Procuring Online Auction Items: 5 Pro Tips and Insights

Charity auctions have always been reliable fundraisers for organizations of all shapes and sizes, from national-level nonprofit organizations down to local schools and community groups.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and its wide range of effects – especially the inability to host in-person events – nonprofits are being forced to adapt to a new world of virtual fundraising. That doesn’t mean charity auctions need to get left behind!

Online auctions provide flexibility and ease for organizations looking to fundraise online and engage supporters virtually.

At OneCause, we’ve compiled best practices from over a decade of fundraising events and tens of thousands of charity auctions. So if you are looking to pivot your event strategy from in-person to online, we’ve got five pro tips and insights for you. 

If you’re new to virtual fundraising, here are the key differences between a traditional event and an online auction: 

  • An online auction takes place virtually. There’s no venue, caterer, decor, or on-site expenses, making them cost-effective for nonprofits of all sizes.
  • For any auction, using dedicated software is a smart move. For online auctions specifically, it’s a necessity. Mobile bidding, online fundraising, online payment processing, and texting capabilities  are crucial to reach remote supporters.
  • Online auctions tend to take place over a span of time (often five days to two weeks), while a traditional live or silent auction is often capped at a few hours.

Although taking an auction online might seem like a big shift, don’t worry! The essentials of virtual fundraising are about reaching donors and engaging them in your fundraising. As a professional fundraiser, you’ve got that covered already. What’s the key to success for going online? Like most fundraising, the key to success lies in planning and finding ways to maximize bidding. So let’s get started!

Before you can start raising funds, you need to secure a wide variety of items for your auction. Item procurement is one of the most important parts of planning your virtual auction.

Here are five tips for procuring items for your organization’s next online auction:

  1. Form a procurement committee and start early.
  2. Create a wishlist to guide the process.
  3. Use your fundraising and donor data.
  4. Look to a variety of item and revenue sources.
  5. Keep your procurement efforts focused.

Shifting to virtual fundraising strategies is essential in today’s changing world. Online auctions are an easy way to venture into online fundraising and get your supporters into virtual fundraising, too.

Form a Committee and Start Early

Form a procurement committee and start early.

Item procurement is a major undertaking for auctions of any kind. After all, the items themselves are the main draw of the event. You’ll need to nail this step to make your online auction stand out from the crowd.

Rather than trying to handle all of the procurement on your own, form an item procurement committee early in the planning process.

The size of your team depends on the size of your auction. The more items you need for your online auction, the more people to help you solicit them. Our general rule of thumb is 1 solicitation person for every 20-25 items. Remember, if you bundle your items into packages, you’ll need to factor that into your item count.

If you already have a planning committee for your event, select  a leader from that group to take the lead on the procurement process. Recruit staff members or volunteers to help round out your solicitation team. Just make sure to provide a volunteer management infrastructure to ensure they have the direction needed to create an amazing auction. 

The great news is that a larger procurement team often gives you access to a wider network of contacts. For example, take Facebook. It isn’t just a great fundraising outlet, it’s also an effective way to source potential item donors for your auction!

Create a wishlist

Create a wishlist to guide the process.

Once you have a procurement team for your online auction, spend time brainstorming the kind of items that would appeal to your donors and participants. We recommend having a wishlist brainstorming party (or virtual Zoom meeting) early in the planning process to get everyone connected, get a plan in place, and have fun! 

To kickstart your brainstorming, review the OneCause guide to charity auction items for ideas on  top auction categories and unique items.

At this stage in the procurement process, be sure to focus on one or two “main attraction” items (whatever those might be for your audience). Then, gather a range of smaller standalone and packaged items to fill out your auction catalog. 

Creating a wishlist helps your team identify the main attraction items to secure and then lay out a plan for building an amazing auction catalog.

Use your Data

Use your fundraising and donor data.

Your organization’s data on past fundraising campaigns and events (especially auctions, if you’ve hosted one before) will be invaluable during the procurement process. 

Look back at your records from previous campaigns and events, and try to answer these questions:

  • Which items generated the most revenue? The most bids? The least revenue or no bids?
  • Which fundraising events have been the most successful for your organization in the past in terms of revenue, attendance, or another metric?
  • What’s the size of the average donation your nonprofit receives? What is your target audience able to afford on items without hesitation?
  • What’s your average donor retention from one event to the next? What about new donor acquisition? Which metric would you like to prioritize with your online auction?
  • What’s your average gift amount from events compared to fundraising campaigns?
  • What are the average demographics for your target audience – age, gender, parental status, etc.?

Past performance and data ensures you are targeting high net items and creating an online auction that will engage supporters, drive up bids, and maximize your virtual fundraising. Start with your historical data, glean actionable insights, and build your roadmap for virtual success.

This is why working with fundraising software for events and campaigns is so helpful. Software generates and records the data you’ll need for effective auction planning. Be sure to get familiar with the wide range of auction-specific solutions out there, to handle everything from auction planning to item management, online cataloging, and auction execution.

Look to a Variety of Sources

Look to a variety of item and revenue sources.

The items you procure will be the main revenue generators for your online auction. Don’t limit your efforts by only looking to one source for items. You can request donated items and packages from:

  • Large businesses
  • Smaller local businesses
  • Consignment services
  • Individuals in your community
  • Other organizations, like libraries or zoos

Using a consignment service can be an effective way to help secure “main attraction” items. Consignment partners help you get the larger, more one-of-a-kind items, which can free up your procurement team to target smaller businesses and organizations in your community. This approach can round out your online auction catalog with items of all sizes. 

Use the OneCause auction donation request template for help writing amazing procurement letters!

Your procurement and planning processes should also build additional revenue streams into your auction. Get creative with additional strategies for your online auction to raise money. For virtual events, revenue can come from:

  • Donated items for the auction
  • Sponsorships from large or small businesses in exchange for digital recognition in your auction, social media, and messaging
  • Buy-it-now add-ons at 150%-200% of item value
  • Fixed price items like scratch cards, raffle tickets, or sign-up parties

Diversifying both your item sources and your revenue generators is a smart way to ensure a higher return on the work you put into planning your online auction.

Keep your Efforts Focused

Keep your procurement efforts focused.

To get the most out of your online auction, it’s crucial to keep your item catalog focused. 

Too many online auction items can actually work against the success of your online event. Your auction should ideally create a seller’s market, meaning there are more bidders than items. This creates friendly competition and generates more bids, leading to more revenue for your organization.

This is especially important for online auctions since they take place over several days! Spread out over a longer timespan, a sense of competition will be essential to keep up the energy of your event.

Use your “main attraction” items as the anchors for your catalog, and offer additional standalone items and packages to ensure there’s an interesting choice for everyone. This model can be easily adapted for any auction or organization, from tickets to a local venue for a small community group all the way to luxury vacation packages for large charities.

Planning and hosting an auction is more do-able than ever for nonprofits of all sizes, largely thanks to the growing popularity of online auctions. 
Investing plenty of time and strategy in procuring the perfect items is the best way to ensure success for your event. If this is your very first fundraising auction, be sure to study up with these procurement tips and other pro online auction resources online. Best of luck, and enjoy your auction!

Kelly Velasquez-Hague

Author: Kelly Velasquez-Hague

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors raise more funds for their cause.

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