Silent auctions are some of the most complex and rewarding fundraising1 events out there.

While that means that silent auctions are lucrative and engaging, it also means that planning one can be somewhat involved. If your organization chooses to host one of these events, your nonprofit will have many logistics to get in order.

Because there are so many moving parts to oversee, it’s all too easy for organizations to run into some problems when executing their silent auctions.

Luckily, these problems are completely avoidable (or, at the very least, correctable). All it takes is being aware of some of the issues you might encounter and knowing how to tackle them!

In this article, we’ll discuss 5 of the most common silent auction challenges and give you some actionable advice for solving each.

Here are the challenges we’ll look into:

  1. You don’t have enough room in the venue to display all of your items.
  2. You have more items up for auction than people participating.
  3. You’re featuring two or more identical items.
  4. Your guests are camping by the items they’re watching.
  5. People are trying to sneak in bids after your items have closed.

Now let’s get down to some silent auction problem-solving!

1. You don’t have room at the venue to display all of your items

Problem 1: You don't have enough room in the venue to display all of your items

The challenge:

It’s the day of the auction, and your team has gotten to the venue early to set up.

Your dedicated volunteers and staff members quickly get busy arranging your display. They set out the display tables, grace them with decorations, and begin placing your auction items2 on each table.

The only problem is: you’re nearing the end of the available table space and you still have a bunch of items to set out.

You and your team put your heads together to rethink your display. You try fitting more tables into the event space. You try rearranging your items so you can fit more on each table. You even try finding another spot in the event space where you could possibly set out more tables. But no luck.

As much as you try and try, you can’t figure it out. You’re still left with items that you can’t fit into your display, and you’re (rightly) worried that people won’t be motivated to bid on these items if they can’t view them in person.

The solution:

Before you resort to another solution, get creative. Are you absolutely sure that you can’t find another way to accommodate more items in your display?

If the answer is a definite no, don’t try to force it by cramming more items onto each table.

You should only display one row of items per table, if at all possible. Packing more items onto a table can make your display seem cluttered and obscure the visibility of some of your items, both of which can make them seem less valuable to your bidders.

Instead, try creating packages by grouping related smaller-ticket items into bigger groups. Oftentimes, you’ll receive higher bids on packages than you would when trying to auction off these items solo.

Additionally, if you’re using mobile bidding software, your organization will open up more display space, since you won’t have to put pens and bid sheets on each table.

If all else fails, you might have to double up rows on some of your tables. Just make sure to place items that are of lower value in the back row so that your big sellers are featured as prominently as possible!

The bottom line: If you run out of room to display your items, your organization should do everything in its power to keep your auction items to one row per table. Getting innovative, grouping your items into packages, and using mobile bidding can all help!

2. You have more items up for auction than people participating

Problem 2: You have more items up for auction than people participating

The challenge:

Your procurement team did a stellar job when they solicited all of the auction items for your event!

However, the job they did might have been a little too stellar. Now, the number of auction items you’re featuring greatly outweighs the number of bidders participating in your silent auction.

In other words, you’ve created a buyer’s market that drives little competition among your guests.

With so many items up for grabs, your guests are overwhelmed with choices and see no rush to bid. It’s guaranteed they’ll be walking home with at least one item, anyway, so what’s the hurry?

That means your organization isn’t getting nearly as many bids as you’d like to see, and the bids that you are getting are much lower than they should be.

The solution:

Your organization will want to turn that buyer’s market in your favor to make it a seller’s market.

The ideal ratio will be roughly two guests per every item that you’re auctioning off. If you haven’t naturally achieved that ratio, create it!

You can solve the problem of having too many items by taking some of the items you have out of the silent auction and featuring them in an online auction before or after your event.

To do so, you’ll need auction software, which takes all of the data3 you record about your items and uses it to populate an online event site. There, participants can browse items and place their bids.

If you don’t have these resources, you can still alleviate this problem by packaging your items. For example, 5 gift cards to local pizzerias could become “Best Pizza in Town”. 3 gift certificates to local boutiques could be repurposed into a “Total Makeover” package. Get creative!

The bottom line: When your items outnumber your bidders, it greatly reduces competition for those items. To raise the most funds, transform that buyer’s market into a seller’s market!

3. You’re featuring two or more identical items

Problem 3: You're featuring two or more identical items

The challenge:

During the procurement process, your organization received two of the same items, whether it was from the same donor or two different donors.

To avoid any confusion or hurt feelings, you do the noble thing and set out both of the identical items side by side in your display.

Your bidders are smart and catch on quickly. Those who want that item keep tabs on both, monitoring the bid activity to see which one currently has the lowest bid.

