How to Run a Silent Auction from A-Z


Silent auctions are a fundraising staple, and for good reason: they are an effective way to get people excited about your organization while raising money. Not only that, they are fun! And they can either stand alone or be part of a variety of events, such as a gala, or be held online or in person. While many functions last just one night, coordinators can use silent auction software to extend silent auctions and let people bid over the course of several days or weeks online. This means that once a charity has taken care of the initial prep, very little effort is required on their part until the event is over. 

Indeed, there is more than one way to run a silent auction, so once you have some silent auction ideas, you need to know how to run one right. We have compiled the ultimate guide to running an entertaining, enjoyable, and effective silent auction for your nonprofit, so you can gather all the information you need in one place.

Here is what we will cover:

Let’s go!

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What is a Silent Auction?

A silent auction is a popular and effective way to raise money for any charity or nonprofit organization. Typically, these events feature donated prizes all participating guests can bid on.

While an auctioneer might be present to run the show, there are no live bids like at other types of auctions. Silent auctions involve donated items, certificates, or experiences that are put on display, along with a minimum bid and description, for bidders to peruse. Guests then have the opportunity to write down their name, phone number, and offer price.

The goal for any silent auction is for all items to have bids, with the most desirable items reaching their maximum value. Once a silent auction has ended, organizers must collect payment from each winning bidder and arrange pickup for all of the items.

Pro Tip: Like many events these days, silent auctions can be held in person or online. Before an online auction fundraiser begins, your team just needs to post the minimum bid amount and description of each item on your platform of choice. Send out a few hundred invitations with a link to the auction via email, and you have yourself an online auction that can go on for quite some time, which will allow it to gain traction and accrue interest.


Why Run a Silent Auction?

There are many tangible benefits to running a silent auction. Here are some of the ones that make silent auctions especially enticing to both nonprofits and their donor base.

run-silent-auction-why-runOliver is pondering the benefits of running a silent auction for his nonprofit.

They Attract a Large Range of Donors And Encourage Networking

It is no secret that people who are interested in the same things might meet at an event, then become friends. This is one reason why so many people attend silent auctions, hosted particularly by one charity: they know it will be populated by like-minded individuals who share similar interests. If you are looking to expand your organization’s network of supporters while building up the community around you, there is no better place to do so than at a silent auction.

Furthermore, silent auctions are a clever way to attract a large range of bidders, as the auctioned items tend to be highly varied in price range. Having a mixture of high-value and lower-value items ensures everyone from your donor pool is able to participate, and get in on the fun.

They Are An Efficient Way to Raise Funds

With very little overhead beyond pre-auction planning, and a lot of opportunity for gaining revenue, silent auctions are a very adept way to gain funds. When it comes time for the actual bidding process itself, your patrons take care of everything by finding their favorite items and writing down their bids. All you have to do is ensure you set everything up properly.


How to Prepare your Silent Auction in 7 Steps

Gather Your Team and Make a Plan

Make a list of all of the things that need to be done in order to prepare your silent auction, and assign each item to one or two volunteers. If there are too many tasks for one person, consider splitting up the work among several people.

Create a schedule so that each volunteer knows when they are expected to show up, what they will be doing at that time, and how long they should spend on their assigned task.

Find a Venue

Finding a venue for your silent auction is all about finding the right balance of space, accessibility, and comfort.

You want enough space for all of your items, but not so much that things are very spread out. If you are looking for venues that already exist, like restaurants or hotels, make sure to check out their website first before contacting them. That way, you can see what kind of space they have available and how many people they can comfortably accommodate at once.

Do not be afraid to ask local businesses if they would be willing to donate their space for your event! This is especially helpful if you are putting together a smaller event with less than 200 people in attendance.

A PA system is always good to have on hand for announcements throughout the night. Make sure whoever sets up the sound system knows exactly what to say and when, so there is no confusion.

