Taking Your Auction Online: A Nonprofit’s Guide To Going Virtual

Karrie WozniakDecember 16, 2020

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The nonprofit sector has adapted quickly and, by many accounts, successfully to fundraising challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organizations are seizing the opportunity to reimagine their fundraising strategy by embracing virtual fundraising and engaging with supporters online.

With a wealth of advice from fundraising experts, a treasure trove of nonprofit success stories, and tech solutions tailor-made for the digital pivot, nonprofits have a wide range of options available to lean on.

If your nonprofit has seen success with virtual strategies, great job! We invite you to keep on learning and evolving your approaches alongside new strategies. If you are yet to get into virtual fundraising, don’t worry—we’ve assembled high-impact and easy tips to reach more donors and raise more online.

Expand your event and campaign offerings.

The continued uncertainty around COVID-19 means nonprofits have to find ways to connect donors to their causes. This means moving beyond just a single ‘Zoom experience’, or simply replicating your in-person events online. The key to creating compelling virtual experiences lies in rethinking how you deliver a compelling event experience, fusing digital and human connection into powerful fundraising.

In other words, virtual events shouldn’t (and can’t) be a 1-to-1 translation of your in-person versions; they require a reimagining of the nonprofit event experience.

Virtual auctions are an ideal fundraiser for this changed fundraising landscape. These virtual events are engaging, cost-effective, and give supporters a unique experience.

At OneCause, we’ve helped thousands of nonprofits effectively pivot their strategies and keep donors engaged with virtual auctions. They’re easy to plan when you follow a few core steps:

While these steps are similar to the process you might follow when planning a traditional silent auction, there are important differences that play a key role in your virtual success. First, you need to think of it as a brand new event, one entirely experienced online by your supporters.

Here are our top tips to get started.

1. Outline your virtual auction’s guidelines.

To start off the event planning process, outline the essential guidelines for your virtual auction. This provides a solid framework to build your plans around, and keeps the planning process focused from start to finish.

Your guidelines should include:

  • Timeframe. Unlike traditional auctions, these virtual events often take place over several days to ensure maximum engagement from busy donors.
    • Set a specific end date (most likely anchored by a virtual grand finale event).
    • Determine how long bidding will be open before the event. Develop a planning timeline broken down into specific stages and deadlines (e.g., setting up technology and procuring items).
    • Outline a rough event timeline (start times, end times, fundraising activities).
  • Goals. Determining financial and engagement goals at the start of the planning process is essential for keeping your efforts on track and measuring success once the event is over.
    • How many new donors do you want to acquire?
    • How many attendees do you want to tune into your finale event?
  • Theme. Like traditional nonprofit auctions and galas, virtual auctions benefit from having exciting, memorable, or meaningful themes. Pick a theme and tagline that will resonate with your audience, then use it to guide your marketing strategies once your auction comes together.

These guidelines will be invaluable for structuring your virtual auction and giving your team a shared vision of the end result.

2. Upgrade your auction toolkit as needed.

Nonprofit technology has naturally been central to organizations’ pivots to virtual fundraising. Fundraising software streamlines and automates many aspects of virtual events from registration to ticketing, promotion, bidding, sponsorships, online donations, supporter engagement, programming, and live-streaming.

To plan and host a complete virtual auction, you’ll need these tools:

  • Online auction software to build an item catalog and facilitate bids, ideally with mobile-friendly bidding tools
  • Registration tools for supporters to sign up and register their payment information
  • Communication features built in to your software (texting, email, live event alerts, donor recognition)
  • Marketing software to plan and execute your auction promotion
  • A live-streaming platform to host your auction or an all-in-one virtual solution
  • An underlying database or nonprofit CRM to capture important transaction and engagement data

3. Recruit a team and start brainstorming.

Next, recruit a team of staff and volunteers to help plan your virtual auction. Each of these individuals plays a key role in the oversight and execution of your auction. Consider which team members will best fulfill these roles:

  • Event director or chair. This leader oversees the entire process and checks in on progress throughout the event.
  • Item procurement committee. This committee is made up of multiple team members who work together to collect enticing items for the auction. For smaller organizations, these individuals might also work to secure corporate sponsorships for your event.
  • Technology lead. This individual and their helpers ensure you have all the tools listed above, set up any new software, and will be on call to help bidders with tech questions during the virtual auction itself.
  • Marketing lead. This team member handles promoting your virtual auction to supporters and engaging with registrants online leading up to kick-off.
  • Emcee or host. We recommend including a live finale event in your virtual auction, so you’ll need an engaging emcee to host the event, showcase top items, and reiterate the importance of your mission.
  • Volunteer ambassadors. In many contexts, like when you’re planning an auction as part of a large virtual gala, volunteer ambassadors can help drum up support, generate more registrations, and secure donations from wider online audiences.
  • Social and chat leads. Virtual events are all about engagement, so recruit individuals to interact directly with supporters during your auction, monitor social media and your event chat, and highlight shout-out opportunities to your emcee.

