Online Auctions: A Crash Course for Successful Fundraising

Explore this crash for successful online auction fundraising.

Let’s be honest— we’re now multiple years past the original “pivot to virtual.” Gone are the days of taking an originally in-person event, grabbing the first online event software you can get your hands on, and slapping together a virtual experience simply to have something that guests can attend.

Now, nonprofits are planning events to take place online from the start. You’re investing in online event software that has built-in engagement tools, to begin building relationships with guests near and far. You’re adjusting entertainment options to opt for experiences that look stellar over live stream and even shipping meals to event attendees to enjoy the full experience from home.

Your organization has adapted to the new reality of virtual events and it has paid off! But, we’re staring down a reality in which virtual and hybrid events are simply the norm. It’s worthwhile to revisit the foundation that you’ve built your virtual events on, to make sure it’s stable enough to support continued innovation.

At Handbid, we worked firsthand with nonprofits as they’ve hosted in-person charity auctions, pivoted to virtual, and now, created a sustainable virtual and hybrid event strategy to last for years to come. In this crash course, we’ll break down one type of virtual event — online auctions, since that’s our specialty— to help your team make sure you’re building from a strong foundation as you continue innovating these events going forward.

How do you host an online auction?

Let’s begin with a bare-bones discussion of planning and hosting an online auction from start to finish.

From planning the event, to promoting the auction, to nailing the day-of execution, these are the key steps that your team should check off to set a strong foundation for your next auction.

Step 1: Planning a Stellar Event

Hosting an online auction is not unlike being the main event at a circus, juggling many balls and working to keep each in the air as more are thrown your way by an off-stage assistant. You’re coordinating several moving parts, including but not limited to your auction software, items, marketing, event sponsorships, entertainment, and event registration. Skimping on preparation is not an option (at least, as long as you want to keep all of your metaphorical balls in the air).

To set a strong foundation for your event from the start, you’ll want to check off the following “to-do’s” during the planning phase:

  • Select the right nonprofit auction software. Your auction software will handle the behind-the-scenes work so you can focus on building excitement for your virtual event. Your platform should allow you to manage your guest list, process invoices, view stats, generate reports, and message attendees. And of course, it should empower guests with convenient mobile bidding! Having all of these features in a single platform will centralize your planning and save time that can be reinvested into making the event more engaging.
  • Set up your auction website. Your auction website will serve as your item catalog. This is where participants will go to browse and make bids. For each item, you should provide key details like the item name, category, item number, images, and description. This will help present the items in a compelling and accurate way to drive bids.
  • Procure auction items. We’ll discuss this in detail later in the guide— but essentially, you’ll want to procure items that are hard for guests to secure on their own, aligned with your guests’ interests, and generally in-budget for your audience.
  • Connect with potential event sponsors. According to Double the Donation’s guide to corporate social responsibility, “businesses are increasingly turning to CSR to make a difference and build a positive brand around their company.” Use this to your advantage when planning your online auction! For example, you can connect with companies to solicit donated items and services, or even invite them to sponsor the event financially.
  • Practice your live program. If you’re planning on having speakers, an emcee, prerecorded videos, or entertainment, it’s best to practice your run-of-show beforehand. Little things like internet connection, auction item promotions, and transitions need to work seamlessly so your guests stay engaged with your online auction.

By taking the time to prepare upfront, you’ll provide a much smoother experience during the auction itself. Once you’ve wrapped up these steps, it’s time to move on to marketing.

Step 2: Promoting the Event Far and Wide

Okay, hear us out — you can plan an awesome event… but if no one knows about it, the effort is moot!

Marketing your event far and wide is key to making sure it’s full of excited guests, eager to bid on auction items. As you plan your marketing strategy, narrow down your options to determine which channels will best help you connect with your audience.

Getting Attention’s guide to nonprofit marketing discusses a few avenues, including (but not limited to):

  • Email. Leading up to your event, send email announcements to people who haven’t registered yet and updates to people who have already done so. Create segmented email campaigns to appeal to various groups of supporters, so you can create highly-targeted messaging that appeals directly to their interests.
  • Sponsors. Not only will your sponsors help fund the event, but they also serve as a great marketing tool. They can leverage their own networks to spread the word about your virtual event. Ask them to make announcements to their customers and share your social media posts. To increase the chances that they’ll market your event, provide them with promotional materials they can use.
  • Social Media. Determine the social platforms where your supporters are active, whether Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or the latest rising star, TikTok. Then, draft posts that highlight your upcoming event and high-ticket items to encourage people to register.

Center your outreach around three or four platforms. While multi-channel marketing will increase visibility for your event, limiting the number of platforms allows you to focus your efforts on the most effective channels.

