Fundraising and Auction Insights

A Step-by-Step Guide to Running Silent and Mobile Bidding Auctions

Running a silent auction for the first time, or wanting to improve over the last one? Thinking through the event step-by-step will help ensure everything runs smoothly and you raise as much as possible for your cause.

Ideally, you want to start planning and making decisions for your silent auction around a year beforehand. If it’s coming up sooner than that, just be sure to take care of the big tasks quickly.

First Steps for Your Silent Auction Event—12-18 months before

The earlier you start planning for your event, the more flexibility you will have. That being said, make sure you take care of these tasks first.

  1. Set a fundraising goal

Knowing how much you want to raise can help you strategize about spending and the size of the event. A high goal lends itself to a fancier event, with increased ticket prices and luxury items in your auction, while aiming a bit lower can leave more options for including guests who might not be as big of spenders—potentially increasing your donor engagement.

  1. Pick a time of year and guest count target

Before you can even think about a venue, it’s important that you know around what time of year you want your event to take place and how many people you are hoping to bring. Friday and Saturday evening events are going to be the most expensive at venues as well as the quickest to be booked. Weekday evenings tend to be easier to find availability for, but, depending on your guests, may frustrate them.

If you pick a few date options before you reach out to venues, you’ll have details to share with them to allow them to respond quicker. Those details can help you secure a venue before someone else books your date! Make sure you have an idea of guest count beforehand, as well—you don’t want to run out of room at your venue, or have too few people in a giant room!

  1. Choose a venue

Now that you have an idea of how many people you are planning for and when you want to host the event, it’s time to research venues. Depending on your location, the investment of time for this step will vary. Think about locations where you have attended events, ask other people for ideas, and search online.

When deciding whether to pursue a venue, be sure to consider:

  1. Parking and accessibility - including if parking is free and convenient or not
  2. Price - including any food and beverage minimums, audio/visual, service charges,  and cost of food
  3. Reputation - this can either encourage or discourage people to attend
  4.  How early you can enter the venue - this will change how many people you need for setup on the day of the event
  5. Vendor rules - do you have to work with their approved vendors for things like audio/visual or decorations?
  6. Ability to personalize - can the venue help brand the event to your organization?

Having all these questions in front of you while you are researching or touring locations will prevent you from having to keep going back for more questions and from making an uninformed decision.

  1. Build your guest list

Decide who you want to invite to your event. Depending on the cost and fundraising goal of the event, you may want to try segmenting your past supporters by a certain donation amount or income level to make sure you don’t invite someone who then experiences sticker shock. Expect that a large portion of those you invite will not respond or attend—for many organizations, less than 15% of those invited will make it to the event. This may seem absurdly low—remember that you are asking people to attend a fundraiser. The number will vary, so make sure you talk to others on your team to get a best estimate.

Getting ready—6-12 months before your event

  1. Design

Now that you have the details of your event, it’s time to start marketing. A great starting point is to create marketing materials for the event. Use a free tool like Canva to design attractive invitations, and make sure to use consistent fonts and colors to lend your event a professional feel. It also helps to create a web page with more details for your event located at an easy-to-type url.

Set an RSVP date based on when your venue needs exact numbers—and then add in time so that late responders don’t throw off your planning too much.

  1. Gather your tools

The days of bid sheets and paper registration sheets are long gone. To make your event run smoother and to give your guests the best experience possible, decide on a software solution to help you manage your event. Tools like iBid provide you with easy, one-step registration solutions as well as the necessary tools to automate your silent auction and allow for mobile bidding through guests’ smartphones.

Through mobile bidding technology and OneClick RegistrationTM, iBid can help your guests check in online when they arrive rather than waiting in line. Then, the software automates the silent auction to allow guests to bid from the convenience of their mobile device, including notifications when they’ve been outbid and a pre-scheduled closing of the auction. The added convenience  helps increase bidding and reduces the amount of staff needed to manage the auction at the event. And, making this decision further in advance of your event allows you to enter auction items as you receive them and practice with the tool.

  1. Solicit auction items

Obviously, auction items are essential to a silent auction. However, it’s important to make a plan to solicit the right kinds of items and manage the logistics of soliciting. If possible, expand your team of auction item solicitors to include other staff members or volunteers. More people soliciting items will help you to have a wider variety of items and make sure that you obtain items that appeal to different people. You can keep track of who has been contacted or has donated through a Google Sheet shared with all the solicitors. Just make sure that everyone is on the same page about what you will or won’t accept. Good auction items include:

  • Luxury items like fine wines
  • Vacations or hotel getaways
  • Sport tickets or signed memorabilia
  • Cultural event tickets like art shows, operas, and theatres
  • Restaurant gift certificates
  • Unique opportunities, like a chef’s dinner, behind-the-scenes tour, or lunch with a local celebrity

Items like these will help your event raise funds and will keep donors coming back next time.


 4. Determine entertainment

Will your event include a band, performance, or other form of entertainment? It’s good to decide on this far in advance of that day, as many performers book months ahead of time, not to mention that you may need to coordinate with your venue to ensure the entertainment has everything that is needed.

