How To Run A Silent Auction

Auctions that are set up for guests to register bids without the involvement of an auctioneer, are commonly referred to as Silent Auctions. They are a great way to raise additional funds at fundraising events and although they can take a bit of planning, silent auctions require little attention during the event. However, the profitability of your silent auction can be bolstered by following the concepts outlined in this article. In reality, you need to give them some noise!

How does a silent auction work?

Auction items are displayed for guests to peruse and make bids on. Rather than publicly bidding in a live event, their bid is registered in writing on a bidding sheet that accompanies each item. The sheet will also ask for the bidders name and a contact phone number. Each successive bid must be higher than the preceding bid and the winner is the person with the highest bid at the conclusion of the auction. Sites such as eBay are commercial examples of how silent auctions work.

Auction items

Auction items will vary depending on the type of event being held. For instance, a corporate fundraising event may have high valued memorabilia or unique experience based items, whereas a school fundraiser will be more likely to contain smaller valued items that appeal to a broader range of guests.

Larger fundraisers and corporate events will often organise auction items on consignment from companies that specialise in this. These items are generally pieces of memorabilia that are well presented and have certificates of authenticity. Items on consignment are provided without cost and can be returned if they are unsold. A minimum price, often referred to as the reserve price, is set on each item and this must be achieved for the item to be sold. The minimum price is normally equivalent to the cost of the item (which gets paid to the supplier) plus 10% (which goes to the fundraiser). Any funds raised above the reserve price are also retained be the fundraising organisation.

Donated gifts are often sourced as silent auction items and generally include products or services. Although they may have a lower value than memorabilia items, they can be just as lucrative because 100% of the funds are retained by the fundraiser. Asking for donations can be a challenge for most people, but it is an essential skill to have as a fundraising organiser.

These two articles will assist when seeking donated items:


There are many bidding types that can be implemented at a silent auction. Research tells us they each have different impacts on bidding behaviour and understanding this will help you decide which one to use.

Starting Bid

It is advisable to specify the minimum amount you are prepared to accept for an auction item. This is often referred to as the ‘reserve price’ and at least one bid of that amount or higher needs to be reached before the item is sold.

For donated items, it is recommenced that the starting bid is set at 30% – 50% of the item’s value. A lower starting bid is designed to foster competition and take bidding above the value of the item.

Items purchased on consignment are a different story. To ensure you raise enough funds to cover the cost of item and raise some funds for your cause, the starting bid should be set at 110% of the cost of the item to your organisation.

Purchase now price

Specify a ‘Purchase now price’ on the bidding sheet to allow guests to secure the purchase of the item at any time throughout the auction. Set the price between 150% and 200% of the item value. This will have a positive outcome on your fundraising result as contested bidding is unlikely to reach the same levels as the ‘purchase now price’ on most items.

Bidding on unique, rare or hard to value items can often exceed 150% to 200% of their value, so it is best not to include a Purchase now price for these items.

Minimum, maximum and incremental bidding

Specifying a minimum bid amount will ensure each successive bid is increased by a minimum amount or higher. This will encourage accelerated bidding by allowing higher bid amounts.

Setting a Maximum bid amount can be implemented to slow the potential increase in bidding. This is used to encourage greater participation and prevents bidders from placing extra high bids and stifling competition. The practice of placing high bids is referred to as ‘Jumping’ and is employed by some bidders as a show of strength to intimidate other bidders.

Incremental bidding refers to setting a fixed increase in the amount of each bid. This option is often accompanied by a bidding sheet that has been pre-filled with bid amounts. As a guide, set the bid increments at 10% of the item value.

Top Tip: Encourage ‘jumping’ or ‘jump bidding’ at your next silent auction. Jumping is the behaviour of making a bid that is significantly higher than the minimum increment. Research titled Jumping and sniping at the silents: Does it matter for charities? concludes jumping is a highly desirable behaviour and leads to a stronger fundraising result. It is important to understand that although the ‘maximum’ and ‘incremental’ bidding options have their own benefits, they do prevent jumping.

