4 Things to Keep in Mind When Hosting a Virtual Auction

Thinking of a virtual auction?

Over the past two-or-so years, your nonprofit has probably had its fair share of virtual fundraising events. You may have incorporated virtual peer-to-peer events, galas, or entertainment-based events like trivia nights, concerts, and comedy shows. These virtual events became a key fundraising strategy to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By now, you (hopefully) have the back-end operations of virtual fundraising events running like a pro. But, while it is important to make sure the event runs smoothly on the back-end—both for the sanity of your team and the event functions’ efficiency—the guest experience should be your number one priority. No one wants to give if they’re not having a good time!

A virtual auction is one type of nonprofit fundraising event that works particularly well online. But, your guests will only enjoy the event if you plan it with their enjoyment front and center from the start. 

With that in mind, this guide will discuss four things to keep in mind when hosting a virtual auction event. 

Cover all of your bases when planning for the event.

When planning your event, there are probably a ton of logistics and overall strategy-related questions you’re considering. How much do you need to raise? How will you market the event to have a massive turnout on the day-of? How will the event factor into your overall fundraising strategy for the year?

All are important questions and far from the only considerations you’ll be working through. In particular, we’d recommend incorporating the following three tasks into your planning process to make sure you’re accounting for the guest experience:

  • Prep staff and volunteers. When you host an in-person event, you’ll probably have a run-through with staff and volunteers before the event begins to make sure everyone knows where they need to be and when they need to be there. Don’t skimp on event training just because you’ve gone virtual! Make sure staff and volunteers know the general rundown of the event, how to navigate your event software, and how to answer any questions that might pop up.
  • Make sure you have the right tech on hand. With an auction, this means your nonprofit auction software. This software will host your event from start to finish, so it should have features such as mobile bidding, streamlined checkout, live video streaming, item promotion, and engagement tools like leaderboards and fundraising thermometers.
  • See what your peers are up to. Now, your nonprofit shouldn’t aim to follow each and every virtual fundraising event trend out there. However, considering your guests are probably attending their fair share of virtual events nowadays, it’s worthwhile to make sure you’re standing out from the crowd. When planning, check out what your peers are pulling off in their virtual events, whether that’s reading nonprofit influencers’ blogs, well-regarded publications, or attending educational webinars. It could give you a few engagement tactics to incorporate into your next event!

Planning the event is only half the battle. Next up is actively taking steps to make the event enjoyable from start to finish.

Make it easy to join and participate in the event.

Have you ever heard the saying “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression”? Well, it’s true! And for your event, it means that you need to impress guests from the very first second.

Begin with making it easy to join the event. The technology you choose will play a huge role in this. Ideally, guests should be able to follow a link that takes them directly to the event. Or, as Handbid’s guide to silent auction software mentions, you could choose a solution with a native mobile app for iPhones and Androids. Then, guests just download the app and search for your event. If the process is more complicated, write out clear, step-by-step instructions and send them to guests in advance.

After guests join the event, it needs to be easy for them to participate in the festivities—i.e. bid on items. This is where mobile bidding comes into play, empowering your guests to view pictures and descriptions of items and place bids. Ideally, guests should be able to receive push notifications or SMS messages that let them know when they’ve been outbid, so they don’t have to keep an eye on items of interest for the entire duration of the event.

Plan for engagement from start to finish.

Let’s be honest—it’s easy to “zone out” when you’re staring at a smartphone or computer screen. We all collectively spend so much time staring at screens that they’ve lost some of their charm!

Unfortunately, this works against your virtual event. Instead of being in a venue and chatting with other guests, event attendees are at home, alone, and may lose interest from time to time. That’s not an indictment of how interested guests are in your cause—it’s just a fact of the virtual realm!

So, it’s up to you to capture and recapture guests throughout the event. Consider sprinkling the following engagement strategies into your event:

  • Incorporate live entertainment. This could mean a band playing live music, a comedian showing off their best bits, or even an inspirational speaker giving a motivational speech.
  • Hire an auctioneer. Auctioneers are known for keeping the energy alive at auction events. Invite one to fast-talk through a few of your top-value items throughout the event.
  • Procure eye-catching items. Handbid’s guide to silent auction items lists 40+ ideas that are sure to grab guests’ attention, such as signed memorabilia, tickets to major sports events, and one-of-a-kind artwork.
  • Encourage a bit of healthy competition. Encourage guests to battle it out with their bids. With your auction software, show a leaderboard (i.e. who is winning which items) or even a list of the top event supporters so far.

Make sure to say “thank you” after the event is complete.

When the event is over, you might be tempted to kick up your boots and call it a day. Don’t relax just yet!

Make sure that you show both event guests and donors that you appreciate their participation and contributions toward your cause.

For those who donated items to your event, send a thank-you note their way. Express your gratitude for their unique donation (mention it by name) and provide a receipt that outlines what they donated to your event. While you shouldn’t (and can’t reliably) advise donors on whether their donation is tax deductible, this information will give them what they need to speak with their accountant about it.

You might be interested in whether donations are eligible for any corporate philanthropy programs through which employers make matching donations. Because these programs vary widely across different employers, it’s best to share information about these programs with your donors and encourage them to investigate whether their company offers one. This information can be included in your thank-you note!

For event guests, you should also send thank-you notes after the event wraps up. For guests who made particularly large contributions, you could also call them or send handwritten notes. 


We’re now multiple years into the widespread use of virtual events. At this point, your organization is a pro when it comes to planning and running smooth events. But have you perfected the virtual guest experience for your next auction?

With these four tips, you’ll plan and host an event that not only runs smoothly on the back-end, but is enjoyable for guests from start to finish. Good luck!


Jeff Porter headshot

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions.  Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event.  The goal was to improve the guest experience, reduce administration and increase revenue.  Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.