Online Silent Auctions: The “Stay at Home” Alternative for Your Organization’s Summer Fundraiser

April 8, 2020

COVID-19 is creating a rainy day for many organizations’ summer fundraisers. Online silent auctions and other virtual events can act as an “umbrella” to keep you dry and continue to push your mission forward during these unprecedented times.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had several calls with clients who are concerned about continuing funding for their mission and programs in light of COVID-19. Adding to that, I’ve received countless email announcements postponing or cancelling popular summer fundraisers held by nonprofits. These events celebrate the organization’s progress, but also are a key resource for funding the organization during the third and fourth quarter of the calendar year. These cancellations are a sad necessity, but nonprofits need to look for opportunities in the midst of these challenges.

With careful planning and vision, you can create a special online event that incorporates the same spirit of celebration and generosity as your typical summer events. An online silent auction is a great virtual alternative to your organization’s golf outing, picnic, or other fundraisers that help to generate crucial revenue to support your programs and mission through the calendar year. Here are a few tips for holding a successful online silent auction, or any other virtual event:

  • Set the Bar High. Communicate clearly to your fundraising base what your organization’s goals are, and set the bar high. If you cast a compelling vision, your donors will take your special events as seriously as you do. Summer fundraisers can be responsible for 10%, 20%, or even more of your budgeted revenues. Think carefully, and boldly, about how a virtual event can take the place of your normal summer activities.
  • Seek out opportunities to connect people and your mission. Many summer fundraisers, like golf outings, “sell themselves.” People are excited to hit the links for a good cause, and don’t need much persuasion. Find ways to promote your programs to your donor base and educate them about your ongoing mission, the challenges you are facing in the midst of COVID-19, and your vision for the future. Also remember that summer fundraisers are great networking opportunities. Professionals have a chance to build new relationships, friends have a chance to reconnect, and donors can get to know the people and causes they are supporting. Consider how you can highlight corporate sponsors in ways that enhance their visibility.
  • Keep momentum going by treating the event like you would treat an in-person event. Give the event a specific date and time to help concentrate interest and excitement (don’t worry, most people’s “other plans” have been cancelled!). If you are holding an auction, consider timed windows for bidding on items, and by all means, promote items ahead of time!  Break up rounds of bidding with messages about the organization, your sponsors, and the people you are positively impacting through your programs
  • Keep it fun. Consider ways to build and enjoy community with your donors:
    1. Have attendees submit photos in their “finest threads” to replace the obligatory event photo booth
    2. Post fun recipes in lieu of a bartender and passed hors d’oeuvres
    3. Consider leveraging video messages, online message boards, and other technology to create a unique community in these unique times
    4. Broadcast a live, online address by your keynote speaker.
  • Don’t let it stop with the auction. Make sure your donors have opportunities to be generous besides bidding. The exciting part of an auction is that there are winners, but make sure that all participants have opportunities to give online to show their support of your organization. The reason they are attending the event is because they value the work you do in the community, and this is their opportunity to say thanks and make sure your mission continues to have an impact.

While it seems like many of our summer events are going to be facing rainy days, we can still look for silver linings in the clouds. By planning ahead with a bold vision, communicating with vendors, and finding ways to make events come alive, virtual fundraisers can help to sustain your organization in the midst of the challenges we are all facing. To learn more about strategies your nonprofit can use to carry your mission forward, contact Will Donahue at 301.231.6200 to discuss your organization and how Aronson can help.