When it comes to key fundraising events for your nonprofit, auctions can be a highly effective avenue for increasing donations to your cause. However, when embarking on an auction-planning journey, it helps to have guidance to get started. Karrie Wozniak, CMO at OneCause, outlines six essential tips in this article. Karrie has more than twenty years of experience in marketing and passion for helping nonprofits expand their reach, leading industry research, marketing strategy, and fundraising consulting initiative. 

Planning an auction event can be a big undertaking. Taking an auction hybrid can mean even more moving pieces to manage.

Yet transforming your traditional silent auction fundraiser to incorporate both virtual and in-person engagement opens your event up to increased accessibility and convenience for guests. If planned well, this can bring increased revenue and deepened donor relationships for your organization.

A hybrid silent auction typically involves online, real-time bidding functionality in-person from a specified venue as well as for remote participants. It’s a bit more logistically complicated than a fully in-person or virtual auction, so success will hinge on careful planning.

If hybrid auctions are a new undertaking for your team, we’ve put together this quick guide to help inform your planning strategy. For the best results, remember these tried-and-true, research-backed tips:

  1. Invest in powerful auction software.
  2. Make it mobile-friendly.
  3. Ensure your event reflects your mission.
  4. Don’t forget about event promotion.
  5. Target two distinct event audiences.
  6. Collect and leverage your auction data.

Ready to dive into each of these best practices and find out more about planning a successful hybrid silent auction for your cause? Let’s get started.

1. Invest in powerful auction software.

Hybrid auctions, by their very nature, rely more on technology than a traditional in-person auction does. As a result, investing in the right tools to manage your bidding experiences is more important than ever—for both the guests who participate and the team behind the scenes. Let’s take a closer look at each:

  • For guests: The 2021 OneCause Giving Experience Study reported ease of use as the #1 motivator and engagement driver for virtual and hybrid experiences. When there are no roadblocks in the giving, bidding, live streaming, or other participation processes, event attendees will be more likely to contribute more to your organization.
  • For staff: Having a powerful event planning solution allows staff members to manage every aspect of your auction from start to finish with as little difficulty as possible. Technology can help manage item procurement, registration, bidding, and check-out processes, saving your team valuable time and resources to reinvest in building relationships with donors.

Luckily, the right silent auction software can play a significant role in streamlining both guest and staff experiences and providing a positive user experience for everyone involved. This way, regardless of whether attendees participate on-site or from afar, they can experience an organized and cohesive auction event and support the mission they care about with ease.

2. Make it mobile-friendly.

According to fundraising statistics from 360MatchPro, more than 50% of all nonprofit website traffic last year came from mobile and tablet users. That means it’s of utmost importance that you prioritize the mobile experience for your guests. When planning your event, here are a few key aspects to consider:

  • Allow guests to register and bid from mobile devices. The first step in increasing supporter engagement in your auction is to get guests registered in the first place. Then comes the actual bidding. In both cases, it’s vital that guests have full functionality to your auction platform from their mobile device, allowing them to register, purchase tickets, make bids and donations, and check out from whichever device they choose.
  • Send real-time outbid notifications. You can’t always count on bidders to be glued to their mobile devices during your auction, anxiously waiting to see if they’ve been outbid. But by sending real-time notifications to participants’ mobile devices, you can recapture their attention and encourage them to up their bids to win the item.
  • Automatically resize content to fit smaller screens. Just because your web content loads on a mobile device does not mean it’s mobile-optimized. Instead, be sure your text, images, and interactive content automatically resizes to fit the often portrait-mode orientation of a smartphone, free from needless zooming and horizontal scrolling. Circumvent this issue entirely by using bidding software that’s built specifically for mobile use, whether on-site or remote.

Providing a mobile-friendly user experience is critical for maximizing engagement. Otherwise, you risk missing out on a significant portion of your supporter base simply because your hybrid experience was not accessible.

3. Ensure your event reflects your mission.

Beyond ease of use, the two next two significant engagement motivators uncovered in our Giving Experience Study were a connection to the mission and an understanding of the impact of each donation. In order to maximize these elements, be sure to continuously reiterate how your event and the revenue raised will go to support your nonprofit’s mission.

