How to Run A Silent Auction: Tips, Tricks, and Expert Advice

Fundraising July 29, 2021

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Setting up, promoting, and executing a silent auction can be a daunting task. There are so many moving pieces! Planning and coordination are key, to ensure your association, nonprofit, or charity sees the funds—and fun!—you want out of the day.

But silent auctions are also an enjoyable and engaging way to raise money! They aren't just fundraisers: they're entertainment for your guests.

That said...if you're not sure where to start, you’re not alone.

That's why we're here. This guide was built out to help fundraisers like you (especially if it isn't even your full time-job!) simplify the planning and execution of silent auctions.

Want to know how to run a phenomenal online or virtual auction? You should check out this guide instead. 

Let's dive in!

What Is A Silent Auction?

You’ve likely attended a silent auction before. Maybe your local choir held one each year to pay for trips. Maybe you participated in one at your favourite nonprofit's gala. But something you might've noticed is...they're not so silent, after all!

Silent auctions are social events, and that means there'll be plenty of conversation. They're "silent" auctions because there's no auctioneer! Instead, attendees write down their bids silently...and compete to see who'll go home with the prize by checking their bid throughout the night.

A silent auction can the main event, but they aren't always. They could be part of:

  • An awards ceremony
  • A fundraising event
  • A conference
  • A gala

Or other bigger to-dos—adding a splash of entertainment and a fundraising opportunity. However you hold them, they're a great opportunity for your community to contribute towards your goals.

How do Silent Auctions Work?

Mileage may vary depending on how big your organization is, what type of event your running, and who your bidders are. But here are the basics for how silent auctions tend to work:

  • Items for auction are displayed for participants to inspect, often including an item description
  • In front of each item is a “bid sheet”, where bidders can place their bid silently
  • Bidders place their bid anonymously with a bidder number, to keep things anonymous
  • Guests have the option to return to their sheets, and up their bid, before the night concludes
  • Many silent auctions add a “minimum increase requirement” to their bid sheets, which means that the next bid must be a certain dollar amount more than the previous one (eg. If the minimum increase is $5 and the previous bid was $50, the next bid must be at least $55)

A silent auction must also have a predetermined end point at which bidding is concluded. At that time, the bid sheets are collected by organizers and the highest bid on each sheet is the winning bid—and that person goes home with the item!


Why Should Nonprofits and Associations Hold Silent Auctions?

There are so many ways to fundraise. How do you know a silent auction is right for your organization?

Here are all the perks of silent auctions:

  • They don't cost a lot! Silent auctions can be fairly informal, and without an auctioneer you essentially need four things: a room, prizes (often gifts from local businesses!), organizers (that's you!), and bidders. If you already have space, or are renting space for an event, it's a great way to turn a blank wall into a source of fundraising revenue.
  • You support the self-conscious bidder. For the introverts out there, having the chance to quietly place a bid could up their chances of giving. There's something about stepping out of the spotlight (you know, compared to raising a paddle) that feels a bit freer.
  • Your community mobilizes around you. Part of a silent auction is sourcing great items to auction off. Your organization team will be in charge of mobilizing community businesses and service-providers to find gold—and while you're at it, you could build some really awesome local partnerships!
  • Hello, revenue! This one is pretty straightforward: whether you're holding a silent auction for its own sake, or making it a part of a larger event, you're creating a new fundraising opportunity and diversifying your revenue streams.
  • They're just plain fun. Silent auctions are basically social fundraisers. Give your guests the chance to chat over items, get excited about giving, and go home from the night with something they love. That is, if they place the right bid!

How to Run a Silent Auction: The Basics

Here’s a high-level list of what you’ll need to get started with silent auctions:

  • Get the Band Together: Your number when step when planning a silent auction is your go-to team. Whether they're staff members or volunteers, you need folks who are ready to book the date, stage the venue, organize the promo, and run the day of! Don't forget: these people might end up dealing with sensitive information (like payment!)), so you'll want to make sure they're well-trained and trustworthy.

  • Plan, Plan, Plan: Events get complicated fast, so your best bet is to get your plans in place early. Set your date and create a workback schedule of key deadlines to hit for all the preparation. When do you need to book your venue? When do you need to finish sourcing items? What are the key deliverables for your marketing plans? You might want to use a some productivity tools to help keep things organized.
  • Pre-Promotion: As soon as your silent auction date is set, start sending invitations and rallying your community! Pro tip: If you share item descriptions online before the auction, attendees can plan what they want to bid on, or help advertise the items through word of mouth.

