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10 Steps to Plan a Nonprofit Fundraising Auction

10 Steps to Plan a Nonprofit Fundraising Auction
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Great Fundraising Events: From Experience to Transformation.

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From peer-to-peer fun runs to your run-of-the-mill bake sales, there’s no end to the types of fundraising events your nonprofit can throw. Hosting events is one of the best ways to raise money for your mission, and donors love participating in them. About 56% of donors regularly attend fundraising events.

If you’re looking for ways to engage your donors, auctions are a great fundraising event format to choose. Not only do auctions rely on donor participation, but they also appeal to a broad audience. Offering a wide variety of auction items ensures that there will be an item that appeals to every auction guest. You can also host auctions in varying formats, either live or silent, or as a complement to other fundraising events you throw, like a gala.

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While in-person events haven’t been as easy to host over the past year, nonprofits have found a way to continue nurturing their donor communities via virtual events, and auctions are no exception. Virtual events have found strong support, with 69.9% of nonprofits planning to retain virtual elements in their fundraising events in the future.

With comprehensive auction software, you can host a successful in-person, virtual, or hybrid auction event with ease. Manage your items and display them on a special event webpage, and enable online bidding via app or web browser. These virtual features can expand the reach of your auction so your guests can bid on your exciting collection of gifts from anywhere with an internet connection.

Looking to this year, giving is projected to increase by 5.1% in 2021, and there’s still time to get in on the action by hosting a versatile fundraising event like an auction.

Not sure where to start? Check out this Qgiv guide to planning a successful auction fundraiser.

1. Create a Planning Committee

Planning an auction is a significant task, so it’s vital to assemble a team of focused individuals who can work together to pull off a successful event.

As you’re putting your committee together, source from inside your organization. However, if you need more manpower, reach out to your supporter network for volunteers–especially if you’ve had people mention their interest in helping you plan events in the past. Try to make your committee representative of your community, and place people in the right roles according to their strengths and interests.

To begin with, your planning committee will be responsible for establishing an event budget and setting goals for the auction. They’ll need to determine your event’s revenue goal and performance goals. Consider how many auction participants you want to attract, as well as what percentage increase you’re looking for in new donors and the total amount of donors attained at your auction.
Create a Planning Committee - Bloomerang
Your planning committee will also have to decide whether your auction will be an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event. Holding an event with an in-person component means you need to keep your guests safe. If you do decide to host an in-person or hybrid event, you’ll need to determine what COVID-19 guidelines your guests will need to follow, like social distancing rules and mask requirements. Look to local and state safety recommendations and mandates to determine what your event should look like during the pandemic.

Need some help planning your auction? Download the Qgiv Auction Planner so you don’t miss a single detail.

2. Plan For Your Venue

If you’re hosting an in-person or hybrid event, you’ll need to find the perfect venue to host your fundraiser. Your quest for the right venue for your fundraising auction depends on several factors.

Size and location

As you begin your search, first determine how many guests you anticipate having at your auction and who they are. You’ll want to make sure your venue can comfortably host all of your guests while also adhering to the COVID-19 safety guidelines your committee put in place. You also want to pick a venue in a central location for your guests. The easier it is for people to get to your event, the more likely it is that they’ll send in their RSVPs and attend.

Equipment capabilities

If you’re hosting a hybrid or virtual event, the venue you choose must have reliable audio/video capabilities for a livestream, especially if you’ll have some form of entertainment for your guests. Determine what kind of style and ambiance you’re going for in your livestream. Do you only need a simple, one-angle video stream, or are you opting for a system of cameras streaming from different angles for a dynamic, in-the-room experience? Make sure you have sound equipment that easily hooks into your stream to minimize any technical sound issues.


