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By chris

Charity auctions can be some of the most lucrative events for nonprofit organizations, but they can also be some of the most difficult to plan.

Between soliciting auction items, booking an event space, recruiting a team of volunteers, and more, there are many logistics that nonprofits must consider when hosting an auction.

Luckily there are few tricks that will make the process run a little more smoothly and that will help you ensure your auction is a success!

The tips we’ll cover here are:

  1. Use auction software.
  2. Choose your items wisely.
  3. Recruit an experienced team of volunteers.
  4. Keep detailed records.
  5. Advertise your items.
  6. Make your items the star.
  7. Be strategic with the auction item order.
  8. Make bidding convenient.
  9. Gamify your auction.

Whether you’re hosting an auction as the kick-off to your capital campaign or making it a staple of your annual fund, these tips are sure to make all of that planning pay off!

Using auction software can make planning your auction more manageable for your organization and help you raise more money.

1. Use auction software.

There’s a way you can set yourself up for charity success before planning has even begun: purchase auction software!

Auction software can encompass a couple of different types of platforms:

  1. Auction and event planning software. With auction and event planning software, organizations can manage all efforts and data related to their events centrally, from storing event details to creating auction item records to accommodating attendees and much more.
  2. Mobile bidding. Mobile bidding software is a new silent auction bidding method that nonprofits can use as an alternative to bid sheets. It enables guests to peruse and place bids on items directly from their smartphones.

Auction software can improve both auction planning and execution in a number of ways. Not only does it make planning much more efficient and manageable, but it also enables nonprofits to provide their auction guests with a more convenient and enjoyable event experience.

However, as with shopping for other types of fundraising software, selecting the right auction software requires careful consideration. You’ll have to do your research and evaluate your organization’s needs before you enter into the buying process.

Here are some things you might need to consider:

  • Are you only using your auction software to help you plan one charity auction, or will you need it to plan multiple events?
  • How many items are you anticipating putting up for auction?
  • How many bidders will be participating in your event?
  • Are you planning on hosting an online auction?
  • Will you also need on-site event support?

These are just a few of many important considerations. To learn more about auction software and the buying process, check out this resource.

Takeaway: Auction software is a powerful tool that can help make your auction more successful from the outset. Consider your organization’s internal needs carefully before purchasing a platform to ensure you’re working with a vendor who’s the right fit.

Being strategic about which auction items you feature in your charity auction will help your organization raise more money.

2. Choose your items wisely.

There would be no auction without items to auction off!

Not all auction items are created equal, however. If you want your donors to attend the event and actually participate in the bidding, you’ll need to choose your items wisely.

What does that mean, exactly? The best auction items will take a few things into account:

  • Attendees’ interests: People will only buy things that spark their interest! Study your donors’ interests and affinities when choosing your items to get a better idea of what might be the most appealing to your audience.
  • Attendees’ income levels: Affinities make up only half of the equation. Just as with your major donor prospecting (//www.donorsearch.net/major-donor-fundraising-strategies/), it’s important to consider the giving capacities of your attendees. Make sure your items fit the general income level of your audience to ensure that people will bid.
  • Uniqueness: Your auction items shouldn’t just be any old thing that donors can purchase online or pick up and buy off of a shelf. The best items will be those that offer the winner a once-in-a-lifetime experience (such as a behind-the-scenes peek into a movie set) or those that couldn’t be found anywhere else (like a piece of memorabilia signed by a musician or athlete).

Additionally, it’s important to consider not only the type of items you’re offering at your auction, but also the amount of items you’ll auction off.

The most successful auctions are those that create a seller’s market, meaning there are fewer auction items offered than guests attending. You should aim for a ratio of roughly one auction item to every two attendees.

A seller’s market creates more competition around each item and reduces the chances that some of your items might not receive a bid, thereby increasing the chances that your event will be profitable!

Over time, you may find that certain types of items appeal more to your donors.

For instance, if you have a supporter base that’s full of foodies, culinary-themed auction items are going to go over much better than, say, sports-themed or travel-based.

