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

Fundraising June 18, 2020

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Thinking about launching a silent auction to raise funds?

You’re not alone.

From home and school associations to non-profits and charities – everyone wants to include a silent auction as part of their events.

That’s because having a silent auction is an enjoyable and engaging fundraiser.

However planning, promoting and executing a successful silent auction can be a daunting task.

There are many moving pieces, so coordination and planning are key.

Finally, please note that the aim of this guide is to go through the basics and help simplify the planning and execution of silent auctions.

If you're looking to run an online or virtual auction throughout COVID-19 instead, check out this guide instead. 

If not, let's dive in!

So What Is A Silent Auction, Exactly?

You’ve likely attended an event that has included a silent auction.

Have you ever asked yourself, with all of the chatter and noise going on at your event, why they're called “silent auctions”? It’s because they're held without an auctioneer, so bids are taken silently.

Silent auctions can either be the main attraction around which an entire event is based, or they can be a supplemental form of entertainment (and fundraising) as part of an awards ceremony, fundraising event, conference, etc.

During a typical silent auction event, items for auction are displayed for participants to inspect closely. In front of each item is a document called a “bid sheet”, where interested bidders can place a bid silently and anonymously using a bidder number. Many silent auctions add a “minimum increase requirement” to their bid sheets. This means that the next bid must be a certain dollar amount more than the previous one. For example, 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 gets to go home with the item!


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:

  • Pre-Promotion: Start sending out invitations via email and rallying your community as soon as your silent auction date is set. You might also want to start sharing your item descriptions online once they're ready to give attendees a taste of what's up for grabs as well as encouraging new audience members to come by. 
  • Venue: You'll want to have a large enough venue to allow attendees to mingle and chat, especially if the silent auction is only one part of the evening's entertainment. Consider asking a restaurant to host, and then auctioning off a dining package there or a private dinner with their chef, to build additional interest. 
  • Desirable Items: Your whole auction revolves around the items that are on offer. Sourcing valuable items that your audience will be excited by will help you get the maximum possible revenue from your auction. (Later in this post, we cover which items your audience is likely to find valuable.) 

  • Item Display: Displaying your chosen items appropriately will help you to accentuate them. Choose wisely from stages, platforms, easels and cases to make the items stand out and appear more desirable. Keep in mind lighting and location when arranging your collection.

  • Item Description Sheets: It is best to accompany each item with an item description sheet, where you can give more details about what it is, who it was sponsored by and provide a photo (this is especially helpful if the item is not quite tangible like, for an example, a vacation package). You can also provide copies of these sheets in other places throughout your event venue or even put them together in a booklet and keep them at dinner tables, cruiser tables, the bar, etc. This will remind your event attendees about the silent auction and will encourage them to place a bid even if they're not standing directly in the silent auction area.

  • Registration: Registration is not by any means required, but there are two great benefits to having your silent auction participants register before the auction begins:
    • 1) Your silent auction can be anonymous  — after participants fill out the registration form, they will be given 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 and this ensures that everyone can participate comfortably.
    • 2) You can collect information about each auction participant in case you need to contact them after the event. This is especially important since there is a chance that you'll need to get in touch with the winning bidders about their purchases as well as providing them with receipts. Some bid sheets will include a place for people to note down their contact information but, once again, not everyone will be comfortable with leaving their information in a public place. 
  • Bid Sheets: Bid sheets are where the actual auction takes place. If you choose to use a registration form, all you'll need to include on your bid sheet is the name of the item, its value, a minimum bid amount, and spaces for people to note down their bidder number and bid amount. names and bids. Some auctions also offer a "Buy Now" price. If someone really has their heart set on an item, they can buy it before the auction ends and take it off the market, so to speak. This is optional, but is a good chance to increase revenue, since the "Buy Now" 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 help make sure your event runs smoothly and your bidders have a good time.

  • Auction Monitors: If possible, experienced or trained volunteers or staff should act as auction monitors. As the bidding is “self service”, the monitors should be in charge of keeping an eye on the items and bid sheets to make sure that your guests are following the auction and bidding rules.

  • Checkout Area: Having a cordoned off area that deals with the actual monetary transactions will help make transaction 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. 

What to Do to Ensure Your Silent Auction Is a Success

Silent auctions have the potential to be a roaring good time for all... or a complete disaster. 

(If you've experienced the latter, you know what I'm talking about!)

Don't get too worried, though: it's definitely possible to run a successful silent auction. 

To do so, however, requires a bit of planning — and a lot of commitment to picking the right items. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you start working on it. 

Keep it Mission-Related

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

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

Yes, it's all about the auction items.

But it’s also about how they make your guests feel.

Your silent auction will be a success if the items you’ve laid out for auction are valuable to your attendees or offer up a unique experience.

Plus, the right items won't just be a success for your guests: they'll be a success for you and the people who donated the items. 

When a guest “wins” an item, they should truly feel more like they got lucky, rather than feeling like they paid for something. Make them have a good time and they’ll look forward to the next such event. They should enjoy browsing, bidding, and talking about the items at your auction. 

The people who donated said items should feel like your organization is getting an equal or higher value to the price of their item, so that they can feel good about having donated and can vicariously enjoy the satisfaction of the winning bidders. They want to see their items do well and raise money for you. 

And these two factors mean that you'll maximize the revenue from each item, secure future donations from the item donors, and ensure guests and donors both have a good time and will attend your future events: 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. Get your team 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 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 get a sense of the pulse of the room and to 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. (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 Wild Apricot. Wild Apricot 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 Wild Apricot Review

"The combo of member management, donations, website, and email marketing is simply great. I highly recommended Wild Apricot 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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