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19 Steps to Running a Successful Silent Auction

Author: Tatiana Morand
April 8, 2022
🕑 13 min read

Silent auctions are an enjoyable and engaging way to raise money. They aren’t just fundraisers — they’re also entertainment for your guests.

That said, setting up, promoting, and executing a silent auction can be a daunting task. There are so many moving pieces!

That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help fundraisers like you simplify the planning and execution of silent auctions.

Let’s dive in!

What Is a Silent Auction?

If you’ve attended a silent auction before, something you might’ve noticed is…they’re not so silent! Silent auctions are social events, and that means there’s plenty of conversation.

They are considered “silent” because there’s no auctioneer. Instead, attendees write down their bids and check on the highest bid throughout the night.

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

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

However you hold them, they’re a great opportunity for your community to contribute towards your goals.

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

How Do Silent Auctions Work?

Here are the basics of how silent auctions usually work:

  • Items for auction are displayed for participants to inspect, usually with an item description
  • In front of each item is a “bid sheet”, where bidders can place their bid silently
  • Bidders place their bid using a bidder number to keep things anonymous
  • Guests can return to the bid sheets throughout the night and raise their bid
  • Many silent auctions add a “minimum increase requirement” to their bid sheets, which means that the next bid has to be a certain dollar amount more than the previous one

A silent auction also needs a predetermined end point where bids are closed. At that time, the bid sheets are collected by the organizers and the highest bid on each sheet is the winning bid—and that person goes home with the item!

Benefits of Hosting a Silent Auction for Nonprofits

Here are 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, 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.
  • Your community mobilizes around you. Part of organizing a silent auction is sourcing great items to auction off. Your team will be in charge of mobilizing local 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 about the items, get excited about giving, and go home with something they love. That is, if they place the right bid!

Types of Silent Auctions

Thanks to new technology, silent auctions can now be done in a few ways:

1. In-person via bid sheets

This is the traditional silent auction where bidders need to go up to each item and write their bid on the bid sheet.

2. Virtually through online bidding

In a virtual silent auction, bidders can place bids online from the comfort of their own home. These auctions typically last a few days and aren’t necessarily tied to an event.

Read More: A Complete Guide to Online Auctions for Nonprofits

3. In-person via mobile bidding

This is a hybrid between an in-person and a virtual auction. Bidders attend an event and can examine the items in person, but all bidding is done virtually via their mobile devices. This can be through an app, a website, or text messaging.

Mobile bidding is a popular choice among nonprofits, since it offers the following benefits:

  • Bidders can place a bid from anywhere. They can do it while they continue to socialize, elderly guests can do it without leaving their tables, and guests who have to leave the event early can continue to bid from home.
  • Bidders don’t need to line up in front of bid sheets and wait their turn.
  • Bidders get notified when someone outbids them, usually prompting them to place a higher bid.
  • Since bidding is easier, faster, and more convenient, guests are more likely to actively participate in the auction, which can result in increased revenue.

How To Create an Auction Budget

Like any event, a successful silent auction requires a budget. To put yours together, take into consideration how much money you have available to spend, as well as all of your anticipated expenses. These will likely be things like:

  • Event venue
  • Furniture rentals
  • Catering
  • Music and entertainment
  • Other suppliers

As you plan your silent auction, you’ll be able to refer to this budget and make sure you’re staying on track and aren’t overspending.

Your budget should also include your projected revenue. How much are you hoping to raise and where will this money come from? In the next section, we’ll go over a few ideas for how to increase your revenue.

How To Raise More Money at Your Silent Auction

The majority of your profits will come from selling the auction items. That being said, there are a few other things you can do to increase revenue:

1. Secure corporate sponsors

A corporate sponsor can help by making a financial contribution, making an in-kind donation (auction items or event supplies), or volunteering their employees’ time and talents. Not to mention, a well-known sponsor can help with visibility and drive more attendees to your event.

Read More: How to Get Sponsorships: The Complete Guide

2. Charge admission

If your silent auction is tied to a larger event, you’ll probably want to charge admission. Your guests will understand that you need to cover your expenses and pay for things like catering and entertainment. You can also explain that a portion of the ticket cost will be considered a donation.

3. Ask for donations

As a nonprofit, it’s perfectly okay to ask for additional donations at your event. You can do this when guests are buying tickets or a few times during the event itself. You can even encourage the auction winners to up their final payment to a round number.