  • Venue: Your venue should be big enough for attendees to mingle and chat, especially if the silent auction is only one part of the evening's entertainment. Consider the needs of your event, and make sure you find a space that highlights the auction. Even better, work with your community: you could ask a local restaurant to host and auction off a dining package or private dinner, strengthening your ties with business partners. 
  • Source High-Value Items: An auction is as good as its items. Go find valuable items that will get your audience excited, so you can raise the maximum possible revenue from your auction. (Later in this post, we cover which items your audience is likely to find valuable.) 
  • Item Setup: They say don't judge a book by a cover, but we all do it. Set up a solid display to make your items seem appealing! Choose wisely from stages, platforms, easels and cases, and keep lighting and location in mind when arranging your collection. Make sure everything is tidy, and that each item has its own time to shine—you don't want a bidder to skim over their could-be item!

  • Item Description Sheets: Every item should have an item description sheet, where you can give more details about what the item is, say who it was sponsored by, and provide a photo (this is especially helpful if the item isn't physical! For an example, a vacation package). You can also distribute copies of these sheets throughout your event! For example, collect them into a booklet and keep them at dinner tables, cruiser tables, the bar, etc. This will remind your attendees about the silent auction and will encourage them to place a bid.

  • Registration: Registration isn't required! But there are two core benefits to having bidders register before the auction:
    • 1) Your silent auction can be anonymous. After participants fill out the registration form, you'll assign them a bidder number, which they can use to place bids instead of using their names. Some people would rather not put their name on a public bid sheet for everyone else to see!
    • 2) You can collect participant information, in case you need to contact them after the event. This is VERY important, since you might need to get in touch with the winning bidders after the event—or provide them with receipts. Some bid sheets will include a place for people to note down their contact information but, again, not everyone is comfortable leaving their information in a public place. 
  • Bid Sheets: Bid sheets are where the actual auction takes place. They should include the name of the item, its value, and a minimum bid amount. Then, if you've used a registration form, you'll just need pace for people to note down their bidder number and bid amount. Some auctions also offer a "Buy Now" price. If someone as their heart set on an item, they can buy it before the auction ends and take it off the market! This is optional, but it's a good chance to increase revenue, since the "Buy Now" amount is usually quite high. 

  • Volunteers: Silent auctions can be labour-intensive. Recruiting well-trained volunteers to help with soliciting items, inventory management, auction set-up, registration, and checkout will ensure your event runs smoothly and your bidders have a good time. Remember: you'll also need someone to wear a Volunteer Coordinator hat!

  • Auction Monitors: If possible, experienced or trained volunteers or staff should act as auction monitors. They'll be in charge of keeping an eye on the items and bid sheets to make sure everyone's following the auction and bidding rules.

  • Checkout Area: Having a cordoned off area that deals with the actual monetary transactions will help make transactions private (if requested) and secure. Be prepared to deal with cash, checks, and even credit cards (using any nonprofit credit card processor).

  • Silent Auction Software: Although it's not a necessity for every organization, auction software like Auctria can help you manage your fundraiser more effectively and easily.

Want a little help? Download our free Silent Auction Templates package, which includes a sample registration form, bid sheet, item description sheet, auction rules, as well as 50+ auction item ideas. 

How to Make Your Silent Auction a Success

Every event comes with the same question: is it going to be successful?! And silent auctions are no different. Actually, since you might be relying on them as a revenue stream, the stakes could be even higher!

Don't get too worried, though: a successful silent auction is definitely within reach. 

It just takes a bit of planning — and a lot of commitment to picking the right items.

Here's how to sew success into the fabric of your auction.

Keep it Mission-Related

Your audience is attending the event to support your cause... so don't be afraid to remind them of your impact! 

One way to do this is to have some "items" that are directly equivalent to donations, such as "$50 buys meals for a family of four for a week" or "$100 pays for spaying one cat". That way, audience members who may not feel as inspired by other items or who don't win can still contribute. 

You can also do this by asking the item donors to share on the item sheet why they chose to donate to your cause. That way, as potential bidders are looking through the item information, they'll have your mission as well as what they're donating to front of mind! 