If you host a charity auction every year, you can look at the data to see which items received the most attention and which ones weren’t as desirable. Use this data to plan out future auctions and events!

Takeaway: The most successful auctions will feature items that fit the demographics of the audience. Create a ratio that benefits the seller for the most success.

Having plenty of volunteers on your side during your auction will help you host a more successful event.

3. Recruit an experienced team of volunteers.

Your organization won’t be able to pull off an auction alone.

With so many logistics to consider when planning and executing the event, you’ll need a team of volunteers on your side to help.

Some of the key players you’ll need might be:

  • A recruitment team: This group of volunteers will be in charge of soliciting and securing the items for the event.
  • An auctioneer: If your organization is hosting a live auction, you’ll most definitely need the help of a professional auctioneer. Because they’re so integral to the energy and success of the event, this is a good place to splurge if you can’t find one who’s willing to volunteer.
  • An emcee: If you’re going the silent auction route, you’ll still need someone to make announcements and actively engage guests. A lively emcee will do the trick!
  • Auction spotters: During live auctions, the auction spotters will be those who scout the audience for bids to ensure that no audience member is overlooked.
  • Auction monitors: Auction monitors will walk around the room during a silent auction to make sure bidding is running smoothly. Their main duties will be answering any questions attendees have, talking up items to encourage more bids, and helping to facilitate closing the auction.

While it will probably be unrealistic to find professional volunteers for all of these roles, it’s best to find those that have some experience in auction planning, especially for the volunteers that will be helping donors with bidding.

Volunteers should be familiar with your nonprofit’s bidding tools so that they can teach guests how to use the software and troubleshoot any challenges that might arise.

Auctions require a more specialized skill set than other types of fundraising events, so an experienced team will mean the greatest chance of success!

Experienced or not, it’s still important to prepare your volunteers before the event so that everyone is clear on their role and responsibilities. To get everyone on the same page, schedule a meeting before the auction to go over the three stages of your event: set-up, during the event, and clean-up. 

Additionally, this meeting is a great opportunity to double-check that all of your shifts are covered and role play a few tricky scenarios so that your volunteers are prepared for any circumstance.

Assign specific duties to your volunteers and let them know what time you expect them to arrive. For instance, volunteers that need to help set-up should begin work at least two hours before the event.

By being specific and clear about each role and what you want your volunteers to accomplish, you’ll help ensure that your event runs smoothly. For more information about delegating your volunteers and planning your auction, read Fundly’s event checklist.

Takeaway: Auctions require the help of many hands. Find a team of experienced volunteers to help your event run more smoothly.

Keeping detailed item records throughout the planning process will make it much easier to leverage item data throughout the auction planning and execution processes.

4. Keep detailed records.

Depending on the size of your organization, you’ll have dozens or even hundreds of auction items to keep track of.

Make the whole planning process easier on yourself by keeping detailed item records from the beginning.

Each record should include:

  • The name of the item.
  • The item’s auction number.
  • A detailed description, including any restrictions (such as expiration dates for gift cards). If you’re bundling items or offering gift baskets, make note of each individual item.
  • The name and contact information of of the item’s donor (if applicable).
  • The market value of the item.
  • The starting bid amount.
  • The minimum raise amount.

Every time your organization receives an in-kind donation or purchases an auction item, you should make note of all of this data in one place to create a master list.

While it’s possible to compile all of this information in an Excel spreadsheet or on paper, we strongly suggest enlisting the help of auction software. Most robust auction software platforms should have all of the fields you need to track the relevant data for each item.

Look for a software provider that includes features such as:

  • Event registration and planning.
  • Mobile bidding.
  • Auction items catalogs.

Review your software options before making your final choice on what auction software to choose.

In addition, once the event has come to an end, make sure to record the winner’s name and contact information for each item, as well as the winning bid amount.

Keeping detailed records from the start will help your organization better keep track of items throughout the whole planning process.

Even more importantly, if you decide to host another auction in the future, these records will give you insights into which items generated the most bid activity, so your next auction will be even better!

Takeaway: Keeping detailed records will make your charity auction run more smoothly and will allow you to improve your auction strategies down the line.

