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Nonprofit Education

How to Use Virtual Auctions for Boosting Nonprofit Engagement & Giving

 Virtual nonprofit event on Zoom with cup of coffee next to a laptop

When it comes to nonprofit operations, some things never change, even when everything changes. In the midst of a global health crisis, organizations still need to raise money to keep their doors open. In the best of times, fundraising requires constant planning and coordination. That work becomes even more difficult when your donors are not able to gather in person.  However, with persistence and creativity, organizations are finding new ways to keep their traditions alive.

Traditionally, one of the most popular fundraising options is a gala accompanied by a charity auction. The fun and excitement of a paddle raise combined with an open bar have long combined to make these events fan favorites and big moneymakers. Due to the events of 2020, many turned to hosting virtual fundraising events on an emergency basis when already scheduled events had to be cancelled or altered due to the shutdown. 

In the interest of making lemonade out of lemons, here are 7 steps to hosting a successful virtual fundraising gala.

Step 1: Get Everyone on the Same Page

Remember, you’ve done this before—sort of. That is to say if you’ve hosted a charity gala with a charity auction in the past you understand the basic ground rules. Transforming your event into a virtual fundraiser gala is a manageable step. But first, you must make sure you have every detail covered.

Set a date, set a fundraising goal, and make a detailed plan of how the event will be conducted. Yes, it may be difficult to recreate the fun and excitement of an in-person event, but, on the bright side, your logistical challenges and overhead costs just diminished exponentially.

This reality can be reflected in your goal. If you’re hosting virtual fundraising events, you can offset the lower amount of money you’re likely to receive in donations with lower operating expenses.

Step 2: Get Everything on the Page

Given that your entire operation is going to be conducted online, your first step should be to create an event webpage. There are many examples online of how to create an effective donation page for your nonprofit’s online auction. The crucial feature of your page is that people are able to donate before and after the event. The easier you make it for people to donate, the more people will donate.

Most importantly, post photos on the site of everything that’s up for sale. Because your event is an online auction, you can post images of as many items for auction as have been donated, but, in the interest of time, limit for the actual virtual fundraising gala itself. Twenty items is a good round number.

Step 3: Price your Opening Bids Strategically

A good rule of thumb is to price your items at about 30% of the retail price and expect to get 80 to 100% of the real value. Establish a minimum bid of $5. This means that you set a price that prospective bidders can pledge to win the item outright. These bids should be set 20% to 30% above the actual value of the item. For example, the parents of an aspiring ballerina may pay above asking price for lessons with the best studio in their town.

Step 4: Establish the Logistics of Prize Distribution 

Because your buyers will not be on the premises to pick up their prizes. If the winners live nearby, organizers can arrange a safe method for pick-up. If the items are to be shipped, you will want to indicate this fact on the site. People will understand that we are currently in a crisis atmosphere. They are participating in the event because they believe in the cause, so expect them not to balk at a small additional expense but make sure all the terms are clear up front.

Step 5: Promote the Event Thoroughly

The essential value of promotional activities go without saying, but just as a virtual fundraising gala has the advantage of costing less to stage, an online auction has the advantage of being promoted to people who are accustomed to doing everything, including donating to charities, online, and—with the younger donors you are targeting—on their phones. That means you will not have to spend money on banners, print invitations, table signs, and programs.

Hire a professional photographer to take photographs of your top items. Channel your inner Oscar Wilde when you write your over-the-top product descriptions. The objective is to set the theme and the mood for the live event through a cohesive and focused social media marketing campaign. Facebook is a good platform for invites and updates; Twitter is great for creating and maintaining energy; and Instagram is ideal for taking photos before, during, and after the event.

Step 6: On Event Night, It’s All about the Energy!

It should go without saying that maintaining energy is essential. Have everyone create their own paddle in advance. Encourage boldness and creativity and post photos of the paddles with the guests’ names so everyone knows who’s bidding on what.

Don’t change the dress code just because the event is on a video conferencing platform. Encourage everyone to dress their best—if only from the waist up. They’ll thank you. We’re all looking for a little glamour amidst all the gloom.

Step 7: Ask for Donations After the Event

 As you are announcing your returns for the evening, seize the opportunity to ask for donations in the moment or for an ongoing commitment. Close the event with prizes for the biggest donors. Then, leave them wanting more and donating more!