Organizing a Virtual Auction


The Essential How-To Guide

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, many nonprofit organizations scrambled to find a solution for suddenly non-feasible fundraising efforts. Fundraising campaigns were paused and, as we’re going to discuss in this guide, many fundraising events were canceled outright. 

These include charity auctions and galas, high-profile events that draw major donors and major dollars. They give a nonprofit’s most ardent supporters the opportunity to donate by bidding on items while networking with other impactful supporters.

Unfortunately, the uncertain landscape created by the COVID-19 pandemic has deemed these events, in their original state, impossible for the near future.

At Aly Sterling Philanthropy, we’ve been working with nonprofit organizations to succeed regardless of the challenges created by COVID-19. That’s why we’ve pulled together this how-to guide on shifting your organization’s biggest event to the digital sphere. To take your charity auction to digital means, you should:

  1. Understand the differences between virtual and in-person events.
  2. Learn how virtual charity auctions work.
  3. Reconfigure your virtual auction’s goals and timeline.
  4. Procure your charity auction items.
  5. Promote your new event.

Are you ready to convert your charity auction into a digital format? Let’s get started.

1. Understand the differences between virtual and in-person events.

While we are suggesting resuming some of your nonprofit’s operations— in this instance, holding the events you’d planned for the year— that doesn’t mean that you can proceed as if things are “business as usual.” There are a few essential factors that differentiate holding a virtual event during a crisis from holding an in-person event under normal circumstances.

For example, you may experience the following when planning your virtual event:

  • More questions from donors about how it works. Your supporters have likely attended many in-person events over the years, but this may be their first virtual event experience. You may need to communicate more and provide extra assistance to ensure they know how to participate.
  • Fewer participants. We’re not suggesting that your donors are less motivated to support your organization during a crisis (quite the opposite, in fact!), but rather that they may not have the capacity to participate during this time. Be prepared for supporters to turn down your invitations and donation solicitations during this trying time.
  • Lower costs and dollars raised. While it’s not as expensive to run a virtual event, you may receive lower bids or receive fewer donations made alongside the event. Prepare for the reality that, while the event may be a bargain to host, it may also raise less than your previous auctions.

Marching into a new realm of fundraising, especially one that requires a fresh and entirely tech-fueled strategy, can be challenging for even the most experienced fundraising professionals. If your organization is struggling with the pivot to virtual operations, whether with events or beyond, consider hiring a fundraising consultant.

A consultant can evaluate your strategy and help you transition your efforts to the digital space. They will work with your team to ensure you’re in the best possible position in the next six, twelve or more months as this uncertain landscape progresses.

2. Learn how virtual charity auctions work.

The most common auction types (live and silent) aren’t possible in light of COVID-19. Both require supporters to gather in one common venue in order to view items and place bids accordingly. That means it’s time to familiarize yourself with a new type of auction: online charity auctions.

Online auctions are incredibly similar to silent auctions—they’re just digital! However, there are a few key differences. Whether you’re using this event to support your annual fundraising or perhaps a years-long capital campaign, it’s crucial that you understand the steps through-and-through.

An online charity auction tends to play out as follows:

  1. Bidding commences. Rather than waiting for your major supporters to take their seats, you share the link to your online auction website digitally. Bidding automatically opens at a predetermined time and supporters can participate accordingly.
  2. Bids are raised by the minimum amount. A minimum raise amount is set for each item, often 10-15% of the market value for that item. As they bid, supporters must increase the amount by at least the minimum raise.
  3. Bidding closes. Online auctions can run longer than in-person events, from as long as a few hours to even a few days. Clearly communicate the start and end dates and time so participants know when bidding will automatically close.
  4. Items are distributed. Make sure you let winning bidders know how to collect their winnings— especially if they’re collecting physical items. Whether shipping items or orchestrating a socially-distanced pick-up, safe and convenient collection is key.

These events are held using online auction software, which you can learn more about through this guide. Now that you know how the virtual event proceeds, let’s begin planning your new digital event.

3. Reconfigure your virtual auction’s goals and timeline.

At the outset of 2020, you likely set a budget, timeline, and overall fundraising goal for this year’s event. Perhaps, your goal was to have higher attendance or even raise more donations than in past years. However, the ongoing economic downturn and general scheduling uncertainties likely put a damper on your plans.

There are two key items you should revisit when pivoting your in-person auction to the virtual sphere. They are:

  • Your fundraising goal. While your team shouldn’t “aim low,” it’s also understandable to prepare for a reality in which your original fundraising goals aren’t feasible. Many of your donors are likely experiencing major financial challenges, so consider setting a reasonable yet challenging goal for your virtual event.
  • Your timeline. We know that auctions are generally planning-intensive efforts. However, virtual auctions are a bit easier to reschedule— after all, the internet is always there! So, don’t resist moving your auction date if it would help your planning committee better prepare for an ever-changing landscape.

Revisiting these aspects isn’t giving up on your original plans. Instead, it’s positioning your organization for success rather than disappointment in a challenging landscape.

4. Procure your charity auction items.

If your organization has held auctions previously, you’re probably familiar with the crucial role of item procurement. If you don’t procure stellar items, you’re not going to have anything to auction off, let alone inspire your top supporters to bid.

However, it’s important to realize that procuring for a virtual auction event— during a pandemic nonetheless— is quite different from how you would procure items under normal circumstances. Here are a few key factors to keep in mind:

  • Ensure you’re getting items that can be easily transferred to winners. This is important for items that are incredibly heavy, not shelf-stable, or otherwise difficult to ship to the winning bidder. 
  • Stay away from auction items that supporters can’t use during the crisis. While vacations, spa packages, and sporting event tickets are often popular auction items, consider going in a different direction for your upcoming event. These items likely won’t be useful to bidders for quite some time, so guests won’t be interested in bidding on them.
  • Keep your donors’ budgets in mind. Remember, your donors may not be able to give as much as they once would have. Ensure you’re procuring items that your donors are more likely to be able to bid on during this time of uncertainty and financial hardship.

Remember: Just because your event team is restricted by the effects of COVID-19, it doesn’t mean you can’t offer valuable items and packages. Get creative! For example, use technology to connect with attendees and auction off video-conferenced meetings with “local celebrities.”

5. Promote your new event.

Just as you would with an in-person version, you’ll need to spend adequate time promoting your charity auction. If your donors don’t know about your event, they won’t be able to place their bids and you won’t be able to raise money!

Luckily, this is easier than ever with virtual events.

Because you’ll be working with online auction software to host the event, you’ll have an online auction catalog already prepared. You can use this catalog to promote your auction items in advance, to pique interest and get the conversation started.

You should share this information far and wide, through newsletters, one-on-one conversations, and even social media. Plus, you can even open pre-bidding before the event to help spike the auction item prices!

This is another reason why it’s crucial to evaluate the timeline of your event when initially pivoting to the digital space. Ensure you have plenty of time to spread the news and prepare supporters for experiencing a virtual event— especially since this may be the first time many of them have bid online!

Remember: From pivoting your fundraising strategy to formulating a new digital marketing and communications strategy, a fundraising consultant can help smoothen your efforts. Check out this Aly Sterling Philanthropy guide for a list of fundraising consultants that are truly excelling in this space.

Action steps you can take today
  • Continue to explore the world of virtual auctions. Check out this Soapbox Engage guide to virtual fundraising event ideas for inspiration!
  • Re-evaluate your timeline, budget, and fundraising goal to position your organization’s virtual event for success.
  • Consider partnering with a fundraising consultant to guide your strategy.