Online Charity Auctions: 3 Ways to Maximize Revenue

Joshua Meyer
Posted on April 29, 2020 by Joshua Meyer in Fundraising and Grants.

As nonprofits of all sizes adjust to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, and the widespread economic impact, maximizing revenue is almost certainly one of your top priorities going forward. Protecting your organization’s bottom line will be essential to continue serving your community and providing your valuable programming or services.

There’s undoubtedly a lot on every nonprofit’s plate right now, from canceled in-person events to changing state and federal registration policies. Strategizing new online revenue streams might sound like a major undertaking. Instead, look first to the successful events and campaigns you’ve hosted in the past, and find ways to digitize them.

Our favorite virtual fundraising events are online charity auctions. Whether you’ve already made the move towards virtual fundraising or are relatively new to the online space, welcome! Online auctions are an effective first virtual event for a few reasons:

  • They’re cost-effective. Without venue, food, and entertainment costs, you can focus more on procuring coveted items and promoting your auction.
  • They’re accessible. An online auction is open for any of your supporters, whether they’re down the street or around the world.
  • They’re engaging. By combining your organization’s mission with great auction items, you can host a highly motivating event for donors.

However, before diving headfirst into planning an online auction, it’s a good idea to think about how you’ll maximize the revenue your event generates. Then, you can build these revenue-generating strategies and best practices into your plans from the beginning. 

Here are 3 reliable ways to ensure your auction yields a significant return on the work you put into it:

  • Use the right auction-specific technology.
  • Develop ambassador promotions and contests.
  • Brainstorm extra revenue-generating strategies.

Incorporating these tips and best practices into your online auction plans will be sure to strengthen it overall, resulting in revenue boosts to help you further your mission. Let’s get started.

1. Use the right auction-specific technology.

Auctions (whether in-person or online) are high-impact events that can generate a lot of revenue for your cause. However, they do require more planning and proactive management than other types of events. 

This is true whether you’re a brand new nonprofit or a larger, established organization. Of course, the exact scale of your efforts will vary, but it’s always a good idea to start planning early and equip your team with the right tools they’ll need. 

Auction-specific software will be invaluable throughout the whole process. Not only will it keep your planning and management focused and organized, but its donor-facing features are essential, too. Online auction software can help you:

  • Set up an auction website to host your catalog and easily process payments
  • Pre-register donors’ payment methods to streamline their experience during the auction
  • Offer mobile bidding options for participants to bid straight from their smartphones
  • Manage, track, and display your items in a customized online catalog
  • Track bids in real-time and send push notifications and announcements to bidders
  • Analyze your performance with detailed reports and CRM integrations

By streamlining the donor experience and making it easier to get involved, you can substantially increase engagement and generate more revenue.

If you’re new to auctions, first get a solid understanding of how these events work with the OneCause guide to running a silent auction. Taking your auction online actually simplifies many of the event’s logistics, but it does make software even more important to the success of your auction. 
Aside from online auction software and mobile bidding tools, you’ll need to ensure your digital presence is up to par, as well. This includes elements like updating your website, refining your email strategies, and actively promoting your auction on social media.

2. Develop ambassador promotions and contests.

During this period of social distancing and disruption, online engagement is more critical than ever. By tapping into the power of social media, you can grow your online auction’s revenue by reaching wider audiences and encouraging them to get involved.

Try recruiting dedicated and well-connected supporters to serve as ambassadors for your online auction. Then, empower them to promote your event online with training, post templates, goals, and prizes. 

The approach is similar to peer-to-peer fundraising, where supporters fundraise on your behalf. For an online auction, you may incorporate peer-to-peer fundraising elements into your ambassador promotions, or you can focus solely on helping your ambassadors secure more registrations for the event. 

Incorporating ambassadors into your strategy is an effective way to keep your auction firmly rooted in your network of supporters. Donors who miss the in-person engagement of your events will appreciate this social aspect.

Motivate your volunteers with goals, contests, and rewards, and be sure to publicly thank them for their contributions. You might even host a live-streamed grand finale event to recognize your ambassadors, announce the final results of your auction, and thank everyone who participated. 

By tapping into the power of social proof and the human connections that make up your community, you can significantly increase engagement with your online auction. A larger audience means more bids and more contacts to reach out to later.

3. Brainstorm extra revenue-generating strategies.

There are more ways to raise money with an online auction than by bids alone! Get creative to brainstorm other ways to generate revenue with your online events. A few common examples include:

  • Buy-it-now options for some items, set at 150-200% of their initial value
  • Add-ons, like sign-up parties, raffle tickets, or other fixed-price items
  • Registration fees, depending on the particular context of your auction
  • Sponsorships from local businesses in exchange for online recognition

If you’re using dedicated auction software, you should be able to easily set buy-it-now options and offer fixed-price items within your item catalog.

Plus, don’t forget to promote your general online giving options during your auction, as well! This gives participants who don’t win items an opportunity to financially support your organization. This is especially important if your ambassadors will be promoting your auction to a wider audience.
Any online auction can bring in revenue beyond bids alone, from smaller auctions organized by schools all the way to complex virtual events hosted by national nonprofits. Think about what additional revenue generators would be feasible for your event and try to incorporate several into your strategy.


Online charity auctions are an effective way for nonprofits to get started with virtual events. With careful planning and promotion, you can put on a highly-engaging, high-ROI event that deepens relationships with supporters and grows your online audience. 

Finding new ways to boost revenue online is at the top of every nonprofit’s list right now, so explore your options. Auctions, in particular, stand out because they’re fairly easy to translate to digital settings thanks to modern software.

Harbor Compliance does not provide tax, financial, or legal advice. Use of our services does not create an attorney-client relationship. Harbor Compliance is not acting as your attorney and does not review information you provide to us for legal accuracy or sufficiency.


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.


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