Live and silent auctions have long been popular fundraisers for PTOs. But in recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of auctions run online. These kinds of auctions have several advantages; you don’t need to rent a space or set up refreshments, for example. Online auctions also have their challenges. Here’s how to determine whether the online format will work for your group’s auction fundraiser.

Why Go Online?

Reduced event costs: Unlike for a live event, you won’t need to rent a physical space, pay for decorations, food, and drink, or print programs—all up-front costs that can quickly add up. (Some of what you save will go toward a hosting website; see “Choose an online auction platform” below.)

Convenience: Online auctions hold some appeal for parents trying to juggle work, school obligations, and extracurricular activities. You might increase participation in your online auction simply because people won’t have to rework their calendars to pencil in yet another commitment; they’ll appreciate that online bidding can happen anywhere, anytime.

Auction websites also provide a number of tools to enhance the experience for sellers. Many online auction providers allow users to create custom emails and receipts, and they provide ways to analyze bids and sales—all of which can be useful to your team in planning future fundraising auctions. Plus, they can increase your revenue by allowing individuals to make straight donations both during bidding and after it closes.

Larger audience and auction catalog: When you hold your auction online, you still advertise and promote locally but you become accessible globally. Parents can share the online auction link with colleagues, family, and friends near and far, expanding the number of people who feel a personal connection to your school (and therefore more motivation to bid in support of your school). And while participation in a live auction might be limited by the size of your venue, that problem that doesn’t exist with online auctions.

The size and scope of the items you’re able to offer grows just as your potential audience does. Most auction websites offer items you can list in your auction on consignment, such as trips to exotic destinations, sports and entertainment packages, and priceless memorabilia. Adding these items is a no-cost, no-risk way to diversify your auction catalog and potentially attract more bidders.

148 silent auction ideas for items to sell (plus 7 to skip)

Points To Consider First

There are a few potential drawbacks to think about before planning an online-only auction.

Less socializing: Although in-person live and silent auctions are a lot of work, the result is a fun family event and a chance to build community. That’s hard to duplicate when people place bids by themselves from home.

Lower profits: Some argue that live auctions can result in higher bids than online auctions. This is in part because a live event creates an atmosphere of friendly competition and excitement that serves to drive up bids. Plus, participants in a live auction can actually see the items they’re bidding on in person—so they might bid more aggressively and place higher bids because they’re in a better position to judge the quality of what they’re paying for.

Same volunteer needs: Online auctions still require an ongoing commitment from a team of volunteers to build your auction catalog online. Photographing and writing detailed descriptions of your items, then publishing that information to your site, can be time-consuming. If you don’t have a dedicated group of individuals willing to take on this responsibility, an online auction may not be right for you.

First Steps for a Successful Online Auction

Start planning early. Begin by choosing when you want to “go live,” which for an online auction means the date your site will be available for preview by your bidding community. Best practice is to begin the planning process at least 6 to 9 months before your go-live date.

Define your event. Set your budget, your fundraising goal, and your theme (which will still be important to successfully promote your event).

Divide and conquer. Establish auction teams and let volunteers choose which team best suits their talents and availability. Some recommended teams include website, soliciting donations, data entry, marketing and advertising, sponsorships, and pickup/shipment of winning items.

Online Auction Setup

Choose an online auction platform. Online auction sites offer a variety of packages, charging a flat fee, a share of the profits, or a combination of the two. While they might have slightly different fee structures and services, at their core they all offer a similar experience for auction organizers and bidders. Research the services offered by several sites and compare costs. If another parent group or nonprofit in your area has used an online auction service, ask organizers whether they would recommend that company. Schedule phone calls to gather detailed information. Ask finalists for references (and check them). Choose the one that’s right for your event, taking into consideration your budget, fundraising goal, and projected profit. (You can find auction companies in the PTO Today Vendor Directory.)

Helpful features include:

  • Generating automatic emails to winning bidders, specifying what they won and the amount they’re being charged.

  • Sending emails, post-closing, to everyone who registered to bid but didn’t place a winning bid.

