21 Silent Auction Ideas to Maximize Your Fundraising
Finding new ways to fundraise for your nonprofit is a job in itself! One of the best fundraising ideas that has gained popularity in recent years is a silent auction. They are fun and effective, not to mention a perfect add-on to in-person events that allow you to offer a variety of items that appeal to a large number of supporters.
One of the biggest challenges to running a silent auction is deciding what kind of products will really appeal to bidders, and bring in maximum donations. When making these choices for your nonprofit, the more ideas to choose from, the better. After thorough research and more auction participation than we are willing to admit, we have gathered the 21 best silent auction ideas to ensure that your next event is a big hit
- What Is a Silent Auction?
- What To Sell at a Silent Auction
- 21 Unique Silent Auction Ideas
- Final Thoughts
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What Is a Silent Auction?
Instead of sending out traditional donation letters, try putting auctions at the top of your list. A silent auction is a form of fundraiser that offers the fun of bidding on a variety of items, but the bids are placed in secret. Events can be in-person, virtual, or a hybrid of both, with some bids being placed at an event while others are accepted through a website. During the auction, participants are not aware of how much is being offered by others on any given item.
Silent auctions are an excellent way of appealing to a wider range of donors, including people who might be shy about joining a traditional option or even those who simply prefer to participate from home.
What To Sell at a Silent Auction
Deciding what to sell in your silent auction is incredibly important. You want to choose things that have a wide range of appeal, catch the eye, and offer value to your donors.
Emily is brainstorming on what to sell at her silent auction.
Here are some important things to consider when choosing what to put up for auction:
How it aligns with your organization’s missions and values. Do not offer anything that contradicts your values. For example, an environmental organization may want to steer clear of offering a cruise.
Your budget. You will want to keep the size and financial scope of your nonprofit in mind when evaluating silent auction ideas. There are a ton of choices in every price bracket, so be careful that your enthusiasm does not take you outside the bounds of what is practical for your organization. Typically the items sold at silent auctions are sponsored or donated by a company e.g., a cruise! In this example, a cruise line would donate a cabin for a particular cruise, the organization would auction off that vacation and keep the money received as a donation.
Your target audience. Who are your typical donors? Are they high earners, or lower income? Younger or older? Skew more toward men or women? Would they simply prefer to give via text or be a recurring donor without having to be physically present? Keep these things in mind when planning your fundraising events so that you can pick the right sponsored products to offer at the auction.
Availability. Take a good look at the talents and connections of your board, members, staff, and volunteers. For example, you may have a volunteer who is a talented photographer and may offer a framed sample of their photography to the cause. Or a board member may know a boat captain who can offer a pleasure cruise as an auction experience. Put out feelers, because the more people you have helping to source items the less time it will take your staff on outreach, negotiation, and developing partnership agreements.
Pro Tip: When planning your auction, think about investing in a donation management software, particularly if you run several fundraising campaigns per year. A powerful software does not only help you manage your donor's information and improve follow-up, but can help organize large events (like auctions). It is the key to saving time, money, and resources in the long run.
21 Unique Silent Auction Ideas
Now let’s take a look at a variety of ideas that fit well into any fundraising plan. One of the best tips out there is to understand that your attendees crave options, so ideally you want to choose items from a variety of categories to offer the widest field of choice.
Experiences are a very popular item to bid on in silent auctions. What is more, there is almost no end to the possibilities available if you use your imagination. Here are just some of the adventures you can offer your auction participants:
Wine Tasting. If you live near wine country, this can be as simple as offering a selection of tastings or tours at local wineries. Or, if you are offering a more opulent version you may include a trip to a particular state’s wine country along with the booked tastings. (Just remember to count all costs, such as travel, accommodations, and transportation). A good alternative would be local brewery tours, if this is more accessible to your area.
Private Lessons. If you can find a willing member of your community to share their talents, offer a series of lessons in any number of arenas. This can include teaching techniques in the fields of cooking, art, music, writing, crafts, sports, management, acting, or even language. These lessons can even be offered virtually to widen the outreach area.
Pro Tip: If you are having a hard time negotiating large packages or experiences, don't hesitate to ask the business if they would be more willing to participate in a donation matching campaign. While outside of the current scope of a silent auction, this could be a great opportunity to build a partnership with a local business when launching an online fundraising campaign. It may be more manageable for them to contribute financially instead of coordinating a logistics-heavy experience.
Vacation Package. This can be an especially cost-effective item if you have a member or volunteer who is willing to let you use a second home or rental property as a destination or have negotiated a partnership with a travel agency. You will still have to coordinate travel (if necessary), and possibly activities, but the idea is to have all of your auction inventory donated.
Local Speciality Adventures. This can work for small, local auctions or even national events. Auction a type of unique experience that your area is known for. A few favorites include things like whale watching tours, zipline parks, historical sites, zoos, or aquariums.
Meet and Greet. Offer lunch or dinner with a member of the board, and some potential donors will jump at the chance to have a discussion with them about the nonprofit mission or management of the organization. You can also auction meet and greets with influential volunteers, influencers, or celebrities that your company has a relationship with.
Pro Tip: Having trouble thinking about how to engage local businesses? Consider taking to Facebook! Many cities and towns have local Facebook groups with people who are actively engaged in their community who would love the chance to help out. Additionally local "Buy Nothing" Facebook groups exist for the sole purpose of giving what some people have and no longer need, and requesting items that are needed. Have your organization join the local group, make an ask, and see how your community will rally around your cause!
Gifts are another popular option for silent auctions. This is especially true around the holidays. Options to consider include the following:
Original artwork. Ask around your organization to see if any local artists are willing to donate a piece of their work. This can be anything from a painting or photograph, to a glazed bowl. Oftentimes the artist will be glad of the exposure, so it would be a "win/ win."
