How to Plan a Successful Nonprofit Silent Auction: 6 Steps

Nonprofits planning for their next silent auction and looking to improve their strategies



Guest Post by Jeff Porter, Founder and CEO of Handbid


Holding a silent auction can bolster your nonprofit’s fundraising plan, creating an opportunity to raise money and bring your supporters together to network and develop a stronger sense of community.


Because there’s no auctioneer or paddle raising, your silent auction attendees can participate in the auction while simultaneously engaging in other activities and discussing your mission with others at the event. However, this is only possible when your nonprofit prepares and plans effectively for your auction event.


Handbid’s silent auction guide explains that silent auction events can either stand alone or be held in conjunction with galas, dinners, and other gatherings. Therefore, every planning process might look slightly different.


In this guide, we’ll cover some of the steps that hold true no matter how you decide to execute your silent auction, or what type of event you may be hosting.


1. Identify your auction audience. 

Your organization will first need to determine the type of bidders you will have. For example, are your bidders more interested in sports or entertainment? Are they a wine-drinking crowd, or do they prefer craft beer? Once you’ve identified this audience, you can utilize the data you already have about them to decide how best to engage them in your silent auction.


In addition, if you are trying to reach an audience over a wide geographical area, you might decide to conduct a hybrid or virtual auction event so that more people can get involved.


2. Determine what your silent auction will look like. 

Set some goals for your auction, outlining what it is you want to achieve with the event. Then, you can reference these goals while making important decisions regarding what your silent auction will look like.


When planning your auction and event, prepare for how your bidders will engage with the auction by considering the different auction formats. Here are some benefits to each silent auction format:


  • Virtual
    • No venue or food costs
    • There are no geographical limits to your auction
    • Speakers can stream in from virtually anywhere; broadening your options and eliminating potential travel costs
    • Virtual activities can engage your audience, with the right software
  • In-person
    • A sense of community that can only be created in person
    • Activities may require less planning and organization on your part
    • Bidders will get to touch and see your auction items
  • Hybrid 
    • It’s the best of both worlds: You’ll connect your constituents through community and reach a broader geographic area
    • Costs can still be lower, as you may not need as much space or food and drink as you would for a full-fledged in-person audience
    • Supporters have the option to participate in your hybrid event even if they have a conflict and cannot be there in person, leaving the door open to raise more funds 


When planning the format of your event, think about how your guests will participate in your silent auction. When it comes to bidding, there are basically two options: 


  • Paper bidding. An outdated strategy, but the traditional format for silent auctions. 
  • Mobile bidding. A smoother version of a silent auction, allowing for hybrid and virtual event options. 


Chances are, after you’ve made these types of decisions, you’ll also need to purchase auction software that will help you facilitate the event. Consider the features you’ll need for this software before entering into demos. Then, choose the solution that will best serve your specific auction needs. 


3. Procure items that your audience will love.

Arguably the most important step in carrying out a silent auction is choosing the items that your audience will fall over themselves to bid on. Choose auction items that not only interest them, but within the price range of your event attendees. 


Handbid’s auction items guide provides the following examples of top items that nonprofits often find appealing to their audience: 


  • Hard-to-get game tickets
  • Museum or comedy show tickets
  • Artwork
  • Book lovers baskets (popular among schools)
  • Movie theater rentals
  • Commissioned painting


Always consider your audience and what they’ll appreciate during your procurement process. While high rollers may make large bids for an all-inclusive Mexico getaway, your mid-tier or lower-level donors might prefer gift baskets or show tickets. 


4. Promote your event to your nonprofit’s audience. 

There’s no use in hosting an event if no one knows about it! Promoting your event allows you to reach your intended audience and get the word out about what you’re planning. Use a variety of marketing channels to get the word out about your opportunity. Some of these channels can (and should) include: 


  • Email 
  • Social media
  • Advertisements
  • Flyers
  • Direct mail 


In the content of these messages, provide sneak peeks into your event activities and auction items, enticing your audience to attend.


5. Set your bidding increments. 

Before the event starts, you’ll need to set certain rules, such as the start and end times for the silent auction. One of the rules you’ll need to set, which has a direct impact on your fundraising ROI, will be your bidding increments. 


Using mobile bidding software creates the opportunity for your nonprofit to start more bidding wars as your guests don’t need to crowd around a single piece of paper to bid, like they would if you use paper bid sheets. 


When using mobile bidding solutions, set your bidding increments as low as your nonprofit can bear, while still taking the Fair Market Value into consideration. Determining bid increments is equally important. If you set the increments too high, you may discourage bidders from getting into a competitive bidding war. Try to keep your increments low, especially if you’re using mobile bidding. This will encourage more bidding at your event. 


The following equations will help you determine the right bidding increments for your auction items: 


  • [FMV] – [Starting Bid] = [Bid Revenue]
  • [Bid Revenue]/[Number of Bids] = [Bid Increments]


6. Say thank you to your supporters. 

After your event concludes, your job isn’t done! Your nonprofit will still need to show appreciation for everyone who helped make your event possible. 


Start by making a list of everyone who helped your organization reach its goals whether by bidding, donating, or volunteering, then write letters that personally and individually thank each of them for their support and contributions. Here are some examples of how you can thank each specific group:


  • Sponsors 
    • Provide information about how their sponsorship dollars went to work, and the kind of recognition their company received during the course of your event. For example, if you included their logo in a social media campaign, how many people saw it?
  • Donors
    • Include a snippet of information about the difference their donation dollars made. Did the donation cover a specific event-related expense? Did their money help to fund a special research project or service? Let them know!
  • Bidders
    • Thank ALL of your bidders – not just the winners. Tell them that their engagement in the silent auction helped you raise a record amount of money (because, after using all of these practices, that will be true!)
  • Volunteers 
    • When thanking your volunteers, you should not only attribute much of the event’s success to their hard work, you can add a personal sentiment about how it saved you hours and a week’s worth of headaches. 
  • Participants 
    • Never underestimate the power of a thank you note to every single participant, whether they donated or not. You never know who was in the crowd, or who was so moved by your event that they’re just waiting for a chance to engage with you in the near future.


Make sure to tell stories of impact in each of these groups of supporters. Storytelling goes a long way in showing appreciation and encouraging people to continue supporting your cause. 



It might take a bit of hard work to put together, but a successful silent auction can have a big impact for your nonprofit. In deciding whether or not to hold one, consider your target audience and what will bring them together to support you. Also think about the things that your supporters love and enjoy, as well as the things that they would be excited to bid on. 


When it comes down to it, the goal of any event should be to thank your supporters and show them how much you appreciate their support. Remember that time spent organizing an effective silent auction is time well spent, and the payoff is worth the effort.



About the Author

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions.  Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event.  The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue.  Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.

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