Consider the following best practices for building “mission moments” into your hybrid auction:

  • Choose a relevant event theme. Setting a theme is a great way to increase participation and reiterate the meaning behind the event. Plus, our studies found that 59% of donors reported event themes to be a highly engaging element of hybrid event experiences they’ve attended.
  • Tell constituent stories. One of the best ways for supporters to truly understand the importance of your mission is by hearing it from those who have directly benefited from it. With their permission, consider sharing real stories of constituents and how they were positively impacted. You can even bring constituents in to tell their story in their own words at your auction event!
  • Tie revenue to concrete impacts. Because donors like to know how their hard-earned money is being used, it’s a good idea to highlight giving tiers to better communicate impact. For example, consider sharing metrics like $X raised goes to support Y number of beneficiaries in a specific way.

It’s important to continually remind guests that they’re participating in your event to support your nonprofit and its vision for social good. It’s not just a fun night out or a way to win exclusive prizes—although those are certainly excellent benefits of a fundraising auction as well.

When attendees understand the impact that their contributions make on your mission, they’ll be more likely to support your organization by giving well above the fair market value for the items up for bid or by making donations outright.

4. Don’t forget about event promotion.

In order to ensure an effective event with high turnout, taking a strategic approach to event promotion is a must. We suggest a multichannel marketing strategy with the following key methods of communication:

  • Direct mail: Sending physical invitations via direct mail can grab supporters’ attention and increase excitement for your upcoming event. Because direct mail is one of the more costly promotional tactics, consider reserving this method for engaging with high-value donors and historic event attendees.
  • Email: Email is one of the easiest and lowest cost ways to get a message out to a wide range of supporters. To make sure your message stands out in recipients’ already crowded inboxes, however, be sure to choose an eye-catching subject line and address the reader by name.
  • Social media: Your organization’s social media presence can go a long way for promoting your event and boosting attendee engagement beforehand. Be sure to share information on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and encourage supporters to interact with and share your posts as well!
  • Web presence: Your nonprofit website is likely the hub for all sorts of information about your upcoming auction, including how to learn more or register for the event. Use this invaluable resource well by directing traffic to a dedicated event web page or virtual event center from your other marketing channels.

It’s important that you don’t leave event marketing as an afterthought! Get started early on in the planning process to ensure your supporters are aware of the upcoming opportunity as well as understand what a hybrid auction is, how to get involved, and all that it entails.

You’ll also want to determine how you’ll handle the two audiences of virtual and in-person attendees. Will you promote one experience to certain types of donors more heavily? How will you explain the virtual bidding process so that even the least tech-savvy supporter can join in? Answering these questions beforehand can go a long way to ensuring a seamless and well-thought-out experience for each group.

5. Target two distinct event audiences.

Planning a hybrid event involves juggling a number of moving pieces. Specifically, you’ll need to incorporate two dual experiences, targeting two different audiences, within a single coherent event.

To do so, it’s important that you take the time to plan for each experience based on what that particular audience is interested in. For example, donors have reported that certain elements are much more engaging during virtual events than others. These components tend to cater well to virtual and remote audiences:

  • Mobile-optimized event platforms
  • Picture-in-picture technology
  • Live-streamed content
  • Real-time chat breakout rooms
  • One-click donations

On the other hand, these elements were favorites for engaging face-to-face audiences:

  • Event themes
  • Chatting with other guests
  • In-person speakers
  • Live entertainment

Other elements like raffles, auction bidding, matching gifts, and online promotion beforehand will be experienced by both remote and in-person event audiences. Regardless of the components you incorporate into your plans, be sure to consider the way your various groups of supporters will interact with each. And remember—no one audience is more important than the other!

6. Collect and leverage your auction data.

Tracking your event performance through fundraising data is an impactful way to learn about what works well along with what leaves room for improvement. If you’re looking for key performance indicators (or KPIs) to track for a hybrid auction, consider the following data points:

  • Percentage of attendees who engage in-person vs. online
  • Average bid size
  • Additional donations beyond ticket sales and bids
  • Number of bids on each item
  • Average time attendees spent participating
  • Event ROI (return on investment)

To make the most out of your event data, be sure to determine which KPIs to track early on in the planning process and keep up with your progress throughout. Then, take a look at your results by analyzing auction data and seeing what you can do better the next time you plan an event.

To get started planning a hybrid auction, it’s important that you do your research and equip your team with the tools they need beforehand. Then, you’ll be ready to get into the details and launch an engaging experience for all attendees, both in-person and remote.

When you offer a hybrid event like a silent auction, you can increase engagement and deepen relationships with donors, laying the groundwork for continuous support, larger gifts, and even more successful and accessible events in the future. Happy fundraising!

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