Silent Auctions: How to Run a Memorable (and Profitable!) Event

Andrew Dain

Is your organization looking for the perfect event to incorporate into your next annual campaign? If so, look no further than the silent auction!

Silent auctions are some of the most popular annual events for nonprofits.

Not only are they incentivizing (who wouldn’t want to give to a noble cause when amazing items like exotic travel packages and autographed movie props are on the line?), but they’re also highly engaging. Because they center around bidding, an activity that involves active participation, they fully immerse donors in both the event and the fundraising.

The one downside is that silent auctions can also be more difficult to plan over other fundraising events. After all, there’s no reward without a little risk!

Don’t worry, though. If you go into planning well prepared, there’s no reason why your organization shouldn’t be able to host a successful silent auction.

In this article, we’ll cover all of the steps of planning to help your first (or next) silent auction run without a hitch. Here’s what we’ll look into:

  1. Deciding on a goal and budget.
  2. Getting an auction team together.
  3. Procuring auction items.
  4. Booking a venue.
  5. Promoting your items and event.
  6. Deciding on a bidding method.
  7. Hosting your auction.
  8. Following up after the event.

Now let’s plan an unforgettable silent auction!

Step 1 to planning a silent auction is to decide on a goal and budget.

1. Decide on a goal and budget.

Before you get down to setting all of the details of your silent auction in stone, it’s important to determine a goal and budget. After all, you don’t want to funnel more money into your event than you’re going to raise from it!

When setting a goal, make sure to factor in the needs of your campaign (if you’re hosting an auction as part of your annual fund). All of the time, money, and energy that you put into your silent auction will only be worth it if you can raise enough to help you meet your overall campaign goals.

Once you have a clear goal in mind, you’ll need to determine a reasonable budget. Obviously, it should be set at a place where you can make enough of a return on your event to meet (or ideally exceed!) your goal.

Here are some common costs associated with auction planning that you might need to consider:

  • Event planning and/or mobile bidding software.
  • The venue.
  • Catering and entertainment.
  • Auction items.
  • Tables, decorations, and other materials.
  • Staff hours.

Your organization should be able to receive many of these materials as donations, but it’s always advisable to factor in all potential costs. You don’t want to bank on a donation only to find out later that you have to buy it and don’t have enough room in your budget.

Takeaway: Setting a clear goal and budget from the outset of planning will set you up to host a profitable silent auction.

Step 2 to planning a silent auction is to get a team together.

2. Get an auction team together.

Since there are so many facets of charity auctions including the planning, organization, and set-up, your silent auction will need a strong team to make sure that all your ducks are in a row.

Here are some key players that you’ll likely need to recruit:

  • The auction chair. The head honcho of planning, the auction chair will coordinate the efforts of the entire auction team and have the final say on all event decision making.
  • The planning team. The planning team will take care of all basic event logistics, such as setting a date, booking a venue, selling tickets, managing RSVPS, promoting the event, etc.
  • The procurement team. The procurement team has perhaps the most important duty of all: to solicit auction items for your event. The team should be confident about asking for donations and should have a strong network of personal connections to leverage.
  • The theme chair. If you plan on centering your auction around a theme, you’ll need to appoint a creative person to be your theme chair. This individual will decide on the theme and coordinate the venue and event materials to match it.
  • An emcee. Similar to the auctioneer’s role in a live auction, the emcee will host your silent auction by giving an event program (an introductory speech to acknowledge contributors and explain the reason for hosting the auction), engaging guests with announcements, and encouraging participation in the bidding.
  • Auction monitors. Auction monitors assist the emcee in ensuring that your silent auction stays on track. They’ll be positioned around the display to answer bidders’ question, talk up items, and make sure that everyone is playing by the rules!
  • General volunteers. Aside from auction monitors, you’ll probably also need a team of volunteers to cover general auction-day tasks such as registration, checkout, cleanup, etc.

Most of these roles can be filled by both staff and volunteers. Just make sure that you have enough hands on board to cover all tasks that need to be completed!

Takeaway: Auction teams include many diverse roles. Recruit plenty of staff members and volunteers to ensure that your event runs without a hitch.

Step 3 to planning a silent auction is to procure auction items.

3. Procure auction items.

Auction items are essential to the success of your silent auction. After all, most of the money you raise will come from selling items to the donors who place the highest bids!

