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Planning Charity Auctions: The Ultimate How-To Guide


When it comes to event fundraising, many organizations opt for the charity auction.

And for good reason! Charity auctions are lucrative and engaging events that have the potential to be incredibly rewarding—both from a stewardship and fundraising perspective.

Unfortunately, however, charity auctions have many moving parts and can be relatively involved events to plan.

That shouldn’t deter your organization, though! If you know how to approach planning an auction, the time and effort you put into your event can really pay off.

We’re here to help! In this guide, we’ll go step by step through charity auction planning to help you plan an unforgettable and profitable event.

Here are the steps we’ll cover:

  1. Choose an auction type.
  2. Set a goal and budget.
  3. Get a team together.
  4. Book a venue and set a date.
  5. Solicit auction items.
  6. Promote the event.
  7. Host your auction!
  8. Follow up.

Now, let’s start planning that auction!


1. Choose an Auction Type

The first step to planning a charity auction is to decide which type of auction (or auctions!) your organization is going to host.

There are three main types of charity auctions:

  1. Silent auctions. Items are displayed around the room, and attendees either place bids through a mobile bidding service or by writing their bids on bid sheets placed next to each item.
  2. Live auctions. An auctioneer runs the auction in real-time by introducing each item and guiding bid amounts. Attendees place bids by raising bid paddles or otherwise catching the auctioneer’s attention.
  3. Online auctions. Bidders place bids virtually by accessing an online auction site that lists out descriptions and photos of items. Participants must first register by inputting their name and payment information.

Each type of auction has its pros and cons.

In-person auctions (live and silent auctions) are more engaging and provide you with valuable face time with your donors, but they can also be more expensive and involved to plan. Online auctions, on the other hand, require fewer resources but can potentially be less engaging. You also won’t get the benefit of face-to-face time with your donors.

That’s why many organizations choose to host both an in-person and an online auction. By doing so, they can balance out the downsides of each auction type and increase their fundraising potential!

Utimately, which type of auction you host depends on your organization’s goals and which would appeal most to your supporters.

Bonus: To learn more about each type of auction, check out OneCause’s charity auction guide!



2. Set a goal and budget.

Before you get any further into planning, it’s important to assess what you hope to achieve with your auction and how many resources you have available to get you there.

In other words, it’s time to set a goal and a budget!

Setting a clear goal will help you determine how many auction items you need to procure and what the scope of your event will be. Make sure to factor in your needs as well as your overall campaign goals if your auction is part of a greater fundraising campaign.

Of course, you’ll want to set your budget in a place where you can make a healthy return and that’s conducive to you meeting your goals.

Your expenses will vary depending on which type of auction you host and what materials you can get donated, but here are some expenses you might need to consider:

  • Auction, event planning, and/or mobile bidding software.
  • Auction items.
  • The venue.
  • Catering and entertainment.
  • Staff hours.
  • Other materials (tables, decorations, merchandise, etc.)

Ultimately, the goal and budget you determine should set you up for success. You should be aiming to raise enough to cover your fundraising needs and then some!



3. Get a team together.

Since auctions have so many moving parts, you’ll need a team on your side to cover a variety of tasks.

Here’s who you’ll need by your side throughout your charity auction planning and execution:

  • The planning committee. The planning committee will take care of all event logistics, including booking the venue, marketing the event, and coordinating event materials. The planning team can be made up of both staff and volunteers, but it will need to be headed by an event chair who’s one of your staff or key volunteers.
  • The procurement committee. The procurement committee has one of the most important jobs of all: soliciting auction items! The team can comprise both staff and volunteers.
  • A team of general volunteers. Your organization will also need a team of volunteers to help you with tasks on the day of the auction itself. This team will mainly be tasked with setup, running check-in and check-out, and assisting the auctioneer or emcee to make sure the auction runs smoothly.
  • An auctioneer or emcee. Last but definitely not least, you’ll need an auctioneer (for a live auction) or emcee (for a silent auction). While their roles vary slightly, their main duties are the same: to host the auction, keep the bidding on track, and actively engage your guests. Since they’re so integral to the energy of your auction, you might want to consider hiring a professional.

Ultimately, you’ll need a large and diverse team of staff members and volunteers to help you plan and run your auction. Make sure you have enough hands to cover everything that needs to get done!

Bonus: Check out GuideStar’s article on how to build trust with new volunteers.



4. Book a venue and set a date.

If you’re running a live or silent auction, your organization will need to decide when and where you’ll host your auction.

You’ll ideally want to book a venue 6-8 months in advance of the event. Booking early will provide you with plenty of flexibility.

When selecting a venue, you should choose one that:

  • Can accommodate the number of guests you expect to attend.
  • Fits with the ambience of your event.
  • Is accessible and has plenty of space (this is especially important for silent auctions, which require item displays).
  • Has strong cellular service (if you’re using auction or mobile bidding software).