4. Sell merchandise

Do you have branded merchandise that your guests will enjoy? Set up a merch table and invite guests to purchase something. It’s a great way for them to support your organization. Plus, those who don’t end up winning an auction item don’t have to leave the event with empty hands.

5. Organize a raffle

Raffles add more fun and excitement to any event. You can organize a 50/50 raffle, where 50% of the proceeds goes to your organization and 50% goes to the winner. Alternatively, you can invite people to enter their name into a draw for a prize. To make the raffle more enticing, the prize should have the same value as some of the auction items. Just be sure to check whether you need a special permit to host the raffle.

19 Steps To Running a Successful Silent Auction

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

Before the Auction

1. Assemble your team

Identify who will help you organize the silent auction. These will primarily be your fellow staff members, but you’ll also likely need volunteers, especially for the day of. Volunteers can help with things like set up and tear down, registration, checkout, and monitoring the auction to make sure everything is running smoothly and everyone is following the rules.

2. Make a 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 example:

  • 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 productivity tool to help keep things organized.

Be sure to also set goals for this auction and identify a few KPIs (key performance indicators) to help you measure success. For example, your goals may be to:

  • Generate a certain amount of revenue
  • Attract a certain number of attendees
  • Raise a certain amount in donation

3. Find a venue

Consider the needs of your event and make sure you find a space that is large enough, has an atmosphere that matches your theme, and is accessible. If you’ll be using mobile bidding, make sure the event space has free Wi-Fi.

You can pay to rent a venue, but before you opt for this, see if you can find a local business that would be willing to donate their space. For example, you could ask a local restaurant to host the event, plus donate a dining package for you to auction off. You would save on costs, while the restaurant would benefit from the increased visibility and promotion.

4. Source high-value items

An auction is only as good as its items. Find valuable items that will get your guests excited, so you can raise the maximum possible revenue.

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, such as:

  • Restaurant gift certificates
  • 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
  • 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.)

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 it will be worth it!

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.

5. Pre-promotion and publicity

As soon as your silent auction date is set, start sending invitations and rallying your community. Promote your auction on your website, in local print publications, and on social media.

If possible, create an online catalog of your auction items. You don’t have to have all of them secured to start sharing them — you can always add more as they come in. This will help build excitement, spread the word about the auction, entice people to register, and help them plan what they’d like to bid on.

6. Create item description sheets

Every item should have an item description sheet, where you can give more details about what the item is, share who it was sponsored by, and provide a photo (this is especially helpful if the item isn’t tangible).

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.

7. Create 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. You’ll also need a place for people to note down their bidder number and bid amount.

Some auctions also offer a “Buy Now” price. If someone has 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.

8. Get silent auction software (optional)

If you’ve decided to offer mobile bidding at your silent auction, you’ll need software to help set this up and ensure it runs smoothly.

The Day Of

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to do to set up the auction and take care of last-minute details.

9. Set up auction items

Here are a few tips for setting up your items in a functional, visually appealing way:

  • Make sure every item is visible and properly lit
  • Use platforms, easels, and cases to help items stand out
  • Categorize like items together
  • Make sure there’s enough space for traffic, mingling, and people waiting to place their bids

10. Set up registration

There are two main 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.

  1. 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.

11. Set up a 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).

12. 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.

13. Officially announce the beginning of bidding

Let the fun (and fundraising) begin!

14. 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.

Read More: How to Plan an Event: a Complete Guide

15. 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.

16. Close your auction

Have a countdown before closing the auction to drive urgency until the very end. This will prompt people to place their last-minute bids while they still have the chance.

17. Declare the winning bids

Let the victors celebrate and help them collect their items. Be sure to get in touch with any winners who have left the event to arrange pick-up or delivery.

After the Auction

18. Get feedback

Send out a post-event survey to all guests to thank them for attending and ask them for feedback. Invite them to contribute their ideas for how your next silent auction can be even better.

19. Host a post-mortem meeting

Get your team together and discuss how the silent auction went. Ask your staff and volunteers about their experience and what could be done better next time.

Look back at the goals and KPIs you set at the beginning of the planning process. Were you able to reach your goals? Why or why not? What could you do better in the future?

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 set up a donation page).
  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 thousands of nonprofits around the world. You can get your free, 60-day trial here.

Silent Auction Software

Get Your Free Silent Auction Templates Package

You should now have everything you need in order to plan and execute a successful silent auction. To make planning even easier, be sure to 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.

Best of luck with your silent auction!

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