Step 3: Knocking the Event Out of the Park

You’ve put in the work to plan and promote the event. Now, it’s time to drive it across the finish line with flawless execution!

While in-person auctions require more time to set up, online auctions are much easier to launch. Your nonprofit auction software will simplify many processes like registration, item management, and payment processing. So, with your auction software doing the heavy lifting, you only have to coordinate a few final details. We recommend the following tips to maintain momentum and maximize participation in your event:

  • Open your auction early. One of the best things about online auctions is that you have more flexibility with your timeline. Consider keeping the auction open throughout the week of the event to fully engage supporters. Providing plenty of time gives everyone the opportunity to browse at their leisure and bid on their favorite items.
  • Live stream during the event. Live streaming adds a face-to-face element to your virtual event, so consider hosting streams to kick off your event, provide periodic updates, and celebrate the end results. Some auction software even comes equipped with its own live streaming tools, so you can stream directly within your mobile bidding app or on the auction website. This way, users don’t have to leave the platform and risk getting distracted.
  • Create clear rules for your event and stick to them. Admittedly, “rules” at a nonprofit auction are more like guidelines than set in stone. However, creating these guidelines and communicating them to guests will set expectations around the event and ensure it runs smoothly. We recommend setting rules around how and when guests need to pay for won items, whether bids can be canceled, and how and when bidding will be closed.

Once your event wraps up, you’ll need to arrange for item delivery or shipping. Then, you’ll want to review your event’s performance. Take a look at which items were popular, which didn’t garner much interest, and who your top bidders were. Understanding what went well (and what didn’t!) will help you refine your future online auctions.

How can you set your online auction up for success?

Now that you understand the basics of online auctions, we can dive into the nitty-gritty details that will make your event shine. We’ve put together three tips to take your event to the next level: careful item procurement, gamification, and thoughtful post-event follow-up.

Procure items your guests want to bid on.

Remember, the success of your event depends on guests bidding (and counterbidding, multiple times!) to win items. So, the items need to be desirable for your specific audience and appealing to both their interests and pocketbooks.

Keep the following tips in mind to procure items that your guests want to bid on:

  • Take a look at past donations to gauge what your average donor would be willing to spend at an auction, then make sure your auction items fall within that range.
  • Focus on procuring items that guests can’t easily get themselves. So, rather than standard sports tickets, aim for the once-in-a-lifetime events like a big playoff game or the Super Bowl.
  • Align items with your guests’ interests. The items that empty-nesters would be interested in may be different than those that would attract young families (i.e. a vacation for two versus a vacation for four).
  • Bundle lower-value items to increase interest. Tying back to our standard sports tickets example, you could bundle the tickets with parking in a prime location, meal tickets, and early access to the stadium. The convenience increases the value of the lesser-value item.

From there, you also need to market and display your items to play up their value. So, in your event marketing, highlight hot-ticket items to build intrigue. Then, take pictures of multiple views of physical items and include them on your auction site— that way, guests can see a 360-degree view of each item.

Encourage (healthy) competition with gamification.

Historically, auctioneers have implemented game-like elements into auctions to liven up events and make them more engaging for attendees. With technological innovations, you can supercharge your events with more modern gamification techniques, such as:

  • Leaderboards to showcase top bidders.
  • Countdown timers to spark a sense of urgency.
  • Fundraising thermometers to display progress toward fundraising goals.

These tools will ultimately drive deeper bidder engagement and challenge attendees to continue participating until the final moments of your online auction. Intuitive nonprofit auction software will come equipped with gamification tools like these to make the most of your event.

Don’t forget the post-event follow-up.

Even once you’ve closed out your auction and distributed items to the winners, your work isn’t quite done yet! There are a few final steps you need to take before calling it a day. Post-auction, make sure to follow up and share results with:

  • Donors. Send thank-you letters to your donors. If possible, give them an update on the item they donated— such as whether the item was won and for how much! This is an easy way to put a number on the value they contributed to your event.
  • Bidders. Using your nonprofit auction software, automate acknowledgments and tax receipts. Then, go a step further by sending custom thank-you emails that emphasize the fundraiser’s impact.
  • Sponsors. Your sponsors make your event possible, from helping with promotion to providing funding and auction items for the event. Send personalized letters to show appreciation and encourage ongoing partnerships instead of letting the relationship dwindle.

Some event organizers skimp on this stage. However, sufficiently thanking donors, bidders, and sponsors will show your appreciation, cultivate relationships, and encourage them to continue supporting your cause.

While the initial pivot to online events was quick, it’s now clear that these events are sticking around for the long run. It’s worthwhile to revisit your online auction foundation to ensure you continue hosting successful events going forward!

Now that you understand the key steps and best practices for these events, you can begin planning your next online auction with confidence. Good luck!