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Types of Auction Formats for Your Fundraiser Event

You’re planning a charity auction, or you’re planning an event with an auction…But what does that mean? All auctions are not created equally and can vary in format greatly. All formats have their pros and cons and as a planner it’s important to understand the advantages to all of them so you can advise your client in the best fit for their event.

What defines an auction? An auction is the act of selling goods or services to the highest bidder. In the event fundraising world, this most commonly presents as a Silent Auction and a Live Auction, but there are some variations and combinations of these items that are becoming more common.

When discussing the top types of auction formats, keep in mind that creativity can be instrumental in setting your fundraising event as the hit of the season, and many events have created unique variations on the foundational auction types. Let these categories be starting points to spark your imagination in twists and tweaks you can make to customize the auction experience for effect and experience.


With a live auction an auctioneer runs a formal bidding process in a rapid fashion by introducing each item and guiding bid amounts. In charity auction events, the Live Auction typically takes place during the Event Program where the most attention can be grabbed as possible from guests. Guests place bids by raising a bid paddle, calling out bid amounts, mobile bidding or otherwise alerting the auctioneer of their bid submittal.

Live Auction items are typically high value packages for experiences, travel and unique goods or services.


  • Limit your live auction to a reasonable quantity so it doesn’t fall flat. The exact quantity is dependent on your group and the amount of valuable packages you have secured, but the typical range is 5-15 items. Based on industry average, each item takes 4-5 minutes to auction off so be mindful of how long you are asking guests to stay quiet and attentive. 10 items at 5 minutes each is up to 50 minutes!

  • Borrowing a tactic from our good ol’ fundraising friend, Paddle Raise (aka Raise the Paddle or Fund-A-Need), it can be helpful to stage bidders in the audience to get the bidding started or to up the bidding levels.

  • If feasible based on your donations, have a back up item ready for a hot ticket item. If there is a bidding war at the end, you can announce a surprise duplicate package and award the two highest bidders with the item. Yay for double the funds!

  • Spotters can be crucial for ensuring every bid goes acknowledged. Station selected spotters around the space to alert the auctioneer to any bids in their assigned region either by waving hands or a colorful flag. The number of spotters should be determined based on the amount of guests, room layout/size, amount of possible distractions. For example, a seated room of 100 people with no obstructions would need minimal spotting. A large oddly-shaped space of 100 people who are mingling and moving would require a larger spotting team.


Silent auctions are the less public counterpart to a Live Auction. Often taking place during the cocktail hour or welcome reception, individuals place their bids by completing a physical form or mobile bidding. Silent auctions items are typically lower in value and higher in quantity than a Live Auction.

Silent Auctions have announced closing times with the whole thing or large groupings closing at the same time.


  • When considering the right quantity for your event consider the number of guests you will have, the likelihood of your guests to bid and at what price range, and the value of the items you have secured. If you have a larger group of attendees who you anticipate having limited capacity of high value items, it can work to your advantage to utilize an item strategy of high quantity and low value. If your event attracts some deeper pockets, you can plan for fewer items with higher value. This strategy is great for creating bidder battles and driving up your fundraising success since there is scarcity in the number of items available.

  • You have options with how you approach your Bid Increments. You can use one of these strategies across all Items in your Silent Auction or vary them, but be careful not to confuse the bidders with too much variation.

    • 1) Minimum Bid Increment - You set a minimum increase amount the next bid needs to meet. (For example, All bids must be an increase of a minimum $20.)

    • 2) Standard Bid Increment – You set a standard amount that all bid jumps will be by pre-assigning the bid amount within the form. (For example, a standard bid jump on $20 across all bid jumps.)

    • 3) Set Bid Increment with Limited Bid Allotment – Similar to the Standard method, you will pre-assign the Bid Amount required to make a new bid but with this format you limit the number of bids allowed on the package to drive up the bid total. (For example, a $200 value item with a minimum bid of $60, might have 7 Bid Allotments each for $20.

  • Buy-It-Now options allow a bidder to secure an item immediately, and remove it from further bidding, by agreeing to the Buy-It-Now price. Industry average sets the Buy-It-Now price at 150% of the value but for items without defined values you can use a bit more judgement in setting this.

  • At you’re the time of your Silent Auction close, ensure you have a system for stopping bids. For physical bid sheets, you might have a team of volunteers at hand to swoop up the sheets immediately. For mobile auctions, ensure your settings are correct or have someone on standby ready to manual force the bidding process to close.


Now here is where things get really fun! We will discuss Mini-Live and Super-Silent together because, to be completely honest, there is a lot of confusion out there about the distinction between the two and sometimes the two concepts overlap in implementation.

Here is our approach to defining these:

  • Super Silent = Silent Auction items that you highlight or feature in some special way. Examples include:

    • Utilizing large signs for your Bid Sheets/Forms to draw more attention.

    • Seting the Bid Sheets for these specialty items on separate belly bars physically highlighted away from the large batch of other items.

    • Stationing a personable volunteer or staff member at these items to help sell the items and encourage bids.

    • Making announcement during the Silent Auction specifically on these key items.

    • Designating a specific theme for the Super Silent – i.e. Travel.

    • Allowing the Super Silent Auction to stay open for bid beyond the regular Silent Auction closing and continue to call attention to bids as they come in and create intrigue and excitement around the closing.

    • Transitioning Super Silent items into a Mini-Live using the highest bid from the Silent format as the starting bid for the Mini-Live.

  • Mini-Live (sometimes called Almost Live) = auctioning off items in a live bidding format but outside of your normal Event Program where a Live Auction would typically take place. Items featured in a Mini-Live are usually a little too high price for the Silent Auction but not quite the bang needed for the Live Auction. Mini-Live Auctions do not require the full attention of the group but when used in a cocktail reception or other format where guests are moving about, ensure your Mini-Live is designed to create excitement and spectacle and draw attention for a good portion of your group.

Hopefully from this you are feeling confident in your understanding about the various formats of event auctions, but don’t be fooled…we have not covered it all! Each individual format has it nuances and lots of details to pay attention to in the planning process. In future posts, we will cover everything from utilizing consignment items strategically, determining minimum bids, packaging items together to create more appeal and so much more!

And, don’t worry, we have information coming your way soon for opportunity drawings (aka raffles) and Live Donation Appeals like a Paddle Raise or Fund-A-Need. While these aren’t technically auctions, they can be pivotal components of your fundraising strategy.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenna Thompson

Jenna is a mountain based Yogi with a love for veggie focused foods. When she's not in Warrior Pose you can find her spending time with her Avalanche Rescue Dog Luna with a Matcha Latte in hand!


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