Charity auctions are a common element in nonprofit fundraising. So we asked Nonprofit Academy faculty member and charity auction expert Kelly Valesquez-Hague to share everything you need ot know to host your first successful auction. Kelly is the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause

Charity Auctions for Beginners: 7 Key Things to Know

by Kelly Velasquez-Hague

You’ve probably heard that charity auctions are notoriously difficult to plan. On top of the venue details, ticketing information, and promotions you’re used to handling for general fundraising events, there’s item procurement and bid tracking added on top of that!

Don’t let these factors deter you from holding what can be a highly successful fundraiser. Planning is key for less stressful fundraising, and a charity auction is no different.

We’ve gathered everything you need to know to host your first successful charity auction:

  1. Which type of auction should you host?
  2. What is the basic layout of a charity auction?
  3. How can charity auction software help?
  4. Which team members do you need to recruit?
  5. Which items should you procure, and how?
  6. How do you promote an auction event?
  7. How can you maximize incoming auction revenue?

 A charity auction may be slightly more intricate to plan than your other fundraising events but it can be well worth it as a revenue stream. Follow along for everything you need to get started!

1. What is the basic layout of a charity auction?

In general, charity auctions follow a similar four-step process. Let’s review the overall framework, and then you can adjust them to fit your specific event.

Use the following timeline as a guideline:

  1. Open the bidding. 
    • Technology: If you’re using mobile bidding software, regardless of whether it’s a live, silent, or online auction, bidding opens immediately. 
    • Paper Bid Sheets: If you’re hosting a paper-based silent auction or a live auction, announce bidding opening to the guests.
  2. Begin with a starting bid. Each item is assigned a starting bid amount prior to the event, usually at 35-50% of the market value. This is the minimum amount that the first bidder can bid.
  3. Bid increments. Each consecutive bid on an item must be (at least) by the minimum raise amount, usually 10-15% of the previous bid value. 
  4. Close bidding. Whoever placed the final, highest bid is the winner of that item.

For more information on the basic outlines of a charity auction, check out this OneCause guide to planning a charity auction. 

2. Which type of auction should you host?

In the most basic terms, a charity auction is a nonprofit fundraising event through which organizations raise money by taking bids on popular items or packages of items, usually donated by generous individuals or businesses. The items are essentially sold to the donor who places the highest bid.

From there, charity auctions are split into three main types: Live, Silent, and Online.

Live Auctions

A live auction involves an auctioneer calling out items and donors bidding by either raising a paddle, speaking aloud, using an electronic device, or otherwise catching the host’s attention.

Silent Auctions

Items are placed on tables around the event space and donors can bid— usually by writing their bid and contact information on a piece of paper next to the item— at their own leisure. This type of auction is less “hosted” than the live version and, just as digital methods have improved fundraising, silent auctions have been revolutionized by mobile bidding and auction software.

Online Auctions

Online charity auctions function as digital silent auctions. Instead of items being placed around an event space, items are featured on an auction website for bidders to explore. These auctions can be longer in duration and participants simply have to register and submit their payment information before bidding.

3. How can charity auction software help?

Planning and hosting a charity auction is time, resource, and manpower-intensive. There are a ton of moving parts, and managing them all can certainly get overwhelming!

Working with a charity auction software from the start of your planning process drastically eases the hassle. This software can:

  • Raise more money. This software takes the bidding process online, so those physically in attendance and those who aren’t can both participate. Further, you’re able to provide guests with additional channels to donate outside of buying auctioned items.
  • Simplify the planning process. All logistics are automated and run through the same platform, removing much of the stress of coordination.
  • Add convenience for participants. Donors can purchase tickets, place and track bids, and checkout online. This solves problems such as having to return to the table to check silent auction bids and having to wait in long lines to check out after the fact.
  • Access valuable metrics. Software brings all of your planning into one platform, so you can easily access a complete view of your event’s success and where there is room for improvement. 

Hosting a charity auction can be a worthwhile practice, but not if your staff is seriously struggling through the process. Begin researching top silent auction software today. 


4. Which team members do you need to recruit?

Just as with any other fundraising event, charity auctions require a dedicated team of staffers and volunteers to run smoothly. You’ll need helpers before, during, and after the event to make sure it goes off without a hitch.