Depending on the size of your organization and the scope of your event, there may be overlap between the different groups and roles. No matter the size of your team, it’s important to recruit them early and clearly outline their responsibilities so that everyone can get to work quickly.

4. Start procuring and pricing your items.

Item procurement is the foundation for any strong auction. Securing items can take time and effort, so it pays to get started early and take an organized approach. Here are the essential procurement tasks to tackle first:

  • Start by virtually gathering your procurement team for a brainstorming session.
  • Set category goals for number of items and total value.
  • Review previous items, donors, and targets for this year.
  • Draft a wishlist of items and packages for your virtual auction.
  • Assign procurement tasks to your team with concrete deadlines.
  • Prepare auction procurement letters and donor packages.

If you’re new to procurement, check out the OneCause auction item directory for some top ideas and procurement best practices to help structure your initial meeting with your procurement team.

The main idea is to develop a working document and checklist of ideal items to entice your audience and help reach your goals. Break it down into one or two main attraction or high-value items, a range of mid-range items or packages, and a handful of lesser-value items to ensure there’s something to attract every bidder.

Additionally, be sure to keep your average donor and/or target audience in mind when procuring items to make sure they’ll be reasonably priced and appealing.

As you begin collecting items from generous businesses and individuals, go ahead and get a head start on the pricing process, as well. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Determine each item’s fair market value (FMV), or estimate the FMV of more intangible items or experiences that you’ll offer to bidders.
  • Set each item’s starting bid at roughly 30-50% of its FMV, but feel free to aim slightly higher for your main attraction items that are guaranteed to generate interest.
  • Determine a bid increase rate for each item as they begin attracting attention, usually around 10-15% of the item’s FMV.
  • For select items, set up “buy it now” options in your auction software for bidders to skip the competition and purchase their favorites for 150-200% of their FMVs.

How you price your auction items plays a direct role in your ability to reach your revenue and engagement goals. By pricing your items as your team procures them (rather than waiting until the end), you’ll give yourself more time to review and refine your pricing strategy before it’s time to open up the bidding.

Develop an engaging marketing strategy.

Effectively promoting your nonprofit’s campaigns and events is always essential, but it’s especially important for virtual auctions. Your supporters and potential bidders have a million things on their minds, so you need to stand out from the other organizations competing for their attention online. When connecting with donors virtually, remember to back up your efforts with a focus on your mission and the impact of your supporters.

To kickstart marketing your auction, build your online catalog and virtual event center a few months in advance of the event. These resources will anchor your marketing efforts and provide a single location for supporters to engage, register, and donate. With your auction offerings and virtual “venue” in place, you can start promoting your event with these best practices:

  • Recruit ambassadors. We already mentioned volunteer ambassadors as valuable team members for virtual auctions. These high-powered volunteers can have a huge impact on your event’s energy, turnout, and revenue. By empowering your ambassadors to promote your event on your behalf, you’ll reach a much wider online audience of potential bidders, and their personal touch in marketing materials can go a long way to motivate giving.
  • Use multimedia and imagery: Feature a mix of multimedia content (video, graphics, and photos). A balance of varied content will help anchor your marketing in your mission, attract supporters, and create stronger connections to the cause. Most of all, make your marketing human, talk about your mission and impact, and share human stories whenever possible.
  • Offer sneak peeks. By compiling your online item catalog early, you give your marketing team a handy way to tease top items and offer sneak peeks. Consider creating an early-bird promotion, like giving your first hundred registrants an early look at your items and a one-day headstart to begin bidding.
  • Reconnect with Giving Tuesday donors. If you see an influx of first-time donors this Giving Tuesday, your virtual auction is the perfect opportunity to re-engage them. Create email campaigns specifically designed to target these donors, or try offering a special deal (like free online raffle tickets) to Giving Tuesday donors who register to attend the auction.

To maximize the impact of your marketing efforts, focus heavily on driving engagement. Special offers, peer-to-peer and ambassador tactics, email segmentation, and social media will all be invaluable tactics. Then during your multi-day virtual auction, remember to actively keep bidders engaged the entire time with social media interaction and push notifications (set up through your virtual fundraising software).

Amid the shift to virtual fundraising and donor engagement, nonprofits have certainly learned the value of adaptability. Staying flexible will be critical as you plan your virtual auction, remembering that these events aren’t carbon copies of traditional silent auctions that simply take place online. Virtual auctions are a different type of event that requires the right tools and more active and diverse engagement strategies.

Above all, prioritize your donors and their experience. What will best catch their attention? How can you ensure a streamlined, intuitive online experience that will keep your mission on their minds in 2021? Answering these questions will be an excellent starting point as you launch your next auction. Best of luck!

Schedule a live demo with our partner Bloomerang, and we’ll show you how easy it is to create and automate reports, utilize online and offline fundraising tools, quickly integrate and access all your data, and ultimately create more time to engage your donors.

Filed Under:   Events