demographics and interests. It's important to have a general knowledge of the types of people who will be bidding on your auction items. For example, if your audience is mostly made up of older, empty-nesters, family experiences like trips to the water park or the children's museum may not be attractive to them. Put those items in a school auction, however, and they may earn you more money.

As a very general rule, charity auction items with unique appeal that can’t be easily bought; such as experiences, memorabilia, and unique services will bring 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 can depend on how you promote your event. In addition to knowing your guests, you will want to know where you can reach them with your marketing efforts. For example, are they on social media, or do they prefer direct mail? 

In addition to traditional promotional avenues, having 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.

Let's explore the different types of charity auctions that nonprofits can implement to engage their supporters and generate donations.

Charity Auction Types

Types of Charity Auctions

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, and nonprofits may find that one type of auction is more beneficial than the other. By contrast, others may find success with both, and plan a fundraising calendar that includes live and silent auctions.

To help your nonprofit choose which type of charity auction 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 an 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 charity auctions and encouraging participation from the people in the room. A professional benefit auctioneer is an investment, but they can help you earn far more revenue for your charity than you might have done with a board member who just knows how to use a microphone and wants to try their hand at auctioneering. When hiring your charity benefit auctioneer, be sure to ask them about their previous experience, including events they have worked, and if they have a video reel you can review. Moreover, make sure your auctioneer is familiar 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 online. Guests bid on items, either by writing the amount they want to bid on a piece of paper, called a bid sheet, or through bidding software. The 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 be run using leading charity auction software. The right auction software eliminates human error, and allows bidders to bid from anywhere, freeing them up to participate in the activities of your event, instead of hovering over bid sheets. Unlike live auctions, which require guests to be intensely focused for a set period of time, silent auctions can span several days when held online. Using bidding software makes it convenient for your guests to bid on items as needed while continuing to go about their day.

Learn the three charity auction types.

How to Host a Charity Auction

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

When deciding how you will host your charity auction, consider your nonprofit’s audience and whether you are planning a live or silent auction. While transitioning silent auctions to online and hybrid hosting methods can be relatively easy, the process of moving live auctions to an online platform may be more complex. If you decide to host your live auction online, good charity auction software is a must.  

Learn how Handbid’s charity auction platform can work for your nonprofit!

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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. These events offer the opportunity to interact with guests in-person and physically view the auction items on display, which can heighten excitement and increase bidder engagement.

However, in-person charity auctions bring logistical concerns that may add to your team’s planning timeline and fundraising budget. You will need to rent an event space, decorate the venue, and usually hire a caterer.  

Thankfully, auction software can eliminate the need for bid sheets and pens, which is one less organizational hassle to worry about. Even when guests are physically present at the event, mobile bidding remains a more convenient option as it reduces the amount of paper your organization needs to manage. Additionally, it ensures that all bids adhere to the necessary bidding increment, and allows for faster determination of auction winners at the end of the night.

Hybrid Charity Auctions

Hybrid charity auctions are events where some guests attend in person, while others participate virtually, which can increase the size of your audience. Imagine hosting a school auction where the parents of students are in the room bidding, and out-of-town relatives and friends can also support by bidding from anywhere in the country.

When hosting a hybrid auction, select an auction software platform that can handle both in-person and remote bidders. The software must be able to 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

Over the past few years, online charity auctions have gained immense popularity due to various advantages they offer. These benefits include increased accessibility, the option to host auctions over multiple days, and the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

While both live and silent auctions can benefit from auction software, online and hybrid charity auctions require a software platform to function. Explore nonprofit auction software and assess your options based 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

Without proper planning, charity auctions can become complex and overwhelming. To avoid this, it is crucial that you carefully identify a team that will plan and execute the charity auction before initiating the process. 

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 hosting a live auction, a silent auction, or both. You will also need to decide whether your auction(s) will be hosted in-person, virtually, or as a hybrid of both.

Choose your auction type based on your target audience. Analyze your donor base and do some research on past events or other events in your community 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 be more generous because they know 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 that spans multiple states, or are you primarily a local cause? Make sure your auction accommodates your guests’ ability to travel, making attendance as convenient as possible. For example, a local school is likely only to have guests from its own community, while a university with alumni across the country may benefit from hosting virtual auctions.
  • Capacity to give. Your nonprofit can successfully host a live auction with only high-value items and a community-focused silent auction. Use wealth screening tools to evaluate your supporters’ capacity to give, allowing you to ensure your auction features items within their price range.

