Silent auctions are auctions without an auctioneer present and where participants place their bids silently and anonymously. They can be a very effective fundraising strategy for nonprofit organizations of all sizes.
Silent auctions can be organized as stand-alone events, but they're often paired with other events such as galas, cocktail fundraisers, sports tournaments, and more. Very often, they're organized as in-person events, although virtual silent auctions aren’t uncommon.
That being said, restrictions linked to COVID-19 continue to shift nonprofit fundraisers, events, and other operations even further into the world of virtual.
What is a virtual silent auction?
Unlike a live virtual auction, where attendees participate and bid in real-time, a virtual silent auction typically takes place over a longer time span, such as a week.
Participants are usually given access to an online catalog of available auction items and encouraged to browse through items at their own pace and then bid on those that most interest them.
There’s a lot that goes into organizing a top-notch virtual silent auction, but procuring the perfect virtual silent auction items probably tops the list. That is if you want to meet your fundraising goals and “wow” your guests. They’re the star of the show after all!
There’s no perfect, magic formula to choosing the right virtual silent auction items, as this will depend on your unique circumstances, particularly your audience.
Organizing virtual silent auctions is a complex, multi-step process. It involves everything from forming a team, procuring the right auction items, choosing the right online auction software and catalog, and shipping items to the highest bidders.
In this article, we will focus on auction item procurement, one of the first and most important steps of organizing virtual silent auctions.
What is auction item acquisition?
Auction item acquisition or procurement refers to the process of identifying the auction items you want for your events, soliciting and acquiring them, and then building a catalog.
Procuring the right auction items is crucial to the success of a virtual silent auction, helping you raise as much money as possible for your cause.
The auction items that typically receive the most bid activity appeal to donors’ needs or interests, are well-priced, and are unique or special in some way.
If you’re struggling to think of the right items for your silent auction, here are some questions to get you started:
- Where do your donors like to eat?
- What are your donors’ go-to entertainment venues?
- What sporting/music/cultural events are going on in your area at the time of your auction?
- What are your donors interested in? What are their hobbies?
- Who in your network might have access to special experiences?
To help you get the ball rolling, here is a list of 75+ silent auction item ideas:
Not everyone likes sports and art, but everyone eats and almost everyone enjoys food!
Restaurant gift certificates are the easiest item to start with, as many restaurants will gladly partner with you–seeing that an auction is a great opportunity for their business to get promoted.
Depending on the restrictions where you live, restaurants might be open in some capacity. Maybe they’re limiting the number of guests or are delivering. Adjust the auction item accordingly. Maybe the highest bidder gets a delivery/pick up at the restaurant or they get the restaurant to themselves for one night.
Pro tip: Take it up a notch by auctioning off a dinner at a restaurant that is usually booked (or a top-notch restaurant such as a Michelin-star restaurant).
Here are some other food-related silent auction items:
- The restaurant chef cooks a private dinner for two
- Catering certificates
- Virtual cooking classes
- Virtual baking classes
- Food gift baskets
- Monthly subscription for coffee/wine/bread delivery for a year
- Wine or beer tasting
- Brew sampler of 100 bottles
The options are endless with food-related silent auction items. The key lies in knowing what would delight your audience!
Sporting event tickets are excellent auction items, especially VIP tickets that aren’t easily accessible or are sold out.
Think of local and national championships in football, baseball, basketball, swimming, volleyball – anything you can procure and/or you know your audience has an affinity for.
Beyond tickets, you can also procure other sport-related items and experiences to auction off:
- Signed sports gear and other memorabilia
- Rare baseball cards
- Private virtual sports lessons
- A chance to meet local sports celebrities on Zoom or Skype
- Virtual class passes (yoga, spin, gyms)
- Virtual private trainer for 6 months/1 year
- Opportunity to be a sportscaster for a day
Travel-related auction items tend to generate high-bid frequencies. After all, most people appreciate at least a short getaway!
There’s plenty of flexibility here, and whether you’re able to procure only a short weekend in a local cabin in the woods or an all-inclusive holiday in Thailand, travel-related auction items are sure to be a hit!
Here are some travel-related auction items you can offer:
- All-inclusive international trips
- All-inclusive national/local trips
- Weekend getaways
- Hotel stays
- Free rental car for X days
- Gas for a year
- Airline tickets or miles
- Airline gift certificate
- High-quality, stylish luggage
- Outdoor/camping gear
- Outdoor activities (hiking, kayaking, bungee jumping)
Note: Pay special attention to COVID-related restrictions where you live. Weekend getaways in remote cottages are already a socially-distanced auction item, as is camping gear and new luggage. And ‘staycations’ in local hotels can be a wonderful way to support local businesses and allow people to change the scenery for a bit. However, if you’re auctioning off any travel packages, consider refraining from offering international travel packages at the moment, and always follow the government’s recommendations.
Music, Art & Entertainment
Whether your donors are into glamorous shows or are aspiring painters and guitar players – there’s plenty of room to work with when it comes to music, art, and entertainment-related silent auction items.
Auction off a private tour, accompanied by a professional art curator (along with a few local artists). Pair this tour with the best wine and cheese your town offers, and you’ll be sure to have many bidders!
Here are some other ideas:
- Virtual concerts, theatre, symphony, opera, ballet tickets
- Virtual museum tickets
- Tickets to virtual comedy nights
- Movies subscription/access to newly released movies
- Virtual backstage pass (meet the artist)
- Virtual music lessons
- Music instruments or other memorabilia signed by popular musicians
- Virtual watercolor painting class
- Virtual drawing class
- Virtual pottery class
- Virtual calligraphy class
- Virtual oil painting class
This is a broad category comprising of a wide variety of services that you can auction off during your event. Like with other items we suggested, choose those services that your donors will find the most appealing.