Food is a great draw for any fundraising event. If your auction is scheduled to go for several hours in the evening, it’s best to hire a caterer to ensure your guests don’t go hungry while they’re in the bidding process. Some venues have stipulations that any event they host with a food element must use a specific venue-vetted, partner caterer, or you must choose from a list they provide. While you’re choosing a caterer, keep in mind what COVID-19 safety protocols they have in place. If you’re hosting a hybrid or virtual event, does your caterer offer delivery services to virtual guests? Or will you choose to provide delivery service gift cards to at-home attendees?

As you’re picking your venue, also keep in mind what entertainment options you want to have for your guests. If you know any local musicians or bands who would be willing to play a set or a local comedian willing to perform a standup routine, try and find a venue with a good stage area. Providing entertainment for your guests will keep your auction fun and engaging.

3. Procure Auction Items

Finding items for your auction guests to bid on can be a stressful task if you don’t know where to look. To start, reach out to past sponsors. For example, if your nonprofit is an animal shelter and you’ve worked with a local pet store before, reach out to see if they would be willing to donate a few items or gift certificates for a pet care basket.

You should also make it a goal to find new sponsors for your auction. The number of new sponsors you find will depend on the size of your organization and your event. However, it’s more important than ever to cultivate new relationships with sponsors, especially because some of your past sponsors may not be able to participate due to difficulties they’ve been through in the past year.

Once you’ve collected your items, you need to make a plan for storing, cataloging, pricing, and showing off your auction items. Using auction item management software can help you organize your items once they’ve all been collected and display them for your guests.

To market your auction to your guests, take photos and videos of your auction items and post them on your website and social media channels to generate excitement. Picking a theme for your auction or having themed items is also a great way to get your guests engaged with your auction. Check out the American Herbalists Guild’s virtual silent auction for an example of a cohesive theme.

4. Choose Your Auction Platform

Thanks to advancements made in the fundraising technology world, paper bidding is no longer the only way to bid on silent auction items. Auction software makes bidding easy for your organization and your auction guests.

In a traditional auction, your guests use bid sheets placed next to items to write down their name and bid amount. However, with mobile and online bidding, guests can bid directly from their smartphones or web browsers no matter where they are, making virtual or hybrid auctions easy to run. You never need to worry about losing pens or ripped bid sheets ever again.

When you’re choosing an auction platform, there are a few factors to consider.

  • Does your auction software have both app-based and web-based bidding options for your guests to choose between?
  • Does it integrate with your CRM of choice?
  • Will your software work with your nonprofit’s size and needs? Will it grow with your organization?

Qgiv’s auction software is great for organizations big or small. It’s simple to use, includes award-winning customer support, and with unlimited users, large organizations can add as many accounts as they need.

5. Build Your Auction Website

Once you’ve put the details of your auction together, you want to make it easy for your guests to find information about the wonderful night you have planned. Building a website means you can point your guests to a one-stop-shop whenever anyone has questions about your event.

Designing a dynamic website will encourage your donors to take part in your auction. Include an event-specific logo and banner image alongside your organization’s logo for maximum visual impact. Don’t forget to include a few impact statements on your page as well so guests understand how their involvement in your organization is changing the communities you serve.

For functionality, there are a few integral features you should include. Offer a way for donors to opt into covering fees that your organization would otherwise have to pay for donating money via an online portal. In Qgiv’s software, this feature is called GiftAssist. All your donors have to do is check a box during their transaction, and a small fee is automatically added to their total.

In addition to hosting your auction on your event website, enable a traditional donation option for those who aren’t bidding on gifts but would like to contribute anyway. For donors who would like to contribute in honor of someone else, enable dedications on your donation forms.

If you’re looking for inspiration for your own auction website, check out the St. John Center for Homeless Men’s “Raisin’ the Rent” event webpage.

6. Put Together Detailed Action Plans

When you’re planning an event as involved as an auction, you need to have detailed plans. Sure, this auction will take place over a single day or night, but you should have a detailed schedule worked out two to three months ahead of your event date. This schedule should include staff assignments for all your volunteers, and you should have a good idea of how many volunteers you’ll need to run your auction seamlessly.

