Building a Complete Virtual Auction Toolkit: 5 Essentials

As we round out a whirlwind of a year and look ahead to the year-end giving season, it’s a good idea to take stock of the tools you’re working with.

With the shift to virtual fundraising and engagement over the past several months, technology is more important than ever before for the nonprofit sector. By now, it’s clear that the right tools to help you generate and use data in smarter ways will be key to ensuring resiliency for your nonprofit going forward.

At OneCause, we specialize in supporting nonprofit organizations through virtual fundraising, particularly charity auctions. These events are classic ways for nonprofits to raise funds and engage donors with a memorable experience, and they’re fairly easy to adapt to virtual settings. Virtual auctions have a few key benefits:

  • They’re often less expensive to plan and host than traditional, in-person auctions.
  • They allow you to reach much wider audiences and accept bids from anyone, anywhere.
  • They open up a ton of flexibility in terms of scale, timeframe, and additional virtual activities to engage donors.

The shift to virtual fundraising tactics and events has been a challenging new necessity. Organizations of all sizes have effectively met the moment with the right strategies, so if you haven’t yet explored your virtual event options, now is definitely the time.

More specifically, if you’re beginning to reevaluate your year-end plans and unsure of the right way to pivot, a virtual auction can be a smart choice. However, you will need the right tools to get the job done. We want to walk through the essentials of a virtual auction toolkit to help give your team an idea of what to expect from this type of event.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • Dedicated online auction software
  • Live-streaming tools
  • An underlying CRM or database
  • Digital marketing platforms
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising software


We’ll discuss why each of these tools is a useful addition to your tech stack as well as a few key features to look for in each. Let’s dive in.

1.  Dedicated Online Auction Software

Let’s start with the essentials. Online auction software should handle all of the core functions you’ll need for your virtual auction, including:

  • Creating an online item catalog and event microsite. The auction’s website and item catalog will be the event’s central location. Auction software that makes it easy to generate and customize your online catalog rather than building a new site will save time and resources right off the bat.
  • Facilitating bids online and via mobile devices. Being able to accept, process, and track bids in real time is essential for success with any auction. Online auction software automates the entire process, and mobile bidding tools can boost engagement by making it easy for bidders to join from anywhere.
  • Sending announcements and push notifications. Using auction software with push notification options can drive even more engagement. Blast bid opening announcements and bid closure countdowns to all your participants. Let individual bidders know when they’ve been outbid on their favorite items, or use notifications to draw more attention to items that need more bids.
  • Generating and reporting event data. Your virtual auction’s engagement data will be invaluable for analyzing performance and improving future events. The ability to automatically generate and report this data is a major benefit of using dedicated auction software. To completely streamline the process, look for a solution that can integrate with your organization’s CRM of choice.

Using comprehensive online auction software will yield better results than cobbling together a piecemeal solution. Requiring bidders to navigate between multiple platforms can risk confusing or frustrating them. Instead, offering a unified, intuitive bidding experience will generate more engagement (and ultimately revenue).

Your online auction software may come as part of a broader virtual fundraising suite that includes more of the tools listed in this guide. A more centralized approach not only improves the attendee experience, but it also drastically simplifies your team’s planning, management, and hosting tasks.

2.  Live-streaming Tools

Although a virtual auction can take place without any live interaction between your organization and bidders, we recommend incorporating one or more live-streamed segments or programs into your strategy.

Live-streaming gives your virtual event a more engaging, dynamic feel and opens up additional opportunities both to keep attendees interested and to ask for more support. Many virtual auctions occur as part of a larger virtual gala that incorporates live auction elements, direct donation appeals, multimedia presentations, and recognition ceremonies.

Even for a standalone virtual auction, hosting a live kickoff or grand finale event can be a good idea to create a more engaging experience for donors that they’ll remember regardless of whether they won items or not.

Whatever the context of your fundraising event, you’ll need livestreaming software to facilitate any live segments of your virtual auction.

Although there are plenty of free live-streaming options available online, using a comprehensive virtual fundraising platform that includes live-streaming features will deliver more value. Again, this is because a centralized experience will be more intuitive and enjoyable for bidders. Make it easy to tune into your livestream, browse your item catalog, place bids, learn about your mission, and make donations all in one virtual setting.

This virtual event center should serve as the anchor for your virtual auction, giving attendees a streamlined, fully branded experience rather than requiring them to jump between your fundraising activities and your livestreamed program.

