A Step-by-Step Guide to Hosting Successful Silent Auctions for Your Nonprofit

When it comes to hosting auctions for your next nonprofit or charity fundraiser, you now have several options. You can host a traditional in-person auction complete with a professional auctioneer, attractive auction item displays, and bidding paddles for your participants.

Alternatively, you can offer your guests a virtual or hybrid live auction that can be hosted virtually on an online platform like PayBee. Online live auctions are very popular since they can attract a lot of people who place their bids via a mobile app or their laptops.

Hybrid live auctions operate much the same way, except you have the additional benefit of having both in-person and online participants, which can increase the bidding substantially.

Then there’s the third option: silent auctions. These popular and profitable auctions can be held both in-person and virtually and make an excellent lead-in to your main fundraising event. What’s more, you can host both silent and live auctions at your event, giving you multiple sources of revenue.

If you’re interested in hosting a successful silent auction, read on. We’ll break down everything you need to know about these profitable events, including all the best practices for holding one. We’ll also give you real world tips on how to use PayBee’s software to make your next silent auction a convenient and fun event for all of your guests.  

What is a Silent Auction?

So, what is a silent auction and how does it differ from a live auction?

When you host a live auction, your auctioneer and your bidders all actively engage in the event from start to finish. You’ve probably seen movies or TV shows where the auctioneer calls out each item and encourages people to bid. Once the highest bid is called out, the auctioneer lets the audience know the item has been sold (usually with the famous phrase, “Going once, going twice, sold!”).

Silent auctions, by contrast, are more passive events. In an in-person silent auction, attendees write down their bids on slips of paper or a bid sheet instead of holding up paddles or calling out bids.

In a virtual silent auction, the process is similar, except the participants can enter their bids electronically. In both types of auctions, bidders can check to see if they’ve been outbid (or receive mobile alerts if someone else bids on the same item) giving them a chance to raise their own bid.

Benefits of Holding a Silent Auction

One of the best things about silent auctions is that they can be held over a longer period of time. Since people can enter their bids at their convenience, some nonprofits and charities start a silent auction a week before their actual main fundraising event.

This is a great way to advertise your fundraising event, since people will already be participating in your fundraiser before it officially starts (and raising revenue for your event). The longer span of time also means auction items can sell for higher prices than they would at a live auction, especially if a lot of people bid on them over the days.

Since silent auctions are so much fun, holding such auctions for your in-person, virtual, and hybrid events can help increase your nonprofit or charity brand awareness. You’ll also be able to expand your donor base and keep donors engaged with your nonprofit and its fundraising events. Donors will also get to see all the other ways they can contribute to your organization while participating in a silent auction simply by seeing all the notices and buttons on your web page.

One additional benefit to both in-person and online silent auctions is their popularity with women. According to Nolo, women between the ages of 40 and 49, with household incomes of $50,000 to $99,000 are the most frequent participants in online auctions. This can be very significant if a large portion of your current donor pool falls in this demographic.

Setting Up Your Silent Auction (Step-by-Step)

Okay, so how should you go about preparing a silent auction? Like many successful fundraising events, it all starts with creating an event committee made up of your staff and volunteers. These people will set up all the important aspects of your auction, including:

  • Setting up your in-person venue or online platform
  • Obtaining auction items from sponsors and other donors
  • Cataloging and pricing your auction items
  • Working out the registration processes for participants
  • Coming up with an advertising campaign to promote your silent auction
  • Planning other activities for your in-person, virtual, or hybrid event
  • Hosting your silent auction
  • Following up with your guests

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. PayBee offers plenty of easy-to-use online tools to make setting up your silent auction much more manageable. Here are some of the best practices to follow when hosting a silent auction — along with the tools you’ll need to make it all work.

Step 1: Set Up Your Venue and Online Platform

If you plan on holding a traditional in-person silent auction or a hybrid auction with an in-person experience, you’ll need to arrange to have a physical meeting area to display your auction items and accommodate your bidders.