The location of your silent auction should also be centralized so no one has to go too far. If you are picking your venue before you have a guest list, find somewhere closest to where the majority of your donor base lives so they do not have to travel too far from home!

Pro Tip: Look first for local businesses that might lend their place to your organization in exchange for some sort of recognition during and beyond the event. Free advertising is always a solid selling point for nonprofits requesting help from the surrounding community.

Source Highly-Valued Items

If you are planning a nonprofit event, it can be tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit: inexpensive items that will appeal to the most people. But if you are looking for ways to increase interest in your event, make more money for your organization, and build a strong brand identity, consider sourcing high-valued items - or at least a mix of high-value and low-value items, depending on your target market - instead. Here is why:

First of all, going for high-valued items increases interest in your event. Everyone loves a deal, but many people have already gotten their fill of bargains from other events they have attended. At this point, they are looking for something new and exciting and that means something that has more perceived value than your run-of-the-mill item. They want something special!

Second of all, high-valued items can make your organization more money if there is enough interest surrounding them.

run-silent-auction-how-to-prepareTristan is feeling good about his preparation for his next silent auction!

You should avoid buying anything to sell at your silent auction. Instead, try to negotiate new items from a company that will donate them to you - for example, an art gallery might donate a piece of art, or a boat dealer might donate a sailboat - in exchange for some sort of recognition or public show of gratitude. That way, you can keep all of the proceeds and put them toward your cause, in contrast to purchasing items first which will cut into your margins.

One thing to be aware of here is the concept of fair market value. Grasping this term and its implications is very important for tax deductions, since your patrons can only write off the amount they paid for the item over the fair market value. Whoever donated the item typically assigns the fair market value.

Pro Tip: In order to determine which items will appeal to your target audience, you can send them a pre-event survey.  Ask them what kind of items they are interested in purchasing, the general vicinity of their budget, and more.

Price Your Auction Items

Pricing your silent auction items is one of the most important parts of this process. Your goal is to make sure that you have a range of prices to appeal to as broad a pool of donors as possible, while also incentivizing bidding.

50% of the fair market value as a start bid is typically a good rule of thumb. It gives people an idea of what value the item they are bidding on has and gives them a start point that is not too low for your fundraising purposes.

Prepare The Bid Sheets 

Here are a few things you need to know about preparing your silent auction bid sheets.

First, include item descriptions, which are characterized by the following information:

  • A title for the item being auctioned off

  • The name of the person or organization offering the item

  • The price of the item or items being offered

  • A description of the item or items being offered

Beneath this, format the bid sheet with a series of lines so people can write down their bids. 

Pro Tip: Make sure that everything you write on your bid sheets is easy to read and understand, and make sure, especially, that your item descriptions are concise yet compelling. You do not want to confuse people with complicated language or formatting, but you do want your depictions of each item to draw them in further.


Set Up The Registration Process At The Entrance

If you are hosting a silent auction and want to make sure that the registration process is smooth, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, you should set up registration at the entrance. That way your guests will not have to spend time tracking down someone who can help them register for the auction. They can just go straight to the front desk!

Second, ask for contact information from each guest. This will help you stay in touch with them if they win. If they do not win, it will be useful for later campaigns.

Third, give each guest a nametag with their assigned number on it. This will make it easy when it comes to determining and announcing winners.

Fourth, give each guest a list of rules with all of the details about how bidding works: how many items are available per category, and what kind of bids are allowed. For example, a common rule is only being allowed to bid whole numbers.

Pro Tip: Provide each attendee with a bidder number they will enter on bid sheets to remain inconspicuous. Having people avoid using their names secures the benefits of anonymity: some people, for example, will actually bid less than someone they know if they want to avoid competition. On a smaller scale, a bidder number is actually easier to read than a signature (and harder to mispronounce when summoning winners to receive their items).

Define the Payment Process

The payment process at a silent auction should come upon the completion of bidding, usually at a set time of the night.

