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How to Run a Silent Auction: 10 Simple Steps for Success

A silent auction event with tables and people milling around
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Great Fundraising Events: From Experience to Transformation.

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From peer-to-peer fun runs to bake sales, there’s no end to the types of fundraising events your nonprofit can host. Planning events is one of the best ways to raise money for your mission, and donors love participating in them. In fact, 81% of nonprofit donors attend fundraising events.

Silent auctions are a great fundraising event format if you want a unique way to engage your donors. These highly interactive experiences allow your nonprofit ample time to engage with supporters face-to-face.

This guide covers the following tips and steps to help you run a successful silent auction:

First, let’s define exactly what a silent auction entails to give you a better understanding of how these events work.

Our auction software makes planning and running your events a breeze. Explore Qgiv’s features here. 

What is a silent auction?

A silent auction is a fundraising event where attendees bid on auction items using mobile bidding software or paper bid sheets. Rather than having an auctioneer announce items, attendees can freely walk around the event to view items.

You can host a silent auction either in person or online. With an in-person event, attendees browse items displayed on a table and place bids on their favorites using paper bid sheets or a mobile bidding platform. In a virtual silent auction, supporters view auction items on a website or webpage and place bids online.

Why should your nonprofit host a silent auction?

As a particularly engaging type of fundraising event, silent auctions offer many benefits for nonprofits. Hosting a silent auction allows your nonprofit to:

Benefits of silent auctions (explained in the list below)

  • Provide supporters with an engaging, fun experience. Auctions allow supporters to engage more directly with the fundraising process. Attendees can not only support your worthy mission but also leave your event with something valuable of their own to take home.
  • Reach new donors. Hosting an auction gives your nonprofit the chance to connect with a new audience of potential donors, especially if your event offers multiple forms of entertainment. Prospective donors who don’t have a strong preexisting relationship with your nonprofit may be interested in attending your event if it features engaging elements like live music or a silent disco.
  • Spread awareness of your nonprofit’s mission. A silent auction event provides a platform for your nonprofit to share mission-related information and updates. You can hand out information sheets, play inspirational videos, and invite live speakers to share their stories with attendees.
  • Form stronger relationships with community partners. Community partners like local businesses and civic organizations can support your nonprofit by donating auction items or funding event overhead costs. In return, your nonprofit can include their logos in your event marketing materials, creating win-win benefits for both community partners and your organization.
  • Drive revenue for your nonprofit. Of course, one of the most important benefits of hosting a silent auction is the opportunity to drive major new revenue for your organization. When you plan it carefully, you can turn your auction into a valuable recurring event that drives revenue for your nonprofit year after year.

Silent auctions may require a bit more planning than other fundraising events, but the effort is worth it because of these significant benefits.

10 steps to run a silent auction

If you’ve never hosted a fundraising silent auction before, it may seem intimidating. But when you break down the process into smaller steps, you can simplify planning and make the process much easier for your auction committee. Let’s explore the main steps of running a silent auction.

Steps to run a silent auction (listed below) 


1. Create a planning committee.

The first step in planning your silent auction is recruiting a dedicated team of passionate staff members and volunteers to organize your event. The majority of your planning committee will likely be comprised of internal staff members from your nonprofit’s fundraising team. However, if you need more support, 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.

Assign the following initial tasks to your planning committee members:

  • Establish an event budget. Provide information about costs for past similar events you’ve hosted to give committee members a clearer idea of your budget range.
  • Determine whether your auction will be in person, online, or hybrid. Assess the geographic location of your supporters to determine the right format for your event.
  • Set fundraising and supporter engagement goals for the auction. These could include how many auction participants you want to attract, what percentage increase you’re looking for in new donors, and the total amount of donations attained at your auction.

Then, work with your planning committee to check the other items off this to-do list. Establish open communication with your team using an instant messaging system or email cadence to keep everyone on the same page.

Recruiting passionate, skilled volunteers is crucial to silent auction success. Download the Volunteer Recruitment Guide.

2. Choose a 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. Determine how many guests you anticipate having at your auction and who they are. Ensure your venue can comfortably host all of your guests and is accessible for all attendees. Also, pick a venue in a central location for your guests. The easier it is for people to get to your event, the more likely they are to attend.
  • Equipment capabilities. If you’re hosting a hybrid or virtual event, the venue you choose must have reliable audio and video capabilities for a livestream, especially if you’ll have some form of entertainment. 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 technical sound issues.
  • Catering. No matter what time of day your auction is scheduled, offer some type of food to keep your guests happy. Assess whether your venue offers food options on-site or you’ll need to bring in outside vendors.

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

Bonus tip: Strategize ways to make the event layout visually appealing.

Just like you’re more likely to purchase something that is presented in a visually appealing way at a store, making your auction look nice can result in a higher perceived value and higher bids! Jazz up your event space with themed decor or soft lighting that adds ambiance.

3. Procure auction items.

Finding items for your auction guests to bid on can be stressful if you don’t know where to look. Luckily, your nonprofit likely has corporate partners and donors in your area who’d be excited to support your event. Use these strategies to gather valuable, unique auction items:

  • 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.
  • Find new sponsors. Use your auction event as an opportunity to connect with new corporate sponsors in your community. Present the benefits of getting involved, such as a marketing boost and positive PR opportunities.
  • Make a plan for storing, cataloging, pricing, and showing off your auction items. Auction item management software can help you organize your items once you’ve collected them and display them for your guests (more on this in the next section!).

If you need help determining which items will be most enticing for your guests, don’t hesitate to ask! Send a pre-event survey asking for suggestions or encouraging supporters to rank their interest in potential items. This can help you narrow down your search and be more specific when requesting donations from corporate partners.

Bonus tip: Consider picking a theme for your items.

A theme can tie your items together and make your event more memorable. Consider theme options like Winter Wonderland, Summer Splash, or Outdoor Adventure.

4. Select an auction platform.

Thanks to advancements in the event 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 choosing an auction platform, there are a few factors to consider:

  • Does the platform support mobile bidding? This allows attendees to make bids and see if they’ve won items directly from their mobile devices.
  • Does your auction software have both app-based and web-based bidding options for your guests to choose between?
  • Does the system integrate with your CRM of choice?
  • Will your software work with your nonprofit’s size and needs? Will it grow with your organization?
  • Does the software enable other mid-event fundraising opportunities, like raffles or merchandise sales?
  • Does the software offer simplified checkout with multiple payment options, such as credit card and Apple Pay?

For example, Qgiv’s auction software is great for all organizations, big and small. It’s simple to use, includes award-winning customer support, and offers unlimited users, allowing large organizations to add as many accounts as they need. Plus, with Qgiv, you can set up as many auction events as you’d like, ensuring you can host multiple events throughout the year.

Qgiv helps you plan auction events with all of the fun and none of the stress. Schedule a demo here.

5. Provide additional ways to give.

The auction itself will be your organization’s primary fundraising method, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate other strategies to raise even more from your event.

In fact, not all of your guests will have placed bids or won items. To maximize your fundraising, implement additional revenue-generating strategies at your silent auction.

Let’s briefly look at a few of the most popular options:

  • Raffle. Your organization has already done all the work procuring auction items, so you can easily take one of those items out of the auction and feature it in a raffle. Check local legislation to see if you need to follow any specific guidelines to host your raffle, as many jurisdictions have raffle-related regulations.
  • Donation page. Make a live appeal to attendees to visit your online donation page and contribute a gift if they feel inclined to do so. Offer a QR code or link leading to the page so attendees can easily access it on their phones.
  • Merchandise. People are attending your event expecting to leave with something, so those who don’t win items will likely love the opportunity to purchase merchandise. Offer branded t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, water bottles, and tote bags.

With these additional revenue streams, every attendee can leave knowing they contributed to your mission’s success.

