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Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive shift in day-to-day operations for nonprofits. Organizations across the globe were forced to make the decision to indefinitely postpone their events or cancel them altogether, leaving them without sufficient funding. Luckily, there’s another option: switch to virtual fundraising

With today’s technology, fundraising coordinators are managing the shift to online fundraising easier than ever before. One of the most interactive virtual events that nonprofits are turning to is an online auction! Online auctions are an effective way to build traction around your work. They allow donors to engage with one another and your staff while supporting your cause at a safe social distance. Best of all, going online means you can widen your audience and reach new supporters with just a few clicks.

Whether you’re brand new to the online auction space or are a seasoned professional, you’ll want to brush up on some best practices before planning your next fundraiser. Let’s take a look at three recommended best practices for creating a profitable and memorable auction.


guide to virtual online auctions - two young women winning auction


Tip #1: Keep an open line of communication.

Like with any fundraising event, effectively marketing your online auction is essential for sparking interest and driving event registrations. From announcing your auction to following up with fundraising totals post-auction, consistent communication with attendees is a must.

To effectively connect with supporters, keep these three marketing opportunities in mind moving forward:


  • Email. Email is a tried-and-true marketing platform, so don’t neglect it in your outreach. Leading up to your event, you’ll want to send email announcements to people who have not yet registered as well as updates to people who have already done so. This will work to drive more registrations and amp up the excitement. Post-auction, make sure to follow up with participants by sending custom thank-you emails that emphasize fundraising impact.
  • Live streaming. Live streaming offers several engagement opportunities. For example, you can add a live auction portion where your auctioneer presents items and attendees bid in real-time. Depending on the online auction software you choose, you may be able to live stream directly within your auction website or app. That way, bidders won’t have to leave your platform to access the stream elsewhere.
  • Social media. With nearly 3.5 billion social media users worldwide, you’d be remiss if you didn’t market your nonprofit’s auction on social media. Prior to your auction, draft up posts that highlight your upcoming event with high-ticket items that will be up for bidding to encourage people to register. For those who are unable to attend, a great option is to ask them to share your posts. In fact, research has found that tweets have a 12x higher chance of being retweeted if you directly ask followers to do so.


For the best results, you’ll want to center your outreach strategy around a handful of platforms, rather than only relying on a single channel. Otherwise, you risk losing out on a portion of potential registrants for your auction. 

While you’ll want to make use of more than one communication channel, avoid overdoing it. Instead, limit the number of platforms you use and stick to three or four. This will empower you to dedicate more time to producing high-quality messages that will drive registrations for your online auction, rather than several mediocre messages that won’t quite capture followers’ attention.

Also read: Silent Auction Fundraiser

Tip #2: Motivate your bidders with gamification.

We all want more participation in our fundraisers. After all, higher engagement directly correlates with more revenue, right? To take your online auction to the next level, sometimes all you need is some friendly competition! 

Historically, auctioneers would implement games such as “the 9th bidder on each bid sheet will be entered into a prize drawing.” The idea of integrating game-like elements into non-game contexts is called gamification. Not only does it make things more fun, but it can make your fundraising events much more engaging. 

In terms of auctions, gamification drives deeper bidder engagement and challenges attendees to continue participating until the very end. Today, you can engage bidders on a deeper level with interactive gamification tools. Here are three options that auction coordinators find particularly useful:


  1. Leaderboards: Showcase your highest-bidding attendees with leaderboards. This will reward their support while motivating others to increase their bids in order to claim the top spot.
  2. Fundraising thermometers: Display progress toward your fundraising goal with a thermometer that tallies up bids and donations. With a visible tracker, attendees are able to see the impact their bids and donations are making in real-time.
  3. Countdown timers: Keep bidders engaged until the very end of your online auction. A countdown timer creates a sense of urgency and is great for driving those last-minute bids and donations!


When used properly, these gamification tools will keep energy high. Remember, every nonprofit’s audience is different. As part of any smart digital strategy, learn what works for your audience and refine your approach as you go.

Also read: How Mobile Bidding Can BenefitYour Next Charity Auction

Tip #3: Invest in nonprofit online auction software.

Online auctions have several moving parts, from planning to registration to bidding. This can be overwhelming, especially for newcomers. That’s where online auction software comes in handy! 

Dedicated software can streamline the entire online auction process and alleviate your fundraising team’s stress.

Don’t just settle for the first auction software that comes your way, though. Instead, invest in tools that are designed specifically for nonprofit use. Nonprofit-specific auction software will provide a range of functionality that more generic software providers don’t offer. Let’s take a quick look at some of the benefits that come with these tools:


  • Make your auctions mobile-accessible. With a mobile bidding app, attendees don’t have to stay glued to their computers throughout the entire event. Instead, they can bid wherever they are, which allows supporters to continue supporting your cause from a distance so long as they have an internet connection. Remember, apps account for nearly 90% of people’s internet time on smartphones, which means bidders will be very receptive to this idea.
  • Automate the entire process. As a nonprofit professional, you understand the value of saving time and maximizing fundraising dollars. From planning to payment processing, online auction software will centralize all your efforts into one system, saving your team a considerable amount of time. With the right auction management platform, you’ll be able to set up your online auction in seconds, manage your guest list, securely process invoices, view insightful statistics, and message guests — all in one convenient location.
  • Locate areas of improvement based on accurate data. Analytics can provide a world of insight into your bidders’ behavior and your auction’s performance. Robust reporting tools will help you locate areas where your fundraising strategies are solid as well as opportunities for improvement. From here, you’ll be able to improve your nonprofit’s future online auctions, putting you on the fast track to success!


Selecting the right software to back your efforts is a major step toward a profitable online auction. If you need help kicking off your search, start with this nonprofit auction software guide from Handbid. To give you a solid starting point, this guide goes into detail about features that simplify auction processes across the board. 


Whichever route you choose, take the time to select the platform that suits your needs, and you’ll be well-equipped to manage your online auction without hassle.

Online auctions are a great way to sustain operations both during the pandemic and beyond. Start by selecting effective communication strategies backed by a strong tech stack, and you’ll be well on your way to hosting a profitable and highly-engaging online auction. Best of luck!


About the Author:

Josh Thurmond is the Director of Client Services at Handbid. He has over 15 years of nonprofit and government management experience including a Masters in Public Administration. Before he entered the not-for-profit sector, he worked as a professional chef. Be sure to ask him for a recipe!

Josh Square

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