So, for example, if you were a school hosting a back-to-school auction, the most appropriate venue might be your gymnasium or auditorium.

The date of your auction will be partially determined by when the venue is available.

However, to see the best turnout, try to avoid holidays or summer months when your supporters are more likely to be out of town. Hosting on a weekday night or a weekend usually leads to the best turnout.

Ultimately, you should scope out a venue early and consider your guests’ availability to choose the date and location that are conducive to auction success.



5. Solicit auction items.

One of the most important parts of auction planning is item solicitation. After all, most of the funds you raise during your auction will come from selling items to winning bidders.

When soliciting auction items, your procurement team should look out for items that are:

  • Appealing to your supporters. The items you feature will have to appeal to your supporters’ interests for them to receive bids.
  • Appropriately priced. Your items will also have to fall within your supporters’ general price range, so your supporters have the financial capacity to bid on them in the first place.
  • Rare or unique. The rarer an item is, the more in demand it will be. One-of-a-kind items and experiences (like signed memorabilia or meeting a celebrity) usually perform best.

When sending your team out, it can be helpful to equip them with a solicitation toolkit that includes item ideas, event invitations, and solicitation letters, among other things. That way, they know what types of items to look out for, and they’ll be more prepared for the ask.

Ultimately, item procurement is an incredibly crucial step to auction planning and will greatly influence how much you’re able to raise with your auction. Solicit wisely!

Bonus: Learn how to write the perfect auction item solicitation letter with this resource from Fundly.



6. Promote the event.

To see a great turnout at your auction, you’ll have to spread the word to your supporters!

When it comes to charity auctions, you should promote both your event and your items. Items are incentivizing; seeing something that they want can spur more supporters to attend your event.

The most cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally-conscious way to promote your auction and items is by putting up an online event site.

If you’re hosting an online auction, you’ll need to do so anyway, since that’s where supporters will view items and place their bids.

To set up an event site:

  1. Find an auction or event planning software vendor who fits your needs.
  2. Enter all item data in the platform to create item records.
  3. Generate and customize your site (this should be an easy step, since the software will use your item records to populate your site).
  4. Share the link with supporters in your event outreach.

It’s that simple! Plus, one of the greatest benefits of using an event site is that you can continuously update it as new items come in, allowing you to start promoting earlier.

Ultimately, promoting both your auction items and the auction itself will result in a greater turnout at your event. And a bigger turnout means greater fundraising potential!



7. Host your auction.

The day of your auction is here, and it’s time to show your guests a time they’ll never forget!

The day of the auction will probably look a little something like this:

  1. Setup. All necessary team members will arrive at the venue early for setup. Setup tasks will vary based on which type of auction you’re hosting. Just make sure that items are in order, that check-in and check-out stations are set up, and that all other necessary materials are where they’re supposed to be.
  2. Arrival. Guests start arriving. Your team will greet them and get them set up at registration by providing them with whatever materials they need for bidding.
  3. Bidding. The auction is in full swing as guests bid on your items, mingle, and enjoy the entertainment and refreshments. This is your organization’s opportunity to talk to supporters face-to-face and get to know them a little better!
  4. Checkout/item distribution. Once bidding has closed and the winners have been determined, you’ll need to direct guests to check-out to pay for their items and distribute items to the correct winners. If using mobile bidding for your silent auction, you can skip checkout since guests have pre-registered their cards and winners’ payments are automatically processed.

While the night of your auction is sure to be busy, remember to enjoy yourself! If guests see that you and your team are having fun, they’re sure to have a good time, too.

Ultimately, the day of your auction will have many different stages. Stay on top of event logistics, but remember to have a little fun, too!



8. Follow up. 

Your event itself might be over, but your auction is not quite done yet.

The last step to planning is follow-up, which consists of two main tasks:

  1. Sending out acknowledgements. Your auction could never have been a success without the support of your attendees, volunteers, item donors, and corporate sponsors. Make sure to send a timely and personalized thank-you to all pivotal contributors.
  2. Evaluating your performance. The only way to determine how well you did at meeting your goals and to look toward improvement next year is to evaluate your performance. Run reports with your auction software and survey your attendees to get insights into which parts of the auction were most lucrative and which could be improved next time around.

Ultimately, following up after your auction will set you up for long term fundraising success. Thank your supporters to cement the face-to-face relationships you established at your event, and evaluate your own performance to see how your auction fundraising stacked up.

Bonus: Read GuideStar’s article on the benefits of evaluating your performance.

Interested in learning more about charity auctions? Check out OneCause’s website!

joshua-meyer-headshot-for-blog-outreach-200x200.pngJoshua Meyer brings over 14 years of fundraising, volunteer management, and marketing experience to his current role as Director of Marketing for OneCause (formerly BidPal). He has a passion for helping to create positive change and loves that his current role allows him to help nonprofits engage new donors and achieve their fundraising goals. 

Topics: Events Charity silent auction Online Auction auction