Hosting a silent auction can have the power to garner plenty of revenue for your organization. Silent auctions have potential to generate excitement and competition among your supporters, and they pair well with many types of events.
The time commitment alone makes silent auctions a high investment fundraising event, and how well you research, organize and reach out to potential bidders will determine how high your return on investment will be.
To make sure you get the most out of your silent auction, we’ll cover the following auction fundamentals:
- What is a silent auction?
- How does a silent auction work?
- 10 steps to run a silent auction
- Top Silent Auction Items
- Pricing Your Silent Auction Items
- Choosing silent auction software
Before we dive deeper into how to make the most of your silent auction event, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with the basics, starting with the definition of a silent auction.
What is a silent auction?
A silent auction is an event where guests place bids on items, either by writing their bid down on a piece of paper or submitting through the event’s accompanying online auction website. Silent auctions can either be held as the central event or paired with another event such as a gala, dinner, golf tournament, or other gathering.
The items, prices, and layout of your fundraiser depend on your event’s theme, location, and guest demographics. Similar to live auctions, the goal of a silent auction is to raise funds from guests bidding on donated items, meaning you will want to tailor your items to the audience attending your event.
How does a silent auction work?
We’ll talk about planning and procurement later in this article, but let’s first cover how a silent auction works on the night of your event. There are two distinct components of your auction:
- Bidding: Unlike live auctions where items are auctioned off sequentially, silent auctions give guests the opportunity to browse through items at their leisure before placing bids on the items of their choice. Bidders can be in the room during a live event, or if you are using mobile auction software, they can bid virtually from anywhere. You can also make your auction entirely virtual, eliminating the need for expenses like a venue, food, and drink.
- Checkout: Arguably the most important part of the guest experience in your silent auction is the checkout process. This is the part of the event when bidders pay for and pick up the items they’ve won. The last thing you want at the end of the night is for guests to wait in long lines. Keep scrolling for our best tips on streamlining your checkout process.
Whichever way you choose to set up your bidding and checkout, be sure to set clear rules and expectations about when and how guests can place their bids, and clearly communicate those rules leading up to and during your auction.
Bidding at a Silent Auction
When silent auctions first began, guests would write down their bids on a piece of paper in front of their chosen item. Times have changed, and now mobile auction software has changed the game, allowing guests to browse items and make bids on their smartphones.
Most mobile bidding software guides guests through these steps to make their bids:
- View item information. All items should feature basic information explaining what the item is and its fair market value. Fair market value is an item’s worth if guests were to purchase it at market price, which helps event organizers set starting bids and allows guests to determine how much they want to bid on an item.
- View current bids and the next suggested bid interval. Display the item’s current going price as well as a recommended increase for the next bid based on the item’s value. Choose intervals that make sense for the item. For example, a gift basket of chocolate should have smaller bid increments than tickets to a ski resort.
- Enter bids and set maximum bid amounts. Your mobile bidding software should have clear displays that enable guests to enter their bids without confusion. Additionally, many bidding software platforms allow guests to enter maximum bids, meaning that if someone tries to outbid them, the platform will automatically bid for them at the next interval up until their max bid is exceeded.
- Track the auction for selected items. Your guests will likely want to do other things than hang around their desired items. Find software that comes with push notifications that will inform guests when they’ve been outbid so they can bid again as soon as possible.
Tip: register all guests and their payment information before they start bidding. This will make bidding and checkout smoother as all payment information will already be on file.
Winning a Silent Auction Item
Your guests want to know what it takes to win their desired items. Have your team explain the auction’s rules at the start of the event, so there are no surprises once bidding gets underway. There are generally two ways to win a silent auction item:
- Having the highest valid bid at the end of the auction. To avoid confusion, specify rules that guests must abide by in order to have their bid count. Common rules include only accepting bids made before the auction closes, bids made using the minimum increments, and bids placed by individuals over 18 years old.
