Silent Auction

What is a silent auction?

A silent auction is an event at which items for sale are displayed for attendees to assess, place bids on, and purchase. However, unlike most auctions, there is no auctioneer present, and participants place their bids silently and anonymously on a bid sheet using a bidding number—hence the name silent auction.

How do nonprofits use silent auctions?

Nonprofits use silent auctions to fundraise in an engaging way. Rather than simply soliciting donations, hosting a silent auction gives donors the opportunity to actively participate in an event and maybe even make an exciting purchase. Additionally, because the items being auctioned have been donated to the organization, the nonprofit does not lose any money in procuring them and reaps the full benefits of the auction.

How does a silent auction work?

Attendees at a silent auction spend the first part of the event checking out the items for auction. When they find something they’d like to place a bid on, they use their bidding number to make an anonymous bid on the bid sheet in front of the item. At most silent auctions, there will be a minimum bid amount as well as a minimum increase requirement. The minimum increase requirement dictates how many dollars more a bid must be than the last. Once the bidding has ended and the winning bids have been announced, winners will be able to collect their items in a check out area where the transactions will take place.

Silent auction rules

Every silent auction is different, but there are a few key rules most of them follow to ensure a successful event.

  1. Establish a closing time
    It’s important that guests have a specific, predetermined length of time within which they may place bids. This creates a sense of urgency and makes sure guests place bids on items they are interested in. If there are multiple events happening at the silent auction, like a sit-down dinner, it’s important to close bidding before the dinner so that guests’ attention is not pulled in too many different directions.
  2. Have an appropriate number of items available
    Scott Robertson, an expert in virtual auctions, suggests having no more than one item for every two people at your event. Having too many items is overwhelming for guests, and won’t necessarily increase the amount of items purchased.
  3. Control traffic flow
    Arrange tables in a way that makes all items easily visible and avoids traffic jams. Traffic should move as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  4. Organize items strategically
    Items should be organized from least expensive to most expensive. If you place the more expensive items at the start, bidders may only choose to bid on one item as opposed to placing multiple bids on less expensive items.

How do you run a silent auction?

Like any event, running a silent auction is a hefty undertaking. Here are some of the basics organizations should consider when planning and running a silent auction.

  • Promotion
    Promotion for the event should start as soon as the date is set. Begin promoting on social media and via email, and even consider teasing available items in your communication.
  • Venue Selection
    When selecting the venue, remember to prioritize traffic flow. Guests should be able to move about freely without feeling cramped or cornered. There should also be plenty of space for display tables, high tops, and serving stations, if food is provided.
  • Item Selection
    Consider the audience before procuring items. Are they seniors? Young singles? Academics? Thrill seekers? Select items the attendees will be excited about.
  • Item Display
    Make sure all items are visible. Use stands, platforms, stages, and easels to make items stand out.
  • Item Descriptions
    All items should be accompanied by item descriptions. Create item description sheets that include details about what the item is, who donated it, why it’s valuable, and anything else you think the buyer may want to know.
  • Registration
    Registering participants is not required, but it does offer a few benefits. First of all, it allows the bidder to be anonymous. After participants fill out the registration form, they will be given a bidder number which they can use to place bids instead of using their names. Registration also ensures you get the information from every attendee should you need to contact them after the event.
  • Bid Sheets
    Bidding sheets are where all of the bidding happens. When a participant wants to make a bid on an item they just jot down their bidding number and their bid amount on the bidding sheet in front of the item. Some bid sheets also include a “Buy Now” price for attendees who have their hearts set on the item.
  • Volunteers
    Recruit volunteers for set up, registration, check out, and other tasks that will require extra help.
  • Auction Monitors
    If possible, having experienced auction monitors at the event can be beneficial. Because all of the bidding is done by the attendees themselves, the auction monitors’ main responsibility is overseeing the auction and making sure everyone is following the rules and guidelines.
  • Checkout Area
    Make sure to designate a specific space for checking out, where the winning bidders can claim their items and pay for them.

How do you throw a silent auction online?

The most important step in planning a silent auction is choosing an auction software. Participants will register, make bids, and pay for items all through the auction site. Organizations are still responsible for soliciting the items, taking pictures of the items to display, and setting starting bid amounts. Because these auctions take place online, the bidding period is usually longer than an in-person auction; some accept bids for a few days, while others accept them for a few weeks.

There are many auction software solutions that could work for your nonprofit to organize a silent auction. Some of our favorites are:


Product image showing Handbid silent auction software
Source: G2

Learn more about Handbid


Product image showing CharityAuctionToday silent auction dashboard with bidding feature
Source: G2

Learn more about CharityAuctionsToday

Online auctions are also an important feature in times when in-person gatherings are not feasible. You can use online silent auctions as a type of virtual fundraising event to provide another way for your supporters to engage.

See all our favorite event & auction tools

Bottom line

Silent auctions are a fun, effective way to fundraise. With some planning and attention to detail, nonprofits can host an event that is both enjoyable and lucrative.

Related Resources: