How To Run A Successful Silent Auction

Recommendations For Silent Auction Success

Silent auctions are a very popular way for nonprofit organizations to raise money at their fundraising events. There are a variety of ways to run a silent auction, and while one approach does not suit all occasions if you follow basic strategies, you will likely experience a successful event.

Venue Selection:

Do you intend to run your event “old school” on paper or engage “new wave” mobile bidding technology?

Each method involves some important considerations, for instance; will the silent auction items be displayed in the main event area or on a separate room or floor? With a paper-supported event, it is always best to have the silent auction items in the main event area so that your donors can revisit an item or select additional items to bid upon if any favored item has exceeded their maximum level of monetary interest. It also affords ease of reviewing the bidders’ position if the items are within sight.


This consideration is irrelevant if mobile bidding is utilized. Donors will view the items and then review the descriptions and their winning positions on their devices from anywhere in the venue. No need to return to the display area. Having the silent auction items displayed in an area separate from the main event can create item security issues with whichever method you choose to support your silent auction.

We at Strategic Charity Auctions steer away from paper supported silent auctions because of the many advantages offered by mobile bidding events, however, never assume that any given venue will be able to provide the technical requirements of high tech event or if they can accommodate your needs that those services will be free.  For further consideration, we have posted another blog article: “Before selecting your venue, determine your technical requirements” which covers this subject in detail.

 Venue Location:

Most banquet type venues are easy to find, well signed and provide ample parking,  if you opt to provide a temporary venue however by utilizing a large outdoor tent for example; you must consider that these factors are no longer a given.  Another element that may be innocently overlooked that could cause conflict is to consider what is located nearby your venue.  For instance; is there a stadium, arena or other large function faculty in close proximity to your venue? If so booking your event on a date that that competing venue is hosting a sporting event or concert could provide unpleasant circumstances for your fundraiser.

Silent Auction Layout:

Venues that provide space for several hundred attendees are large rooms indeed. Often we witness the silent auction display tables being pushed against the walls cascading around two or three corners of the room with guest tables in the center. This is not an ideal setup as your bidder guests have to travel the whole distance of the room to view all the items being offered.  Your fundraiser will fare better if you designate a section in one area of the room keeping everything together. Also keep in mind traffic flow, pull the tables away from the wall allowing people to browse and bid from both sides of the table, increasing efficiency. Be sure there is also enough space between the tables for people to pass comfortably while others are reviewing the displayed items offered.

Audio Provisions:

Yes, the auction is silent however your Master of Ceremonies needs to be heard! Whomever you select to provide Emcee services will need a powerful sound system to promote your event, announce low bid items, the silent auction closing times and general promotional announcements. While an audio system may seem adequate when your audience is seated quietly listening to a guest speaker, making announcements over the conversations of hundreds guests socializing is quite another situation. Be sure that your Venue provides a good quality audio system. Another option is to utilize the audio system of a deejay if one is being used and they make their equipment available.

Video Provisions:

Many times a power point type presentation is used to reinforce the message of your cause, showcase particular silent auction items and/or provide a countdown clock, tally board or other visual aids. Be sure that your venue provides adequate visual hardware provisions and that your equipment if used can interface with their hardware?

Promoting The Event To Your Donor Supporter Base:

Typical marketing efforts may include email messages and posting notice to your non-profit organization’s website. When using a mobile bidding platform you can send mass messages by email or text about the event or even a link to a specific item or event detail. These same links can be included in social media if you desire.  An event landing page can be created as a go-to page for the event and a central point of contact. Short videos, (less than 60 seconds), highlighting the event and showcasing some of the finer items are becoming a very popular effective way to add a little wow factor to your website and email messages.

This page can be as detailed or simplified as you wish but can be developed to register guests, sell individual or corporate sponsor tickets, recognize event sponsors, provide meal selections, table assignments preview and showcase items to be offered, accept donations, and more.

Number of Items Offered At Your Silent Auction:

Scarcity increases value; offering too many items will impact your revenues negatively on the overall silent auction proceeds.  A good rule of thumb is to offer 30 to 35 items for each expected 100 participants.  If you expect 500 attendees you should offer 150 to 175 items maximum. 300 attendees 90 to 105 items and so on.  If you have been successful in receiving more donations than this ratio provides then consider combining like type items into one silent auction basket or lot.  For example; instead of offering (3) $100. dining certificates, package them as one item, they will likely perform better than if offered individually because the perceived value is higher and let’s face it,  3 times the opportunity  to dine out is value add, agreed?

Silent Auction Item Descriptions:

When writing descriptions for silent auction items always include all important details including availability, major facts about the item or experience and don’t forget exceptions, blackout dates, restrictions etc.  Please remember that many people may a have short attention spans so don’t add too much “fluff”,  there is only so many characters allocated on whatever the media is used in presenting the item and when good detailed brief descriptions are written the item will present well and sell itself.