  • The ability to customize these emails in advance.

Appoint an auction administrator. Once you’ve chosen your online auction platform, appoint someone to coordinate with the host website on the technical parts of your event. Your administrator doesn’t have to be tech-savvy because the hosting sites are typically user-friendly and have knowledgeable staff members. The only real requirement for your administrator and the rest of the auction team is access to a computer.

Determine delivery methods. Your two main options for delivering items to the winning bidders are shipping and pickup. Your auction website might allow you to designate certain items as only available locally; this is helpful for special experiences offered by teachers and staff or for any items that are too expensive to ship. You might also state that an item is “available for pickup only” in the item’s description. For all such items, designate the dates and times when winning bidders can get their items. Brand these events as “pickup parties” and add fun incentives so winners are encouraged to attend.

For shipping, you can estimate shipping costs up front and list the shipping options and fees in each item’s description so potential buyers know the “all in” cost, or you can charge a flat percentage of the winning bid on each item to help cover or offset shipping costs. Or, simply note that shipping charges will apply and will be added to the winning bid.

Whatever policies you choose for shipping and delivery, clearly communicate them on your auction homepage and consider reiterating the policies on the individual item listing pages.

Build your website. Design a homepage around your theme that makes clear who your parent group is, the fundraising goal, and the types of programs that will be supported by the money you raise. Include important information like delivery options and costs, any pickup parties you may have scheduled, policies for declined credit cards, and more. Finally, use your landing page as a way to recognize auction donors and sponsors.

Solicit donations and create the catalog. Next comes the intensive, but crucial, work of soliciting auction items and uploading photos and descriptions to your site. If possible, take pictures and publish them along with descriptions as items are received so you aren’t overwhelmed before your go-live date.

Don’t skimp on descriptions and rely on photographs to sell items; because bidders aren’t able to see the items they’re bidding on in real life, both the images and descriptions you include should be compelling. For example, instead of “porcelain serving tray,” consider something more detailed and creative: “Featuring autumnal-colored owls perched on a branch and set against an off-white background, this 13"x7" porcelain serving tray will make the perfect addition to your Thanksgiving table or fall-theme dinner party.”

While any number of volunteers can do the actual data entry, appoint one or two team members to edit the item descriptions to make sure they’re uniform. Finally, don’t forget to include any restrictions, blackout dates, or other important information for bidders.

Advertise. A traditional print and social media campaign is a must. If your school or community has other events planned in the days and weeks leading up to your online auction opening for bids, have volunteers available with iPads to register bidders in advance (they’ll need to input basic information like name, email address, and credit card), promote the auction, and answer questions about the online format. Heavily promote the link to your auction homepage and encourage members of the school community to share it widely. Finally, consider posting a buyer-friendly FAQ about the online auction process on your website and any social media pages for people who might be new to online auctions.

Running Your Online Auction Fundraiser

Preview the items and open online bidding. During the optional preview period, potential bidders will be able to view your catalog and read descriptions of items but won’t be able to place a bid. This is one more way to create excitement about and promote your event. Once you choose to open the online bidding, your auction is live. You can keep bidding open for anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on your preference. Continue your promotional campaigns during this time by frequently posting on social media and looking for creative ways to keep the auction front of mind for your bidding community.

Close out the auction. Your site should automatically shut down bidding at the date and time you chose when setting up your event, charge the winning bidders’ credit cards, and kick out emails to the winners with the items they won and how much they will be charged. Include a heartfelt thank-you and consider reiterating your shipping/pickup policy, along with any other important policies or information to avoid questions post-closing. If you have tiered levels of sponsorship for the auction, consider adding the names of your top-tier sponsors to this email, as well. If your website allows you to contact registered bidders who didn’t win an item, send an email thanking them for their interest in supporting your organization and include the link where they can make a direct donation.

Corrine DelGallo is a lawyer turned stay-at-home mom who wears several hats for her PTO in Connecticut. She recently helped plan and execute her group’s first online auction.