To ensure that your items see plenty of bid activity, it’s important to be thoughtful during the procurement process. You shouldn’t just blindly ask for and accept any type of donation; instead, you should be keeping an eye toward the items that will be most attractive to your donor base.

Before you send your procurement team out to ask for donations, consult your donor database. By analyzing the data on file, you may be able to glean insights into your supporters’ interests to help you zero in on the most appropriate items for your auction.

The items that generate the most bids tend to have these three distinctive traits:

  1. They’re appealing. Obviously, your items should align with what your donors like. If your items aren’t interesting or valuable to your attendees, they won’t receive bids.
  2. They’re reasonably priced. You’ll want to consider the general income level of your attendees as you’re selecting items. The items you feature at auction must fit into your attendees’ budgets, or else they won’t have the means to bid on them in the first place.
  3. They’re unique. Everyone knows that an item in low supply is in high demand, and the same goes for your silent auction items. If you can find unique or one-of-a-kind items (custom artwork, a walk-on role in a TV show, or sports gear signed by a favorite player would all be good examples), you’re sure to strike fundraising gold!

To start your procurement team off on the right track, it can be helpful to provide them with a solicitation toolkit that includes a list of appropriate item ideas, among other resources. That way, they can focus their asks in the most beneficial way.

If you need a few creative ideas to kickstart the procurement process, check out this list from BidPal.

Takeaway: To procure the items that will receive big bids at your auction, consider your donors’ interests and budgets and choose items that they’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Step 4 to planning a silent auction is to book a venue.

4. Book a venue.

About 6-8 months in advance of your auction, your organization should set a date and book a venue. Booking early will provide you with the most options and plenty of flexibility.

Nonprofits host their silent auctions in many places, from golf courses to art museums to school gymnasiums. The type of venue you go with will ultimately be up to your organization, but here are a few important things to keep in mind:

  1. Space. Considering that you’ll be showcasing dozens of items, silent auctions require extensive displays. The venue you choose should have room to accommodate enough tables for displaying all of your items. It also should have enough room to accommodate all of your guests (comfortably!).
  2. Accessibility. If you’re featuring large or heavy items in your auction, you’ll want to make sure that the venue you choose is accessible. You don’t want to have to carry heavy items up flights upon flights of stairs or to discover that you can’t fit a large item through the venue’s entrance.
  3. Connectivity. If you’re using software to help you execute your auction, you’ll need to host it in a venue with reliable wifi and cell service. Don’t forget to test connectivity when scoping out venues!
  4. Ambience. It wouldn’t make sense to host a black-tie gala in the school cafeteria. Your venue should be reflective of the ambience you’re trying to create.

Of course, just as important as selecting an excellent venue is booking it on the right date.

Avoid holiday and summer months when supporters are more likely to be out of town or occupied with social engagements and weekdays when they’ll be tied up with work. Weekends or week nights are the best bet for a large turnout.

Takeaway: When booking a venue, consider space, accessibility, connectivity, ambience, and your supporters’ availability.

Step 5 to planning a silent auction is to promote your items and the event.

5. Promote your items and event.

No one’s going to show up to your auction if they aren’t aware that it’s happening! Begin promoting your silent auction well in advance of the event day to ensure that you’ll see a healthy turnout.

When promoting your auction, it’s important to advertise both the event itself and the items you’re featuring. Seeing an item they want can be a huge motivator for supporters to attend, so take advantage of it!

Traditionally, organizations promoted their auctions by compiling a physical event catalog that they had to print and distribute through the mail. However, in recent years, many nonprofits have caught onto the fact that it’s much more prudent to promote their auctions by putting up an online event site.

An online event site is exactly what it sounds like: a website branded and devoted to your silent auction. Using your site, you can feature basic event details as well as create listings with photos and descriptions of your items for supporters to browse prior to the event.

To create an event site, you’ll need to enlist the help of auction software, a type of event planning software that includes specialized features for auctions.

With this software, you can list item records, then pull them from the platform to generate an event site. Most platforms should allow you to customize your site to your auction’s theme with ease.

Once you have your site all set up, promotion is as easy as grabbing the link and sharing it with supporters in communications about your event. You won’t have to waste any money on printing costs, and since you can continuously update your site, you can start advertising before all of your items have been procured.

Plus, event sites also support online bidding, so your organization could even choose to host an online auction before or after your event to raise even more money!