Here are some more items and services you can auction off in this category:
- A virtual session with a personal stylist
- A virtual consultation with a professional organizer
- Family photoshoot
- Childcare services
- Professional house cleaning
- Professional pet grooming
- Subscriptions (Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney+)
- Car detailing
- Monthly delivery of flowers for a year
Gift baskets are another great auction item. They often generate much more interest than any of the individual components would on their own. Plus, gift baskets are endlessly customizable! Choose those themes that you know would appeal to your audience most. Maybe you can put together a ‘local goods’ basket filled with items procured from local businesses (wines, coffee, candles, prints, etc.) that are struggling during these economically challenging times.
Pro tip: In addition to partnering with other professionals and organizations to procure these services, map out your network and the skills you have access to within it. Maybe a staff member or someone in your volunteer network is a fantastic pastry chef and could deliver fresh pastry every Friday for a month to the highest bidder!
Think of interesting and unique experiences that your audience might not easily be able to access in their everyday life.
For example, you might offer a “VIP experience” where the top bidder gets treated like a VIP for the day. They might get picked up by a limousine, taken to an upscale restaurant, then to see a ballet performance in best seats.
You might want to auction off a reserved parking space at a popular paid lot downtown for one year.
Here are some other ideas:
- Helicopter ride
- Local brewery tours
- Sunset or harbor cruises
- Hot air balloon ride
- Theme park tickets
- Skydiving excursions
- 40 hours with a personal assistant
- Vineyard tour
- Canoe trip
- Whitewater rafting
- Private photoshoot with a local photographer
- Painting commissioned by a local artist
- Group paintball outing
If you have well-connected donors or donors with large budgets, it could be feasible for your nonprofit to auction once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as access to a movie set or a dinner cooked by a celebrity chef.
Celebrity meetups can be a hot item during auctions. If going down this route, consider your audience’s interests. Would a famous chef, athlete, actor, author, or politician be a better choice? Many celebrities will be happy to support charity work.
Alternatively, you can also auction off something signed by a celebrity. Autographed music and sports memorabilia perform really well in auctions.
You might also want to auction off luxury/high-end or designer goods:
- Designer clothing
- Designer shoes or handbags
- Crystal dishes
- High-end kitchen appliances (Vitamix, Magimix, espresso machine)
- High-end tech gadgets (phones, laptops, tablets, 4K TV, smartwatch)
- Newest e-book reader
- High-quality digital camera
- High-quality camcorder
Some other ideas:
- Opportunity to drive your dream car
- Private tour of the Coca Cola factory (or another relevant production site)
- Dinner cooked and served by the mayor or a local celebrity
- Sponsoring a park bench
Note: If going down this route, make sure your donor base can afford these bids.
Holidays are a fantastic time for auctions and events of all kinds, and they lend themselves wonderfully to a variety of different auction items.
For example, you might auction off a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny visit to the bidder’s home or work.
Here are some other ideas for holiday/seasonal fundraising:
- Prime viewing spot for July 4th or New Year’s Eve fireworks
- Front-row seating at Christmas mass
- Limo ride to view holiday light displays
- Box seats for Christmas ballet/opera
1. Survey your audience.
If you’re struggling to figure out which items will work well for your target audience, ask them! Send out a survey asking your audience what kind of items they would like to see at your silent auction, and at what price points. This extra step can really make all the difference!
Pro tip: If you aren’t gathering and working with data, now is the time to start. If you have data about your donors’ past engagement habits, such as the average gift amounts, event attendance, and demographic data about the age and income of your donors -- it becomes much easier to choose the right auction items.
2. Look back and learn.
If this isn’t your first silent auction ever, take a moment to review your past silent auctions and their performance.
Step back and see:
- Which silent auction items were the most bid on?
- Which ones had no bids at all?
- Which items met or exceeded their value?
By taking the time to look back, you will see which items performed best. Then, you can use that information to procure similar items again, as they're likely to perform well.
However, don’t forget to keep things interesting for your donors. It’s great to bring back the items that did well, but make sure you mix it up with new and interesting items.
3. Start early.
Successful item procurement takes time!
You’ll need to survey your audience, brainstorm a list of potential auction items, identify potential donors for each one, and then solicit the items. To give yourself enough time, start planning and preparing for your silent auction several months in advance.
4. Have a team.
Auction item procurement takes time and effort, so don’t try to do it all by yourself.
Instead, form a procurement team of several staff members and volunteers. This will help build a more diverse range of auction items for your event.
5. Promote your auction items well in advance
Promote your auction items ahead of time so your event attendees arrive eager to bid.
Create an online auction catalog with photos and descriptions of each item and promote the items on your website and on your social media.
Pro tip: Enlist the help of auction or event planning software to facilitate this process.
6. Go big with your ask.
When soliciting donations, don’t be afraid to go big. Donors can always come down. Be courteous and thankful for whatever your donors give.
Make sure your procurement committee is well trained and informed about the process of connecting with donors, and ensure that there is a tracking system – you don’t want the same high-impact donor being approached by five separate volunteers.
7. Thank your donors.
Thank every donor as soon as possible and make sure you recognize the donor during the auction event. Happy donors will come back year after year, ensuring your repeated success.
This comprehensive collection of effective virtual silent auction item ideas should get you off to a strong start!
Use our ideas, but don’t forget the main guideline: procure items your donors will want. And you’re the one who knows your donors best! Use these as a creative springboard to come up with other ideas.
Knowing what your donors really want will radically boost your bids and engagement, which will in turn boosts your fundraising efforts.
And don’t forget about online fundraising!
GiveForms lets you create a seamless donation experience for your donors, starting off this relationship on the right foot. Use GiveForms to embed a donation form on your website, allowing visitors to donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, our goal is to help you increase your online donations.