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Make Your Online Auction Stand Out: 4 Ideas and Insights



By: Joshua Meyer

With the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact creating unprecedented disruptions for the nonprofit sector, it’s definitely a challenging time for fundraising. Organizations of all sizes have needed to quickly adapt to the realities of social distancing and the cancellations of in-person events, for instance.

This particular challenge is twofold. Nonprofits not only need to shift their events and engagement strategies to the virtual sphere, but they also have to ensure their digital efforts stand out in a crowded online space. In many ways, going virtual makes it easier to continually refine your efforts — but only if your supporters keep engaging with your events and campaigns.

Your supporters already spend a great deal of time online. How can you make sure your virtual event catches their attention?

At OneCause, our favorite virtual fundraising events are online auctions. As digital versions of classic live and silent charity auctions, these events are cost-effective to host, engaging for guests, and can generate a strong return on your nonprofit’s investment. 

We’ve helped many organizations make the move to online auctions, so we’ve seen what works when it comes to making your event stand out. Here are 4 surefire strategies to make your online auction more engaging and effective:

  1. Refine your item procurement strategy.
  2. Incorporate live-streamed elements.
  3. Develop engaging add-ons. 
  4. Build effective community partnerships.

Online auctions can be extremely effective for exciting your supporters with a new virtual event. Incorporating additional engagement strategies into your plans can then take your auction to the next level. Let’s get started.

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  1. Refine your auction item procurement strategy.

The items and packages that you offer during your online auction do the real heavy lifting when it comes to engaging bidders and attracting attention. Having the right items for your particular audience will go a very long way to generate more sign-ups for your auction.

Invest plenty of time in developing and executing your procurement strategy. We recommend these best practices:

  • Form a procurement team. Don’t try to tackle item procurement all on your own. A team of staff members or volunteers will be more effective at brainstorming items and reaching out to potential donors.

  • Think about your audience. Who are your target bidders and how much will they be able to spend? Who is your average donor, and what are they interested in? Don’t lose sight of these essentials. For instance, a small school auction needs a very different range of items than a national-level nonprofit’s lavish annual gala.

  • Create an initial “wishlist”. Compile a list of the ideal items and packages you’d want to offer at your auction. Work with your team to compile and then trim down your wishlist to serve as a guiding document to keep your procurement efforts on track. Check out the OneCause list of top auction item ideas for help getting started.

  • Keep your item catalog focused. Offering too many items, especially too many of one price range, can backfire. Supporters who are overwhelmed with choices or priced out of participating are much less likely to place bids. Instead, foster more energy and competition by creating a seller’s market - more items than bidders. Anchor your catalog with one or two big-ticket items, and then supplement it with mid-range and lower priced items and packages. 

  • Review your donor data. If you’re unsure of where to begin with narrowing down your procurement wishlist, your existing donor data will be invaluable. Identify the segment(s) of your donor base that you’re targeting with your online auction. What’s their average donation amount? How old are they? Do they have children? These insights can help guide your procurement efforts in more surefire ways than simply making guesses or assumptions.

A top-notch catalog will also be your best marketing asset when promoting your online auction. Highlight your big-ticket items in your messages and announcements, and offer sneak peeks of other items to generate interest and early registrations.

Just remember, you need to back up your procurement with effective pricing, too. Setting proper starting bids and bid increments will be essential to guarantee a return on all your hard work. Whether this is your first online auction or you’ve hosted these events before, studying up on auction item pricing best practices is never a bad idea.

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  1. Incorporate live-streamed elements into your online auction.

An online auction consists of participants bidding on items and packages via a dedicated event website and online catalog. With mobile bidding tools, supporters can bid even more easily on their smartphones. Then, after a designated period of time, the auction ends, and the highest bids win each item.

However, there’s no reason why your own online auction has to follow such a barebones structure. Live-streaming is an excellent way to create a more engaging virtual event from beginning to end. 

Consider these ways you might incorporate streaming video into your online auction:

  • A kickoff stream to celebrate the launch of the auction, explain the rules, and highlight key items in your catalog.
  • Periodic videos during the course of the auction to make announcements, direct attention to particular items, and amp up the energy.
  • A finale live-stream to announce winners, thank all participants, and recognize volunteers who helped make the auction a success.
  • A larger virtual gala to wrap up the event, share inspirational videos, discuss your nonprofit’s next efforts, present awards to your volunteers, or make donation appeals.
  • A live auction portion of the larger online event, when mobile bidders can compete in real-time for your best items.

