Virtual Fundraising: Tips for Moving In-Person Auctions Online

With the entire world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout, the vital services and resources that nonprofits provide are in historically high demand. To meet this surge and move their mission forward, nonprofits must decide -and decide quickly- the best way to continue their fundraising efforts in a contactless way.  

As nonprofits navigate a new fundraising landscape that has completely changed in just a few short months, one tactic that is gaining momentum is hosting an online auction.  

To maximize efforts and drive greater donations, below are some critical steps to keep in mind before jumping on this emerging trend in online fundraising.  

Get your auction list in check:  

Although it sounds like a simple task, creating and refining an auction list is easier said than done. As resources may be limited, it’s best to target items that won’t take a lot of phone calls or research to request. If possible, focus on items that are easily transported to the winners (i.e. electronically or via regular mail). Additionally, with many businesses and services temporarily closed due to COVID-19, make sure to check on any restrictions on the donated item. For instance, if a local Italian restaurant donated a gift card but it’s only open for delivery, disclose this in the item restrictions field.  

When finding new items, keep in mind that most businesses donate to auctions in order to convert new customers. Therefore, find out which businesses have the capacity to contribute and present the auction as an opportunity to support a great cause and reach a new customer base. This will be an easier selling point for a business that ties into your mission. For example, if you work at an animal shelter, ask local pet stores or boutiques for grooming gift certificates, dog and cat toys or pet sitting services. By teaming up with a like-minded business, you create an ally to promote your mission to customers that fall squarely in your target demographic.  

Select a site to host your auction:  

Selecting a reputable online fundraising platform that enables you to connect with your donors in a meaningful way is critical. Do your research to find a site that reaches a large bidding community and streamlines promotion efforts by choosing a platform with email and communication tools. Also, for any initiative that requires individuals to disclose sensitive information like credit card numbers, opt for a site that makes data privacy a top priority.   

Polish your communication plan:  

Once you’ve selected your donor destination site of choice, create a foolproof communication plan to reach your desired audience. As mentioned, if you choose a site that has email capabilities, it’s easier to create targeted campaigns to attract new supporters and reengage previous donors. 

While it’s important to target your usual guest list, do not forget to contact participants from all past fundraising events and campaigns. For previous supporters, thank them for their continued commitment and illustrate how the online auction differs from past events. To personalize outreach, auction organizers should consider calling donors that are historically very loyal or generous.  

Don’t forget to tie in your organization’s mission with the event. Include photos and examples of the impact supporters’ donations will have. If you have a recent major accomplishment- like a breakthrough in research or reaching a fundraising milestone- be sure to mention that too.  

Urge your contacts to register as bidders for the auction but understand that this is not the only call to action you should include. It’s also vital to encourage registrants to share the auction with friends and family or post on their personal social media profiles. Once you have some registered bidders, be sure to send them emails about new items you’ve listed or highlight items with no bids (or ones with the most bids!). 

Don’t be shy in your outreach efforts. While it’s certainly a sensitive time to ask for donations, a lot of people still want to support your event and cause.  

Say thank you and stay engaged: 

Before the auction even closes, continue to engage supporters. Say “thank you” early and as often as possible. To foster long standing relationships, send acknowledgement letters to all individuals and businesses that donate items as you receive them.  

As soon as the auction closes, send each winner a tax receipt that includes a description of the item purchased, its fair market value and the amount of purchase. Some auction hosting sites will automatically send these out, but you can always follow up with a personalized thank you note and a receipt as needed.  

Don’t stop there, once the auction closes, keep checking in with your supporters and members. When applicable, share relevant resources with your community. If you’re calling your supporters, for their records, always send a follow up email after with a note highlighting the auction’s success. 

 Additionally, always remember to keep the momentum. You do not always need a concrete reason to reach out but providing new resources or mission updates are great ways to keep your community engaged. 

Ready your virtual gavel!  

While accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual fundraising is here to stay due to its ability to drive greater donations, attract new supporters and reduce operational costs.  

By following the tips above and embracing this emerging trend in fundraising, nonprofits can quickly recoup some of the revenue that might otherwise be lost and show their supporters that they’re still here to help.    

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