Virtual Charity Auctions 101: A Guide for Fundraisers

Virtual Charity Auctions

Written by Tim Grable

December 2, 2020

For organizations that rely on engaging their communities, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines threw a major wrench into plans for 2020. Thankfully, adaptations have largely been quick and effective, with virtual events rising to the occasion.

This is especially true for nonprofits and other fundraising organizations, a sector that faced particularly high stakes amid the pivot to virtual engagement. Already reliant on generous donations from individuals and event sponsors, nonprofits needed to reimagine their traditional events in order to continue pursuing their missions and keep their doors open. 

Thankfully, effective nonprofit technology and a flood of advice from industry leaders helped ensure that nonprofits of all sizes could keep engaging and reaching donors in new virtual settings. One of the most effective ways we’ve seen to raise funds and connect with supporters is hosting a virtual charity auction.

Whether you’re looking to add a twist to your virtual holiday party or planning a major fundraising push for Spring 2021, virtual auctions can be a smart choice for organizations of all sizes. 

However, as with any type of virtual fundraising event, taking the time to review the essentials of virtual auctions is a critical first step. The OneCause team has helped thousands of nonprofits successfully pivot their events and strategies to meet today’s virtual moment. We’ll answer these questions:

  • How do virtual auctions work?
  • Why are they effective fundraising events?
  • What do you need to host a virtual auction?
  • How do you plan a virtual charity auction?

This guide will give you a solid foundation to plot out your upcoming virtual charity auction for success. Let’s dive in.

How do virtual charity auctions work?

Virtual auctions are fairly straightforward fundraising events. Your team procures a range of auction items, sets up an auction website, and promotes the event. 

Bidders register in advance and then place bids via your auction website and/or mobile bidding software. As the event draws to a close, you’ll close out items one by one or in batches. Any amount raised over what it cost you to procure them represents a positive ROI, meaning more revenue to support your mission.

Although they are relatively similar, there are a few key differences between online auctions and traditional silent auctions. These include:

  • A longer timeframe. Virtual auctions typically occur over several days to a week, giving bidders plenty of time to engage with your event and place bids.
  • Increased reliance on technology. Although mobile bidding tools are an industry best practice for all auctions these days, online auctions will naturally require a broader range of tools and platforms to be pulled off successfully. We’ll discuss specific tools below.
  • Additional digital elements. Nonprofits often host virtual auctions as part of broader online undertakings, like annual galas and peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns. Additional elements like grand finale live stream programs are a common way to make the most of the engagement generated by your auction.

One key takeaway to keep in mind is that the longer timeframe and at-home setting of virtual auctions make generating as much engagement as possible critical for success.

While the social aspect and the items themselves can keep a crowd engaged in-person, you’ll need to take concrete steps to keep your attendees excited virtually. Push notifications, gamification elements, and engaging marketing tactics are useful leading up to and during the bidding portions of your auction. 

However, an exciting emcee or engaging personality, live entertainment segments, and direct audience interaction will be essential during the auction’s live-streamed finale.

Why are virtual auctions effective fundraising events?

Of the various types of classic nonprofit events that have been reimagined for the online sphere, auctions have been the most logical choice for many nonprofits. There are a few key benefits of planning and hosting a virtual auction, including:

  • Social distancing compliance. A virtual event shows donors that you value their health and that you’re taking steps to protect the community while COVID-19 continues to impact daily life. 
  • Cost-effectiveness. Without costs related to venues, food, and other logistics, digital auctions can be much more cost-effective for nonprofits than large-scale in-person auctions and galas. However, when planning and hosting your very first virtual fundraising campaign or event, don’t forget that technology will likely be a necessary upfront investment.
  • High flexibility. Onlinel auctions open up an extremely high level of flexibility that your nonprofit might not have with a traditional event. What’s the perfect timeframe and scale for your auction and your unique audience?

Additionally, virtual auctions stand out as an effective choice because they offer something new. You’re probably experiencing “Zoom fatigue” in your day-to-day life as a professional; so are your donors! 

Now that we’re nearly a year into the COVID-19 era of remote work and virtual engagement, your donors have likely already attended their fair share of virtual events. A virtual auction gives donors a more directly engaging fundraising experience (plus tangible prizes) that they wouldn’t get with a more straightforward Zoom gathering or discussion. This is an excellent way to stand out from the crowd in 2021, especially after a busy year-end season already full of other online events.

What do you need to host a virtual auction?

