When just about all events were canceled in 2020, nonprofits were forced to get creative with their fundraising efforts. Of course, this scenario presented many challenges to fundraising. Still, smart fundraising professionals were able to see an opportunity to expand their network and their donor base and ultimately increase their revenue by branching out through just one strategy: virtual auctions and events.

While in-person events are largely back and can have many benefits, hosting a virtual auction can help reduce costs, keep people engaged with your efforts from the comfort of their own home or remote location, and provide an easy fundraising opportunity for nonprofits (with the right software and systems, of course!)

In this article, we’ll go through 6 steps to plan an incredible virtual auction for your nonprofit.

1. Develop an auction planning team.

This step is crucial to keep your sanity during the process of hosting a virtual auction. From the planning stages to item procurement to closing out your event and delivering the items to winning bidders, you will need a stellar team to help you successfully pull off your auction.

Before you do anything else, put together a committee of people specializing in areas like auction technology, audience outreach, sponsorships, corporate relationships, and donations. These individuals should be leaders in their community or industry and have a sphere of influence that can come together to help make your virtual event successful.

Conduct any necessary training to help these team members develop the skills to help your nonprofit succeed in these areas. Then, in the future, they’ll be able to continue event planning for future opportunities.

2. Build your auction tech stack.

Because the event is entirely virtual, you might need to add software solutions to your current nonprofit tech stack to reach your audience and host an engaging event. You probably already have different types of software tools to help you manage your day-to-day fundraising efforts, like CRM, email management, or even fundraising software. Still, you will need more than this for your virtual auction. 

When specifically considering your auction components, you’ll want to explore features that will allow you to list your items, donors to place their bids, and how top bidders will check out and pay for the items they’ve won. Carefully explore the software and technology you’ll need to pull off your auction without a hitch. Here are some examples of the tools you’ll want to focus on:

Registration software

Registration software helps nonprofits get a headcount of those who will attend the virtual event and enables you to get information like email addresses so you can communicate with your attendees leading up to the event.

Look for software that is intuitive for your audience. It should also allow you to customize registration questions so you can extract the information you need from your audience in order to provide the best bidding experience.

Charity auction website

Having a specific charity auction website allows you to put your auction items online and display a catalog for your supporters to peruse and bid on. When reviewing this feature for your event, you’ll want to look for something user-friendly and intuitive, for both you and your donors.

Look for a charity auction website with features such as: 

  • User-friendly interface
  • Comprehensive tools
  • Customized branding
  • Secure payment processing
  • Notifications for when supporters are outbid

Make a side-by-side comparison of the charity website software companies you’re looking into, and choose the one that aligns best with the values of your nonprofit, your team, your needs, and your auction event.

Livestream software

Live streaming software allows your nonprofit to provide the same benefits of an in-person event on a virtual level. With this feature, you can highlight auction items, have a short appeal program, or even host a full-fledged live auction.

Look for software that: 

  • Integrates or is built into your charity auction site
  • Allows you to take live questions and chat among team members

With a well-functioning and user-friendly charity auction website and live stream features, you’re sure to have a virtual event that stands out and impresses your stakeholders.

Nonprofit CRM

Gather information from your audience members and bidders to collect donor engagement data across your support database.

The CRM will help you save this information and other information about each supporter. Look for a system with features such as: 

  • Comprehensive donor profiles
  • Integrations with your auction software: can you easily import bidder data from your event straight into your CRM?
  • Fundraising and outreach tools

Keeping track of how your donors behave during events like auctions will help you to understand them better and create an even better experience for future events and appeals.

3. Procure auction items. 

Consider your audience before launching into the auction item procurement process. Think about what they are more likely to respond to and want to bid on. What are your would-be bidders interested in? Are they more of a “unique experiences” crowd, a “wine lover” crowd, “sports and outdoors,” or all of the above? Maybe you have a key, major donor whom you know will bid on that 10-day beach getaway trip and create friendly competition among the other bidders. Carefully strategize through these things so you can maximize your fundraising efforts.

Some of the top-tier auction item categories discussed in Handbid’s complete guide to auction items include the following: 

  • Sports fan items such as tickets, merchandise, etc.
  • Museum and art items such as tickets, VIP access, and signed pieces
  • Auction items for children such as theme park tickets, movie theater rentals, etc.
  • Gift basket items with themes such as game night, grillmaster, and local sampler
  • Seasonal items such as holiday decor, ski lift passes, reserved seating at events

Ask local businesses and companies to donate items to be auctioned off at the event, and task your auction team to discuss potential in-kind contributions from their networks as well. Then arrange for the items to be dropped off, mailed, or picked up and taken to your auction headquarters so you can take photos and load them into your online auction catalog.

4. Promote the event. 

Now that you have exciting auction items, it’s time to promote your event! Reach out to your supporters to draw them in and encourage them to attend the virtual event. 

Use several avenues to get in touch with supporters and tell them about the various opportunities you’ll provide. A multichannel strategy will reach more donors and reach them several times, encouraging more registrations from repeat event exposure. Some channels to include in your outreach strategy include:

  • Email 
  • Social media
  • Direct mail 
  • Digital advertisements

Communicate the essential aspects of your event before it begins. For example, you might tease your high-value auction items or even open up a select few items for people to bid on early.

After people register, continue to market and provide important information about your event, including event details like the program for the day and general housekeeping, like the rules of engagement for your auction.

5. Follow up post-event. 

You not only want to ensure success for this event but for future events to come, and follow-up is the first important step. Thank all of your supporters who made the event possible, including your volunteers, attendees, and sponsors.

Say thank you and communicate the impact of each person’s participation in the event. Share the impact of the donations and contributions made at the event. For example, they may help your organization fund a new program. 

Appreciation is the first step to donor retention, meaning it’s the first step for even more incredible events with many attendees in the future. When supporters see that they are making a difference and that their efforts toward that difference are noticed, they’ll come back to next year’s event and hopefully invite their friends and colleagues as well!

A well-planned, executed, and communicated virtual auction event will help you meet your fundraising goals, and implementing these five steps for your next online event will take you to the next level. Good luck!

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