Between live auctions, silent auctions, online auctions, and any combination of the three, there's a charity auction format out there that's suitable for any nonprofit.

Charity auctions can help your organization bring in a significant amount of funding. The potential to win prizes in return for charitable donations can incentivize more charitable giving.

Not to mention, bidding is an interactive and competitive activity that is sure to keep your attendees engaged with the event. However, charity auctions, like all fundraising events(1), aren't successful unless thoughtful planning and hard work has been put into them.

That's why, in this article, we'll cover 4 best practices for planning and running a charity auction, including:

  1. Pair an online and in-person auction.
  2. Order your items wisely.
  3. Emphasize your cause.
  4. Include other donation avenues.

Let's dive in!

1. Pair an online and in-person auction.


Why is it a best practice?

The first step to planning a charity auction is to figure out which type of auction is right for your organization.

There are three main types of charity auctions:

  1. Live auctions. Live auctions are in-person events. During a live auction, an auctioneer takes the stage to guide the bidding, and people place bids by calling out amounts or using bid paddles.
  2. Silent auctions. Silent auctions are also in-person events. However, with this format, participants place bids by either writing them on bid sheets or submitting them over their phones through a mobile bidding platform.
  3. Online auctions. As you can guess, online auctions take place online. To bid, bidders access and register on an event site that lists out photos and descriptions of auction items.

Each of these types of auctions has pros and cons.

In-person auctions are more engaging and you'll have the opportunity to interact with your supporters face-to-face, but they can also be costly. Online auctions, on the other hand, tend to be less expensive and easier to plan, but their digital format can make them less engaging to donors.

That's why many organizations combine a live or silent auction with an online auction. They get the best of both worlds, while expanding their opportunity to raise funds.

By opening up an online auction before (or after) your in-person event, you can raise more, because:

  1. Bidding is open for longer. With more time to bid, more supporters will be able to bid because they can do so when it's most convenient for them.
  2. People can bid from anywhere. Because you're hosting a portion of your auction online, it won't be restricted by geography. Supporters all over the country (and world!) can bid on your items.

To maximize your event fundraising, consider opening up bidding online in conjunction with running an in-person auction.

How is it done?

To host an online auction, you'll need to purchase auction and event planning software.

Through this software, you can centrally record all data about your event and items. Then, you can use it to generate and populate an event site.

This site will list descriptions and photos of your items for attendees to browse and allow you to open up bidding online. Once bidding is open, all you need to do is make sure your supporters have the link and know how to register!

You can either open up bidding online before your live event to start your items at a higher bid amount or you can open it up after the event if you have leftover items to sell.

Takeaway: Hosting a live or silent auction in tandem with an online auction will help you bring in more funds, since you can open up bidding to more people for longer.

2. Order your items wisely.


Why is it a best practice?

The order in which you auction off your items can really influence the amount of funds your organization is able to raise through your charity auction.

This strategy mostly applies to live auctions, where items are being introduced and sold off one by one.

Many of your guests will attend your auction to bid on the most popular big-ticket items.(2) After all, these items usually receive the greatest visibility in promotional materials, and they're the most popular for a reason!

If you auction off your popular, big-ticket items too soon in the live auction, chances are, many of the guests who wanted those items will lose interest and leave before the event is over.

Plus, your live auction can seem anticlimactic if you start with the big sellers and then work your way down to smaller-ticket items, which can leave other guests feeling less engaged with your event, too.

How is it done?

When creating your live auction program, think strategically about which items should be auctioned off at which time.

Here's a good general rule of thumb:

  1. Start with the smallest sellers. Ease your participants into bidding by starting with the smallest-ticket items. Guests will be more inclined to start the initial bidding when it's low-stakes.
  2. Auction off the biggest sellers at the ¾ mark. After the low-value items have been sold, you should gradually work your way up to the biggest-ticket items. Hit the biggest sellers about three-quarters of the way through the auction to create optimal suspense.
  3. Wind down with more mid-ticket items. Save a few mid-ticket items for after you've auctioned off the most popular sellers. Bidding on big-ticket items can cause lots of excitement and commotion, so this will give your guests time to wind down.

Following this pattern should keep your live auction engaging without making your guests wait too long for what they came there for!