5. Organize auction

As you receive auction items, enter them into your auction software and think through what might pair well together. Doing this as items come in will save you time at the end, and may help direct what else you solicit to round out the auction. Make sure that your auction items will fit well in your venue without being crowded. Usually, you’ll want to aim for an auction item for every 2-3 guests to ensure that guests bid competitively and have an opportunity to take something home.

6. Find volunteers

Reach out to other departments and staff for help leading up to and the day of the event. See if there are any other supporters who would like to help—this is a great way to engage loyal donors and give them another way to connect to your organization.

The Last Details—0-6 months before your event

As your event approaches, you’ll want to wrap up the last details. This time is particularly important, because the more prepared you are in this period, the smoother your event day will run.

  1. Follow up with your invitees

Haven’t heard back from invited guests? Create a plan to follow up with your invitees, especially your major donors and loyal supporters. Whether it’s a follow up mailing, call from one of your team or executive director, or an email, make sure that you reach out again to try to capture those attendees.

  1. Plan the flow of the event

Think through how guests will experience your event. Where do they check in? Do they have to wait in line or can they do it on their smartphone? Some solutions, like iBid, will allow this.

Consider when different portions of the program will commence, how long the auction is open, and any other details about scheduling. You want to make sure people are able to enjoy the event but that it doesn’t drag on too long. It can be a tricky balance, but remember—these people came because they believe in your cause. If you give them a chance to connect with it, that will make all the difference.

  1. Automate your auction

Paper bid sheets and manual payment collection are things of the past. With the amount of software auction options out there, there is no reason not to use a secure, automated solution to help your auction go more smoothly, increase bidding, and save you time and stress. Find one that allows you to personalize the experience for your guests and brand it for your organization.

  1. Send a reminder email

If you send a reminder email with details about the event like parking, guests remember that it’s coming up and are confident in how to attend. And, this is a great way to push the auction before the event! You can include a link to the auction beforehand, either with the option to bid or with bidding closed until the event.

  1. Finalize venue details

Run through menu decisions, guest count, entertainment, audio/visual needs, and any other components of the event with your contact. It’s also helpful to designate one person to be the liaison with your contact for the day of the event and make sure you have a cell number to call in case they aren’t easy to find.

The Day of Your Event

After all of your hard work, the day of your event is here. Make sure you’ve planned each step to help your event run wonderfully!

  1. Set up the auction

An eye for detail and design is crucial here. Items should be spaced out enough that guests can look them over without crowding around. Small decorative touches go a long way, including color accents, baskets to hold items, and photos related to your cause to help remind your supporters why they are bidding. You may also want to keep gift cards safely stored during the auction, with paper certificates listing the details posted in their place.

  1. Walk through the venue

You never know what you might notice—a dirty tablecloth, damaged centerpiece, lack of trash cans available, or something else. Having one or two people look throughout the venue beforehand can help catch any small details that might otherwise go unnoticed until a guest points them out.

  1. Greet your guests

As people arrive, have staff or volunteers available to greet them, provide instructions, and answer any questions. Most people won’t need them, but will appreciate knowing where to go if they do.

  1. Kick off the bidding

Since you’ve likely automated your silent auction, this will start by default. Making an announcement that bidding has started, however, can help gently direct people towards the silent auction. Pick someone on your team with some energy and personality to kick off the auction on the microphone—and send that person back to remind people how long is left to bid!

  1. Monitor

Sit back and watch the bids roll in! If you notice that an item isn’t being bidded on, don’t drop the opening bid—this can signal to your guests that they should wait to bid and see if the price goes down. Rather, try to encourage someone to bid on it, or make a note to do an online fire sale after the event with any leftover items.

  1. Closing the bidding

The same announcer can warn guests when bidding is almost over. If you have any particularly big-ticket items, this can be a good time to talk them up and try to encourage more competition!

  1. Checking out your guests

This is one of the most important and overlooked parts of silent auctions. Once guests have won their items, they’ll want to be able to leave quickly when they want to. Having to wait in a long line to check out leads to frustrated donors!

Thankfully, there are several solutions for this. You can automate the receipts in your auction software as well as automatically check people out by collecting payment information beforehand.

After the Event

First of all, congratulations! You’ve made it! While the aftermath of such a huge project can be overwhelming, here are just a few things to keep in mind as you move past it.

  1. Follow up

Right after the event is the perfect time to follow up with your guests. A nice email thanking them for attending, sharing how much money was raised, and asking for any feedback helps them feel appreciated and keeps you on their minds in the following days. An online survey can be particularly invaluable, too, as you may get helpful insights into what your guests enjoyed or what frustrated them. Those insights can make future events even more successful!

  1. Analyze

Debrief with your team soon after the event to think through how it went. Some helpful questions to ask are:

  • Did we raise what we hoped for?
  • What went well?
  • What could have gone better?
  • What auction items were popular?
  • What auction items were neglected?
  • What feedback did guests share in the survey?
  • Was the event the right length?
  • Would we use this venue again?
  • What would you do differently next time?

There are many more good questions to ask, but addressing these will help guide your discussion. And, by taking notes during this discussion, you can document valuable takeaways for your next silent auction!

This step-by-step guide will help you consider all the elements of your silent auction event and hopefully avoid any of the common pitfalls. While no event will go perfectly, being prepared and strategic can help you to meet your financial goals and engage your donors. Happy fundraising!