Oliver loves the idea of auctioning original artwork!
Gift vouchers. Some local companies are glad to offer a gift voucher to some goods or services in return for advertising. Some popular choices include restaurant meals, spa treatments, pet grooming, travel, tickets to local venues, and tickets to local shows. (You may even be able to secure backstage passes).
Spa baskets. In this age of hustle, a basket full of self care items is a popular bid. You can include things like candles, bath salts, shower melts, teas, hand or body lotion, bath bombs, and pillow spray. If you wanted to send one of these to the Springly offices, we would be happy to try it out for you! 😉
A local items sampler. Support your local businesses by offering a variety of goods that represent your area. Reach out to your chamber of commerce to see whether they can help you collect items for a basket that will market local businesses to an expanded audience and increase brand awareness.
Pro Tip: Ask whether you can be added to the next Chamber of Commerce meeting agenda. This will allow you a forum to showcase your organization, your upcoming fundraiser, and will allow you an opportunity to request support from local businesses. As an added bonus, networking with local business owners is likely to result in other engagement and partnership opportunities you have not even considered!
Subscriptions to a service or product can be a fun way to get bidders engaged. Think outside the box here, while magazine subscriptions are always welcome, there are so many other services you can offer.
Magazine or newspaper subscription. Offer a yearly subscription to a popular magazine or newspaper. This can include either physical or virtual subscription. Just remember to pick the subscription based on your target audience. For example, if your target audience is more likely to read the Washington Post, a subscription to Vogue would be less appealing.
Gift box or basket subscriptions. There are a lot of start up companies offering curated monthly gift box subscriptions. These include beauty products, pet products, and "brain games" for children. There is even a gift box for hot sauces! Reach out to some established but newer companies to see if they will sponsor a subscription for your donors in exchange for exposure.
Meal prep subscriptions. Busy individuals will gladly bid on a popular meal prep plan. Brands like Hello Fresh or HungryRoot offer ingredients and simple recipes to make dinnertime a breeze.
Memberships. Some local businesses or nonprofits without physical products to donate may be willing to donate memberships to their organizations (for instance, fitness centers or golf clubs). This is particularly easy to negotiate around Giving Tuesday, if your silent auction falls around that time of year as many businesses are already in the spirit of giving back!
Home cleaning. This one may not spring immediately to mind, but a cleaning service can be purchased over a specified period of time. It also offers a ton of flexibility, as many companies will allow you to sign up for weekly, monthly, or quarterly cleanings, to be completed as a one-time cleanout or to continue as a service subscription for up to a year.
Themed food basket. There are so many ways you can create a fun theme with food baskets: movie night with popcorn and popular movie snacks (as a bonus, include an Amazon rental voucher); Italian dinner with pasta, sauce, wine, and antipasto; breakfast kit with pancake mix, coffees or teas, and other baked goods; chocolate basket; baked goods basket, the possibilities are endless! (Can you tell we are ready for lunch?)
Local food basket. Another silent auction basket, this type is a mix of local food options. It can include things like produce, honey, farm fresh eggs or meat items, or even wines and spirits.
Food delivery. Partner with a local restaurant to offer one (or more) nights of popular take-out options.
The chance for food gets two thumbs up from Anthony.
Cooking demos. Reach out to local chefs to see if they are willing to offer either an in-person or virtual cooking demo for your auction. Cooking is an excellent creative outlet, and also a form of relaxation for many career-oriented people.
Again, how much you can offer really depends on who you know, or the level of your negotiation skills. Sports items are very popular bid items, and by reaching out to athletes or local teams you may be able to offer some really cool stuff on your site. (Corporate sponsorship, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer fundraising, and nonprofit grants can help here, as well).
Memorabilia. Get sports fans excited by offering signed photographs, balls, or other sports equipment. You can either ask around your organization (someone may have inherited historic memorabilia that they are willing to donate), or even reach out to local teams to see if they might be willing to donate something.
Tickets to a game. If you cannot get a team to donate memorabilia, you may be able to get them to offer game tickets. You might even be able to negotiate a sky box or prime seat locations to sweeten the deal and increase the bids.
Meet an athlete. You may be able to offer a meet and greet if you can find local athletes who share an interest in your mission.
Pro Tip: Do not be afraid to reach out and get sports teams involved. Many sports figures enjoy giving back to the community, or may be willing to participate just for the optics and professional teams often already have a budget to support these types of initiatives.
Remember, regardless of what you auction off, you are required to provide a donation receipt to your buyers. Providing not only a receipt of payment but information on tax deduction is an essential part of your donor lifecycle and will make sure all of your fundraising efforts to come are successful!
While there are a lot of moving parts to negotiate when it comes to planning a silent auction, they can be a really effective form of nonprofit fundraising. And half the work is done when you come up with the right silent auction ideas. All that remains is the coordination. In many cases, your organization has more access to unique items than you know.
Before you even start the brainstorming process, poll your members and volunteers to see what talents, connections, and access they can bring to the table. Then begin creating a list of auction ideas that you can offer to your supporters.
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💡What items sell best at silent auctions?
Experiences are a popular item. There are a wide variety of options available, and people tend to find travel or novel experiences very exciting. Find out more.
🔑How many items should be in a silent auction?
There is no set number, but you want to strike a balance here. Too few items and you may not make enough money, but too many items puts you at the risk of stifling competitive bidding. Shoot for no more than one item per two participants at the event. Find out more.
📝Are silent auctions profitable?
Absolutely. If you play your cards right, your nonprofit can procure goods and services for free, or at a significant discount. Then the proceeds are mainly pure profit. These are also popular events, whether run entirely online, or spread between a site and a gala or other in-person event. Find out more.