- Bidding the buyout price. Your nonprofit can choose to give some items a buyout price. A buyout price is generally 150-200% of an item’s fair market value, and when placed, it will automatically end bidding on that item before its closing time. Be strategic about which items have buyout prices. A buyout price can cause low or medium-value items to sell for more than they would have at the auction, while also creating a sense of urgency for other guests who see items that have already sold. However, items that are likely to already generate excitement, like unique experiences, might be harmed by buyout prices as the silent auction can end before the items pick up momentum.
Once an item is won, guests should receive an alert on their phone letting them know what they have won and how they can pick it up. For in-person auctions, create a designated checkout location somewhere that won’t interfere with foot traffic from guests leaving the event. For online auctions, guests should be able to redeem their purchases and receive delivery information for physical items immediately after the silent auction’s end.
8 Steps to Run a Silent Auction
Preparing for your silent auction may take more time than you first assume. Make sure you have the energy and resources to devote to planning, especially if you intend to run another event alongside your silent auction. Take your time and do your research before diving headfirst into a silent auction. With that said, here are 10 steps to run a silent auction effectively:
1. Form an auction committee.
A dedicated auction committee will handle all auction-related activities. It may seem like overkill to devote an entire team to one portion of your event, but considering all the responsibilities required to pull off a successful silent auction, you’ll be glad you put this committee together.
Your dedicated auction team should consist of:
- The auction chair is the team leader and will coordinate between team members, volunteers, and your nonprofit to keep everyone in the loop. Appoint an auction chair with previous experience, as their actions will direct the entire team and set the tone for the entire silent auction.
- The procurement team includes the people responsible for obtaining your auction items. They will reach out to businesses, your nonprofit’s network, and other leads to collect items your guests will want to bid on.
- The logistics team handles all the easy-to-overlook but vitally important details, like finding a venue, registering guests, and ensuring all purchased items go home with the right bidders.
- The marketing team gets the word out about your auction to attract guests, creates compelling invitations, and promotes the event and exciting auction items to your supporters.
- Volunteers help where they are needed, whether that’s with the other teams or with ensuring the event runs smoothly by setting up the venue, checking guests in and out, and gathering auction items for guests at the end of the night.
The number of people on these teams will vary depending on the size of your nonprofit and the size of your event. Keep scale in mind for each part of your preparations, as it is also possible to over-prepare for a silent auction and end up with items that don’t go home with any of your guests.
2. Identify your audience.
Silent auctions benefit from a focused purpose or theme, so choose one that will get your guests excited about bidding. If the auction is hosted alongside another event, consider how the two will work together and what sort of people will be attending your main event.
Guests will want to bid on items that match their interests. For example, if your guests are mostly retirees who love wine, you don’t want an auction that is full of items like tickets to the children’s museum.
It’s a smart move to have a range of items that vary in value, but try to match the bidding prices to your guests’ budgets. Higher-end items that your guests can get a bargain on are great, but in order to truly raise funds, you’ll need items with a price range in which guests will be comfortable one-upping each other’s bids.
3. Acquire items for your silent auction.
Your procurement team should begin its process with a strategy, months in advance of your event. Before conducting outreach, make sure you’ve clearly established who the silent auction’s audience is, what the theme is, and what the goal is.
The item procurement process will depend on the number of sponsors you reach out to, but a few universal steps are:
- Establish a price range of items. Your auction items should fit the budget of your guests, but this doesn’t mean keeping all prices the same. A range of prices will engage bidders at all levels and can work towards building relationships rather than just selling high-value items. For more on pricing, starting bids, and bid increments, jump to this section of the article.
- Track items as they come in. When your team receives an item, immediately document it. Include a description of the item, its fair market value, and who donated the item. This will enable you to create a catalog of all items with less hassle and will ensure all items are accounted for.
- Engage with sponsors. For any item offered, thank your sponsors profusely, even if it does not fit your procurement strategy. Remember, silent auctions are about more than just the event itself. The procurement process is also an opportunity to build relationships. Invite your sponsors to the silent auction and follow up with them afterward to fully express your gratitude.
