From Planning to Profit: How to Master Your Silent Auctions

Learn more about nonprofit silent auctions and how to get started in this guide!
Silent auctions can take your nonprofit fundraising to the next level. Learn more about nonprofit silent auctions and how to get started in this guide!

As a fundraising professional, you likely know that effective charity auctions can raise awareness for your cause, further engage your supporters, and help you solicit critical funding. But perhaps you’ve never hosted one yourself, or you’re looking for a refresher before planning your next big event. 

That’s why we’ve put together this guide to pulling off a successful silent auction. We’ll cover the following topics to prepare you for hosting your own auction and bringing in the big bucks for your organization:


Ready to take your fundraising efforts to the next level with a silent auction? Let’s jump in!

What is a Silent Auction_ FAQ

What Are Silent Auctions?

Silent auctions are a type of charity auction in which bidders can browse, bid on, and purchase items without the supervision of an auctioneer by placing their bid electronically or on a physical sheet of paper. 

Auctions are highly praised fundraisers because of their flexibility. Everything from item displays to bid formats can be completely customized, which is why there are several different types of auctions. The two most common types are silent auctions and live auctions:

This image shows the differences between silent auctions and live auctions, which will be explained in the text below

In silent auctions, guests can browse items on display and place their bids via bid sheets. Live auctions, in contrast, are hosted by an auctioneer. Attendees place their bids by raising their hands or a bid card while the auctioneer is talking.

Both types of events are powerful fundraisers that can bring in substantial revenue for your organization, but silent auctions are particularly advantageous for the following reasons:

  • They’re inexpensive. All you’ll need is a venue, the auction items, and bidders! You can easily set up enticing item displays at low costs and raise even more revenue by selling concessions.
  • Bidding is kept private. More people will be likely to bid on items when they don’t have to engage in a bidding war in front of a large crowd. Silent auctions allow bidders to privately place their bids for items and wait to find out if they’ve won.
  • Supporters are more engaged. As opposed to a live format, silent auctions allow guests to mingle with each other and your nonprofit’s leaders or volunteers. This creates more opportunities for you to communicate your cause, connect with potential donors, and cultivate a healthy community of supporters.

Plus, silent auctions allow for mobile bidding, which can help your nonprofit reach a larger audience. Whereas guests have to attend a live auction in order to participate, silent auctions can be hybrid by accepting bids on a virtual platform. All you need is an event management tool that offers mobile bidding features. Then, more supporters can participate and donate to your cause!

Click this graphic to try a demo of Snowball’s silent auction softwar

Are you ready to plan your best auction yet?

Snowball Fundraising
How to Run a Silent Auction

How Do Silent Auctions Work?

Before you can start planning your event, it’s a good idea to first understand the way silent auctions function. 

For this event, items are typically set up throughout a physical space with a sheet of paper, called a bid sheet, at each one. When participants find an item they’d like, they simply write their bid amount (in dollars) with their anonymous bidding number that they receive upon registration or check-in.

Nonprofit auction software provides a streamlined, tech-based alternative in which attendees can quickly and easily bid from their phones instead. Users can then be notified when they’ve been outbid and decide to raise their bid to stay in the game.

As participants explore your available items, individuals continually one-up each other by placing a slightly higher bid than the person before them. After the event, the individual with the highest bid “wins” the item in question, pays the agreed-upon amount, and is gifted the item. Proceeds from bids are then collected and go toward funding your mission.

How to Run a Silent Auction

Now that you know the basics of silent auctions, you’re ready to walk through the steps involved in planning and hosting the event itself.

Like any fundraiser, extensive preparation is crucial for ensuring a successful event. An auction may require more planning than most events, so here are three key stages to keep in mind:

: This image shows how silent auctions work, which will be explained in the text below.

1. Procure auction items

Donors cherish the opportunity to support your cause while also receiving a tangible item in return—it’s a win-win! 