To plan and host a virtual auction, you’ll need a few essentials:

  • A team. As with any important event, it’s rarely a good idea to tackle a virtual auction all on your own. Recruit a planning team to help with item procurement, marketing, and tech setup. You’ll also need a small day-of team, including an engaging emcee, tech support, and staff to handle item packaging.
  • Time. Auctions can take a long time to plan and execute from start to finish. Item procurement, in particular, can take upwards of several months for large-scale auctions. With a longer bidding timeframe to consider, as well, you’ll need to give yourself plenty of time to plan your virtual auction.
  • Auction items. The items on offer at your virtual auction are the main attraction! The perfect range of items will maintain engagement and drive more revenue for your event. If you’re new to item procurement, we cover the best practices to keep in mind in the complete OneCause directory of auction items.
  • The right toolkit. As mentioned above, technology plays a critical role in facilitating a virtual charity auction. Here are the different platforms that most nonprofits need:
    • Online auction software, ideally including mobile bidding tools
    • Live-streaming software to offer a seamless experience during live portions of your event
    • Marketing software to help plan and execute your email and social media strategies
    • Event planning software that includes online registration tools
    • A dedicated event site for your auction, including an item catalog
    • An underlying database or CRM to receive all of the data generated by your auction

If you’ve already hosted one or more virtual fundraising events, chances are your toolkit already includes several of these tools. However, when planning a new type of event or a particularly large-scale virtual auction (like one held leading up to your annual gala), it’s worth the time to take a second look at your tech stack.

For nonprofits, comprehensive virtual fundraising software is usually the best choice for immediate ease-of-use and long-term value. Look for platforms that include auction tools, live-streaming capabilities, marketing features, registration tools, and more. This will save your team time, simplify planning future events, and offer attendees a more seamless experience, which will ultimately drive more engagement and bids during your auction.

How do you plan a virtual auction?

Planning a online auction is fairly similar to the process you’d follow for a traditional silent auction. As expected, many of the key differences revolve around technology. Here are the core planning steps that we recommend:

Fundraisers, Virtual Charity Auctions

  1. Form a team. Recruit the team members you’ll need to help plan the auction, and specifically designated tasks like item procurement, tech setup, and marketing.
  2. Set goals and guidelines. How much do you want to raise with your virtual auction? How many new donors do you want to acquire? How long will your online auction last? Determining these specifics early in the process will be invaluable for keeping your efforts on track and giving you a concrete way to check in on progress.
  3. Review and upgrade your fundraising toolkit. Reassess your virtual fundraising toolkit to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered, and invest in new auction-specific tools as needed. 
  4. Create an item wishlist and begin procurement. As mentioned above, procurement can take a long time. Kickstart the process by working with your team to develop a wishlist of items you’d like to procure. Then, begin procuring items and regularly checking in with team members to review progress.
  5. Develop a marketing plan. Determine in advance how you’ll promote your virtual auction. Who is your target audience? What are the most effective ways to reach them? Will you offer any special perks or sneak peeks of your items?
  6. Set up an event site. Your auction’s website will be its core virtual “venue,” so develop it early to give yourself plenty of time to refine it before bidding opens. Comprehensive virtual fundraising software should make it easy to create a dedicated event site that includes an item catalog, built-in donation tools, and more.
  7. Plan other event logistics, like programming. If your virtual auction will include any live-streamed portions or will be held leading up to a larger virtual event, nail down the specifics of your programming now. Make sure your entire team understands their roles, and conduct a few test runs before launch day.
  8. Heavily promote your virtual auction. Get started executing your marketing plan, relying on your auction’s site as the core location to point supporters towards to register. For the best results, recruit volunteer ambassadors to help promote your event to their own networks of friends, family, and colleagues.

Marketing plays an especially critical role in successful virtual auctions. Since these events are open to much wider audiences than in-person events, it pays to put careful thought into how you’ll make your particular auction stand out online. 

Depending on the feasibility in your location, you may also consider launching your virtual auction as part of a hybrid event. In this case, in-person and virtual bidders will compete for the same items at a scaled-down traditional silent auction. This will require you to pay extra attention to your event’s programming to ensure it remains engaging for all of your attendees. 

Heading into 2021, fundraising organizations should take steps to ensure their virtual offerings are just as new and engaging for donors. While the energy, momentum, and desire to help their favorite causes were at a peak in the early days of the pandemic, donors are coming to expect more. Coupled with the ever-increasing competition for their attention online, your nonprofit needs to actively explore new options going forward. 

As cost-effective, engaging, and highly flexible events, virtual charity auctions might be the perfect choice for your own mission. This crash course has hopefully given you a solid foundation to begin planning your first virtual auction. Best of luck!

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