Learn how your nonprofit can run a silent auction successfully

Running Silent Auctions: A How-To Guide

There are many fundraising events that your nonprofit could host, but if you’re looking for the perfect event to ramp up your fundraising and better engage your donors, look no further than the silent auction.

Silent auctions can be some of the most successful fundraising events around.

Why, you might ask? Well…

  1. There’s a built-in incentive. The opportunity to walk home with a coveted auction item is a strong motivator for people to attend and to donate!
  2. There’s the ideal engagement opportunity. Not only is bidding a fun and interactive activity that’s excellent for capturing your guests’ attention, but your organization will also have plenty of time to mingle with attendees. Think of all the valuable information you could glean to help your future fundraising!

The benefits don’t stop there, but as you can see, hosting a silent auction can bring both your fundraising and donor stewardship to the next level.

The problems lies in the fact that silent auctions are complex events, making them relatively difficult to plan over other fundraisers.

Don’t worry too much, though. All it takes to run a successful silent auction is some careful preparation!

Our How-To Guide will take you step by step through the planning process, including:

  1. Setting a goal and budget.
  2. Recruiting a team.
  3. Booking a venue.
  4. Procuring auction items.
  5. Advertising your items and event.
  6. Hosting the event.
  7. Following up properly.

The best way to get started is to dive right in. Let’s begin planning that silent auction!

1. Set a goal and budget.

Set a goal and a budget for your silent auction

Planning your silent auction will be much simpler if your organization has a clear idea of what you’re working towards and which resources you have at your disposal to help you get there.

In other words, the first step to planning will be setting a goal and a budget.

Start by setting a clear and achievable fundraising goal. You should be setting two types of goals:

  1. A financial goal. Obviously, the main purpose of your event is to raise funds! Consider your campaign goals, the scope of your event, and the financial capacity of your constituents to support your cause when setting a fiscal goal.
  2. A stewardship goal. Chances are, your organization is hoping to establish new donor relationships and build on existing ones through hosting your event. While it may not be as clearly defined, set a stewardship goal so your staff will have a structure in place for cultivating donors.

Once you have your goals in mind, it’s time to get down to setting a budget. Of course, you’ll want to factor in your goals to ensure that where you set your budget will bring you a healthy return on your event.

Your budget will depend largely on the needs of your organization and which materials you might be able to receive as donations, but here are some expenses you might need to factor in:

  • Software: Auction, event planning, and/or mobile bidding.
  • A venue.
  • Auction items.
  • Catering.
  • Entertainment.
  • Supplies (tables, decorations, etc.).
  • Staff hours.

Try to anticipate all possible expenses, and make sure you leave yourself a little wiggle room in case you run into any unforeseen costs.

The takeaway: By establishing a goal and budget, your organization will have set parameters in place that will help you make sure your event is profitable.

Bonus: Need some help with your event planning? Check out Booster’s Essential Event Checklist.

2. Recruit a team.

Recruit a team to help you run your silent auction

Because silent auctions are complex in nature and planning will be a little more involved than with other fundraising events, you’ll need a large, dedicated team on your side to make sure that everything gets done.

Alongside your staff, you’ll likely need plenty of volunteers for your silent auction planning and execution to run smoothly.

Staff or volunteer, here are some of the key teams and individuals you’ll need to recruit:

  • Auction chair(s). The auction chair (or chairs) will be the boss. Along with recruiting and managing your team, they’ll keep up all event-related documents and have final say over all event decision-making.
  • Procurement chair and team. The procurement chair and their team will be tasked with one of the most important duties: soliciting auction items. They’ll request donations, as well as track and package items, arrange pickup and delivery, and set up the display on the night of the event.
  • Check-in and check-out team. The check-in/check-out team will take care of all duties related to setting up the event space, registering guests, and facilitating check-out and item distribution.
  • Ticket chair. The ticket chair will be responsible for selling as many tickets to your event as possible. They’ll manage both in-person ticket sales and those made through your online event site.
  • Emcee. The emcee will host the silent auction and program. They should be energetic and entertaining and actively engage your attendees by making announcements throughout the auction.
  • Auction monitors. Auction monitors will help the emcee facilitate the auction. They’ll walk around the room to answer bidders’ questions, enforce the rules, and encourage more bid activity.