Part of your planning will include making backup plans. If something goes wrong with your venue, or you can no longer gather in person, it’s best to have contingencies so all your long hours of event planning are not in vain.

Don’t forget that even though your auction is a single-day event, you’ll need to plan for the day before and the day after as well. Every detail matters, from assigning someone to let vendors into your venue to ensuring you have someone who oversees remitting payment to hired staff. Have a thank-you strategy in place for the day after the event to properly acknowledge your supporters for participating in your auction.

7. Invite Guests

Not sure where to start with your guest list? Use your CRM to find and invite past event participants first. Then, send out a separate invite to donors and supporters who haven’t attended one of your events before but have opted in to receive communication from your organization.

Deciding which invitation method you want to use is up to your resources and what your auction event looks like. If your auction is part of a gala or a formal event, sending paper invitations can convey that it will be a more serious event. Paper invitations lend a more personalized touch to the invitation, and guests will feel valued and excited to attend your event. Unfortunately, paper invitations can be wasteful, especially if you send them to guests that end up being unable to attend. They also serve a single purpose—to alert and inform—so this isn’t a useful method for continuing communication.

With an email or electronic invitation, there’s virtually no cost involved, and it’s easy to write up the invitation, send it to guests, and track RSVPs. Virtual invitations are more eco-friendly as well, and they’ll reach your donors immediately. Unfortunately, in today’s digital world, things can easily get lost in the shuffle of an email inbox, and the informality may make your guests feel as though the event is not as important.

8. Promote Your Event

Once you’ve planned out your auction, you need to promote your event in the weeks leading up to the big day. Your social media channels are the perfect platform to expand your reach, even beyond your donor base. Take note of what kind of posts your organization has made in the past that have the most engagement and impressions. If your auction has a sponsor, provide them with graphics and videos they can share on their own channels to attract new faces. Encourage your own guests to share their involvement with your event on their personal channels as well.

The Art & History Museums of Maitland hosted a virtual auction in which they used their social media channels to promote their auction items in the weeks leading up to the event. They showcased each art piece they were auctioning off to generate interest with their bidders and give them an idea of what to expect when the auction started.

9. Have a Rehearsal/Walk-Through

As the big day approaches, you and your volunteers must conduct a practice run of your event so you can iron out any potential issues you may encounter during the auction.

Your check-in and check-out processes need to be smooth and streamlined to get your auction guests in and out of your auction painlessly. Make your check-in tables a one-stop-shop, and ensure that your staff and volunteers fully understand their roles and responsibilities. Host a software training day to ensure they’re all familiar with your auction platform, including the mobile tools you offer and how to take payments.

Pay attention throughout your practice run for any common points of confusion staff members and volunteers may experience. Compile a list and then create and distribute FAQ sheets to everyone after the rehearsal and before your event to avoid any issues when the day of the auction rolls around.

10. Conduct Post-Event Tasks.

Though your auction has concluded and the last gift has been picked up by a winning bidder, your work isn’t over quite yet.

  • Plan out the gift pick-up process. If you hosted a virtual auction or had a few winners leave your event early, make sure you have a plan in place for people to come and pick up their gifts. Offer specific timeframes where auction guests can stop by your organization to collect their prizes, or offer delivery services to people living nearby if you have the resources to do so.
  • Have a plan for items that didn’t sell. Will you keep them for a later auction? Donate them? Sell them online?
  • Send out thank-you notes. It’s vital to nurture healthy, long-lasting relationships with your supporters so they’ll continue to be involved with your organization. Thank your donors and bidders for spending time with your organization and tell them how their donations and support will impact the communities you serve.
  • Take time to review your event. Note all of your wins and make sure to celebrate them, and figure out what growth opportunities you have for your future events. Planning this auction was a valuable experience for your organization, so don’t let what you’ve learned go to waste. Your next auction can be even more phenomenal.

Final Thoughts

Planning an auction is hard work, but as a special event that engages and excites your guests, the payoff is well worth it. If you’re looking for even more tips to help you host a successful event, here are a few blog posts to check out:

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