3.  An Underlying CRM or Database

Your nonprofit is likely already using a CRM or donor database solution to store, sort, and analyze your transaction and engagement data. If you’re planning a virtual auction, make sure your CRM is part of the action! Your database will be useful before, during, and after your auction:

  • Before your virtual auction, use your CRM to help guide the planning process. For instance, create donor segments and study commonalities among your target audience to better target your item catalog to match their interests and price ranges. Generate contact lists and marketing segments for use in promoting your auction.
  • During your virtual auction, engagement records and transaction data should report directly to your CRM if it’s integrated with your online auction software. Without an integration, data reporting will need to be completed manually after the event ends, although intuitive auction software should still provide easy-to-generate reports to simplify this process.
  • After your virtual auction, study your engagement data and revenue totals. Post-event analysis yields many more insights and takes less time when your team is able to easily filter through data in your CRM. This data can also help guide the follow-up and stewardship processes, as you can quickly sort bidders by total contributions or other engagement metrics.

Amid all the disruptions of the past months and uncertainties ahead, using your data to open up new opportunities is a best practice that all nonprofits should stick to. After a virtual auction, you might look for the big spenders at your event and identify ways for them to grow their impact. Stock donations and corporate matching gifts (which have been upped by many companies in response to COVID-19) are great examples.

Post-event prospecting is an excellent habit to get into, and using a CRM integrated with your virtual fundraising tools is the best way to do without eating up your team’s time.

4.  Digital Marketing Platforms

Like your database, this is another virtual auction tool that you likely already have at your disposal. Your digital marketing platforms will be essential for promoting your virtual event, generating interest and excitement, and engaging bidders before and during the big day.

Although you can use any number of marketing outlets to promote your virtual auction, you’ll likely want to focus most of your attention on email and social media.

  • Send an announcement for your auction to your entire base of support. If you’ve already identified a smaller target audience, generate a contact list in your CRM and send more personalized invitations to those supporters. As you begin securing registrations, create an email drip stream to send to registrants to tease your auction items, remind them to pre-register their payment information, and explain how your auction software works. Study up with DNL OmniMedia’s email marketing guide if you could use a refresher on best practices for drip streams.
  • Social media. Share announcements and teasers leading up to your virtual auction, and encourage followers to share your posts, too. Be sure to link directly to your virtual auction’s website or registration form. If you’re incorporating live-streamed programs into your event, use social media to actively engage supporters during your auction. Live supporter shout-outs, photo contests, and Q&A sessions are all great ways to add another level of engagement to your event.

Email and social media are the most effective ways to reach large audiences when promoting your event, but definitely consider additional options, too. For a virtual auction occurring as part of a large-scale annual gala, for instance, investing in direct mail invitations and explainers is likely a smart move.

5.  Peer-to-Peer Fundraising Software

This last tool for your nonprofit’s virtual auction isn’t an essential, but it’s certainly recommended. Peer-to-peer fundraising makes a natural addition to any type of virtual fundraising event since it’s a tactic that’s already completely digital.

By empowering your supporters to fundraise and promote your virtual auction on your behalf, you can reach much wider audiences. Since online and mobile bidding opens up your event to participants anywhere, growing your reach is never a bad idea. Launch a peer-to-peer campaign a month or two before your virtual auction is set to begin, and encourage supporters to create their own donation pages to share with friends and family. Personal connections and social proof can be powerful motivators for new donors.

For a more strategic approach, try ambassador fundraising. This type of peer-to-peer campaign involves actively recruiting well-connected ambassadors from your base of support. Then, empower them with helpful resources, individual registration pages, and engaging promotional multimedia content.

Set specific donation and registration goals for your ambassadors, and periodically check in on their progress and offer support leading up to your virtual auction. This strategy is particularly effective for larger-scale events like virtual galas that include online auctions. Just be sure to publicly recognize and thank your ambassadors during the event!

When possible, avoid using a completely separate platform to conduct your campaign and manage fundraisers. Peer-to-peer fundraising is a fairly standard nonprofit tactic these days, so many virtual fundraising suites will include options for launching peer-to-peer campaigns and recruiting ambassadors.


Heading into the year-end giving season after a challenging several months, it’s more important than ever that you’re ready to meet increased energy head-on. Hosting a virtual auction is the perfect way to combine the online fundraising, virtual event, and donor engagement tactics that you’ve been refining since the initial disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building out a robust virtual auction toolkit will help to set up your event for success. Plus, it’ll be ready for any future virtual events you host, as well. With social distancing guidelines continuing to affect everyday life, fully virtual or hybrid-style nonprofit events will continue to be a part of your strategy for years to come.