These are just the team members essential to all silent auctions, but your organization might need people to fill more roles depending on the scope and format of your event.

In any case, make sure that you’ll have enough hands to cover all of your bases!

The takeaway: Thoroughly staff your event to ensure that you’ll have enough people dedicated to all aspects of your silent auction planning and execution.

3. Book a venue.

Learn how to book a venue for your silent auction

Now that you’ve prepared internally for planning your auction, it’s time to start pinning down the details!

Around 8-12 months before the event, your team should book a venue. Booking early should give you ample options to choose from and time to work out any kinks that may arise.

There are many types of spaces that make suitable silent auction venues; all that matters is that you’ll have plenty of open space for arranging your items and that your space fits with your organization and the ambience of the event.

For example, if you were hosting a gala, a museum might be the most appropriate event space. If, on the other hand, you were hosting a family-friendly back-to-school night, your school cafeteria or gym would probably work just fine.

Another thing to keep in mind while booking a venue is the availability of your guests.

The dates you can choose will be somewhat limited by the price and openness of the event space, but if possible, aim for a weekend or a weeknight, when guests who work full time will be able to attend. Additionally, avoid holidays and summer months when people are traveling and are more likely to be tied up with social events.

The takeaway: By booking a venue early, you should have plenty of options, so you can pick the venue and time that best fits your organization and constituents.

4. Procure auction items.

Ask local businesses and individuals for items for your silent auction

Without items to auction off, your organization would have no way to raise money at your event!

As such, procuring auction items is easily one of the most important parts of planning your silent auction.

Send your team out as early as possible to begin requesting in-kind donations. Have them start with professional and personal connections, then branch out to other local businesses or venues.

When procuring auction items, your team should be keeping an eye out for the most competitive items. These items will be:

  1. Appealing to your guests. Your guests aren’t going to bid on any of your items if they don’t want them! Obviously, to see the most bid activity, you’ll want to choose items that appeal to your guests’ interests and demographics.
  2. Appropriately priced. The items you choose should also fit into your attendees’ general income level. Guests aren’t going to bid on items that fall way above their price range.
  3. Rare or unique. When the items that you offer aren’t widely available (or even better, aren’t available anywhere else!), they’re sure to spark bidding wars among your guests!

It can be helpful to send your team out with a list of item ideas, so they’ll know what to look out for as they’re procuring items.

If you need a few ideas, make sure to check out BidPal’s list of 115 auction items!

The takeaway: Requesting auction items as in-kind donations couldn’t be more important to the success of your event. Choose which items you procure wisely!

5. Advertise your items and event.

Advertise your items and silent auction event

If you want people to attend your auction, you’ll have to get the word out!

However, promoting your silent auction will be a little different than promotion for your other fundraising events. To see the most success, you’ll need to advertise both your auction items and the event itself.

Why, you might ask? Remember how we mentioned earlier that auction items provide great incentive for people to attend and bid at your event?

Promoting your auction items in advance should result in a bigger turnout, since people won’t want to miss out on the chance to win the amazing items your team has procured!

The best way to promote both your items and the event is by putting up an online event site.

These sites are generated through auction software and allow you to list all of the important information about your items and auction, such as:

  • Basic details about the event (date, time, location, etc.).
  • A description of your organization and silent auction (including where you’re allocating the proceeds).
  • Corporate sponsor advertising.
  • The name and number of each auction item.
  • A short description of each item (including restrictions).
  • The starting bid, minimum raise, and market value amounts.
  • The name of the item’s donor.
  • Images of each item (where applicable).

Putting up an online event site is more cost-effective, expedient, and environmentally-friendly than compiling a physical auction catalog. Plus, it will give you additional functionality—such as opening up online bidding, accepting standard donations, and pre-registering guests’ credit cards for mobile bidding—that will help streamline your event and make it more profitable.

Once you’re done setting up your site, just remember to share the link on your organization’s website and in all communications about your silent auction to start hyping up your event!

The takeaway: Advertising both your silent auction and your auction items will result in a bigger turnout at your event, and thus, ensure more revenue is generated to fund your mission.