Those bidders naturally try to beat the system (because who wouldn’t?!) and only place bids on whichever of the identical items has seen less bid activity. Both items end up receiving fewer bids, and your organization ends up raising less money.

The solution:

Your solution will depend on whether or not you received the item from the same donor or two different donors.

If you received the item from the same donor, display one and keep the other behind the scenes.

Once the bidding has closed, approach the bidder who placed the second highest bid on that item. Tell them that you still have an identical item up for sale and would be willing to part with it if they’re willing to pay as much as the winning bidder. Since they want the item and have usually only lost by a small margin, the bidder will almost certainly say yes.

If, on the other hand, you received the item from two different donors, it’s best practice to display both.

You would never want one of your bidders to think that you didn’t receive their item, or worse, that you didn’t value their contribution enough to display it.

Just make sure that you don’t display the identical items near each other. While some bidders still might catch on to the fact that there are two, at the very least, this will make the competition less apparent.

The bottom line: The key to featuring two identical items is to obscure the competition between them as much as possible. If you received the items from the same donor, keep one under wraps. If you received them from different donors, display both apart from each other.

4. People are camping out by the items they’re watching

Problem 4: Your guests are camping by the items they're watching

The challenge:

Your organization is beyond excited for your silent auction. Not only will all of your hard work pay off, but you’ll also have the all-too-rare opportunity to interact with your donors in person and get to know them a little better!

However, your big dreams are thwarted when you see that some of your bidders are glued to your display tables, protectively watching the bids on the items they want.

And to make it worse, because they have to wait until the bids on the item have increased until they reach the highest amount your guests are willing to pay, your bidders have to delay placing their highest bids.

That means your organization is losing out on who knows how much revenue and a wealth of valuable stewardship opportunities.

The solution:

This problem can be fixed by tweaking the format of your silent auction.

Instead of going the historical route and using bid sheets to collect bids, your organization should consider implementing mobile bidding.4

Mobile bidding allows guests to bid and browse items from their smartphones. Guests will even receive notifications when they’ve been outbid on the items they’re watching, and they can set maximum bid amounts on certain items so that the software will bid for them.

Because they can watch and bid on items from anywhere in the venue, mobile bidding completely eliminates the need to camp by items to protect bids.

If your organization chooses to use bid sheets, you can still address this problem by filling out the bid amount fields on your bid sheets in advance.

Start by filling in the first column with the minimum bid amount, then raise it incrementally by the minimum raise to fill in each subsequent field.

This strategy will speed up bidding both by reducing the time that guests have to spend handwriting their bids and by allowing them to initially submit the highest amount they’re willing to pay.

The bottom line: To see higher bids and open up more time for mingling with your guests, reduce camping either by using mobile bidding software or by filling out bid sheets before opening the bidding.

5. People are trying to sneak in bids after your items have closed

Problem 5: People are trying to sneak in bids after your items have closed

The challenge:

Your silent auction is winding down, and it’s time to shut down the bidding on your items.

You and your volunteers5 are tired after a long day of setup and hosting, and you’re more than ready to start the check-out process.

In your desire to speed up the proceedings, you shut down all of your items at once. Among the frenzy of collecting bid sheets, some of your guests sneak in last-minute bids after the items have technically closed.

Now, you have a moral dilemma on your hands. You and your team can’t be completely sure who actually placed the winning bid, which can lead to hard feelings among those donors who played by the rules.

The solution:

If you’re using mobile bidding at your silent auction, you won’t have to worry about this one!

Mobile bidding software automatically shuts down items, determines winners, and processes their payments6, so there’s never a doubt about who won fair and square.

If, on the other hand, you’re using bid sheets to facilitate bidding, the solution will be a little trickier.

To prevent cheating with bid sheets, you should stagger item closing by shutting down the bidding on one of your categories of items every 5 to 10 minutes.

Make sure to have plenty of volunteers stationed by the correct category of items once it’s time to close it down. The minute your emcee announces that the category has closed, have your volunteers grab all of the pens and bid sheets from the table and circle the winning bid for each item.

Your organization will never be 100% sure who placed the final bid when you’re using bid sheets, but this way, you can come pretty close.

The bottom line: By implementing mobile bidding or staggering item closing when you’re using bid sheets, your organization can better prevent cheating and, consequently, any hard feelings among your attendees.

Has your organization run a silent auction in the past? What problems did you run into? How did you address them? Let me know in the comments!



Karrie Wozniak is an expert on mobile fundraising. She is Vice President of Sales & Marketing at BidPal, the leading mobile fundraising software company that helps nonprofits engage more donors and raise more money. Since 2008, BidPal has helped nearly 2,800 organizations raise more than $1 billion and connect with over one million unique donors.