5 Strategies for Successful Online Charity Auctions

Shifting strategies on short notice is never easy, as organizations of all shapes and sizes are learning. As nonprofits adapt to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, its wider economic impacts, and even the new opportunities cropping up in relief legislation, it’s an undeniably challenging time to be steering your mission forward.

The first pain point that most nonprofits have experienced over recent weeks and months has been event cancellations or other major strategy adjustments.

Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders are a critical part of the fight against COVID-19, but if your nonprofit has historically relied on events to engage audiences, how do you adapt? For especially complex fundraising events like auctions, this can be a real challenge if your organization has never shifted its strategies to the virtual realm before.

Thankfully, the world of virtual nonprofit events has already been thoroughly explored, with plenty of effective technologies and strategies to learn from. Learning the basics of virtual events, backing up your tactics with the right software, and implementing ways to support your efforts over the long run isn’t only do-able, it’s practically necessary now.

At OneCause, we specialize in supporting nonprofit charity auctions both on- and offline. As nonprofits adapt their auction plans for mobile or virtual spaces, ensuring your strategies are still fully targeted to attract the right audience will be essential.

If your organization is considering hosting an online auction (or is making adjustments to a previously-planned auction), we’ve got you covered with these strategies. Let’s walk through the basics of adapting an auction to a virtual environment and then 5 tips for engaging your virtual audience.

Adapting Auctions to a Virtual Setting

Auctions, both live and silent, have always been high-impact events for nonprofits. Though they typically require a heavier investment of time and resources than other events, they can reliably deliver a significant ROI for your organization when planned and executed well.

Over the past several years, the auction space has already become increasingly digital just like other types of fundraising. Auction software designed to handle event management, item catalog creation, mobile bidding, and payment processing has already become the new norm for most organizations that regularly host these events.

Plus, with our increasing reliance on the internet and smartphones, auction software has itself shifted to provide full mobile and online support, as well. This means that leveraging existing tech resources and strategies has made it easier than ever to take an auction online.

The exact process you’ll need to follow will be fairly similar to planning a classic in-person silent auction, but with a handful of key changes and necessities. These include:

  • Using auction software that specifically supports mobile bidding and auction website creation.
  • Creating an online item catalog with your auction items, photos, descriptions, starting bids, and/or buy-it-now options.
  • Heavily promoting online pre-registration for your auction, including pre-registering payment methods.
  • Setting a timeframe for the online auction spanning several days (rather than a single one-time event).
  • Shipping items to their winning bidders in a timely manner.

In some ways, virtual charity auctions are even easier to plan and host than traditional in-person events. Removing the logistics of venues, catering, and entertainment frees up a lot of time for your team to focus on other tasks that will more directly determine the event’s ROI, like item procurement and digital marketing.

Effectively Targeting Your Virtual Audience: 5 Strategies

Although online auctions are generally more streamlined than live auctions, they do require you to target your audience much more deliberately. There’s a lot of competition for attention online, especially as so many organizations and businesses have also doubled down on their digital engagement strategies.

Let’s walk through a few ways to more effectively attract the attention your online auction needs to succeed:


1.   Review your historical data.

Monitoring your metrics is a best practice anytime, but it’s particularly important during periods of crisis fundraising. Your data can and should inform your strategy as you plan an online auction. Start by analyzing the data from your past auctions and online fundraising efforts. If you’ve hosted auctions in the past, ask questions like:

  • Which items received the most bids and/or generated the most revenue?
  • Which performed the weakest or received no bids?
  • What was the number of average bids per item?
  • How many active bidders compared to registered bidders?

Even if you haven’t hosted an auction in the past, you can still use your prior fundraising and donor data to inform your online auction strategy. Review your past performance for insights like:

  • Which marketing outlets generate the most engagement and/or donations?
  • What are your most and least successful revenue generating campaigns?
  • What’s your average donor retention from one campaign or event to the next?
  • What’s the average gift amount for your campaigns compared to events?

Using insights like these, you can much more effectively target your audience for your online auction. This will help you pinpoint and benchmark your current retention rates by fundraising stream, and average donation information. The answers to these questions are helpful in the transition from in-person to virtual events because they help you make decisions based on actual data and trends in your own base.


