Charity Auctions 101: What to Know Before You Start Planning

Procuring items, deciding on essential logistics such as date, time, and place, marketing the event on your nonprofit’s social media— all of these are activities that take place while planning your charity auction.

However, did you know there are a few decisions that need to be made before you even begin planning?

You already know that planning an auction of any scale can be a challenge. Setting a strong foundation prior to planning is just as important as the actual planning process itself, preventing costly challenges down the line and allowing you to make the most of the event going forward. We’re going to cover five factors to nail down before you begin planning your charity auction, including:

  • Which type of auction you’ll host.
  • Key team members for auction planning.
  • Management and data infrastructure.
  • Board relationships to leverage for the event.
  • The logistics of registration

Follow along for a deep-dive into each point, as well as a quick look at the tools that can help the process along. Let’s dive in.

A guide to starting nonprofit charity auctions from OneCause.

1. Which type of auction you’ll host.

You need to choose which type of auction would best fit your organization’s needs. This choice will affect all of your planning going forward, so it needs to be discussed and finalized early on.

There are three main types of charity auction events that organizations typically host:

Live Auction

Live auction events involve an auctioneer/emcee announcing items to auction attendees, who then place their bids (verbally, by raising paddles, or via electronic device), competing against the other attendees for their favorite items and package.

The highest bid wins and purchases the item at the end of the event. There are positives and negatives with this type of event; for example, while the energy of the room builds an urgency to bid, the physical logistics can quickly become chaotic if you’re unprepared.

Silent Auction

At a silent auction, items are displayed on tables around your event space. During the event, attendees browse the tables and write their bids on a sheet of paper at their own leisure.

Once again, there are pros and cons: while these events are less “hosted” and are more flexible than traditional live auctions, they take just as much complex planning to succeed. Check out this guide for more information about planning a silent auction.

Online Auction

Fully online charity auctions are rising in popularity because of their cost-effectiveness, their flexibility, and their seamless data collection. Though they may lack some of the personal touch of the two live auction options, they’re a great option if your nonprofit isn’t looking to invest major physical resources into hosting the event. They’re also a great add-on option to expand the reach of your live or silent auctions, opening up the evening to digital attendees.

A guide to starting nonprofit charity auctions from OneCause.

2. Key team members for auction planning.

Successfully planning, let alone hosting, an auction requires many capable hands that are excited about the task.

Not only do you need the go-ahead from the board funding your auction, but you also need to gather team members to handle each aspect of the planning process. This includes:

  • Nonprofit Board: They can be incredibly helpful when it comes to actually planning the event. Make sure your board is excited and fully invested in the endeavor before you plan it. We’ll touch on the importance of leveraging your board’s relationships in a later section.
  • Event Coordinator: Your event coordinator will oversee the planning and execution of your event after it’s been greenlighted by your board. This person handles coordination between the many teams working on your auction and makes sure every job is getting done.
  • Procurement Team: This group has one job, but it’s an important one— soliciting auction items for the event. The team can consist of staffers and/or volunteers, as long as they’re comfortable asking for donations. This team needs to hit the ground running early in the planning process, so make sure they’re all recruited before you start planning.
  • Accountant: Nonprofit accounting is confusing, and that’s especially true for charity auctions due to the flow of donations in and sale items out. Consult with an accountant (or even your nonprofit’s board treasurer) early on in the process to get the process straightened out and to ensure that every relevant donation and expense will be recorded properly.
  • Event Planning and Execution Team: Outline the different team members who will be involved with planning the finer details of your event, like marketing and physical event logistics. Go ahead and begin recruiting staff and volunteers to support the set-up, execution, and clean-up of the event itself. While they don’t have to complete any work right now, it’s helpful to know you’ll have some support when the day comes.

Check out this guide to charity auction planning by OneCause to refresh your auction knowledge before diving deeper. In it, we go into further detail on the specific team members you’ll need on hand for your event.

A guide to starting nonprofit charity auctions from OneCause.

3. Event management and data infrastructure.

Diving into planning a charity auction without the right tools in your toolbox is an ill-advised move.

This means deciding which auction software you’re going to use to manage the event and track all the engagement and transaction data that it generates. Your toolkit should be ready to go from the start of your planning process, long before the event is going to take place, so that you can track engagement and key KPI’s from the moment you kick-off your promotions.

Your auction software should let you:

  • Track and manage item procurement, including tracking procurement status, logging item location, assigning package numbers, and grouping items.
  • Manage registration and guest information, which you’ll read more about later.
  • Collect donation information and quickly view and sort all contributions.
  • Jump-start bidding prior to the auction beginning, with unlimited online auctions and item listings.

Secure and set up your auction software before you start planning, so it can be a resource throughout the entire process. You’ll be able to compile robust reports on the planning process as virtually all data associated with your auction is held within the platform. Use this data next time to continually improve your auctions every time you host one.

A guide to starting nonprofit charity auctions from OneCause.

4. Board relationships to leverage for the event.

Gauge how engaged your board members plan to be with the event and leverage their power accordingly. Your nonprofit’s board members were chosen for a reason— whether they’re particularly knowledgeable about your field, engaged with your supporter community, or have other valuable resources to generously contribute to your organization.

For example, leverage your board member’s corporate and personal relationships to fuel your auction events whenever possible.

At your next board meeting, build excitement about your upcoming auction. Then, ask your board members to search their own networks for contacts interested in:

  • Donating venue space, event materials, or volunteers at the event.
  • Sponsoring your event financially in return for signage, shout-outs at the event, or other public associations with your organization’s work.
  • Donating items or services to be auctioned off.
  • Supplying merchandise commemorating the event, such as nonprofit t-shirts or other memorabilia.

Board members can be a powerful resource when it comes to lining up physical logistics and procuring auction items. Noting which forms of support your board can provide before the planning process ensures you won’t need to waste time hunting down items you don’t need later.

TIP: Check out this list by OneCause detailing 15+ charity auction item ideas. Present this list to your board and brainstorm some ways to source and procure them for your event.

A guide to starting nonprofit charity auctions from OneCause.

5. The logistics of registration.

Ticketing and registration is logistically one of the most complicated elements of any large event, including charity auctions. It’ll serve you well to think about how you’ll handle the process in advance— especially since as soon as you announce the event publicly with any type of marketing, you’ll want to immediately point supporters in the right direction to register.

Auction registration is complicated because not only do you have to handle general entry ticketing (i.e. simply getting a donor into the event), you also need to capture specific guest information that allows for streamlined contact and payment after the event ends.

Auction software can remove much of the stress involved with this process

  • Manage ticketing packages and tiers, from creating specific packages for donors and sponsors to offering VIP and add-on options.
  • Capture guest information such as names, seating requests, and even dietary restrictions.
  • Collect payment information via advance online registration or by swiping credit cards, instantaneously completing transactions and emailing receipts soon after. You can even split bills and add charges!

Auction software collects all needed guest information on one platform and removes the stress of long lines at the end of the event. Work with this software from the start (before you begin planning) to make the most of its functionality.

For more information, check out this guide to top auction software.

Planning a charity auction is an involved process from the start, and there are a ton of moving parts for your staff and volunteers to manage.

From calling on your nonprofit’s board to fundraise contributions to nailing down the specifics of registration, setting a strong foundation before you start planning can drastically ease the auction planning process going forward. With the above tips and the right tools, planning your next charity auction will be a breeze!