Takeaway: To see the biggest turnout at your auction, start promoting early and through multiple channels. The easiest and most cost-effective way to approach promotion is by using auction software to generate an online event site.

Step 6 to planning a silent auction is to decide on a bidding method.

6. Decide on a bidding method.

Silent auction bidding can be conducted in one of two ways: either by using bid sheets or mobile bidding software.

Let’s break down each method to help your organization decide which might be right for your event.

i. Bid sheets.

When people think of silent auctions, bid sheets are what usually come to mind. A piece of paper with multiple rows for bids is placed next to each item, and supporters write their name, bidder number, and bid amount next to the item they want each time they wish to bid.

Traditional silent auctions use bid sheets, and they’re still a viable option for organizations with supporter bases who prefer offline donation methods or who don’t have a lot of money to spend on software.

However, the downside to using bid sheets is that they make bidding less convenient for your supporters.

Not to mention, they require an involved checkout process, since your organization will have to collect bid sheets, manually determine winners, and get all of the winners through checkout to pay for their items, among other steps.

ii. Mobile bidding.

Mobile bidding is a new bidding method that will give your auction a modern, technological component. Using this silent auction software, supporters can look at items and place and monitor bids directly from their smartphones.

Because supporters can bid with the click of a button from anywhere in the venue, mobile bidding generally results in more bids. Donors can even bid remotely!

Plus, mobile bidding makes checkout a lot easier on your organization, since supporters must pre-register their credit cards to use it. That means that winners are automatically determined and their payments are automatically processed, so all your organization has to do is distribute items to their respective winners.

Takeaway: Ultimately, the bidding method you choose is up to your organization and whether an online or offline method would appeal more to your base.

Step 7 to planning a silent auction is to host your auction!

7. Host your auction!

The day your silent auction will have many different phases, the first of which is setting up the venue.

Your team should get to the venue as early as possible to ensure that you have plenty of time to create your display and get other stations in order.

Here are some of the main tasks you’ll likely need to complete:

  • Set up registration and checkout tables.
  • Arrange display tables around the venue in a way that’s conducive to good traffic flow.
  • Group items by category to help create an intuitive display.
  • Place items on tables, keeping them to one row to maximize visibility.
  • Print and place signs to guide attendees through the display and venue.
  • Generate table tents listing the item number, the description, any restrictions, the retail value, and the starting bid and minimum bid amounts.
  • Set up any other booths you might need, such as those for merchandise, raffle tickets, and standard donations.

Once the time for your auction rolls around, make sure that all team members are in place to greet and register guests. After they’re signed in, your attendees will have free reign to browse, bid, and mingle to their hearts’ content!

While hosting a fundraising event can be stressful, remember to have fun with it. If your attendees see that you and your team are having a great time, they’re sure to follow suit.

Takeaway: On the day of your auction, you and all team members will have many logistics to handle, including set up. Prepare accordingly, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself, too!

Step 8 to planning a silent auction is to follow up after the event.

8. Follow up.

In order to maximize the benefits of hosting your auction (hint: not only fundraising, but the progress you’ve made connecting with donors in-person as well), you should follow up after your event.

Following up should include three main tasks:

  1. Thanking contributors. Within the week after your event, you should send out a personalized thank you to all contributors. That not only includes attendees, but also item donors, corporate sponsors, volunteers, and anyone else who had a hand in making your event a success.
  2. Evaluating your performance. If you used auction software, you can run reports on your items, guests, and overall event performance. Running reports is the only way to gain quantitative insights into how successful your auction was, so you can adjust areas that leave room for improvement and keep honing your auctions year after year.
  3. Surveying guests and volunteers.  Another way to see how your silent auction stacked up is to survey the people who participated! Send out an email blast to auction guests and volunteers that includes a quick survey, asking them what they liked and what changes they’d like to see next time around.

The proper follow up will set you up for success with both your future auctions and your fundraising in general, so take this step seriously!

Takeaway: Just because your auction is over doesn’t mean your work is quite done yet. Follow up by acknowledging contributors and evaluating your performance through consulting your auction software and getting feedback from those who participated.


As you can see, planning a silent auction is a multi-step process that requires coordinating many logistics. However, we hope that this article has also shown you that planning can be manageable when you know what to consider!

For more on event fundraising, check out our guide on planning a fundraising event!

Leave a Comment