This doesn’t have to be in a huge auction hall, but you do need to choose a location big enough for all of your attendees to move around comfortably. If you have a lot of items up for auction, you’ll also need enough space to arrange them attractively so people can get a good look at what they’re bidding on.

If some of your auction items are less tangible — like a spa day or a vacation package — you can use a large photograph of the event or experience to entice bidders.

If you’re hosting a hybrid silent auction, you’ll want to plan on having a large monitor that shows your in-person bidders the bids from their virtual competitors. You’ll also need to choose a venue that offers good connectivity for mobile bidding and your silent auction software. 

Plan on booking your silent auction venue early — months ahead if you can. This will give you the flexibility you need to find the perfect place to give your guests a good experience.

Virtual auctions are somewhat simpler to set up since you just need a reliable online platform like PayBee to host your entire auction campaign. This system gives you full control of your silent auction, including the ability to upload your auction items as well as start and stop the auction on command. PayBee can also be easily integrated with hybrid silent auction events.

Step 2: Obtaining auction items

Offering great auction items is the key to making your silent auction a success. Not only do they encourage enthusiastic bidding, they also provide excellent ways to promote your upcoming event. Who wouldn’t want to come to a silent auction that promises the chance to win a trip to Hawaii or season tickets to your favorite sports team?

That being said… you don’t have to offer extravagant items to draw people to your silent auction. In fact, one of the smartest things your event planning team can do is to look at the data on your current donor pool and brainstorm the type of items they want based on their interests.

Are many of your organization’s supporters movie or music fans? Then they’ll probably love a chance to bid on some signed movie or music memorabilia. Will your silent auction be a family event? Then restaurant gift cards and a pizza party might be popular. Young adults might be into a bar crawl while art enthusiasts will appreciate bidding on paintings and professional photographs.

When obtaining your auction items, turn to your staff, volunteers, and donors. See if they have anything related to your wish list that they can donate. Many of your people may even have a personal network of friends and co-workers who can donate something.

Business and individual sponsors can also provide excellent auction items — particularly big-ticket items. Be sure to offer them plenty of publicity at your event in exchange for their support. Virtual fundraisers offer many opportunities to showcase your sponsors’ business logos and names on your website, virtual lobby, and promotional materials — not to mention the auction items themselves.

Step 3: Cataloguing and Pricing Your Auction Items

After you secure your auction items, you’ll need to create a range of starting bids for your offerings. Once again, keep your audience in mind. Don’t make the starting bids too high or you’ll run the risk of discouraging your guests before they start bidding.

Your event team will also want to create some attractive copy that describes each item. This doesn’t have to be too long — just be sure to focus on the benefits your auction items will provide the bidder. If you’re offering an experience like a yoga class or spa day, offer enticing examples of the experiences they’ll enjoy the most.

If you’re offering an in-person or hybrid silent auction, be sure to create bid sheets for each auction item. Each sheet should include the item name, some copy describing the item, and the name of the business or person who donated it for your auction.

There will also be a line for the minimum bid, bid increments, and minimum bid increases. If you like, you can also offer a Buy-It-Now Price that a person can pay to obtain the item and avoid further bidding.

Below the auction item information, offer spaces for bidder names or numbers, contact information, and the bid amount.

PayBee offers automatic bid sheets for print — including a convenient QR code participants can use for bidding with their smartphones. The added convenience helps encourage more enthusiastic bidding.

If you’re offering a completely virtual silent auction, the PayBee system offers many handy features, including the ability to bulk upload your auction items using CSV spreadsheets (with an item limit in the thousands). You’ll be able to add item names, descriptions, and images (be sure to include attractive photos of each item!).

You can also fully customize your bid increments along with minimum and maximum bid amounts. In addition, you can offer a Buy-It-Now option for any of the auction items displayed online, which will attract participants with busy schedules.

Hybrid silent auctions can easily use PayBee to integrate the in-person portion of their event with the online features provided by the PayBee system. As hybrid events offer two separate experiences of the same event, using PayBee to manage both is a convenient way to keep on top of your hybrid event.

