What are silent auctions? A Nonprofit’s Guide

Last updated: May 28, 2023

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Is a silent auction part of the fundraising calendar for your nonprofit?

If this is your first, or even second time running a silent auction, it can be tricky knowing where to start. You’re assessing the risk versus reward, convincing your team to get on board, looking into sourcing auction items, then organizing the actual mechanics of the auction. There’s a lot to be done!

Silent auctions have the potential to produce significant revenue if done well, but this means a multi-step planning process. They’re a high investment initiative in terms of time commitment, but the rewards can be huge for nonprofits.

Where should you start? This guide lays out some must-knows of silent auctions and how to plan for success:

What are silent auctions?

A silent auction is a type of auction where bidders place their bids on sheets of paper or digitally instead of announcing them out or using an auctioneer, as is done in traditional live auctions.

A silent auction typically involves

  • Silent auction items are displayed for participants to examine. Alongside each auction item in a traditional silent auction, there’s a bid sheet where bidders can write down their bids. Alternatively, nonprofits also use silent auction software to facilitate this.
  • The bid sheets (either on paper or digital) include a description of the item, the starting bid and the minimum increment for the next bid.
  • Bidders write down their bid amount and the bidder number which acts as a reference to their identity on the paper. With digital software, these bids are automatically updated on a live bid sheet. The next bidder must bid at least the minimum increment above the previous bid.
  • The auction continues for a set period, during which bidders can return to increase their bids.
  • At the end of the auction, the highest bid for each item wins. The winners are typically announced or directly contacted, and arrangements are made for payment and delivery of the auctioned items.

Why do nonprofits use silent auctions?

Silent auctions are mostly considered as just a tool to raise funds. However, they are so much more than that.


  • Fundraising: Silent auctions are a highly effective way for nonprofits to raise funds. Participants bid on items and experiences(in some cases), and the funds raised go directly to the nonprofit’s cause.
  • Additional Donations: Even if bidders do not win an item, they may still be inspired to donate, contributing to the overall fundraising goal. In some cases, silent auction events can also have a ticket or an entry fee that also contribute to the overall raise.
  • Events: Silent auctions can be paired with different events like a private concert or a skill building session to further increase the effectiveness. It is very common for silent auctions to occur alongside specialty dinners, opera etc. especially when the target is to raise a large amount.


  • Engaging Supporters: Silent auctions offer an engaging, interactive way for supporters to participate in fundraising. Unlike direct donations, participants get a chance to receive something in return for their contribution. The process itself is very engaging and interactive in nature which makes it more engaging than just another standard fundraising event.
  • Community Building: Silent auctions bring supporters together in a fun, social environment. They foster community spirit and deepen supporters’ connection to the cause. This is very helpful from a nonprofit’s perspective as affinity to donate across the participants increases as the cause is the one common topic connecting everyone.


  • Raising Visibility: Hosting an event like a silent auction increases visibility for the nonprofit. It provides an opportunity to share the organization’s mission and stories with a wider audience.
  • Brand Partnership: Silent auctions often involve donated items or experiences from local businesses or brands. This creates partnerships and exposure among new networks of potential supporters. Nonprofits can even partner with other businesses to facilitate the logistics of running the silent auction.

Volunteer Engagement:

  • Volunteer Engagement: Organizing a silent auction provides an opportunity for volunteers to get involved. This increases their engagement and commitment to the nonprofit.
  • Skill Development: Silent auctions can help volunteers develop valuable skills, such as event planning, project management, and effective communication. These skills are highly transferable and can help nonprofits with almost all the other initiatives the volunteers are working on.


  • Unique Experiences: Silent auctions often feature unique items or experiences that aren’t typically available. This can draw more interest and higher bids. They could be any of these:
    • VIP event tickets to concerts, sports events or theatre performances
    • Adventure experiences like hot air balloon rides or guided treks to remote trails
    • Master class lessons featuring masterclasses in cooking, painting, pottery, or wine tasting etc. with experts
  • Thematic Flexibility: Silent auctions can be themed according to the nonprofit’s cause or according to popular trends or holidays, offering variety and creative flexibility. Nonprofits can conduct silent auctions around popular movie themes or historical eras to make the experience more interesting and engaging.