Advertising your auction items in advance will result in a bigger turnout and more bidders at your auction!

5. Advertise your items.

Nothing will incentivize people to attend your auction more than seeing all of the amazing items they can bid on.

Don’t hesitate to start advertising your auction items!

The easiest way to do this is to create an auction catalog.

While you can certainly compile a physical catalog, it will be much easier and more cost-effective to create one online. If you’re using auction software, you can build an auction site branded to your event where you can feature photos and descriptions of items for bidders to browse.

Not only will you save on printing costs by using an online auction catalog, but you can also continuously update your catalog as new items arrive. That way, you can start featuring your items even before you’ve procured all of them.

Additionally, if you’re hosting a silent auction with mobile bidding, all of the information on your auction site will be transferred over to the mobile bidding app, so guests can view items from their phones.

Advertising your items not only creates hype, but it also allows your supporters to determine the items they want to place bids on prior to the auction.

If they come into your auction with an idea of the items they want, your attendees will spend less time scoping out the room and more time bidding!

Takeaway: Feature your items in an online auction catalog before the event to get attendees excited and increase the chances they’ll bid.

Showing off your items during your auction will result in more bid activity, since they'll be more tangible to supporters.

6. Make your items the star.

Although it seems silly, many organizations (even the ones who advertise their items before the auction) make the mistake of keeping their items hidden during the actual event.

But the items are truly the star of any auction. Treat them as such!

What we mean by this is that you should always feature your auction items prominently while donors are bidding on them.

Your display will take a different form depending on whether you’re hosting a silent auction or a live one:

  • For live auctions: Have volunteers bring items on stage as the auctioneer is auctioning them off. If it’s not possible to transport an item to the event, you can solve this problem by setting up a projector and showing high-quality photos of the item during the bidding.
  • For silent auctions: Display your items on tables so that attendees can see each one. Group items by category for easy browsing, and stick to one row of items per table. Additionally, make sure to arrange tables in a way that promotes good traffic flow around the room.

Displaying auction items makes them much more tangible to attendees. If they can see how amazing your offerings are first-hand, they’ll be much more likely to bid!

For more tips on how to showcase your auction items, check out BidPal’s article!

Takeaway: There’s no auction without items. Show them off for the greatest chance that people will bid!

Optimizing the order in which you auction off your items will enable your organization to maximize bids.

7. Be strategic with the auction item order.

The order in which you auction off items can really make or break the success of your organization’s charity auction, too.

You’ll want to order auction items in a way that creates the most suspense while also giving attendees the optimal amount of time to bid on each piece.

Auction order is another case in which your strategy will vary depending on the type of auction you’re hosting.

  • For live auctions: Start off the auction with some low-value items to ease people into bidding. Then, gradually work your way up. You should auction off the most popular and valuable items about ¾ of the way through the program, then wind down at the end with a few more mid-range items.
  • For silent auctions with mobile bidding: If you’re using mobile bidding, item order won’t matter. Because you won’t have to worry about collecting bid sheets, you can keep bidding on all items open for as long as possible to maximize your funds. You can even open up bidding on your auction site before the event, so attendees can bid before they even step into the venue!
  • For silent auctions with bid sheets: If you’re using bid sheets for your silent auction, open the bidding on all stations at the same time, but taper off closing down each. Start by closing down the category with the least valuable items first, then shut down a category every ten minutes, working up to the most popular.

As much as the order might seem unimportant, it really is a key factor to the success of your auction.

Think about it: Many attendees are likely at your auction to bid on the most popular items. If you auction off those items first, it gives those attendees little reason to stick around.

When you wait to auction off those items, you’ll keep attendees on their toes and heighten the competitive spirit!

On the other hand, if you’re hosting a silent auction and you shut down the bidding on the most popular items first, your organization will likely be missing out on a higher bid.

Takeaway: Order your auction items wisely to increase the amount of bids, and therefore funds, your organization will receive.

Making bidding convenient will generate more auction revenue, since supporters won't have to go out of their way to place a bid.

8. Make bidding convenient.

Even if you have the most appealing auction items in the world, it won’t mean much if attendees have to inconvenience themselves to bid.

