Auction Items for Virtual Galas

Virtual Galas: Choosing the Best Format & Items for Your Online Auction

If you’re like thousands of nonprofits, you’re throwing a virtual gala to raise vital funds while remaining socially distant.

Though, is your historic lineup of auction items still appropriate for these unprecedented times?

In this post, I’ll cover how to choose the best format and items for your online auction.

Choose Your Auction Format

There are three main auction formats available to virtual galas:

  • Regular Online Auction: Bidders log in to your online auction system to browse items and place bids. This can take place days before or after your streamed event.
  • Virtual Live Auction: An auctioneer presents items and reviews bids on live video. Commonly, all items open for online bidding at once and the auctioneer “checks in” on each item.
  • Silent Auction w/ Live Items: An auctioneer presents each item that would have made your in-person live auction. Attendees have a few hours after the presentation to bid.

Which auction format is best for your virtual gala?

The best option depends on your audience’s preference and your organizational capabilities.

The Virtual Live Auction requires a commitment to planning and rehearsal. It also requires an engaged audience, talented auctioneer, and low-latency streaming platform. Further, the time constraints of a virtual gala require the live auction to be tightly run.

If the Virtual Live Auction is out of your wheelhouse, I recommend you use a combination of the Regular Online Auction and Silent Auction w/ Live Items.

Schedule your Regular Online Auction to open four days before your streamed event. Then, close auction sections two days, one day, and immediately before your streamed event to create bidding urgency.

During your streamed event, present your five best items and allow bidding for two hours after you sign off the air. This option is great if your virtual gala is pre-recorded.

Choose Your Auction Items

Now that you’ve determined your format, it’s time to procure auction items.

How many auction items do you need?

The One Item Per Bidding Unit Rule

For your Regular Online Auction, the rule of thumb for in-person silent auctions still applies: You should not have more than one item for each buying unit. This helps maintain a “seller’s market” where competitive bidding drives up proceeds.

That said, Regular Online Auctions differ from in-person silent auctions because they span for multiple days, and there are no limits to your display space. This affords you as an organizer some flexibility.

Suppose you procured more items than what you thought would be optimal for competitive bidding, and then more people start bidding online than you expected. You can add your extra items to the later closing sections to earn incremental revenue.

Fewer Items for Your Virtual Live Auction

For your Virtual Live Auction or Silent Auction w/ Live Items, include significantly fewer items than you would have in an in-person live auction. This is because your online audience’s attention span will be much shorter than at your dinner gala.

Where you may have had 15 items at your in-person live auction, you’ll want a maximum of five items in an online event.

What are the best categories of auction items for your virtual gala?

The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has greatly affected auction item selection. Below are some categories of items that should perform the best given the circumstances.

  • Name next year’s gala theme
  • Street, park or other space named after you
  • Private tour
  • Principal for a day
  • Premier parking space

These privileges are easy to procure and can’t be acquired elsewhere by the winning bidder. They generally grab attention and spur competitive bidding.

Further, bidders’ ability to collect and redeem cause-related privileges is generally unaffected by social-distancing measures. For privileges that are impacted, most bidders will still bid in the spirit of helping your organization (vs. gaining a personal benefit).

Local Experiences

As people grow tired of being cooped up in their homes, they will look to drivable destinations for their first getaways since the start of the pandemic.

This is due to travelers’ reluctance to board airplanes and uncertainty about restrictions on international travel. There is also a desire to patronize local businesses hit hard by the shutdown.

Weekend getaways to B&Bs, lake houses and golf resorts within a three hour radius make the perfect online auction items. For smaller items, golf rounds at local courses and gift cards to local restaurants fit the bill as well.

Bidders will feel reasonably confident that they will safely be able to redeem their certificate sometime in the next year.

Trips With Generous Expiration Dates

The previous section is not to say you should completely rule out vacations that require air travel. In fact, we at TravelPledge have seen numerous international trips sell during the pandemic.

We explain these sales as “aspirational,” meaning bidders know they won’t redeem them during the pandemic, but they want to look forward to a spectacular trip in 2021 and beyond.

The key to selling trips that require air travel is to emphasize generous expiration dates. Many hospitality companies expect to have plenty of extra rooms for the foreseeable future and will likely grant a multi-year redemption window.

Feature prominently any trips with generous expiration dates by pulling the expiration restrictions out of the fine print and into the main description. It will be the number one piece of information bidders will look for.

Virtual Experiences

Perhaps the most obvious category of items to include in your online auction is virtual experiences. I use “virtual experiences” loosely to describe any item that can be redeemed online.

Examples include:

  • Online lessons
  • Subscriptions
  • Private concert
  • Professional services
  • Celebrity shoutout videos

While there is a fairly low ceiling to the amount of revenue a virtual experience could bring in, it is easy for bidders to see themselves benefiting from their purchase right away.

Avoid Anything That Requires Pickup

For tangible items, you should avoid anything that cannot be shipped to winning bidders. This includes large items, like cars and appliances, and certain collectibles like memorabilia.

Bidders will be in an “online shopping” mentality by bidding from their smart devices. Part of online shopping is getting your purchases delivered to your door.

Further, the pickup requirement serves as a barrier to some bidders who feel unsafe with any in-person interactions.

What Should the Starting Bid and Bid Steps Be?

When choosing starting bids, your challenge is to choose bid steps small enough to encourage competitive bidding while big enough to guarantee a meaningful donation if an item sells.

For your Regular Online Auction, start the bidding at 30% of the fair market value (FMV) for your fully donated items. For fixed-price consignment items, add 10% to your cost if the item sells. For TravelPledge items, use the minimum bid we provide you.

Your bid steps should be about 10% of the value of your item, and you should have around 14 steps, with the first step being the starting bid and the 14th step being the “Buy-it-now price”.

For example, suppose you have a fully donated item valued at $500. Then your starting bid would be $150, and the following bids would be $200, $250, etc…all the way until a buy-it-now price of $800.

For your Virtual Live Auction or Silent Auction w/ Live Items, raise the starting bid to at least 50% of the FMV. These items are not for bargain hunters so you want to maintain a premium perception.


Special thanks to Alex McDonald at TravelPledge for sharing his advice for auction items for virtual galas. TravelPledge is your benefit auction’s connection to generous business owners. Access local packages (think B&B getaways, not safaris) and always keep at least 40% of the winning bid. We exist so you generate a meaningful donation no matter what.