How do silent auctions work?

The key difference between silent auctions and traditional-style auctions is that instead of a loud environment with an auctioneer and items being auctioned off sequentially, silent auctions allow bidders to browse all of the items at their leisure before deciding to place a bid.

Silent auctions may be run in-person, online, or as a hybrid of both of those. As a general rule, bidding opens on items at a certain time and people input their bids through whichever method is chosen (it may be run via auctioning software, or some in-person events simply use sheets of paper where people write their name and bid amount). The highest bid at the close of the auction period wins the item.

An advantage of using mobile auction software for your guests is that they can get notifications when they’ve been outbid. You want to encourage bidding wars! The more you can drive up the sale price, the better. Traditional, paper-based bidding relies on people going back to check during the event, or on having an emcee who will draw attention to being outbid.

Some silent auctions will include a way for guests to “buy now,” so that’s an important consideration for your planning. This means setting a “buy now” price which gets the purchaser the item right away. You’d have to work out what a fair price is, and of course, you risk that the item could have sold for more during the auction process.

How to plan a successful silent auction

Successful silent auctions are all in the planning. You need to have appropriate energy and resources to devote to planning time. Keep this in mind if your silent auction is to operate within a fundraising event you’re holding – event planning takes a lot of time too!

Here are some steps for planning your silent auction:

Assemble the right team

  • Silent auctions need every step to run seamlessly, so it’s not going overboard to set up an auction committee, responsible for overseeing the whole thing. Some typical roles within the committee might include:
  • The auction chair – This is essentially the project manager for the event. The chair coordinates team members and volunteers and ensures good communication with all those who need to be in the loop.
  • Logistics team – These are the people responsible for every aspect of the mechanics of the auction, from timing, to how people will bid, to coordinating the dissemination of auction purchases.
  • Procurement team – Responsible for sourcing the items to be auctioned. They will reach out to businesses and your organization’s connections to procure auction items.
  • Marketing team – Someone has to get the word out! Marketing needs to create compelling invitations that bring in plenty of auction guests.
  • Auction volunteers – The volunteer roles may vary, depending on which teams need help. For in-person events, they’re there to greet guests and help ensure the event runs smoothly.

Planning your silent auction

You’ve got some key decisions to make:

  • How will you host the auction? In-person, online, or a hybrid version?
  • Who are your guests? Do you have a theme tailored to them?
  • Is the auction a stand-alone event, or run in conjunction with something else?
  • What sorts of items do you want to auction? Consider who your guests are, their interests, and their budgets.

If you’re hosting a silent auction that’s in-person or hybrid, you’ll also want to consider the venue. Auctions that aren’t in conjunction with other events might require catering and consideration for amenities. You may also need people assigned to help with things like registration and parking.

Source your auction items

Before sourcing auction items, your procurement team should have some goals for the types of items they’d like to auction, along with a list of potential donors they might ask. It may work best for your organization to have a range of items at different price ranges, ensuring that you have something in there for everyone.

Some potential steps include:

  1. Reach out with your requests for donated items. Be specific about what you’re looking for and when you need it. You may even include information about what the sponsor benefits are. For example, do they get their business name on advertising materials?
  2. Keep track of items as they come in. They should be logged, including a description, fair market value, and who donated it. This helps you to catalog everything for the auction later.
  3. Stay in contact with donors and be sure to thank them immediately. Let them know about how the auction went afterward.

Another option to note is that there are plenty of ideas for auction items that don’t cost you or your donors much to put together. Here are some examples:

  • Private, guided tours.
  • Free use of your venue.
  • A reserved parking spot.
  • Reserved seating at an event.
  • Throwing the first pitch.
  • Conducting the orchestra.
  • Name on a sponsor sign or plaque.
  • Private lessons.
  • An executive lunch.
  • Meetup with leaders in your organization.