Encourage the bidding spirit by making bidding as convenient as possible.

Your organization can do this in a few ways:

  • Implement mobile bidding. If you’re hosting a silent auction, you can do away with those cumbersome bid sheets and instead allow guests to place bids from their phones using mobile bidding software. Guests can even set maximum bids on certain items so the software bids for them. They’ll also receive text notifications whenever they’ve been outbid and when the auction’s about to close!
  • Optimize bid sheets. While not as convenient as mobile bidding, if you’re using bid sheets, there are still a couple of ways you can make bidding more convenient for guests. Assign each guest a 3-digit bid number, so they don’t have to fill out their name and contact information every time they place a bid. Additionally, pre-fill bid amount fields on your sheets. This way, guests won’t have to take the time to do the math or wait to place their highest bid.
  • Use bid paddles. While many organizations have done away with bid paddles for live auctions, your organization might still consider using them. Using bid paddles makes it easier for the auctioneer to spot bids and allows attendees to move more freely.

As much as they want an item, people are much less likely to place a bid if it’s inconvenient in any way.

A convenient bidding process will only aid the success of your auction!

Takeaway: Don’t make your donors do a lot of work simply to place a bid. Increase the likelihood your auction will be a success by making bidding as easy as possible!

Gamifying your auction makes it more exciting for supporters and keeps them engaged, helping you raise more money.

9. Gamify your auction.

Adding a little more fun to your auction is sure to get your attendees excited about participating.

So why not turn your auction into a game?

Many auction software platforms have tools built in to help you gamify your auction.

Let’s delve briefly into two popular examples.

1. Fundraising Thermometers.

Many organizations choose to make live donation appeals at their auctions.

With this strategy, the auctioneer or emcee will ask the audience to make monetary donations to help your organization reach a fundraising goal by the end of the auction.

If you’re implementing mobile bidding alongside this strategy, you can make your direct appeals more successful by using a fundraising thermometer.

How it works is that your attendees will submit their donations in the mobile bidding app, which should have a portal specifically for accepting direct donations.

As they submit their donations, the thermometer will update in real-time.

Guests will be able to visualize how their donations are helping your organization reach its goal.

This can be a great motivator for donating, because contributions are made more tangible. Plus, guests have a time limit for submitting their donations, which really creates a sense of urgency!

2. Auction scoreboards

Auction scoreboards are another way to bring your auctions to the modern age.

These features provide guests with real-time updates on the status of auction items, so they can keep an eye on bidding from anywhere.

You can highlight popular sellers to create more urgency, or feature items that have yet to receive bids to encourage attendees to start off the bidding.

Additionally, if you’re making a live donation appeal, you can see how bids are contributing to your overall fundraising goals.

Being able to oversee the auction from anywhere heightens the spirit of friendly competition for your attendees, which often results in more bids.

Think about it: as much as we hate to admit it, we’re all motivated by a little peer pressure. When your guests can see how sought after certain items are, they’ll want to win even more!

Check out BidPal’s article on how gamifying your auction can help you achieve the perfect donation appeal.

Takeaway: Gamifying your auction can make donating more pressing, which is a great motivator for getting guests to give more!


While charity auctions can be difficult to plan, they can also bring significant amount of funds into your organization if planned thoughtfully.

These tips should get your organization well on its way to hosting an enjoyable, profitable, and all around successful charity auction.

For more useful advice on nonprofit fundraising, check out these additional resources:

  1. A Complete Guide to Prospect Research. Not matter what type of event you’re planning, it’s always a good idea to implement prospect research to find supporters that might be interested in attending your event. Get an in-depth understanding of prospect research.
  2. Top Online Giving Tools. Encouraging donors to give at events is a great way to raise additional funds for your cause. Our list of top giving tools will help you find the perfect way to accept donations at your event.
  3. Matching Gift Guide. Did you know that some companies will match donations like tickets to a fundraising event? Learn how you can promote matched giving at your charity auction.

Happy bidding!

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Charity Auctions: 9 Targeted Tips for Fundraising Success