The winners should be announced or contacted so they can proceed to a check-out desk and make payment. Remember to accept several payment options, like credit cards, cash, checks, and electronic payment methods like PayPal.

You will have to generate silent auction receipts as well, denoting the name of your organization, the name of the winner, the fair market value of the prize, and the payment amount.

You should also include a section mentioning your status as a 501(c)3 organization.

It is a good idea to train a couple of volunteers on how to do this beforehand, so there are no hiccups on the night of the event. Note that some winners will leave before winners are announced, and that is okay! You have their contact information on file from the check-in, so you can reach out to them at a later date to collect payment and make the handoff of their prize.


Logistics on The Big Day: How to Make The Event Run Smoothly

The big day is finally here - congratulations! The auction is about to start and you are ready for the party. But before your guests can bid on their favorite items, you need to get everything set up in the room. Here is how:

  1. Set up the items in the room

Divide your items into relevant categories, make sure that their descriptions are visible and well-written, and place them in an area that will help them stand out.

This way, patrons who are into sports memorabilia can beeline right to the jerseys and signed balls, while the travel aficionados can head to the "fun night out" voucher section.

  1. Set up a checkout area

Make sure that this area is easy to identify so that guests can find it quickly when they are ready to pay for their items. The check-out area deserves some extra attention because collecting money is, after all, largely the point of the event.

Taking care to ensure that it is easy to find and running smoothly can help your bottom line.

  1. Organize the room so that every area is easy to identify

Make sure every lot is well lit and draws attention. Adapt as the night progresses! If you notice that some items are not being bid on, move them to a more central area to boost interest.


What To Do After the Auction

After you have raised as much money as you can, you need to follow up with your donors and bidders. You want to make sure they know how grateful you are for their contributions, and that they know how the money will be spent.


Sadie's auction was a great success! Now on to the post-auction actions.

Here is what you should consider doing:

First, send a thank you note to donors and bidders. You can also use this opportunity to explain how the money was or will be used, so everyone can see what impact their donation had.

Second, ask for feedback. Did your silent auction raise enough money? What did people like about it? Did anything go wrong? People love being asked for feedback! It gives them a chance to involve themselves in your nonprofit more than just financially. Plus, it will help you make the event even better next year.


Final Thoughts 

Silent auctions are a great way to raise money for your organization. They are efficient in doing so, are fun for participants, and can help you raise money quickly.

If you are planning on running a silent auction for your next event, keep these tips in mind:

  • Get started early! Make sure you have enough time to prepare.

  • Keep it simple. You do not want to be overwhelmed by last-minute decisions or tasks.

  • Make sure everyone knows how the silent auction works before it starts. If there are silent auction rules or guidelines they should follow while bidding, make sure they know what they are!

  • Make the event fun! The more enjoyable it is for everyone involved, the more likely they will want to come back next year!

Remember to collect contact information at the entrance, focus on high-quality items, and ensure your payment or check-out area is running efficiently, and you will not only raise a lot of money for your cause, but you will also foster a fun sense of community for your organization!

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💡Why should you run a silent auction?

A silent auction is a great way to raise money for your nonprofit for less work and initial financial investment than other methods. A silent auction is also fun and social, which gets people talking about your organization. Find out more. 

🔑 Which steps will ensure the success of the event?

First, gather an A-team and make a plan. Then, find a venue that can accommodate your number of attendees and has all the AV features you need. Source high-value items that people will actually want to bid on. Set up your bid sheets with minimum bid information, and have them distributed at your registration table. Your registration table is also where you will take down attendees' contact information. Finally, make sure your payment process is simple and streamlined to avoid any hiccups at the end of the night. Find out more. 

📝 What should be done after the auction?

After a successful silent auction, ensure every winner received their item and paid in full. Send thank you notes to everyone who came, and ask for some light feedback for what could be done better next year. Find out more.  

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