[GUEST POST] Procuring Items for a Virtual Charity Auction: 6 Tips

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts have undoubtedly made fundraising more challenging than ever for many organizations. However, much of the nonprofit sector has been able to adapt to 2020’s head-spinning challenges and changing landscape. 

Between adjusting your organization’s messaging, updating (or perhaps entirely scrapping) your event plans, and adopting necessary new tools, it’s been a busy year. Hopefully, your nonprofit’s team has been able to meet the moment and reinforce ties with donors. 

But what about growing your base of support going forward? If you’ve already begun to incorporate new virtual events and strategies into your plans, you’re on the right track. 

Engaging virtual events are the most effective way to generate support and reach wide audiences amid today’s limitations. When planned well, they can strengthen your connections with donors, reiterate the importance of your work, broadcast your mission to much wider audiences, and raise much-needed funds in the process. 

As we head into the year-end fundraising season, having concrete plans for engaging your community virtually will be critical. Our recommendation? Host a virtual charity auction. 

Virtual auctions fit in well with broader events and campaigns, like peer-to-peer fundraising and annual (live-streamed) galas. Plus, they’re generally much less expensive to plan and host than traditional in-person auctions, making them more accessible for nonprofits of all sizes. 

We’ve shared tips before on how to raise more at your auction events, so we wanted to double down on one of the most important parts of planning an auction: procuring the perfect items. 

If a virtual auction sounds like the right fit for your nonprofit, be sure to review these procurement tips: 

    1. Get started with item procurement early.
    2. Review your virtual auction’s guidelines.
    3. Host a kickoff brainstorming session.
    4. Dig into your nonprofit’s data for targeted insights.
    5. Equip your procurement team with the right tools.
    6. Leverage your network of partners.

The range of items that you procure for your virtual auction will play a very direct role in your event’s success, so it pays to invest plenty of time and effort in the procurement process. These tips can help newcomers and longtime auction pros strengthen their approach to procurement.

1. Get started with item procurement early.

The item procurement process is one of the most important and logistically challenging parts of planning a virtual auction. This means getting started as early as possible will be your best bet.

At the start of your auction planning process, we recommend forming a dedicated procurement team or committee. It’s rarely a good idea for a single individual to handle procurement all on their own. A committee chair or team leader with several support staff members or volunteers will be able to more effectively share the work of brainstorming items, sourcing them, reaching out to potential item donors, and tracking progress. 

Ideally, give your team several months to procure virtual auction items. For a year-end virtual event or Giving Tuesday-related campaign culminating in a virtual auction, this means getting started with procurement in the summer months or early fall. 

If you’re planning a major virtual campaign and auction, you’ll likely be checking your fundraising technology and planning the event this early in advance, so don’t wait to begin the procurement process, as well.

2. Review your virtual auction’s guidelines.

Before brainstorming items to procure for your auction, take some time to review any guidelines for the event. These will provide you with the initial direction you need to start the procurement process on the right foot. Think of these guidelines:

  • Your virtual auction’s goals. Your revenue and engagement goals should guide the procurement process since the items themselves will be the primary drivers of both revenue and engagement. For instance, it’ll be very difficult to reach a specific revenue target if your items’ total values fall way below that target. 
  • The general scale and type of event. Is your virtual auction part of a larger annual gala or year-end fundraising campaign? Is it part of a more casual fundraising event like a virtual penny social? The tone and scale of your virtual auction should also determine the types of items that you offer bidders. For instance, attendees at a more low-key event might not be prepared to bid on many showstopping, high-priced items. 

Once you’ve reviewed these general guidelines for your auction, you’ll be better prepared to procure items that will support your goals and fit with attendees’ expectations. 

However, for any type of auction, we recommend structuring your full item catalog with one or two main attraction items (scaled to fit your event), supplemented with a variety of mid-range and lower-cost items. We’ll review how to specifically tailor your items to your audience in a section below.

3. Host a kickoff brainstorming session.

Once you’ve formed a procurement team and reviewed your auction’s essential guidelines, it’s time to get started. Host a kickoff brainstorming session to get your team’s creative juices flowing! Here are our tips for a productive procurement kickoff meeting:

  • Give your team resources to explore in advance. Your procurement team should come into the process with a few ideas ready to share. Ask everyone to research some top auction items and think about what your organization’s donors will find exciting. Resources like the OneCause guide to charity auction items are a great starting point. 
  • Think about your audience. During your kickoff session, it can be helpful for your team to simply describe who they see as your average event attendee. How old are they? Do they have children? How much can they afford to spend at your auction? How have they been impacted by recent events? Even before digging into your donor data, having a preliminary idea of who your items need to engage will be invaluable for guiding the procurement process.
  • Create an item wishlist. As your team discusses initial ideas and what they think will appeal to your donors, make sure to compile an auction item wishlist. Fill in sections for main attraction, mid-range, and lower-cost auction item ideas as you brainstorm. This wishlist can serve as your team’s guiding document, giving them a concrete sense of what types of items to look for and what items might not fit with your general strategy.

Hosting a kickoff session and laying out some preliminary guidance about your audience and item wishlist will get your procurement process off to a strong start. It’ll also be helpful for orienting your team if this is your organization’s very first fundraising auction.