When planning your auction, remember that you don’t need to invite your entire support base. While a range of auction items helps give your guests something to bid on, you may also find success running a more selective auction specifically for your major donors and 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 what type of auction you host, the right software is a necessity. Your auction software solution should allow your guests to browse your item catalog, make bids, and stay updated throughout your event. 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 daily activities. 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. Mobile bidding software should allow you to offer a text-to-give or mobile donation option to guests of your charity auction. 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 encouraged to follow suit, earning your nonprofit extra donations.
  • Integrated live streaming with a zero-latency option. Live streams help to ensure that guests attending from home still feel like they are part of the event. Engage guests through your stream and interact with them through chat features, adding an element of social interaction to 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 to 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, especially during your live auction.

Your charity auction software will shape your auction, your event, and your overall fundraising goals. 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 challenging, especially if it's your 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 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 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 connected to your organization also has a connection to a potential sponsor. Ask members of your procurement team, board members, volunteers, and even donors if they can help you to procure your desired items from larger businesses.

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 charity auction.

Use these tips to market your charity auction.

Step 4: Market your auction

The way you promote your event greatly influences guest attendance and overall success. Create a comprehensive marketing plan and create promotional materials that accurately represent your auction. To get the word out about your charity auction, consider the following:

  • Use 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.
  • Promote select items. While most of your guests are likely invested in your cause, others might be equally excited to win an auction. Intrigue potential attendees by promoting high-value items, or consider making your entire auction catalog available online before the auction opens.
  • Ask your sponsors to help. In addition to providing auction items, your current sponsors can be one of your biggest assets for promoting your event. Ask businesses you're 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 can clear their schedules beforehand. Additionally, marketing early can help your nonprofit estimate how many guests may attend, which will help your planning team’s organization and venue setup for in-person auctions.

Listen to the Elevate Your Event Podcast for an in-depth conversation about how to promote your event to get more people to attend.

Host your charity auction after all of your planning.

Step 5: Host your auction

While planning might be done, your event team will need to see your charity auction through to success. Along with helping guests to enjoy the auction, your team should also 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 to start bidding on your auction items 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 decor and displays before 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 other parts of your event. Think of your auction area like a retail store. Layout, space, and proper lighting are all very important. For 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 have other unique considerations, such as managing catering, live entertainment, 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 your 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 after your auction

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

Personally follow up with your sponsors to thank them for their contributions and let them know if their donated items sold particularly well. Maintaining a positive relationship with sponsors and supporters after your charity auction can help open the donor for future support.

Improve your charity auctions with these item tips.

Charity Auction Items: 3 Tips

The items you procure are your charity auction’s main draw, but obtaining high-value items may be challenging, especially for less experienced procurement teams. Here are three tips to help motivate you to recruit the right 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 featured in promotional materials, and generally get attendees excited about bidding. Here are a few characteristics of high-value items to look for during your procurement process:

  • Unique items. The highest-valued 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 when introduced to the right bidder. Memorabilia, signed items, and unique commissioned artwork are all examples of items that you may be able to procure 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 those trips and getaways will help them to 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 low value. While these items can be auctioned individually, it’s often more effective to bundle them together as a package or gift basket. Bundling items like car cleaning accessories with a free detail cleaning service can create a sense of added value, as guests can win multiple items with one winning bid, encouraging more bids at a higher price.

Nonprofits struggling to acquire highly-valued items can also partner with consignment services to obtain unique prizes like 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's 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 types 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

Finding the right price is a careful balancing act. Your items’ starting bids and increments should be priced to encourage as many bids as possible. While you don’t want to underprice your items, you also need to be aware that high starting prices can discourage bidding, resulting in items being sold for a lower price than their potential value.

To determine starting bids and bid increments, first determine your item's 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 might make sense to start at a lower initial price in order to increase engagement.

Remember that your goal should be to start a bidding war over your charity auction items. Bidding wars will excite and entertain your guests, creating a better auction experience and helping to boost your fundraising potential. This means that in most cases, nonprofits benefit from making bidding increments low, yet encourages your guests to believe that they can win.

The goal for setting bidding increments is to gain bidding 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.

Setting the right starting bids and bid increments will greatly influence the success of your charity auction

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 like an item catalog and options to bid. 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 allows guests to place bids while they're on-the-go or participating in other activities. 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 complete their purchases at the end of your event.
  • Intuitive interface. Your auction software should be user-friendly, both for your guests and your team managing backend operations. Before investing in a software solution, ask for a demo so you can observe processes like adding items, checking guests in, and managing reports.

The right auction 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 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 and raise more money. Handbid’s mobile bidding software is accessible, easily to navigate, and a secure solution built to encourage engagement, making it one of the most convenient platforms for both the auction bidders and the auction managers.

In addition to auction software features, Handbid also has a variety features like peer-to-peer and crowdfunding support, gamification options, and text-to-give features, allowing you to diversify your fundraising efforts beyond charity auctions and engaging your supporters long after your event has ended.

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 your supporters, sponsors, and your local community. 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:

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