Takeaway: The order in which you auction off items during a live auction can potentially help or hurt how much you raise. To maximize your fundraising potential, wait until ¾ of the way into the program to auction off your big-ticket sellers.

3. Emphasize your cause.


Why is it a best practice?

Auctions definitely have a material and commercial edge. After all, people are making donations in exchange for goods and services.

As such, the nature of your charity auction can often fade into the background.

This is not ideal, since philanthropy can motivate your bidders to bid more. People often feel more comfortable splurging on things when they know their money is going to further a good cause and will positively impact that people that you serve!

That's why your organization should be advocating(3) your cause throughout your auction.

Doing so puts the charitable nature of your event at the forefront of your supporters' minds, hopefully encouraging them to bid more liberally.

How is it done?

Your organization can highlight your cause in both promotional materials for your auction and at the event itself.

If you're advertising your auction through an online event site (the same place where you can host an online auction), you can include a blurb or video right on the homepage that outlines your organization, cause, and mission.(4)

Likewise, when promoting your event in other ways, you should tell supporters what cause you're hosting the event for and how you plan to use the money to help further that cause, when appropriate.

At the event, you can have one of your staff or board members take the stage during your auction program to convey this information to supporters in person. You could even have someone you've served come up and tell their story.

Either way, emphasize that proceeds are going toward a good cause, encourage bidding, and be thankful in advance!

4. Include other donation avenues.


Why it's a best practice:

When hosting an auction, not all of your attendees will bid. Some (like corporate sponsor guests(5)) might not even pay for admittance. Even those who do participate in the bidding might not walk home with the items they want.

To appeal to more of your supporters' preferences and ensure that everyone has a way to support you, it's important to include other donation avenues at your event.

Trust us: doing so will make your event more profitable!

How it's done:

In this section, we'll touch on a few of the other donation opportunities you can feature at your charity auction, including:

  1. Live appeals
  2. Raffles
  3. Selling merchandise

1. Live appeals

Live appeals are a popular event fundraising strategy.

Essentially, you'll be making a request for donations. But instead of asking through fundraising letters or phone calls, you'll be asking in-person in front of an audience!

To pull this strategy off, someone from your organization will need to make the request at the beginning of your auction. Make sure to provide your audience with a clear goal and to tell them exactly how their contributions will be used.

To collect donations, your organization can either use mobile bidding software (which includes a standard donation portal), a text-to-give service, or paper pledge cards.

As donors are submitting their contributions, display a thermometer that fills up in real-time. Seeing how close they are to hitting your goal can incentivize your attendees to give more.

In any case, just be sure to make it clear which steps attendees need to take to follow up on your request.

2. Raffles

Another way to make more through your charity auction is by including a raffle.

Since you already have plenty of appealing items up for grabs in your auction, you can take one out and feature it in a raffle!

To provide your raffle with the greatest chance of success, promote it on your event site and in other event advertising. Supporters can buy raffle tickets right on your event site, and you can set up a booth to sell sheets of tickets on the night of the event, too.

Just keep in mind: many jurisdictions have rules surrounding raffles in place, so double-check to make sure you're adhering to all regulations.

3. Selling merchandise.

Many people attend charity auctions expecting to walk home with something. Keep the supporters who don't win auction items happy by selling merchandise branded to your organization!(6)

And aside from helping you raise more money, merchandise can also be excellent advertising for your organization. When supporters sport your t-shirt or other products around town, they're raising your brand awareness.

As with raffle tickets, you can open up an online storefront to sell merchandise online leading up to the auction and set up a booth to sell it in-person at the actual event.

When deciding which products to offer at your auction, choose merchandise that's relevant to your audience. For example, if you were raising money for a school or educational organization, school spirit gear and supplies might appeal to your attendees.(7)

Takeaway: Appeal to more of your supporters' giving preferences and increase the number of funds you raise by including other donation opportunities in your auction.

For more tips and best practices on running a charity auction, check out BidPal's complete charity auction guide!




KARRIE WOZNIAK is an expert on mobile fundraising. She is Vice President of Sales & Marketing at BidPal, the leading mobile fundraising software company that helps nonprofits engage more donors and raise more money. Since 2008, BidPal has helped nearly 2,800 organizations raise more than $1 billion and connect with over one million unique donors.


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