Step 4: Working Out Your Registration Processes

When you use silent auction software like PayBee, you can easily let your attendees register online before the event begins. The PayBee system also lets you customize auction settings, including checkout settings that accept all major credit cards.

While you can host a silent auction without silent auction software by simply having attendees pre-register and submit their payment details, using software is much simpler. This is particularly true if you’re holding in-person or hybrid auctions and need to expend extra manpower to handle both pre-registrations and new registrations.    

Step 5: Promoting Your Silent Auction

You should plan on promoting your silent auction (along with your main fundraising event) several weeks in advance to help build up hype for your in-person, virtual, and/or hybrid event. There are several ways to market your event.

Physical flyers and posters can still be effective, especially if you can post them in areas of high traffic where your target audience hangs out. If your staff, volunteers, donors, and sponsors can offer up space at their businesses and organizations, you should definitely take advantage of this.

However, these days most people still learn about upcoming events by going online and checking their social media. As such, your nonprofit or charity should have a strong social media presence where they can communicate with their supporters and keep them informed about upcoming silent auctions and other fundraising events.

Focus on social media channels your donor pool likes. If your supporters spend a lot of time on Facebook, you can offer regular posts and even video clips showing what auction attendees can bid on. Instagram also provides a great place to share photos and videos of your event and the auction items. And both Twitter and Snapchat can reach large audiences.

PayBee provides easy social sharing links that make sharing information about your upcoming silent auction easy. Just focus on the channels your audience frequents, and you can start generating some instant buzz.

Finally, email marketing continues to be one of the most cost-effective ways to promote events. You’ll want to promote your silent auction on your email newsletter (and regularly collect additional email addresses to expand your list). PayBee’s system makes it easy for guests to share their contact information — and you’ll be able to send out automatic email invitations that make notifying your supporters simpler.

Step 6: Planning Other Events

Your silent auction may be one of your most popular fundraising activities, but the truth is, you’ll probably hold it in tandem with multiple other events at your fundraiser.

What types of events? That depends on your event team and the interests of your supporters. From hybrid concerts to art tours to fun runs, there are plenty of unique and attractive activities to offer at your next fundraiser. And since silent auctions can be held at any time in the year, they’re the perfect lead-in to practically any fundraising event.

In fact, one of the best strategies you can employ is to offer two separate auctions — one silent auction and one live auction. Both can be held in-person, virtually, or in hybrid settings. And since your silent auction already got people in the bidding mood, your live auction and professional auctioneer can really excite participants (especially the ones who didn’t make the winning bid during the silent auction and are hungry for another shot!)

Take advantage of the competitive atmosphere auctions generate. During your auction, highlight a fundraising goal for your event complete with a goal meter or thermometer. This can be shown on a monitor at an in-person auction or on your webpage during your virtual auction. Since your attendees are already being encouraged to place large bids, this is a good time to encourage them to contribute via direct donations.

Another fun activity you can offer in tandem with auctions are raffles. Showcase some attractive prizes and offer deals for purchasing multiple raffle tickets. This is a great way to offer an extra source of revenue for your fundraiser. And best of all? Both raffles and auction campaigns can easily be set up and managed on the PayBee online platform!

Step 7: Hosting Your Silent Auction

Getting everything ready on the opening date of your silent auction can be an undertaking in and of itself. Here are the steps you really need to focus on when hosting a silent auction:

Setting up your venue

If you’re offering an in-person auction at a physical venue, you’ll want to get to your meeting area early to handle any issues. Be sure your event team provides plenty of volunteers to welcome attendees, register them, and handle ticketing.

Your venue should display all of your auction items (or large photographs of them) on tables in an attractive manner that allows for easy foot traffic. Double check to see that your bid sheets and display cards are properly set up.

You’ll also want to make sure to have separate areas ready for bidders to pick up their winning items and handle payments. Incidentally, the more forms of payment you can accept (credit cards, cash, Apple Pay etc.) the more convenient it will be for your bidders.