Delegate tasks across your team, ensuring you have individuals or groups to handle the following:

  • Event planning. This team plans the event, including choosing the date, booking the venue, recruiting volunteers, and even spreading the word.
  • Item procurement. This team solicits auction items for the event. Each member needs to be comfortable soliciting donations and familiar with which types of gifts would do well. Point them to this guide to charity auction item ideas for reference.
  • Event volunteers. Volunteers are essential to pulling off any in-person auction events, whether they’re helping with set up or tear down, assisting as auction spotters/monitors, or running registration and checkout.
  • Emcee or auctioneer. You’ll need to recruit an emcee or an auctioneer, depending on which type of event you’re hosting. An emcee keeps a silent auction on track while an auctioneer is the ringleader of a live auction.

Planning a charity auction is an involved process, to say the least. While you may be able to get away with a slightly smaller support team in say, an online auction, having a strong and dedicated team is still essential.


5. Which items should you procure, and how?

The items you procure will depend largely on what donors are willing to give. Brainstorm which items might appeal most to your specific donors using the following tips: 

  • Do you have auction records from the past? Review them for which items were popular sellers and consider bringing them back.
  • Consider your guest’s price range. Don’t procure expensive spa weekends if your donors would be more likely to bid on moderately priced restaurant gift cards or even organization merch like nonprofit t-shirts.
  • Understand your guest’s interests. Consider what’s popular in your community and what would genuinely be desired. Example: If you’re an animal rescue nonprofit, your supporters would probably enjoy a day hanging with puppies/kittens/etc!
  • Remember supply and demand. Auction items that are rare or unique are much more likely to be of interest to most audiences.
  • Vary your items. Avoid procuring items that all fall in one category, such as all experiences or all physical merchandise. 

Start with asking coworkers, friends, family members, and any other personal and professional connections to donate items. Turn to local businesses and retailers to see if they’ll donate products or services as in-kind gifts. Be mindful of the conundrum of corporate gifts when doing so.


6. How do you promote an auction event?

Begin with compiling a guest list, keeping the size of your venue in mind. Send out invites and, if you’re using auction software, bring the ticketing process online for convenience.

Give guests a taste of what your auction will hold in advance to truly drum up excitement. Set up an online auction website through your auction software to serve as a catalog for the event.

Include all essential information about the event itself on the website. This includes a short introduction to your organization, the event name or theme, the schedule, what the proceeds will benefit, the rules for bidding, and instructions for using your mobile bidding platform if applicable.

Make sure this website also features information about the items themselves to build interest. Include the name and number of each item, a brief description, the starting bid and market value, the minimum raise amount, and high-quality images if applicable.

Engaging supporters in this way prior to the event communicates the value you’re providing and allows them to prepare to give.


7. How can you maximize incoming auction revenue?

Auction events tend to get donors in the mood to give, so prepare to make the most of this momentum while it exists!

Consider the following ways to maximize revenue at your next charity auction: 

  • Making a live appeal. Your emcee or auctioneer asks guests for donations, reminding them of a fundraising goal your organization hopes to reach by the end of the night. Display a fundraising thermometer throughout the event so guests can track how close you’re getting to the goal.
  • Sell fixed priced items. These are items that are sold, not auctioned, for a set price. This includes extra event activities (think: balloon pop gift cards, mystery box drawing) and even event merchandise and accessories.
  • Create party sign-ups. Plan a fun event and sell guest spots at the event. Examples of this would be a movie night, a group cooking class, or even a themed party. 
  • Using a donation booth. This is a good way to provide a giving opportunity to those who don’t end up leaving with an item. Instead of waiting in a long checkout line, guests can give quickly and easily. If you’re using mobile bidding software, there’s no need for a physical booth as donors can give through their phones.
  • Charging for admission. Not all of your attendees will walk home with an item, or even place bids, so it can be helpful to charge for admission. Consider selling multiple types of ticket packages (individuals, couples, VIP, etc.) to provide flexibility.
  • Selling ads in your catalog. Every attendee will browse your auction catalog whether it’s a printed version or online, and that’s a huge selling point! Provide item donors and local businesses with the option to buy an ad in your catalog (digital or paper) and have their logo featured somewhere within.

Auctions can be a lot to plan, but the fundraising potential of these events is high. The above ideas are only a few ways you can maximize revenue at your next auction.

For more insight on providing the most enjoyable and profitable event for your organization, check out this silent auction planning guide by OneCause.

Don’t let intensive planning deter you from hosting your first charity auction. With the above tips, you’ll be off to a great start.

To learn even more, check out the Top Strategies for Auction Event Survival with Kelly Velasquez-Hague and Melissa Merriam. More information is at: