Table at a silent auction.

What is a Silent Auction

How Does a Silent Auction Work?

Table at a silent auction.

Silent auction – my favorite oxymoron! They are great tools for selling items and raising money. But what is a silent auction? How does a silent auction work? Why should you host one? How do you run a silent auction? What items do you include? How do nonprofits use silent auctions? We’re breaking down the details on how a silent auction works.

Let’s start with a few definitions:

Auction: a public sale in which goods or property are sold to the highest bidder. Originally started from public outcry. Auctions sell items to the highest bidder and establish truest fair market value for an item.

Auctioneer: a person who conducts auctions by accepting bids and declaring goods sold.

Silent auction: an event at which items for sale are displayed for attendees to assess, place bids on, and purchase.

Why is it an oxymoron? By their nature, auctions include an “outcry.” Silent auctions work without an auctioneer outcry, and participants place their bids silently and sometimes anonymously on a bid sheet using a bidding number – hence the use of the word “silent.”

Why Run a Silent Auction?

When thinking about how a silent auction works, it’s important to know the benefits and drawbacks.


  • Silent auctions work by allowing you to sell items with a low price point to a larger group in a short amount of time.
  • You can raise money by auctioning off donated items.
  • This format allows you to include more donors and buyers at an event like a gala.
  • It saves time at the event. When you have more items, you can close bidding on everything at the same time, making the process quicker.


  • Collecting donated items to auction can be time consuming.
  • Silent auctions work by showcasing all items at once, which requires a large space.
  • An increasing number of donors are looking to make a difference through financial gifts, not through purchasing something.
  • It can be hectic and difficult to close a silent auction, collect funds, and provide items to the winners.

How to Run a Silent Auction

How does a silent auction work in terms of logistics? Today technology provides planners a huge relief. Most organizations use a technology platform so that bidders can place their bids from anywhere in the room or even around the world. Using an online platform means donors do not have to gather around a piece of paper, providing access for more people and eliminating the time constraint on silent auctions. However, the old paper and pen provides a sense of urgency and transparency that some organizations love. Using a pen and paper to make the bidding process is most successful when someone conducts the closing of the silent auction. Announcements are made and count down closings occur.

How does a silent auction work in terms of timing? One interesting fact about silent auctions is that 90% of your donations will occur in the last 10 minutes of the silent auction no matter when that happens. Read that again! Many believe leaving a silent auction open longer will get more bidders. While a longer bid time can help spread awareness of the auction, most bids will still come in at the end of the auction NO MATTER WHEN that happens. At a paper and pen silent auction, closing at the end of cocktail hour can create a frenzy of excitement and carry that high energy into the rest of the gala. It removes the FOMO (fear of missing out) feeling and guests can rest assured they won or that they have more money to spend throughout the rest of the event – in the live auction or direct appeal during the event.

What Items Sell Best at Silent Auctions?

When you are faced with figuring out how a silent auction works, one big challenge can be deciding what items to include. Here’s some popular silent auction basket ideas:

  • Things everyone needs – think of items people purchase no matter what, like vacuums, household items, gift cards, camping supplies, and household decorations.
  • Unique items like sports memorabilia, sporting event tickets, and handmade items
  • Fun items like a lottery ticket tree or a mystery box, like a closed Tiffany & Co. box with something inside from Tiffany & Co. but you don’t know what
  • Goods and services like landscaping, handyman for the day, a cake per month from a local bakery, party services, painting, and restaurant experiences
  • Tickets
  • Student art
  • Bird houses
  • Cooking supplies
  • Boat outings
  • Ski instruction
  • Home stays, vacations, Airbnb, etc.
  • A cooler full of beer from local micro-breweries
  • Alcohol (always a crowd pleaser!)

We have seen a lot of interesting items work in silent auctions, including:

  • A signed sneaker from Michael Jordan – it was huge, both in fundraising and size!
  • Dumpster for a week – don’t we all have stuff we can get rid of? This caused a major bidding war and sold for thousands of dollars!
  • Small quirky art – a great conversation starter!

How does silent auction work for online vs. in-person items? Some silent auction items work best online because they are not as valuable to a local audience. Sometimes we overlook items that we have in our community that would be special for someone who doesn’t live there. For example, tickets to Broadway shows are not as exciting to a NY audience because most have access but an online bidder in the Midwest might be very interested. Disney tickets are not as exciting to a bidding audience in Orlando as they are to one in Chicago.

Choosing Items for a Silent Auction vs. Live Auction

When figuring out how your silent auction will work, there are no definitive silent auction rules for deciding which items to put in silent auction vs. live auction. But here are some best practices:

  1. Time is money! How much time do you have for your auctioneer? On average, each live auction item takes three to five minutes to sell. The more self-explanatory items sell faster, but the more time an auctioneer needs to talk about an item, the longer it will take. Save time by preparing your audience with visual aids. Keeping that in mind, is the item worth devoting that much time to?
  2. Items with a listed value tend to not sell above value. For example, a $600 TV will not sell for more money and a $100 restaurant gift card won’t either, unless it includes a special table or chef experience. People often can’t justify spending money on something they can get themselves. But you could improve the wow factor by pairing that same gift card with a show or limo ride.
  3. Full packages will do better in live auction than silent. Make an item an experience by including transportation and meals.
  4. Save one-of-a-kind items, like meet-and-greets, special services, tickets, or vacations, for live auctions.
  5. Items with a definite value sell better in live auctions.
  6. If you have an item you think will be the top seller of the night, put it in your live auction.
  7. When guests get to meet the personality attached to the item (chef, etc.), the item will absolutely sell better, even if it is just a gift card.
  8. If you don’t have a professional auctioneer, you may miss an opportunity to make more money. Auctioneers are trained in the art of salesmanship. If you are using someone’s funny uncle, your top-ticket items might get more attention in a silent auction, especially if Uncle Hank tried to cure his stage fright with a few drinks.
  9. Blackout dates and limitations make selling items difficult and take up valuable time in your live auction. If an item has a lot of restrictions, it’s best to allow the bidder to do the reading for themselves and put it in a silent auction.
  10. Some items sell better in some other locations than others. An online auction company may market your item to other parts of the country.

Many areas of the country LOVE silent auctions and many areas HATE them! You need to know your donors. Auctions are not the only sales opportunities for event fundraising with donated items. You can use games, wine walls, blind gifts, balloon pops, or gift card frenzy. There are so many prize opportunities! Some of our biggest fundraising moments have come from philanthropic gifts. If you are confused about how silent auctions work, or any other potential fundraising efforts, the key is to talk to experts. At Star Benefit Auctions, we have a team of world-class auctioneers ready to partner with your organization, help you figure out exactly how silent auctions work, and how to make them successful. If Star Benefit can help you raise the bid at your next fundraising event, virtual or in-person, contact us today.