Silent Auction Bid Increments:

Silent auction bidding increments should be predetermined to avoid cut bids and “sniping” items for a one dollar raise in the final seconds of the auction.  We at Strategic Charity Auctions have read about the 40/10 formula in several publications and do not agree with that approach.  40/10 refers to the start bid being 40% of the fair market value and 10% of that value set for increment raise. We believe that one formula does not fit all scenarios and prefer to take an industry standard approach. At an auction people bid in money denomination increments that are a reasonable advance relative to the value.  We also prefer to start the item at approximately 30% of the fair market value to develop momentum.  Examples;  an item with a fair market value of $450 x 30% would return a suggested starting bid of $135 which is kind of a strange number. Depending on the desirability of the item we would recommend opening the bid at $125 or $100 setting the advances on a logical sequence. Once again, setting the advance increment at 10%, ($45), is a strange number, setting the advance with a common increment of $25 or $50 might seem more logical. Choosing what increment to use depends on the desirability of that item, is it a hot item or just average? Setting increments too large will cause the bidding to end prematurely. Remember people can always skip ahead a few increments if the wish to utilize that type strategy. Another example; hypothetically you have a $5000 vacation package to offer.  Which bidding scenario below seems most attractive?

  • 40% opening bid = $2000 and $500 increment raise, (10% advance)
  • 30% opening bid = $1500 and $200 increment raise, (logical advance)

Which scenario might create the most excitement and competitive bidding? The $500 increment could halt the bidding prematurely. Smaller steps can mean more momentum.

Silent Auction Closing Strategies:

When utilizing paper bid sheets it is important to implement a staggered closing strategy closing a section of 25 to 30 items every 5 minutes. The reason for this is to allow time for the bidders to enter their final bids in a manageable fashion.  Sections can be identified as “A, B, C” however a better identifier is to use colors, the red section, the blue section, the orange section etc. Color visual themes helps to avoid confusion about what items are about to close.  Your Emcee should be announcing closing times, sections and counting down the final seconds of each closing.

Electronic mobile smartphone bidding is a little different in as you can close more items at a time as the attendees do not have to navigate back to the tables to enter their final bids on their favorite items. Staggered closings can still be advantageous when a large nventory of items is offered as when your donor is outbid in a closed segment they may refocus and bid more aggressively on items offered a subsequent segment.

At What Point In The Event Should The Silent Auction Close?

There have been a lot of differing opinions on this subject and there is no single correct answer as it depends on what event components are involved. 

An advantageous factor of utilizing mobile bidding is that more bidding is possible in a shorter time as the donors never have to return to the item to review their position. The auction is always at their sides upon their devices. That being said, attendees have plenty of time to win the items of their choice even if they begin bidding near the auction set closing time. 

To best way to answer this question is to ask ourselves the reverse; “when is the worst time to close the silent auction?” The answer to that question is much clearer. NEVER close your silent auction when that conclusion competes with any other element of the event as with the division of attention both components will suffer. 

Be aware not to have your silent auction close during your live auction, your special appeal Fund-A-Need or an awards ceremony. Remember if something unavoidable occurs altering your run of show timeline, your silent auction closing time could again be in jeopardy to conflict with other components of the event  Good planning to include a buffer between event element transitions can buy a little “wiggle room”. 

Finally, NEVER extend the closing time past the perceived conclusion of the event. Always keep the closing within a time of maximum attendee attention span. A while ago against our advice, we had a client insist that we extend the silent auction closing time 14 hours past the peak of festivities until the next morning at 10 am.  

This resulted in only 32% of the donors who were engaged the night before returning the next morning in the final 15 minutes to resume bidding. Less competition equals lower revenue yields.  We charted this data and posted it on our blog as a  Case Study.

Silent Auction Check-in and Checkout:

Some of the most difficult workings to manage at a silent auction are the check-in and checkout processes.  Being not properly staffed or prepared with an adequate system will cause the dreaded “long line bottleneck”.  Make an effort to pre-register as many attendees as possible and input their information into your system to avoid having to collect their information onsite. Be sure to provide enough staff to assist multiple attendees at once for both arriving and settling for their purchases.  If your organization cannot easily provide staffing experienced with the software system that your organization is utilizing it would be a great consideration to hire an experienced firm to ensure that your guests are at ease and your event runs smoothly. Well run events typically realize higher revenues.

Silent Auction Software:

We at Strategic Charity Auction advocate and highly recommend using the latest auction technologies. Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days and mobile bidding provides many advantages over traditional methods. Here are a few:

  • Optional pre-bidding, the auction can begin before the onsite event. Running late? Passengers in the vehicle can participate in the bidding while in route.
  • No lines at check-in. Rather than an attendee approaching a terminal to be checked in, auction staff can assist several attendees at once to check-in on their smart phones typically in 30-60 seconds.
  • Attendees preview the items on display and then may review the photos and browse descriptions on their phone as many times as they wish without returning to the display table.
  • Bidders will receive “outbid” text messages keeping them aware of their winning positions.
  • Attendees can bid from anywhere, no need to stop a conversation with a pier to place another bid or forgetting to paper bid while busy socializing.
  • Data is showing that mobile bidding silent auctions are yielding 25%-35% higher revenues than a like paper event as the donors stay engaged as the event is literally in the palm of their hand at all times.
  • Optional cash donations may be pledged on the device
  • Credit card information may be collected on the device allowing for seamless self checkout
  • Options for supporters to donate the credit card processing fees if so desired
  • Detailed post auction reporting

Donor Attendee Thank You Letters:

Good check-in records are an important factor for future event invitations and issuing thank you for attending the event is a best practice. It is not important if your attendee won items or not, they were involved in the success of the event. The thank you letter needs not to be elaborate and can easily be personalized with a mail merge software program. Thank you letters are an inexpensive investment in your supporter base recognizing both attendees and your donors, and everyone likes to get happy mail! Interested in learning more or discussing any of these silent auction elements?

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