Holiday Charity Auctions: 6 Item Ideas to Excite Donors

Charity auction gifts for end of year fundraising.

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This post was contributed by Kelly Velasquez-Hague who brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause.

It’s never too early to get excited for the year-end holidays, right? For the nonprofit sector and this year, in particular, the year-end season is more important than ever. After a tumultuous year, your organization is hopefully looking forward to a busy but rewarding holiday season.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck earlier in 2020, your nonprofit likely felt shockwaves that slowed down your operations or even briefly put fundraising on pause. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned since then, it’s that virtual fundraising and online engagement are extremely viable fundraising methods when approached strategically and with compelling messaging.

Organizations that are still feeling a sense of fundraising sluggishness need to shake it off now in order to tap into the annual surge in energy around the year-end giving season.

With the year-end holidays and Giving Tuesday (December 1, 2020) approaching, this period is full of opportunities to raise much-needed support while strengthening ties with supporters. Those strong connections with your donors and community will be critical heading into another uncertain year, so it’s a good idea to get started planning your strategy as early as possible.

At OneCause, our favorite online fundraising tactic is definitely hosting virtual auctions. These virtual events are easier to plan than traditional, in-person auctions. Plus, they give your organization plenty of flexibility in terms of timeframe and additional virtual elements you might wish to incorporate, such as a live-streamed gala. 

The right online auction software will be essential for a virtual year-end auction, but the most important aspect of any auction has got to be the range of items that you’ll offer bidders. We’ve compiled a complete OneCause auction item ideas directory, but if you’re hoping to get donors into the holiday spirit, you’ll need to offer items and packages that relate directly to the season. 

In that case, we’ve got you covered! We’ll walk through some of our favorite (virtual-friendly) holiday auction item ideas plus a few best practices to keep in mind as you begin procuring them. Let’s dive in.

Our Favorite Holiday Item Ideas for Virtual Auctions

1. Thanksgiving Feast Baskets

If your organization gets an early start with year-end festivities in November, offer Thanksgiving-related items in themed packages. These ideas can easily be adapted for December, as well, since home-cooked feasts are an important part of the entire season.

Try procuring these items for your Thanksgiving baskets:

  • High-end dry goods, like fancy spice mixes and turkey rubs
  • Virtual cooking classes or gift cards to kitchen supply stores
  • Beautiful serving platters or plate sets
  • Utensil sets and carving knives
  • Sponsored gift cards for grocery stores

To really tap into your donors’ feelings of generosity around Thanksgiving, try offering large packages of dry and canned food goods to be donated to local food banks in their name. 

2. Hanukkah Baskets and Menorahs

If your organization serves a community that celebrates Hanukkah, give them plenty of holiday-specific items to get excited about! 

Themed packages ranging from high-end to affordable might include items like an heirloom menorah, candles, chocolate coins, dreidels, and more. If your donor base includes many families with young children, offer items like books and board games for them to enjoy together during the evenings of Hanukkah.

Offering one or more Hanukkah-themed baskets in addition to your other, more general packages and items is a great example of tailoring your offerings to your audience. We’ll walk through a few procurement best practices below, but remember that procuring items targeted to your unique community of support will typically generate more revenue and engagement than simply offering expensive items for the sake of driving bids.

3. Themed Christmas Trees or Wreaths

Here’s a classic year-end auction idea that can be easily adapted for virtual settings, although it might take a bit more logistical planning. Design and decorate themed Christmas trees or holiday wreaths to offer bidders. 

Use decorations like colorful garlands, unique ornaments, small framed pictures, toys or stuffed animals, and an exciting tree topper, all oriented around a theme like:

  • Your local town or city. Celebrate your city’s history and community with ornaments, vintage postcards, and local mascots.
  • Sports teams. Bonus points if you spark a bidding war between trees themed to rival teams!
  • Kids’ favorites. Kids will beg their parents to bid on trees decked out with their favorite cartoon characters or superheroes.
  • Your nonprofit’s mission. Before the auction, ask constituents to create their own messages and ornaments for a tree. This meaningful theme is perfect for schools and other community-based organizations.

Once you’ve decorated your trees, you’ll need to show them off to bidders. You’ll definitely want to take high-quality photos of every side of each tree and write thorough descriptions for your online item catalog. In addition, if you have the space to set up your trees in a single location, create recorded videos or use live-streaming event software to showcase your trees in all their glory.

