Guest Post from Joshua Meyer, Director of Marketing for OneCause

Virtual fundraising has quickly become part of the new normal for organizations of all sizes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines. Online engagement was already an important part of growing your audience and raising necessary support, but it’s now critical for success. Planning and hosting a virtual fundraising campaign or event can certainly seem like a daunting undertaking for those that are new to it. 

One of the most effective ways to get started with virtual fundraising is to stick with what you (and your donors) know. For instance, if you’ve hosted charity auctions in the past, you already know what goes into planning them, and your donors will likely be more receptive to the idea of engaging with a familiar event in a new way. 

Virtual auctions are extremely flexible events, easily adapted to any audience or mission. Plus, with no need to worry about venues and catering, they’re often much more cost-effective than traditional in-person auctions. While major auction events often require you to offer showstopping, one-of-a-kind items to motivate donors to join you for the night, virtual auctions are accessible from anywhere, on-the-go or on the couch.

However, virtual auctions aren’t without their unique challenges. There’s a ton of competition online for your donors’ attention, especially today. While it’s easy for your audience to get involved with a virtual auction, the digital setting and longer auction timeframe mean that you have to proactively engage them in order for your event to succeed. 

At OneCause, we’ve helped plenty of nonprofits successfully pivot their auctions to take place virtually, so we’ve seen firsthand what works to keep audiences engaged and what doesn’t. Let’s walk through a few key tips for ensuring your virtual auction is as engaging as possible:


  1. Offer intuitive mobile bidding options.
  2. Develop a complete digital strategy.
  3. Procure and price your items carefully.
  4. Recruit ambassadors for your auction.


Before diving headfirst into planning the specifics of your next (or first) virtual auction, these tips can guide you in the right direction. With a strong engagement strategy in place, you’ll set your event up for success and lay a solid foundation for more virtual events down the line. Let’s get started.


1. Offer intuitive mobile bidding options.

A virtual auction requires a dedicated event site and online item catalog so supporters can browse items and place bids online. To maximize engagement, though, you should meet your audience where they’re already spending most of their time online—their smartphones.

After all, the most surefire way to boost engagement with your virtual auction is to simply make it easier to get involved! Mobile bidding allows participants to browse your catalog, place bids, and track their favorite items from wherever they are. This is already a tried-and-true tactic for in-person live and silent auctions that will facilitate the bidding process, driving more bids and revenue for events of all sizes.

Mobile bidding tools offer several distinct benefits for virtual auctions, including:

  • Easier remote access and a faster bidding process for auction attendees
  • Item tracking, automatic outbid notifications, and digital scoreboards for driving competition for top items
  • Push notifications for your organization to share announcements
  • Built-in donation processing for additional fundraising appeals

Each of these benefits will drive increased engagement with your virtual auction. Your bidders are more likely to quickly check their smartphones for updates than to log onto a desktop or laptop computer each time they want to check up on their favorite items. Meeting them where they are and more proactively encouraging engagement with mobile-optimized features is a no-brainer.

Mobile bidding software typically comes with a broader set of auction planning and management tools, meaning a more seamless experience for your bidders and for your team. With a centralized set of auction software (plus any additional auction software to support your event), you’ll have access to a comprehensive picture of your auction’s performance.


2. Develop a complete digital strategy.

If you’ve hosted auctions in the past, you know that they can be fairly complex events to plan. 

Between item procurement and pricing, the bidding process, marketing, and physical logistics, there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. Check out our complete silent auction planning guide for a refresher on the essentials of these events.

Although physical venue logistics aren’t an issue, virtual auctions still require careful advance planning and strategy. Invest plenty of time upfront in developing a complete digital strategy for your virtual auction. A comprehensive strategic roadmap should take any relevant elements relating to the event and its virtual tactics into account, including:

  • Your event’s core goals and guidelines, like revenue targets and timeframes
  • How you’ll promote your virtual auction and register participants
  • Your item procurement, pricing, and management strategies
  • How participants will view your catalog, place bids, and track items
  • Any additional fundraising elements, like a pre-auction peer-to-peer campaign
  • Any additional engagement elements, like live-streamed programming
  • The technology you’ll need to handle each aspect of your auction

Taking the time to think through each part of your virtual auction will be invaluable once you begin planning. Developing a nonprofit digital strategy for your events or campaigns does require some extra work, but the risks of not doing so can be significant. This is particularly important when audience engagement is a top priority.

The main idea is that it will be more difficult to keep your bidders engaged throughout the entire duration of your virtual auction if you’re scrambling to handle core virtual event elements like registration, bidding logistics, and live-streaming. Taking the time to fully plan and understand how each aspect of your strategy fits together will make it much easier to anticipate problem areas and identify opportunities to boost engagement.