For the most part, you will have better luck engaging with sponsors whose business aligns with your nonprofit’s interests, and who have supported similar events in the past. Create a list ahead of time of the most desired sponsors, and hone your approach by first asking those lower on your list. Be prepared to adapt your strategy based on the responses you get back from sponsors.
4. Purchase auction software.
Choosing the right auction software will prevent the problems that occur with using paper bid sheets, like indecipherable handwriting, invalid bids, or bid sheets that are missing altogether. When assessing auction software, look for the following features:
- Cloud Accessibility. Cloud accessibility allows for real-time bidding, which is a necessity for hosting hybrid events, where you can have guests bidding both in person and remotely.
- Security. Find auction software that is committed to security. Your guests need to be comfortable sharing their financial information on your silent auction software’s app, and a security breach will hurt your supporters’ trust in your nonprofit. Look for software that is PCI-compliant, and ask questions to providers about user password protection, incident response plans, and credit card information storage.
- Reporting. The right auction software will give your nonprofit the ability to review the results of your event in a comprehensive report to better plan for your next silent auction. Make sure you can pull detailed reports showing top bidders, item performance, and overall revenue performance.
The right silent auction software will also come with a variety of add-on features such as ticketing and registration. You may have the ability to pick and choose the features that fit your event and its budget, but keep in mind that you want your guest’s experience to be as seamless as possible and that limiting your features could create more work for both you and your donors. Mobile bidding software can be the most impactful way to engage your audience.
5. Create your event registration page.
It can be helpful to gather your guests’ information before the event even begins by creating an event registration page. Look for auction software that will not only give you this feature, but will also help you brand your registration page to your organization or event theme, sell tickets, and build your guest list. This will help you to consolidate all of your guest information in one place, allowing for easy check-in and bidder registration on the night of your event.
Having a registration page will also allow your table sponsors and other guests who are planning to bring multiple people to your event to edit their own guest lists, freeing up your staff from having to track down guest info before the event.
6. Promote your auction event.
Ever heard the quote, “if you build it, they will come?” We don’t think that’s true with events. You can build the best silent auction on the planet, but if you don’t market it correctly, chances are that you won’t have very many people bidding on your auction items. Here are some helpful tactics to promote your auction event:
- Post to social media.Social media can be a powerful tool, not only to promote that you’re having an event but why you’re having it. Tell the story behind why you started the event, why guests will love it, and who or what they’re supporting. Once they are bought into your cause, you can show them elements of the event to look forward to, including any entertainment, keynote speakers, and yes - even your auction!
- Send promotional emails.Unfortunately, even if you have thousands upon thousands of followers on social media, only a fraction of them will see your social media posts. Having your supporters’ email addresses eliminates this obstacle, because you’re sure to get a message to them directly, without solely depending on the algorithm gods. Send pointed, specific, and regular emails to your guests and supporters, advertising your event and your auction items.
- Launch crowdfunding or peer-to-peer campaigns leading up to the event. There is no better way to promote something than by word-of-mouth. Consider launching a peer-to-peer or crowdfunding campaign leading up to your event, and ask volunteers and donors to seek support from their own networks. This helps to get the word out not only about your event but about your cause in general.
- Send direct mail with a QR code leading to the registration page.“Snail Mail” is NOT dead! There are still plenty of effective ways to get the word about your event into people’s mailboxes. Have volunteers address envelopes by hand, include a QR code to your event registration page on invitation cards, or send colorful and unique postcards with details about your event.
Whichever promotional channels you use, consider your audience once again. What is the best way to communicate with them? The answer to this question will have a few different answers. Diversify your promotion strategy according to your audience, and promote in multiple ways, through multiple avenues.
7. Set up the event venue.
For in-person events, setup usually means setting up the physical space. Survey the venue ahead of time to ensure you will have enough space for your silent auction and its accompanying foot traffic. Virtual or hybrid events also require setup, but not in the same way as in-person events. Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind for your event layout and setup:
- Place auction items near similarly valued items. Perception determines value, especially at a silent auction where guests are competing to buy something flashy. Guests will often assume everything on a table is of similar value, meaning placing high-value items near lower-value ones will depreciate their worth in the eyes of potential bidders.