Your auction items are the star of the show, so it’s crucial to get started with this step as early as possible—typically, 3-6 months before your planned event is a reasonable time frame. Build a procurement team of five or six dedicated individuals—preferably a combination of nonprofit staff and volunteers—who are willing to solicit auction items from family, friends, community members, and local businesses. 

Your revenue collection can be directly impacted by engaging and high-demand auction items, such as: 

  • Local favorite restaurants: Consider which eateries in your community are fan favorites and secure a gift your participants are sure to want. Think about prizes like gift cards, private dinner parties, or tasting events with the head chef.
  • Valuable virtual experiences: Plan a virtual cooking or cocktail-making class with a chef. You might even be able to have a virtual meet-and-greet with an athlete or celebrity!
  • Exclusive items. What items are of high value to your participants? Consider items such as expensive wine, an autographed jersey, or perhaps a piece of high-end jewelry.


Consider what establishments in your area could offer an item or experience to contribute. When you form partnerships with local businesses, you can solicit gifts for free and low costs, ensuring maximum revenue for supporting your mission.

Remember to choose items that appeal to your specific audience. For example, a local school will have a much different supporter base than a large-scale nonprofit, and auction items should be adjusted as such. Include items of various price ranges so that all bidders can opt for something they’d reasonably be able to afford.

2. Promote your event

Your promotion strategy is one of the most important elements of your silent auction prep. After all, your dedicated supporters must first be made aware of your event plans beforehand to attend and participate. Here are a few easy marketing tactics to get the word out about your auction:

This image shows various ways nonprofits can promote their silent auctions, which will be listed in the text below
  •  Create an event landing page. Use your website as the main source of information for your auction, including event details and a registration form on a dedicated landing page for the event. Your website might already receive a lot of traffic, but you can also use marketing resources like Google’s Ad Grant program to promote the page and draw more attention to your site.
  • Invite donors via email. Email is a favorite for donor communications. For one, you can easily invite thousands of individuals in just a few clicks. Plus, email marketing software allows you to personalize invitations and address each donor by name without sending a separate invite to each. Once a supporter receives your invitation, they can quickly navigate to your registration page with a bright and eye-catching call to action.
  • Send physical invitations. Everyone loves getting mail, especially when it’s not a bill. That’s why sending invitations via direct mail can be an effective way to inform supporters of your upcoming event and boost excitement from the beginning. Plus, your physical invite can serve as a powerful reminder for individuals who might hang it on their refrigerator or leave it around the house.
  • Share on social media. This is a great way to spread the word far and wide, including potential guests you may not have on your email or mailing lists. Share posts including the date, time, and if applicable, a location and registration link for your auction. Encourage current supporters to interact with and share your posts with their own social media networks, effectively expanding your reach and introducing you to new avenues of support. 


While your outreach strategies will likely be adjusted to your particular supporter base, it’s a good practice to implement multiple of these key suggestions. In fact, studies show that 72% of consumers would rather connect with brands through a multichannel approach.


3. Follow up after the auction

Post-auction operations play a considerable role in whether your attendees return for future events. Be sure to have a carefully organized, streamlined checkout process for your winners so that they can pay, receive their items, and head out without complication.

A few days later, be sure to thank all of your guests for participating and ask them to fill out a quick survey. This way you can get a feel for what your attendees really thought about your event, including what can be improved for next time.

Each of these is a crucial element in a successful auction and something you don’t want to leave to the last minute—or to chance! When participants and attendees can tell you put a lot of time, effort, and thought into pulling off the event, they’re more likely to get involved.

When you hear the word auction, your mind might first go toward a rowdy event with a personable auctioneer and a booming voice yelling, “going once … going twice … sold!” While this can certainly be an excellent way to raise money for your cause, some events are better suited for the silent version of an auction. So how do you choose which one is best for your upcoming fundraiser?

Are you ready to plan your best auction yet?