6. Build an auction website or webpage.

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

Your digital resource should include:

  • An event-specific logo and banner image alongside your organization’s logo
  • Impact statements so guests understand how their involvement in your organization is changing the communities you serve
  • A donation form for those who aren’t bidding on gifts but would like to contribute anyway

Share links to your auction website in your digital and traditional marketing materials (read on to the next section for event marketing tips).

7. Promote your event.

A thorough event promotion strategy will help increase RSVPs for your event, leading to greater fundraising potential. These channels can come in handy to help get the word out:

  • Social media: Note which types of social media posts on your pages receive the most engagement and impressions, and design your auction posts based on past successful messages. If your auction has a sponsor, provide them with graphics and videos they can share on their channels to attract new faces. Encourage your guests to share their involvement with your event on their personal channels as well.
  • Email: Share auction logistics, item previews, and a link to RSVP using your email marketing channel. You can also create communication segments in your email platform to send personalized messages to different audiences. For example, you could present your auction as an effective way to get more involved with your cause to new donors. On the other hand, you could use your email communications to thank past donors for their previous involvement and let them know you’d love to catch up with them at the auction.
  • Direct mail: Direct mail is a tried and true way to connect with supporters who prefer traditional marketing methods. Print personalized event invitations with supporters’ names. Include all the who, what, when, and where information and a link or QR code to register for the event.

Increase your event outreach in the weeks and days before the auction to boost excitement and ensure everyone who may be interested has a chance to see the event’s details.

Bonus tip: Personally invite specific guests to your auction event.

Some supporters would be incredibly valuable guests to invite to your event. This includes major donors, who could potentially help you raise a lot of money through bidding on big-ticket items. Personally invite these supporters to your event with a handwritten note or phone call. Let them know you’d love to catch up with them at the event and get their take on your organization’s recent mission-related efforts.

8. Create a smooth checkout process.

Your fundraising auction software should be able to help you arrange the items in a way that makes it easy for your supporters to see and bid on items. To make the checkout process smoother, once an item has been pulled, pull the item’s sign with it so you can keep a visual tally of what items are left to be picked up. Let your supporters know how to claim their items if they purchased them online or had to leave the event before the auction closed.

Bonus tip: Make sure your auction software offers a secure payment processing system.

Your payment processor should have security measures in place such as PCI compliance and data encryption. This gives donors a smooth, painless, trustworthy checkout process.

9. Run through your event.

As the big day approaches, your planning committee should conduct a practice run of your event so you can iron out any potential issues you may encounter during the auction. Prioritize the following tasks during your run-through:

  • Streamline check-in and check-out processes to get your auction guests in and out of your auction painlessly. Make your check-in tables a one-stop shop, and ensure 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 to avoid any issues when the day of the auction rolls around.

At the end of the day, organization and communication are key when throwing a successful fundraising auction. Brainstorm with your team any pitfalls that may arise during the event and plan ahead for how to avoid them and what you could do if an issue takes place.

Bonus tip: Don’t crowd your tables.

If you’re throwing an in-person event, make sure your items are evenly spaced. They shouldn’t be crowded together at the same table because this will overwhelm your guests and may result in certain items being overlooked. When arranging your items, consider alternating items like gift cards and larger physical items so the tables don’t get too crowded with just one type of item.

10. Conduct event follow-up tasks.

After your auction has concluded and the last gift has been picked up by a winning bidder, your work isn’t over quite yet. To knock your event process out of the park, be sure to conduct the following wrapping-up tasks:

  • Have a plan for items that didn’t sell. Will you keep them for a later auction? Donate them? Sell them online? Be intentional about any leftover items so they don’t go to waste.
  • 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, bidders, volunteers, and corporate sponsors. Be specific about how their donations and support will positively impact the communities you serve. For example, let them know how many more beneficiaries you’ll be able to help or how many new pieces of equipment you’ll be able to purchase.
  • Review your event’s results. Identify your wins, and celebrate them with your staff and volunteers. Also, figure out what growth opportunities you have for your future events. Could you tweak your event layout for greater impact? Can you provide a more positive attendee experience through different entertainment options? Note these opportunities to keep them in mind when planning your next event.

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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