- Create foot traffic paths. Silent auction areas can get crowded as guests pause in front of items to debate what they want and how much they want to bid. Set up your tables to give guests plenty of room to move around without bumping into each other or your potentially fragile silent auction items.
- Establish dedicated check-in and check-out areas. Check-in and check-out can turn into bottlenecks if not carefully planned. Create separate spaces for these tasks so other guests won’t have to walk around or through lines to get where they need to be.
- Capture high-quality images of your items. No matter the structure of your silent auction, we believe that mobile bidding is a must. This means that you will need to be mindful of your auction catalog as it appears online, in addition to its physical setup. Find or take photos that adequately portray your auction items.
- Organize, organize, organize. Before the event’s start, run through all of your technology to make sure everything is in working order and have tech support on standby in case anything does break down. Consider how you organize your online item catalog. Do you want to group items by value? Category? Alphabetical order? Think about how your guests will interpret the way you display items to ensure all items have their full value come across—even through a phone screen.
Registration and Check-in
Registering should be welcoming, fast, and organized. Your registration process will be one of your event’s first impressions to your guests, so make it count! At registration, guests should be warmly greeted, have their tickets collected, and have all important event information conveyed to them in a timely and efficient manner.
You can optimize your registration process by:
- Distributing event handouts. Guests will need to absorb a lot of information very quickly before moving forward in line. For physical events, print out handouts containing item prices, the event schedule, and rules to keep in mind for valid bids. You can further optimize this step with mobile bidding by putting all information on your silent auction webpage, or even texting out the details if your software includes this feature.
- Having multiple check-in stations. To avoid lines, have multiple dedicated check-in attendants at the entrance of your event. Consider creating separate lines for walk-in guests who need to be taken through the registration process and guests who have already pre-registered online.
- Using registration software. Registration software will reduce wait times and improve your check-in staff’s lives by allowing them to quickly find guests, fill out forms, and distribute bidder numbers without digging through stacks of paper.
Your event staff will have other responsibilities throughout the night, too, such as chatting with guests and hyping up certain items to attract more bids. Pick someone outgoing to be a dedicated emcee, who can make regular announcements throughout the event.
After the silent auction closes, people will leave en masse. If there’s a long process for checking out and paying for auction items, it can cause long lines, ending a fun event on a note of frustration. Mobile bidding software is your best friend for automating check-out. Guests can register their payment information ahead of time, making it easier to pay for their won items. Then, all you need is a few volunteers to help gather the items and send them on their way. Even if guests want to pay by check or cash at the end of the night (most don’t), the checkout lines will be much shorter because of the option to put a credit card on file at the beginning of the evening.
8. Follow up to say thank you.
Your work isn’t done even after your silent auction’s conclusion. A silent auction is ultimately a fundraiser, meaning it’s a great opportunity to make connections with guests and sponsors and hopefully convert them into long-term donors.
Be sure to collect guests' and sponsors’ contact information so you can reach out to them after the event is over. Here are just a couple of reasons why you’ll need their information before the event is completely over:
Auction Item Delivery
For an online auction, you’ll need to deliver auction items as promptly as possible. Your auction software should keep track of which guest purchased which item, but double-check before shipping items to correct any mistakes.
Thank Guests and Sponsors
Mail out personalized thank you cards to let guests know how much you appreciated their attendance. Even if they didn’t purchase anything, guests who attended your event are worth making a connection with so they’ll be inclined to come back to your next silent auction, which might have something that catches their eye.
Don’t forget to thank your sponsors too! Send thank you cards and include pictures of the event, and show them how their support made an impact. If their item was a big hit, let them know.
Top Silent Auction Items
Now that you know everything about running a silent auction, it’s time to start thinking about the items you will add to yours. The best auction items will depend on your guests. Remember, you want to cater to their interests. With this in mind, here are a few strategies for your auction item procurement team to consider as they start reaching out to sponsors:
- Experiences. In general, items that can’t be purchased in a store, like experiences, tend to attract more attention. For example, if you have a room full of wine enthusiasts, why not put together a trip to wine country, complete with an opportunity to create their own custom wine blend? If a portion of your guests is into sports, call up your local hockey rink and get a ride on the Zamboni donated as a unique experience.