Snowball Fundraising
Planning an Online Silent Auction

Best Practices for Silent Auctions

Even if this is your first time planning a silent auction, the good news is that thousands of organizations before you have helped pave the way for a successful event—and can provide some best practices to ensure yours gets off without a hitch. Let’s walk through some tried-and-true tips to get you started.

1. Set a theme and consider other entertainment

While not every auction has to be a themed one, choosing and sticking with a particular theme is a great way to boost excitement and pull off a seamless event. Depending on when your auction will fall in the calendar year, you may consider planning an event around a major holiday such as: 

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas


Another creative idea would be aligning your silent auction theme with your organization’s mission. For example, if your nonprofit supports wildlife conservation, you could decorate the venue like a rainforest with related items available for bidding.


2. Limit the number of items

It may be tempting to collect and auction off as many items as you can. After all, more items to bid on means more money, right? 

In reality, an overabundance of auction items can spread out bids too thinly and reduce the competition for top items that end up driving prices through the roof. Select a few big-ticket auction items that will be in high demand (such as an automobile or vacation package), supplemented by some smaller and mid-sized items like gift cards, local experiences, and artwork.


3. Offer “buy now” options

Bidding is a great way to drive prices up on valuable and high-demand items at your auction. However, some attendees prefer the convenience and certainty of “buy now” options. 

In addition to your top auction items, provide some items available for immediate purchase. Be sure to set the price high enough to make a decent profit—a good practice is to set the price at twice the item’s retail value.


4. Leverage gamification strategies

In the same way that competitive bidding can spur donations, gamification techniques can boost your auction’s fundraising capabilities. Popular methods include:


A great way to implement such a strategy into your silent auction planning is by alerting participants when they’ve been outbid. Provide a countdown clock to motivate users to make their next move before they lose the item.


5. Encourage additional donations

The vast majority of funds raised through your silent auction will likely come from auction item sales. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be your only source of revenue! 

Consider asking for additional donations across multiple points of contact, including pre-registration donation pages and day-of opportunities to give. This way, you can provide an easy way for dedicated supporters to go above and beyond for your organization and bring in more funding for your mission.


6. Use comprehensive auction software

The right software makes any fundraiser run smoothly. Your silent auction is no different! Effective silent auction software allows you to:

  • Accept additional donations
  • Provide mobile bidding options
  • Streamline the checkout process
  • Add photos and descriptions of items
  • Send an email and/or text notifications
  • Compile all your auction data in one spot
  • Implement a countdown when the auction closes


Auction software comes in handy whether you’re running an entirely virtual experience, a hybrid event, or even a traditional in-person auction. Be sure to do some research and find the right auction software for your event and your cause.

Top Silent Auction Software

Whether you’re planning a virtual silent auction or just want the help of an event management tool, you’ll need effective auction software. This tool will streamline every step of the auction process—including registration, bidding, and payment.

At Snowball, we understand that the auction software you choose should help things run smoothly, which is why our auction software offers:

  • Item catalog: Advertise the items that bidders can win with an item catalog that features photos, descriptions, and starting bids of your prizes.
  • Text-to-Bid: Optimize auction engagement by moving the bidding online and opening the bidding window for several days. This longer bidding period can help your event get as many bids as possible!
  • Automated donor communications: Send an automatic email or text to all participants telling them if they won and prompting them to donate if they didn’t. You can also send instant receipts to winning bidders for their donations.


Use our platform to streamline your silent auctions and any other fundraising events you plan after your auction concludes! From text-to-give to pledge campaigns, our software can manage it all. 

Additional Resources on Silent Auctions

Click this graphic to try a demo of Snowball’s silent auction softwar

Are you ready to plan your best auction yet?


Get Started Today

Get in touch with us to take a tour of the Snowball platform and find the right fundraising solutions for your nonprofit.

Get in touch with us to take a tour of the Snowball platform and find the right fundraising solutions for your nonprofit.