Woman on laptop

4 Ways to Create a Virtual Silent Auction That Guests Enjoy

While it may feel like yesterday, the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial push for nonprofit fundraising events to go virtual happened nearly two years ago. And now, virtual fundraising events—including auctions—are sticking around for the foreseeable future. Somewhat due to the lingering COVID-19 restrictions, but more so because nonprofits surprisingly found them to be an effective and straightforward way to diversify revenue streams.

At this point, your auction’s guests have seen it all—the good, the bad, and the “just alright” of virtual events. And with “Zoom Fatigue,” some of your guests may be getting a tad bit burnt out on virtual experiences, especially ones that prompt attendees to turn on their cameras. So, it’s going to take more than running live auctions over Zoom to set your next virtual charity auction up for success.

We know that a positive guest experience goes hand-in-hand with the success of any fundraising event. After all, have you ever been in a generous mood after fumbling around with outdated technology, chatting with a less-than-helpful representative, and joining an event half an hour late? We’d guess not!

While it can be tempting to worry about the back-end logistics of your event first and foremost, it’s worthwhile to prioritize your guests' experiences. Remember: creating a memorable (in a good way) experience will not only lead to a more successful auction in the immediate future, but also leave your guests with a positive impression of your nonprofit going forward. They might attend next year’s event, bring a friend or two along in support, or even sign up to volunteer to help bring it to life!

This guide will cover four tips to keep in mind when planning your nonprofit’s next virtual silent auction, specifically when it comes to creating a virtual event that your attendees will enjoy. With that in mind, let’s get started.

Outline “rules” in advance.

Handbid’s guide to auction rules notes, “silent auction ‘rules’ are more comparable to the pirate's code in a Disney film than the laws spelled out in the U.S. Constitution—so, ‘more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.’” However, just because the rules governing your auction are not set in stone, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important to outline them well in advance of the event itself!

You see, outlining clear parameters for how your auction functions will help the event run smoothly. For guests, it creates a more streamlined experience and helps them trust your nonprofit to run a fair event. They’ll understand that all guests will be treated equally and expected to follow the same guidelines.

There are a few essential rules to outline in advance of your auction:

  • Bidding Rules: These are the rules that apply to guests, and most will be handled by choosing the right mobile bidding software. For example, bidding in incorrect bid increments, stealing bid sheets, and placing bids with lousy handwriting are all issues that the right mobile bidding platform can resolve. However, you will want to set rules surrounding how your team will handle requests to “cancel” bids (generally, you shouldn’t allow users to back out of their bid), how and when guests should pay for items they’ve won or purchased, and the contact information guests should provide.
  • Seller Rules: These are the rules that apply to your nonprofit, who is the “seller” in an auction. For example, Seller Rules dictate that you’ll write true and accurate item descriptions and establish the fair market value of auction items (which are often in-kind donations) to the best of your organization’s knowledge. Further, you won’t artificially manipulate the bidding process and you’ll honor the transaction contract by providing all paid-for items to the purchaser, along with a receipt confirming the purchase.
  • General Operations: These are rules that govern the general operations of your event. This includes checkout rules, which we’ll cover in a later section, and rules around when the auction opens and closes. You should clearly indicate when bidding will open and close and provide bidders with warnings leading up to the closing time. Avoid extending the auction time. If you absolutely must extend the auction, give all bidders plenty of notice so they know to continue watching the items they’ve bid on.

Bonus! While you don’t need to set any hard and fast rules around your auction itself, your virtual event may fall under some general compliance regulations. Much of this will also vary depending on the state in which you’re hosting the event, so it’s worthwhile to look into the relevant state body for any requirements.

Make it as easy as possible to find items and bid.

Did you ever have an experience (or a fear) of ending up in the wrong classroom in school, but didn’t figure it out until 30 minutes later? Perhaps it’s due to vaguely-labeled classroom doors or unclear instructions from the teacher in the weeks leading up to the start date. Either way, it’s awkward and uncomfortable!

The last thing you want to do is replicate this experience for your adult attendees with a virtual auction that’s hard to “find” online, challenging to navigate, and confusing to bid in.

To create an unforgettable and profitable fundraiser, make it as easy as possible for guests to participate and donate. In the context of an auction, this is where your fundraising software plays a major role. Looks for features such as:

  • A direct link to your auction event. When participants download your auction app, how will they locate your auction out of all of the events hosted there? Ideally, you should be able to send them a direct link to access your event, or they should be able to view all ongoing events and click through to yours with ease.
  • Multiple ways to browse items. Guests should be able to scroll through items sorted by category (think experiences, food, baskets, etc.), search items by keyword, item code, or even QR code, and view all items that haven’t yet received bids.
  • Easy access to details about each item. Guests should be able to access a detailed view of each item, including images, a description, and the bids it has received so far.
  • Convenient bidding options. Empower guests to place manual bids or max bids. Max bids are set by the bidder and instruct the auction software to bid on behalf of the bidder until the current bid exceeds the max amount. This allows the guest to continue enjoying the event and not have to keep checking on their bids.
  • A dashboard to monitor personal activity. With a real-time dashboard, bidders can view items they’re winning, items they’re losing, items they’ve directly purchased, as well as any donations.

Of course, making it easy to participate in your auction is only half of the battle. The other half is procuring items your guests want to bid on. For this, remember to get started early, assemble a team for the project, and turn to your existing connections first to see who will be interested in donating items!

Encourage friendly competition.

At most nonprofit events, “teamwork makes the dream work.” Crowdfunding, peer-to-peer fundraising, you name it—the goal is to bring supporters together to raise funds for your cause. With auctions, however, (friendly) competition is the name of the game.

The more that guests bid and outbid one another, the higher the price rises for each item and the more funding you raise for your cause. On the other hand, for participants, this competition is what makes an auction uniquely fun!

Your virtual auction tool should make it easy and quick for guests to know when they’ve been outbid and respond accordingly. Ideally, the tool should empower guests to turn on bid notifications and designate how they prefer to be notified, whether by push alerts or SMS messages. Then, when guests see one of those “losing” notifications, they can open their app and respond quickly with a counter bid!

Another way to encourage friendly competition is to livestream an auctioneer walking through the items and adding some color commentary to the event. There’s something about the excitement generated by a fast-talking auctioneer that can inspire guests to continue bidding.

Re:Charity’s guide to livestreaming for nonprofits lists a number of free tools that can be used to stream an auctioneer and add a bit of excitement to your virtual event. However, even better, you can choose mobile bidding software that has built-in livestreaming tools to provide a more cohesive experience for guests.

End the event with a convenient checkout.

Have you ever spent a significant amount of time shopping for and choosing the right item… only to get to the checkout line and find it so long that you are thinking of putting back that “just right” item to save the hassle of a long wait? Avoid that feeling for your auction guests!

The guest experience doesn’t end the moment that an item is won. Setting up a streamlined checkout experience that makes it easy for guests to pay for items is key.

Your fundraising software can make checkout a breeze by allowing guests to pay directly in the app through their preferred method—whether that be Google Pay, Apple Pay, or a credit or debit card. Ideally, guests should add this information before they bid on items. Then, it’s just the click of a button to check out at the end of the event.

We’re now nearly two years past the mass pivot to virtual events, and it’s looking like they’re sticking around for the foreseeable future.

If you want to host profitable virtual fundraising events— including auctions— it’s worthwhile to consider best practices to shape up the guest experiences at your own event opportunities! These four tips will set you off to a great start. Good luck!

Author: Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter of Handbid

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid's suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.

Jitasa Flames

Jitasa’s bookkeeping and accounting services are affordable and cater to every nonprofit.

Learn More