6. Host the event.

After all of your planning, it's time to host your silent auction

The long-awaited day of your silent auction has arrived, and your team is ready to start showing guests a night they’ll never forget.

However, your planning isn’t quite done yet. You’ll want to have all of the necessary team members at the venue well in advance of when the auction starts to set up the event space.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some of the main tasks you’ll need to take care of:

  • Set up registration and check-out areas.
  • Arrange display tables in a way that promotes good traffic flow.
  • Group your auction items into categories and place them on tables (remember: stick to one row per table!).
  • Print out table tents detailing the name, description, number, starting bid, minimum raise, and market value for each item, and place them next to their respective items.
  • Put signs around the room to help bidders navigate your display.
  • Double check the sound system.
  • Get your software set up, and make sure your cellular signal is strong and secure so guests can access mobile bidding.

Once it’s time for your guests to start arriving, get all of your volunteers in place and get ready to start hosting!

Your event will probably unfold a little something like this:

  1. Arrival. As guests come in, your check-in/check-out team will pre-register their credit cards (if attendees haven’t done so on your online event site already) and get them set up with mobile bidding by showing them how to use the software.
  2. Bidding. Once it’s time for the auction to start, open up the bidding! Guests can browse items—either by consulting their phones or wandering around your display—and place bids directly from their phones. Silent auction bidding usually lasts for around two hours.
  3. Program. Now that most of your guests have arrived, have your emcee catch their attention to give a short program. The program should welcome guests, give them a brief description of your organization and why you’re hosting the event, and highlight some big ticket sellers up for auction.
  4. Close items. Your mobile bidding app will shut down bidding on all items and determine winners once it’s time for the auction to close.
  5. Check-out and item distribution. If you’re using mobile bidding, winning guests will automatically be charged, so there’s no need to worry about check-out. All that’s required from your team will be to verify payments and get the winners their items!

Congratulations! You and your team have made it to the end of a successful silent auction. You’ll still need to clean up the event space, but don’t forget to take some time to pop open the bubbly and celebrate a job well done!

The takeaway: The day of your silent auction, you and your team should be at the event space early to take care of setup. Make sure that all necessary tools and hands are in place so that your auction runs as smoothly as possible.

7. Follow up properly.

Make sure that you follow up with your silent auction attendees and bidders

Although your event is over, there’s still one important step left.

To reap the fruits of all of your hard work, it’s important to follow up properly. The proper follow-up will include three important components:

  1. Send out thank-yous. Within 48-hours of your event, you should send out thorough thank-yous to everyone who was involved. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t only be thanking event attendees, but also all other pivotal contributors, such as volunteers, item donors, and corporate sponsors.
  2. Record new item and donor data. Make sure that you track the winner’s name and winning bid amount for each item, as well as any new donor data you’ve received. If you’re using auction software, item and bidder information should automatically be recorded. However, you’ll probably still need to export any new donor data you’ve received into your CRM.
  3. Track your goals. To ensure your auction was a success and to improve your planning for next year, you’ll need to track your goals. Use your auction or event planning software to run reports, which will give you insights into which areas of your auction were successful and which might need some improvement.

Let’s back up for a minute and discuss why the proper follow up is so important.

Thanking your donors goes beyond common courtesy. Making them feel appreciated for their contributions will be key to cementing more valuable, long term relationships.

These relationships will help you procure more items and see a bigger turnout next year, as well as improve your fundraising all around.

Additionally, it’s crucial to take the time to reflect internally on your event. Tracking your goals is the only way that your organization can evaluate your success and hone your tactics so you can see even more success when hosting an auction in the future.

In simpler terms, following up has long term consequences on your fundraising. Don’t neglect this important step!

The takeaway: The proper follow up after your silent auction will set you up for future success and include sending out thank-yous, recording new data from your event, and tracking your goals.

Bonus: Check out Fundly’s article on writing the perfect donor acknowledgement letter.


The only way to run a silent auction is to get out there and do it for yourself!

However, we hope that our How-To Guide will help you get well on your way to planning the most successful event possible.

For more information on silent auctions, make sure to check out BidPal’s website!