For example, live-streaming event speakers or other elements is an excellent way to give your virtual auction the engaging feeling of an in-person event. However, the technical requirements and flow of your live-stream program definitely need to be thought out in advance. This will give you time to conduct one or more test runs and develop an engaging program schedule


3. Procure and price your items carefully.

The items in your virtual auction are the main draw of the event. Your marketing strategy is certainly important for attracting bidders, but without an exciting range of auction items to base your promotions on, you might be fighting an uphill battle to secure plenty of registrants.

Specifically tailoring your offerings to your audience is the best way to ensure your item catalog is appealing and engaging for bidders. 

Take a look at your donor data to get started. Who are your typical auction attendees? How old are they? Do they have young children? What size donations do they make? What draws them to your mission? Questions like these can reveal valuable insights to help you build a more engaging item catalog for your unique virtual audience.

For instance, an organization with older, wealthier donors would definitely need to procure a different set of items than a local school targeting parents of young children. 

Rather than blindly procuring any items you can easily source or request from partners in your community, start by developing an item “wish list” with your procurement team. Review your donor data, brainstorm items that will interest your audience, and build your strategy around that list. A more targeted approach from the start will result in a more appealing catalog that engages bidders and reduces the risk that any auction items receive no bids at all.

Additionally, how you price your auction items plays a direct role in how much engagement (and ultimately, revenue) your virtual auction generates. Items priced too low won’t provide the return on investment you need, while items priced too high can turn away bidders, decreasing engagement and bids overall.

Whether you’re new to planning auctions or a longtime pro, following a standard approach for pricing your auction items is a best practice. Here are some general tips to keep in mind:


  • Determine the fair market price (FMV) for each item. For tangible items and packages, this means researching their known prices. For more intangible items, make an estimate based on your donor demographics, previous auction data, and conversations with auction professionals or peers in other nonprofits.


  • Set a starting bid for each item at around 30-50% of its FMV. The exact amount will depend on a number of factors, like the anticipated popularity of each item. Extremely unique or surefire items should be set towards the higher end of this range.


  • Set standard bid increments for your items, typically around 10% of their FMV. You might go higher depending on the particular item, but avoid setting it so high that bids quickly become large enough to deter new bidders from joining in. Mobile bidding software can help by only allowing bids that follow the increment you’ve set for each item.

For a complete breakdown of these best practices and more, explore the OneCause guide to pricing auction items

Even though technology and digital strategy play larger roles in virtual auctions than traditional events, never lose sight of the fact that your item catalog is the star of the show for bidders. Thoughtful procurement and pricing will go a long way to boost engagement and ensure success for your auction.


4. Recruit ambassadors for your auction.

The perfect range of auction items will go a long way to ensure engagement and interest in your event from existing supporters, but additional digital marketing tactics are extremely useful for growing your base of support by reaching new supporters and attendees.


Our favorite way to promote a virtual auction and boost pre-event engagement is to recruit volunteer ambassadors to help spread the word.


If you’ve worked with event volunteers and delegated specific event tasks to volunteer committees in the past, you know how useful this approach can be. Sharing the workload saves your team’s time and allows you to focus on other parts of your strategy, like procurement and logistics. 


Ambassadors are like supercharged volunteers, well-connected individuals in your community who can reach large numbers of new supporters online. By promoting your virtual auction to their own networks of friends and family, ambassadors can drive increased fundraising revenue, registrations, and engagement. Here’s how an ambassador campaign generally works:

  1. Recruit ambassadors to help promote your virtual auction. Look for your most loyal and well-connected supporters with extensive event engagement histories.
  2. Set specific goals for your ambassadors, typically a total number or amount of donations or registrations to secure.
  3. Empower your ambassadors with information about your auction and templates for social media posts and emails. Use virtual fundraising software that lets them set up individual fundraising pages and registration forms.
  4. Launch your ambassador campaign and periodically check in on their progress. Offer additional coaching and support as needed.
  5. During your virtual auction, recognize and reward your ambassadors for their contributions. If your event incorporates live-streamed programming, this is the perfect time to shout out your ambassadors and express your gratitude.

Peer-to-peer ambassador fundraising and promotion campaigns can be extremely effective for virtual events because they tap into social proof to drive more engagement. When a potential supporter sees that their friend passionately supports your organization’s efforts, they’re much more likely to get involved than if they simply encountered your auction’s marketing materials on their own.

Ambassador campaigns, combined with a perfect range of auction items and seamless mobile bidding tools, can take your next virtual auction to the next level. Tied together with a comprehensive digital strategy and event roadmap, you can reach wider audiences and encourage more engagement with your event.

An engaging event will always deliver more value over the long-run than a less-than-exciting one. Putting in the work to effectively plan, promote, and execute your virtual auction will pay off in higher engagement and ultimately stronger long-term relationships with supporters.


About the Author: Joshua Meyer

Joshua Meyer brings over 14 years of fundraising, volunteer management, and marketing experience to his current role as the Director of Marketing for OneCause. Currently, as a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Josh manages all of the firm’s marketing efforts. He has a passion for helping to create positive change and loves that his current role allows him to help nonprofits engage new donors and achieve their fundraising goals.