Pre-launch promotion

You need guests for your silent auction, which means the pre-launch marketing phase should be well-planned. One place to start is with your current lists of donors. Email or send physical invitations to them with information about the silent auction.

Many nonprofit organizations choose to wait until they’ve confirmed some of the items that will be up for auction so that they can promote them in their marketing materials for the auction. Guests like to get a glimpse of what’s available.

Depending on your budget, you may want to consider paid media options for promotion. You could also ask that your volunteers all share the details of the auction to their networks via social media or other means.

You may also want to invite certain, specific guests to your auction. This is where Kindsight can help. You can use Live Profiles and Prospect Lists to find guests to invite.

Post-auction activities

You’ve still got work to do after the auction, especially if you want to hold a successful event again in the future. Some things to consider include:

  • Connecting with guests and sponsors.
  • Get all items sent out to those who won them (if not collected at the event).
  • Send out thank-yous to guests and sponsors.

How to engage your audience during a silent auction

It’s important to keep your audience engaged during your silent auction. This tends to help encourage higher bids and better overall results. For example, you could:

Use mobile bidding

Mobile bidding on auction software is useful for engaging your audience because it features notifications to keep them informed. They will know every time someone outbids them, which hopefully prompts them to place a competing bid.

Gamify the process

People respond to gamification across all sorts of applications. For silent auctions, features such as on-screen counters and trend analysis can help.

Timing for engagement

When bidders can interact with one another, it often encourages more competition with the bidding. One way to accomplish this is to host dinner at the same time as the silent auction. This gets people talking with one another and “one-upping” bids.

Bid assistants or emcees

Bid assistants or event emcees can encourage engagement by talking up the auction items. They can keep audiences updated and remind them to check their bids with regular announcements. Assistants can also countdown to the end of bidding so that people are encouraged to make last-minute bids on items, maximizing what you make on them.

What makes a silent auction successful?

What makes a silent auction successful? To begin with, we’d say a successful auction achieves the goals you set out to accomplish. Some examples include:

  • Key high-value items were successfully bid upon.
  • The auction helped to gain visibility for your organization and engage bidders. These could potentially become future donors to your organization.
  • You gained significant engagement on social media. An event like an auction can get you mentions, comments, tags, and posts.
  • You gathered information or data on new prospective donors or even additional information on your current donors. This intelligence can be used for future campaigns.

Silent Auction Rules

Having rules laid out and communicated prior to your silent auction will better ensure its success.  The main rules to consider are:

  1. All sales are final and non-refundable: Guests are responsible for their claimed items, and no exchanges will be permitted. All items are sold in their current condition. In certain cases, if necessary, the second highest bid may be considered. It is recommended to establish a policy of final sales to discourage any attempts of returns.
  2. Right to modify items: Items may be subject to change, including additions or removals, without notice. This safeguards your organization against unforeseen circumstances such as last-minute withdrawals or additions. While it may cause some frustration among guests, having this policy in writing ensures the security of your event.
  3. Items are sold “as is”: To avoid situations where a bidder tries to withdraw after realizing they did not thoroughly examine the auctioned item, it is crucial to emphasize that all items are sold in their current condition. This places the responsibility on the bidder to inspect the items themselves rather than relying on you to point out any potential flaws.

Wrapping up

Silent auctions can be a lucrative fundraising opportunity for organizations. To be successful, you need to have the time and resources to commit to planning and executing the auction.

It’s helpful to have a committee assigned to the auction so that they can split up the various tasks required. The suggestions in this article can be a great starting point.

Kindsight can help nonprofits to identify potential donors, as well as invitees for the auction. Our Fundraising Intelligence can also help with collecting and storing attendees after the event and creating lists for potential future use.

Written by Admin

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