4. Dig into your nonprofit’s data for targeted insights.

As you start procuring items for your virtual auction, your fundraising data will be the most valuable resource to leverage. You can dig into your data before your kickoff session to help shape your wishlist, shortly after kickoff as you refine your approach, or continuously to ensure your efforts are on track. The most important thing is to drive your strategy with data whenever possible.

Review your database or CRM platform for data on past events and your donors. Here are some key insights to look out for:

  • Event data. If you’ve hosted auctions in the past, your data on how they performed will be invaluable when procuring items for your next virtual auction. Look for insights like:
    • Overall results. Did your past auctions reach their revenue or engagement goals?
    • Top-performing items. Which items generated the most revenue and bids?
    • Worst-performing items. Did any items generate little revenue or few bids?
    • Past auction engagement. If you’ve hosted auctions before, how many donors attended? Do they all fall into a similar demographic or financial segment?
  • Donor data. Information about your donors will help you fine-tune your procurement strategy, ensuring your items will be appealing and realistic for your target attendees. Look for metrics like:
    • Donor demographics. How old is your average donor or event attendee? Do they have young children?
    • Average gift amounts. What’s the size of an average donation from your target attendees? How much can you reasonably expect them to bid in an auction?
    • Interests. Have you conducted donor surveys in the past? What draws donors to your mission? Try to determine some general interests of your target audience to offer items that will be more appealing to them.

Event and donor data will strengthen the procurement process for any type of virtual auction. The main idea is to tailor your strategy toward what you know has worked in the past and what will be most likely to engage your target donors. 

Plus, data-driven insights help to keep your efforts focused. For instance, if you’re planning an auction for a school, information on average donation sizes, children’s ages, and families’ interests will make it easier to guide your procurement process and prevent your team from wasting time procuring items that ultimately won’t generate much revenue. Families with young children and families with teenagers will likely be interested in very different items and packages, so use your data to guide procurement from the start.

5. Equip your procurement team with the right tools.

During the procurement process, you’ll need to make sure your team has the right tools for the job. This is especially important if this is your nonprofit’s first virtual auction. We recommend these tips:

  • Schedule regular check-in meetings. After your initial kickoff session, schedule weekly or bi-weekly check-in meetings with the entire procurement team. Use these meetings to review progress, share ideas for sourcing items, and update your strategy. There are so many tactics you can use to improve your online fundraising strategies, but remember that working with a team requires an organized approach with plenty of communication.
  • Create a centralized way to track items. Without a centralized place to manage items and track your progress, procurement can quickly become chaotic. You’ll likely be using dedicated online auction software to manage the auction itself. Make sure your platform offers a way to track items and create an online catalog, and use these resources during the procurement process. If you’re a smaller organization taking a more DIY-approach, a centralized spreadsheet accessible to the whole team can work as well.
  • Give your team item request templates. Reaching out to potential item donors can be difficult for new auction planners, so simplify the process with email and letter templates. Check out this OneCause auction donation request letter for an example to share with your procurement team.

As with any type of fundraising campaign or project, a team that’s prepared, organized, and well-equipped will always drive stronger results. Prepare these types of resources and tools in advance of kickoff and make sure your team actively uses them.

6. Leverage your network of partners.

Finding potential donors for the auction items on your wishlist can definitely be a challenge. Identifying donors and reaching out to request items is the lengthiest part of the procurement process, so simplify the process whenever possible by relying on your organization’s existing network of supporters in the community. 

Partners who can support your virtual auction with donated items might include:

  • Major event sponsors. For large nonprofit events, corporate sponsorships are invaluable for covering costs and raising visibility. Even in a virtual environment, sponsors are eager to associate their brands with nonprofit missions. Can your event’s sponsors provide any items, packages, or experiences for your auction?
  • Smaller local businesses. Smaller businesses in your community are also helpful partners for nonprofit auctions. Reach out to relevant businesses with sponsorship requests, asking for donated items in exchange for recognition during your event and in your online item catalog.
  • Other organizations. Other nonprofits and community groups in your area would likely be eager to get involved as well. For example, a community pool or public library might be interested in offering a pool party package or private children’s book reading in exchange for promotion during your auction.
  • Well-connected supporters or major donors. Any significant supporters in your nonprofit’s donor database could be helpful partners when procuring items for an auction. Business connections or outright donations to help you purchase a specific item for the event can make a big difference as the auction approaches.

Even though procuring items for an auction can be challenging, utilizing your organization’s existing ties to businesses, organizations, and individuals in the community can greatly simplify the process. Start your item outreach with partners like these and work your way out as your team begins filling up your auction’s item catalog.

Virtual events have quickly become the new norm for many organizations, and virtual auctions are a great way to expand your virtual engagement offerings. In many ways, they’re easier and less expensive to plan than traditional auctions, but they still require plenty of strategy, especially when it comes to procurement.

The items in a virtual auction will do the heavy lifting in terms of driving revenue and engagement, so it pays to take a strategic approach to procurement. With these tips, you and your team will be off to a strong start. Best of luck! 

By Kelly Velasquez-Hague, Director of Content Marketing, OneCause

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.


Leave a Reply