The visual, personable aspect of live video is important for reinforcing engagement and reminding supporters of the people who work hard to drive your mission forward. If your organization already has a long tradition of engaging face-to-face events, your supporters will likely be excited to join your live-streams and try the new format.

Plus, virtual, live-streamed events like galas and auctions are much more accessible for remote supporters who might otherwise be unable to join. Virtual events can be exciting new options and are easier for more donors to join - a win-win for boosting engagement and attendance!

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  1. Develop engaging add-ons for your online auction.

Adding unique opportunities and twists to your online auction before, during, and after the event is an effective way to stand out online.

Traditionally, merchandise is an easy way to offer supporters souvenirs of your events and generate additional revenue. While attendees of your online auction can’t purchase merchandise in-person, there are still plenty of options. Using an online t-shirt design and sales platform is one way to easily create and ship merchandise directly to supporters.

However, there are plenty of other opportunities to incentivize engagement and generate revenue besides merchandise. Consider these options for your auction:

  • Offer buy-it-now options for some of your auction items (set to 150-200% of their prices).
  • Sell fixed-price items in your auction catalog, like raffle tickets or virtual sign-up parties.
  • Create social media contests leading up to your event, pick winners, announce them during a live-stream, and reward them with add-ons like t-shirts or raffle tickets.
  • Offer discounted annual memberships or other perks to item winners.
  • Give registrants early bidding access or a sneak peek of your item catalog if they make a donation or recruit more attendees for your auction.

Not only can add-ons help to generate more interest and engagement with your auction, but they can raise extra revenue, as well. This means it’s definitely worth spending some time brainstorming add-ons while planning your auction. Extras and perks, even small ones, can effectively boost excitement for your auction, especially when you tap into the power of social media to reach wider audiences. 

  1. Build effective community partnerships.

Organizations of all sizes have long relied on their partnerships to strengthen their traditional, in-person events, but there’s no reason the same tactic can’t be applied to virtual events, too! 

Reaching out to partners in your community can be a game-changer for your nonprofit’s online auction. Effective partners can help you reach a much wider audience, boost engagement, and drive stronger results. Consider these potential partners that your nonprofit can recruit:

  • Large companies
  • Smaller, local businesses
  • Other organizations in the community
  • Community groups or foundations
  • Well-connected individuals

Then, think about exactly how each partner can help strengthen your auction. If you’re looking to boost interest and engagement leading up to your event, you might:

  • Ask volunteer ambassadors to promote your auction online and reward them for reaching registration or donation goals.
  • Solicit appealing auction items from businesses. Use this OneCause donation request template to kickstart your outreach.
  • Partner with another community organization to co-host the event, tapping into their network of supporters to boost attendance and bids.
  • Develop employee engagement promotions with corporate partners to incentivize their employees to get involved. This can create a ready-made audience for your auction.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, businesses are still (if not more) eager to make a positive impact on their communities and improve their public images. If possible, tap into corporate social responsibility and philanthropy to boost the visibility and results of your online auction. If you’ve worked with community partners in the past, reach back out and gauge their interest. If you’re building a partner network for the first, look first to local businesses with deep ties to the community.

Engaging supporters and raising money for your mission doesn’t have to slow down just because you’ve moved online. Virtual events like online auctions will become increasingly important and even necessary for nonprofits looking to stay active and relevant.

As flexible, cost-effective options, online auctions make great first virtual events for many nonprofits. Just be sure to build out your strategy with plenty of additional tactics and ideas to boost engagement. Reaching wider audiences, incentivizing more people to get involved, and offering the perfect range of items are all surefire ways to drive your auction to success. Best of luck!


Author: Joshua Meyer

Joshua Meyer brings over 14 years of fundraising, volunteer management, and marketing experience to his current role as the Director of Marketing for OneCause. Currently, as a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Josh manages all of the firm’s marketing efforts. He has a passion for helping to create positive change and loves that his current role allows him to help nonprofits engage new donors and achieve their fundraising goals.