Create a Win-Win-Win Situation When a Bidder Wins

Your items shouldn't just sell. Each participant in your auction should feel like they're getting something out of it:

  • Bidder: Your bidder shouldn't just feel like they're buying something—they should feel like they got lucky after an evening of fun. Make sure they enjoy browsing, bidding, and talking about the items at your auction.

  • Item Donor: If you've set up your items right, and your bidders are motivated, the items should sell for what they're worth (or more)! That way, at the end of the night, any item donors can feel proud that their items did well, and raised valuable funds for you.
  • Your Organization: When your bidders and donors are happy, you're more likely to secure future event attendees and item donations! That means you'll forge stronger relationships that help you to raise more into the future.

And there you have it: a win-win-win.

Of Course You Want Items That Sell Well

Many associations, non-profits, and small membership organizations have limited resources and staff, so it’s critical that you put them to good use by focusing on finding auction items that will excite people and give you more bang for your buck.

But, you ask, how can you figure out what will excite your guests?

Think about your event audience. Are they young singles? Retirees? Big spenders? Art lovers? Sport fanatics? Wine lovers? Environmental enthusiasts?

If you know your audience fits into a particular niche, you can focus on finding items and services that would suit their interests. For example, if your organization is a sports club, items such as signed memorabilia, sporting event tickets and sporting goods may be seen as desirable and are sure to sell well.

And regardless of your crowd, there are certain items that tend to sell well among many demographics, and some that don’t.

Some of the items that work across the board are:

  • Restaurant gift certificates
  • Wine and wine collections
  • Vacation getaways
  • Hotel stays
  • Sporting event tickets –  especially VIP boxes that bidders would not otherwise be able to access
  • Entertainment (concerts, theater, symphony, opera, ballet) tickets – especially when these events tend to sell out
  • Gift packages of any of the items described above
Other experiences may be even more unique, and as such may be even more valuable to your audience. Some ideas, outlined in this post by Claire Axelrod, are: 
  • Personal services performed by your staff, your board or a group of your supporters. This could include experiences like babysitting by a favorite teacher, a party hosted by your board president for the winner and 10 friends at the board president’s house, monthly baked goods delivered by a staffer who is a phenomenal pastry chef, or a certificate good for 4 hours of IT support from your IT specialist. Get creative, and use the skills of the people in your network. 
  • Unique community experiences. For example, lunch with a respected professor, a day spent behind-the-scenes with a local broadcaster, a ride on a traffic helicopter, etc. Think of things that people may not otherwise be able to access, but that they'd find enjoyable or interesting. 
  • Once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If you have donors with a large budget, then by all means look for that walk-on part in a movie… the dinner for 8 cooked by a celebrity chef in your own home… the box seats for the World Series… the opportunity to conduct the symphony. If your donor base wouldn't be able to afford it, though, don't bother: you won’t get an appropriate bid, and the donor will never give you another item.

There are also some items that you shouldn't bother looking for, including: 

  • Professional services such as (unless the provider is well known and respected):
    • Interior design consultation
    • Pilates classes
    • A chiropractic session
    • Financial services consultation
  • Art (unless you have a crowd of art lovers and your art has been vetted by professionals).
  • Antiques (same rules apply as for art)

To figure out which items will work well for your target audience, you can also send out a pre-event survey asking your audience what kind of items they would want at different price points (giving them options or just asking them to write in ideas). It takes a little more planning, but you'll be sure of success! 

How to Get The Best Silent Auction Items

Once you’ve given some thought to your audience and the kind of silent auction items they might appreciate and value, how do you secure the right auction items?
Well, from what we've seen, it's all about the connections you've built. 
You can't source all the items alone: you'll need to ask your community to support you and to ask their friends, family, alumni, and business partners to do the same. Remember that team you're building? Get them together and brainstorm a list of potential donors and items, then assign volunteers to follow up and solicit those items.
Of course, dealing with item donations, bidders, and the silent auction itself can be a lot to handle at once for any organization. Having a single platform to manage all these moving parts can be an invaluable asset when planning your fundraising event. Make sure to consider
your options for auction software that could streamline the set-up and execution of your auction.