Bidding Sheets

To help ensure the success of your silent auction, be sure to include these elements on your bidding sheet:

  • Item numbers – Number each auction item to differentiate them from each other
  • Item description – Ample space to write a detailed description of the item. A creative and well written description can lead to increased bidding. It should outline the features and benefits of the item
  • Item value – Ensure genuine values are listed. This is easy to establish for retail items and gift certificates. For unique items or experiences, establish the value with the help of the donor of the item
  • Space to write bids – Names, contact details & bid amounts need to be collected. It may need to cater for collecting bid numbers instead of names and phone numbers
  • Bidding instructions – It should have provision to include details of starting bid amount, purchase now price, minimum, maximum or incremental bid amounts if required

Top Tip: It is important to acknowledge businesses who donate items for your auction. Bidding sheets are a great place to do so and should contain space to upload the logo and name of each donor.

Download your free Silent Auction Bidding Sheet which can be customised to run an auction the way you choose.

At your event

Display auction items

Your silent auction will benefit greatly if items are presented in a high quality display that encourages bidders to spend time perusing items.

The main aspects to consider are:

  • Choose a prominent position at your venue with good lighting
  • Ensure there is plenty of space so guests can easily walk around to inspect and bid on items
  • Aim to display items like they are in a gift shop. Use table coverings, easels, lighting, stands and other decorative features to enhance your display area. The more desirable the items are to your guests, the more likely they are to bid. Keep the area clean and tidy
  • Ensure bidding sheets and working pens accompany each item. Invest in clip boards to keep sheets neat and tidy. Replace filled sheets with new ones.
Promote items

If you are conducting a seated event, make up an items list for display on each table. Guests may see items on the list that interest them and lead them to visit the auction display area to bid. Display lists in a perspex holder so they stand upright on the table.

Top tip: If you really want to cast a spotlight on your silent action, prepare a slide show to project at your event. Showcase items to your guests and take the opportunity to further recognise donors.

Make regular announcements


Use the PA system at your venue to promote your silent auction and encourage excitement and participation. If you have a ‘Master of Ceremonies’ ensure they are familiar with all items so that they can confidently promote them throughout your event.

Types of announcements:

  • Encourage guests to visit the display area
  • Promote specific auction items throughout the event
  • Thank businesses who have donated auction items
  • Provide bidding updates on popular items or items with bidding amounts below their value
  • Advise guests when bidding is about to close on specific items
Item closing times

Research titled Jumping and sniping at the silents: Does it matter for charities? has concluded silent auctions are more profitable when closing times are not specified to guests. Hard closing times can promote the undesirable behaviour of ‘sniping’ which is the act of waiting until the final moments of the auction before placing a bid. This leads to a reduction in competitive bidding and impacts profitability. Ensure guests receive fair warning before items do close if the time has not been specified.

Staggering closing times on auction items is also good practice. This allows unsuccessful bidders to then focus their attention on the next item (especially if there are a number of similar items). This will also space out the payment process, making it easier and more efficient.

Recruit a dedicated volunteer

Organise a volunteer to oversee your silent auction. Select someone with retail sales experience as they will typically be better at setting up displays and driving sales activity.

Some key activities a dedicated volunteer might consider doing to enhance the result are:

  • Register each bidder and provide them with their own unique bidding number. Guests are more likely to bid when they don’t know who they are competing against
  • Walk around the event with auction items and encourage bidding.
  • Get to know each bidder and let them know when they have been outbid on an item.

They can also process payments and provide successful bidders with their item. Ensure you have the ability to accept card payments.

Following your event

Thank everyone who donated auction items and let them know how much their item raised. Provide them with a framed certificate of appreciation

Post on your social media accounts to thank everyone who attended and sponsored your event. Let them know how much was raised and how it is intended to be used. Photos taken at the event provide great social media content.

We hope this article helps you elevate your next silent auction and results in a great fundraising result for your cause. If you are interested in other types of fundraising auctions and what the research says about their effectiveness, check out our article Which auction method works best?

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