- Bundle together low-value items. Some sponsors may give small items to your nonprofit that are more trouble than they’re worth to auction off individually. Use these items to create themed gift baskets, which can seem like a higher combined value to potential bidders. Soaps, chocolate, and wine could be bundled into a “treat yourself” gift basket.
- Ask sponsors to give a cash donation instead. Sometimes sponsors don’t have appropriate items or will offer items that don’t fit your silent auction at all. In these situations, thank them for offering the item before politely declining and asking if they could donate the item’s cash value in its place in exchange for being recognized as a financial contributor to the event.
Work these practices into your acquisition strategy by reaching out to a variety of potential sponsors. The more items you have to work with, the more creative your team can get with how they package and pitch them to guests.
Need more ideas? We have over 40 of them on the Handbid Blog!
Pricing Your Silent Auction Items
So, you have all of your items donated. Now it’s time to put them together and decide on their starting bids. This part can get a little tricky, and you’ll have to take the context of your items into consideration, but we have some tried-and-true advice on setting starting bids and bid increments.
First, you will need to determine each item’s fair market value. After you receive an item, research its value instead of just taking your sponsor at their word. While some sponsors will be honest, others may inflate prices due to prestige or sentimental value.
As a general rule, the starting bid for your items should be 30-40% of an item’s fair market value. However, remember that your goal should be to engage your bidders and hopefully create a bidding war to generate higher revenue for your organization. To achieve this, your incremental bids should be as low as possible to encourage guests to continue bidding.
We recommend the following formula as a starting point for your auction items:
40% of the Fair Market Value of the item is your starting bid
10% of the starting bid is your increment
This is especially effective for mobile bidding, where guests won’t even need to leave their tables to continue chipping in their bids.
Choosing Silent Auction Software
Your silent auction software should suit the needs of your nonprofit. Set a budget ahead of time so that as you’re presented with various features and add-ons, you’ll know your “must-haves” and what you can do without. Here are a few features you should look for when shopping for auction software:
- A native app. Choose a platform that includes a mobile app that allows guests to submit bids, input maximum bids, and receive push notifications when they’re outbid. That way, they can stay engaged and not have to worry about checking websites or emails for updates on their bids.
- Livestream and leaderboard capabilities. It can be difficult to excite your audience when their auction is confined to their phones. Livestreaming will let you deliver real-time updates to your guests while interacting with chat messages, further building a connection between you and your donors.
- The ability to manage and organize all aspects of your event. In addition to bidding features, look for managerial tools to track ticketing, registration, reporting, and check-out. Using one system to track every element of your auction will allow you to monitor everything from beginning to end, creating more efficiency for you and your team.
- Personalized service. Don’t settle for a chatbot to answer your questions. Every event is different, and you will want to work with a software company that offers fast, real-time, expert support on the night of your event.
Handbid offers all of this and more! From the initial planning stages to execution and follow-up, our powerful tools were built specifically to help nonprofits create standout events that help to make your job easier and help you raise a ton of money for your organization.
Silent auctions serve as an excellent fundraising tool, while also giving you a chance to connect with supporters and local business sponsors. A well-run silent auction takes a dedicated team and months of planning to execute, but the right tools can help ease the process and ensure the event runs smoothly.
To get started learning more about what your nonprofit can do to prepare for its silent auction, check out these resources:
- Online and Silent Auction Software: Top Providers Reviewed Ready to take the next step and start shopping for silent auction software? Read more here to learn tips for making the most of your auction software and find a provider that fits your needs.
- Top Silent Auction Rules for Your Nonprofit's Next Event It’s important to lay the groundwork and set some rules and guidelines for your bidders before your auction begins. Read here for the template!
- Charity Auction Sites: 8+ Best Software Providers Reviewed A successful online charity auction requires an auction site. Explore your options with our comprehensive reviews of the top charity auction site providers.
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