4. Gingerbread House Kits and Holiday Snack Baskets

Snacks and treats are such a huge part of the year-end season, so it only makes sense to tap into donors’ cravings with your virtual holiday auction! The possibilities are endless with this idea, but candy, cookies, and popcorn are always crowd-pleasers. Create themed packages of items to offer more value with your snack baskets.

And don’t forget gingerbread houses! Kits for bidders to bake (or just decorate) their own gingerbread houses can be especially effective for auctions because they provide a few things in one: a family activity, a holiday centerpiece, and maybe a snack, too. 

Try boosting engagement with your gingerbread kits by offering themes similar to the Christmas trees in the previous idea. Or, you might take a different approach by having donors create and decorate their own show-stopping gingerbread houses to then be auctioned off during your event. If you offer decorate-it-yourself kits, extend the fun after the auction by having winners share photos of their creations in a social media photo contest. 

5. Year-Long Organization Perks

During the year-end giving season, donors will also be thinking ahead to what next year will bring. During your online auction, offer annual perks that bidders can enjoy throughout 2021. This is an easy and cost-effective way to strengthen ties with winners and boost retention, all without needing to procure another item or package.

The exact perks you offer will vary greatly depending on your type of organization and its operations. 

For instance, a zoo or botanical garden might offer annual passes, while charitable nonprofits could offer free or discounted annual memberships for the next year, along with exclusive benefits like members-only newsletters, special (in-person or virtual) event access, and more. 

Creating a membership program for your organization can be an extremely effective way to drive long-term engagement, which will be more important than ever heading into an uncertain year. If you don’t have a membership structure in place or are looking to create one, this guide from Double the Donation walks through the entire process from start to finish.  

6. Local Business Baskets or Certificates

Finally, amid all the challenges of the past year, organizations and their donors should be looking for new ways to support their local communities. Try to source auction items from local businesses if possible or, better yet, create an entire themed basket or two that bundles locally-produced goods. 

Locally-made products, regional specialties, artisan goods, and gift certificates to local shops and restaurants are all ideal additions for this basket.

If you offer a local business package in your virtual auction, be sure to emphasize that angle in your catalog description. Let bidders know that they can feel good about supporting their community and raising awareness for local businesses by competing for it.

Best Practices for Picking the Right Virtual Auction Items

If your organization is new to hosting auctions, or if this will be your very first virtual auction, it’ll be worth it to brush up on item procurement best practices. 

Just as you use engagement data and analytics to strengthen your donation appeals and fundraising campaigns, taking a strategic approach to procurement will drive much stronger results when it’s time to launch your auction. Here are our recommendations:

  • Start early and create a wishlist. Auction item procurement can be a lengthy process, so start as early as possible, ideally several months before your event. Form a dedicated procurement team, and begin by brainstorming an item wishlist. This will serve as a kind of guiding document, keeping your procurement efforts focused and giving team members a centralized place to track progress. Remember to scale your wishlist to the particular type of event you’re hosting. For instance, a smaller-scale raffle or penny social will require fewer items than a multi-day virtual auction and gala.
  • Use your organization’s data to guide procurement. Metrics relating to your average donation amount, the performance of past year-end campaigns, and results from previous auctions will be invaluable for setting appropriate revenue goals and pricing your auction items to maximize impact. Your donor data is useful, too. How old are your average bidders? Do they have young children? Use these insights to better tailor your holiday auction items to your unique audience.
  • When in doubt, ask. Speaking of using donor data to better target your bidders, don’t be afraid to ask for input from supporters. Consider sending donors a survey before officially kicking off your procurement process, and ask for information about age, parental status, and interests. You could even suggest a few auction items and ask donors to rank them based on appeal. 
  • Reach out to partners. Corporate sponsors and partner organizations are invaluable allies when procuring items for a virtual auction. If your organization already works with a network of partners or has sponsors for a large-scale year-end event, think about what types of items or packages they might be able to contribute. Even smaller organizations should consider their partnership options, as donated items from local businesses can help you build out a more exciting auction item catalog.

Organizations of all sizes have been exploring new and creative ways to increase revenue amid this year’s challenges. If you’re hosting a virtual year-end auction, it’s a good idea to double down on the fundamentals. Procuring the perfect mix of items for your audience is the single best way to maximize revenue at a charity auction event, regardless of its exact setting or circumstances.

With the year-end giving season and Giving Tuesday right around the corner, your team should be busier than ever preparing to wrap up this unprecedented year, generate more support, and engage donors. Virtual auctions are an ideal way to tap into both the year-end spirit of giving and the holiday shopping buzz.  

With these holiday auction item ideas and procurement best practices, you’ll be on your way to planning a show-stopping event for your donors in no time. Best of luck!

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