2.   Work with an integrated tech stack when possible.

This best practice underscores the value of working with a dedicated CRM or database platform to store and analyze data. Then, integrating the various pieces of software that you rely on with your CRM further boosts your ability to use the data in smart ways.

Working with an expert to custom-develop an integration or new strategy for your tech stack might be a smart move if you plan on hosting many virtual events going forward.


3.   Tailor your item catalog to your audience.

The item procurement process is one of the most important steps of any type of auction. After all, your supporters love your mission, but the items are the main draw of the event.

As mentioned above, use your data to help get an idea of which items will be the most appealing for your target audience. Be sure to zero in on the best performing items in order to ensure you generate maximum activity and ROI.

  • What have been your most popular items in the past?
  • What can your average donors afford to bid on?
  • Who are your target auction attendees?

For instance, if you’re a school that regularly receives mid-size donations from families, procure items that you know those parents will want and will be able to bid on without much hesitation.

To kickstart your brainstorming, explore the OneCause guide to auction items for a rundown of top categories and packages that reliably attract attention.

Note: Remember that COVID-19 and its impacts will likely affect your procurement strategy. Even if many of your donors would want and be able to bid on a vacation package, a trip abroad might not get much attention right now. (And if you do choose to offer travel packages, make sure the provider offers flexible rescheduling policies.)


4.   Invest plenty of time in marketing your auction.

Promoting your online auction will be essential because, as discussed above, competition for attention on the internet can be fierce. By specifically targeting your audience in ways that you know they’ll be more likely to engage with, you boost the chances that they’ll follow through to register and then bid during the event. Consider these strategies:

  • Identify the most effective channels for your audience. Focus your attention on the social media networks that are popular with your target donors. Look to your past email campaigns, identify winning strategies, and use those when blasting invites to guests.
  • Get started early. Begin promoting your online auction a month or so in advance, and encourage early engagement. Create engaging online content to tease your “main attraction” items, or offer an advance glimpse at your catalog for early registrants.
  • Conduct personal outreach. If you’re targeting one or more specific segments of your base, put in extra effort to get their attention. Write personal invite emails to big bidders at your past auctions, for example. If you’re prioritizing long-term retention, a personal touch can go a very long way.
  • Leverage social media promotion. Social media is a powerful tool for promoting your auction. Actively post content about your auction like sneak peaks of your items. Then, encourage plenty of clicks, comments, and shares by getting your followers involved, too. Broadcast your auction far and wide for maximum impact.

When marketing your online events, just be sure to include a clear call to action in each message you send. What do you want the reader to do after reading your post or email? Directing them towards your registration form or item catalog would be good examples.


5.   Recruit ambassadors to spread the word.

Peer-to-peer fundraising and marketing techniques have quickly become a staple of the nonprofit world. Our increased reliance on digital engagement amid the coronavirus pandemic will likely only amplify their popularity.

For your online auction, recruiting ambassadors to help promote the event can be a smart move. Ask a handful of your most dedicated supporters and community members to lend a hand with soliciting items from local businesses and promoting the event to their own contacts on social media.

Empower your ambassadors with the resources they’ll need to succeed:

  • Provide letter templates to help with item procurement.
  • Create email templates for soliciting donations and saying thank you to donors.
  • Give sample social media posts to help ambassadors quickly spread the word.
  • Help with corporate sponsorship letters. Fundraising Letters offers a library of easy templates just for these purposes.

Then, create challenges and special prizes for your top-performing ambassadors to add some extra motivation.

Ambassadors help you engage new networks in a virtual world, also adding fun and social proof to your online fundraising. Most of all, they help bolster a sense of community that your nonprofit can tap into during this time of fundraising disruption.

Plus, many supporters and volunteers who regularly engage with causes are now looking for new ways to get involved online, from home or anywhere. An ambassador challenge can be the perfect way to engage new supporters and boost your online auction’s success.

Despite being fairly complex events, charity auctions can be translated into a digital environment relatively painlessly! By leveraging technology designed for the purpose and planning your event carefully, you can definitely see continued (and increased) engagement from your community of supporters.

However, simply casting a wide net is rarely a great strategy when it comes to fostering online engagement. Instead, strategically target your audience and shape your event to catch their interest. Use your historical data to understand what works, procure the items you know will be appealing, and focus plenty of effort on marketing and promoting the event. Best of luck!