Offering mobile bidding

Mobile bidding is another feature that makes silent auctions more efficient. PayBee offers a PayBee App that lets your in-person attendees place their bids through their smartphones and other mobile devices. Even better, your bidders also receive live bidding updates via text and email to let them know if they’ve been outbid — giving them the chance to raise their own bids.

Giving bidders enough time

When it comes to planning the length of your silent auction, take into consideration whether or not you’re holding an in-person or virtual auction. For in-person silent auctions, three hours should be enough time to give your guests the chance to look over your items and place all of their bids.

However, if you’re holding a virtual silent auction, you can (and should) plan for much more time. We recommend starting your online silent auction 7 to 10 days in advance of your main fundraising event. This will give bidders plenty of time to place their bids via mobile device or computer from anywhere in the world, encouraging competition and driving up your selling prices.

Since hybrid silent auctions can take advantage of the same virtual space as online events, you can offer a 7 to 10 day long virtual silent auction for your hybrid event as well.

Knowing when to end your silent auction

One of the most important things you can do to ensure the success of your fundraising auctions is to know when to end them. In the case of silent auctions, this usually means right before a live auction at your fundraiser.

Holding two auctions at the same time can divide your audience’s attention. This is problematic since you want your guests to be focused on bidding at your live auction and driving up prices there — and not be distracted by some last-minute bids at your silent auction.

For this reason, PayBee offers a customizable auction start/stop feature on its platform that keeps you in charge of your silent auction. You can also use the manual silent auction close feature from your virtual event control interface to make sure your event activities don’t overlap each other and distract your audience. 

It’s also important to know how to inform your guests that your silent auction has ended. Some nonprofits prefer setting a pre-planned end time for their silent auctions, complete with a countdown timer that can help drive last-minute bids.

Alternatively, you can make your silent auction more “spontaneous” by not letting your attendees know how much time they have — which can encourage regular bidding. Either way is fine — just know what your audience members prefer.

If you’re using bid sheets, you can collect them at the end of the auction and announce the winners of each item. If you’re using mobile bidding software, the system will automatically confirm the winning bids.

Step 8: Following Up with Your Guests

Your silent auction doesn’t end after the final item receives its winning bid. Winners still need to pick up their auction items. For in-person auctions, this is as simple as designating an area in your venue for collecting funds and distributing the items.

For virtual auctions (or the online participants in a hybrid auction), you can arrange for winners to pick up their prizes at a designated spot or set up delivery arrangements. Auction items like electronic gift cards can even be sent via email.

Finally, make sure to thank all of your attendees for their participation. Sending thank you letters or emails to all of your guests is a great way to build better connections with your donors and supporters. And thanks to PayBee’s online platform, it’s easy to manage the logistics of making sure your entire audience receives follow-up communication.   

Creating Your Ideal Silent Auction

Hosting a successful silent auction requires plenty of preparation, but thanks to the strategies covered in this article, you now have a better understanding of the best practices to follow.

Invest in an effective event planning team that’s skilled in securing venues, obtaining quality auction items, and handling registration and marketing logistics. Then make sure their efforts are supported with a quality online platform like PayBee. The online tools offered by this software help reduce the time necessary for building your campaigns and make managing the actual silent auction event easier to manage.

PayBee’s online platform also collects information about your entire fundraising event (not just your silent auction) making it an invaluable resource for analyzing what went well during your fundraiser and what can be improved.

Spend time studying what event activities people participated in the most, how much they donated during each activity, and how much time they spent at each event. Having this information at your fingertips enables your event planning team to build more successful fundraisers by offering your supporters the convenient, fun experiences they want at an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event.  

To learn more about the online tools and software that can make your next silent auction more successful and easier to produce, sign up for a free demo of PayBee’s online platform. You’ll be able to participate in an actual live auction (complete with virtual money) giving you an inside look at what your audience will experience.

You’ll also be able to ask questions about hosting silent auctions and other virtual events to our team of experts which will help you create your own ideal events. Online tools are constantly being refined to help your nonprofit or charity, so sign up for a free demo and learn what we can do for you!

Nonprofit Fundraising
Nonprofit Tips
Online Fundraising
Michael Jung