Six Questions to Help You Secure The Best Items

Looking for suggestions that will wow and excite your guest? Here are a few questions via Claire's blog to ask yourself and your team while you're trying to determine which items will be the most successful. 
  1. What restaurants do you frequent? Could you get a gift certificate? Would the chef host a dinner at the restaurant? Would the chef come to cook dinner in someone’s home? 
  2. Are you a subscriber to, or on the board of, a local entertainment venue? Could you get tickets? A behind-the-scenes tour? Lunch with the director? An invitation to a dress rehearsal?
  3. Do you or someone on your board have season tickets to a local sporting event? Could you offer up one or more pair? Could you get something special, like an autographed ball?
  4. Do you or your board members have any vintage or special wines you’d be willing to donate? Do you frequently buy from a vintner who might donate a case?
  5. What hobbies do you have? Can you offer a beer-making class? A gourmet cooking class? 
  6. What access do you have to special experiences? An afternoon on your private yacht? Two hours on your private jet? A signed television script (you know someone who works at the studio)? 

As your staff and volunteers consider their responses to these questions, remind them to think through their entire network of family, friends and colleagues – anyone they know who might have access to popular and/or creative auction items.

And as we mentioned in the section above, these ideas don't necessarily have to be expensive for your organization to source (although if you're making use of staff's talents, make sure they're fairly compensated for their time!). They just have to be unique and not something your donors would usually be able to access. 

If you need help coming up with creative auction item ideas, you can always outsource this to a service like Giveback XP, who'll prepare unique experience packages for your organization to auction off. 

Read More: The Donation List Template Your Organization Needs to Stay on Track


How to Run a Silent Auction: The Day Of

You have your amazing items, and now all you need to do is get ready for all the bids that will come rolling in! 

Once the big day arrives, here's a quick breakdown of the steps for you to follow while arranging all the last-minute details. 

1. Get to the venue and set up. As we mentioned before, you'll want to think carefully about how to place the items so that they can be displayed to their best advantage. 

2. Start welcoming guests. You or your volunteers can check in with attendees as they enter to take a pulse on the room and get them excited about bidding. If you're using silent auction software or mobile bidding, you may also need to explain how it works. 

3. Officially announce the beginning of bidding. Let the fun (and fundraising) begin! 

4. Attend to other programming. If you're holding a dinner, awards gala, or other event, it's time to get back to those equally important components. But remember: you can remind people throughout the night that the auction is ongoing, and when it will close! (If there are other events running concurrently, check out our guide on how to plan an event to get a more detailed breakdown of all the steps.)

5. Check in with guests. Ensure they know how to bid, and answer any questions they may have about your items to continue building the excitement. 

6. Close your auction. Letting your attendees know in advance the specific time it's closing allows you have a countdown and drive urgency right at the very end. 

7. Declare the winning bids. Let the victors celebrate! 

8. Send out a post-event surveyAsk attendees and their guests what they enjoyed, what they didn't, and which items they would've liked to see more of so that your next silent auction can be even better! You can also thank them for attending. 


How to Set Up Online Donations Through Your Website

Along with holding silent auctions, many modern nonprofits are also using their websites to increase charitable donations. They do this by educating their website visitors about their cause and making it easy for them to donate online.

If you'd like your website to accept online donations, consider trying a software called Membership Management Software. This type of software is an all-in-one software designed to automate the administrative tasks of small organizations (like donation processing, member management, and event registrations) and help them grow in members and revenue online.

Here's how Membership Management Software can drastically simplify the donation process on your website: 

  1. Someone comes to your website and decides to donate (Membership Management Software makes it easy to setup a Donation Page and donation buttons).
  2. The software sends the donation straight into your account and the donor's contact information is saved in a database.
  3. The software sends the donor a receipt for their donation and updates your financial records automatically.
  4. Now that you have the donor's contact information in your database, you can email them (straight from the software) more information about your organization and ask for future donations.

If you'd like to set this up for your organization, start a free trial of WildApricot. WildApricot is the #1 rated Membership Management Software used by almost 4,000 nonprofits around the word. You can get your free, 30-day trial here.

Silent Auction Software WildApricot Review

"The combo of member management, donations, website, and email marketing is simply great. I highly recommended WildApricot for small to medium sized associations."

-Marechiel Santos-Lang, Philippine-American Association of Madison & Neighboring Areas (PAMANA)

And if you need help optimizing your website to increase donations, we've put together an easy, step-by-step guide here.

Best of luck with your silent auction! We hope these tips help make it your most successful one yet.

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Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

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Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • Cathy:
    Thank you for all the information you provide. I will be having my 1st Silent Auction this weekend and I was getting a bit nervous about how to actually pull this off. Your templates are amazing. Now I can get going and be ready and comfortable.


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