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What is a Silent Auction?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A silent auction is a fundraising technique frequently used at charity events. It differs from the typical auction conducted by an auctioneer who calls out the prices for items and then takes the raised hands or paddles of people as bids at a certain price. It’s often a preferred means for raising money at charitable events because it does not detract from the entertainment provided at the event.

Usually, a silent auction is conducted by setting up tables or displays of items or services upon which people can bid. A minimum bid may be set, especially when the item is of high value. Paper is located near the item, which allows for people to write down their names and bids. This gives people a chance, during the event, to tour the different items available for auction and decide upon which items they would like to bid.

Often one sheet of paper shows all previous bids so that people participating in the silent auction know that they need to bid higher in order to get the item. They also have the opportunity to revisit bidding sheets before the auction is closed if they really want something being offered at the silent auction.

Alternately, the bids of others at a silent auction may be kept private. People may bid on small sheets of paper and deposit this in a holding receptacle. At the end of the auction, bids are calculated and the highest bidder wins the item, for whatever price he or she offered.

Similar types of silent auction are now offered on sites like eBay, where people bid for items and can usually see the bids of others. This is essentially a silent auction as well because no contact is made with the seller or the auctioneer until after bidding is finished. Like the silent auction conducted for a charity event, bidding time for items is usually a set period, but bidding time on sites like eBay can last for several days or even weeks. Most silent auction events last only so long as the charity event continues. So an “in person” silent auction could end in just a few hours.

There are advantages to both the silent auction and the regular auction. A silent auction conducted for a charity means the charity doesn’t have to pay a professional auctioneer. One drawback of a silent auction is that items may generate lower bids because people have more time to consider the purchase. A regular auction often takes advantage of the impulse buy, and a good auctioneer may spur people on to contribute more than they normally would for items. Knowing that others will be aware of what is being spent may also influence people to bid more at a regular auction as well as silent auctions with open-book bidding. Some charitable events offer both, to gain full benefit from both systems.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon314365 — On Jan 17, 2013

We have been raising funds for our local school now for six years with a silent auction each fall. I agree with starrynight, but when you have more then 20 items, the management of the bid sheet becomes a pain, so I was looking for some software to manage it, without breaking the bank. I found Pearl Bids, which is great, but is only for a MAC. Does anyone know of software for a PC?

By Ted41 — On Dec 14, 2012

@JaneAir - Blind auctions are fun. I think it can backfire for the charity though, because people might bid too low. Who wants to pay $100 for something when the other bids were something like $10 or $15? If I was doing a blind silent auction I'd probably keep my bids kind of low so I didn't end up paying too much.

By JaneAir — On Dec 14, 2012

I think a blind auction is the best silent auction idea. It's most fun to bid if you don't know what everyone else is bidding. It almost adds a fun element of surprise when you have to try and guess what you should bid on an item.

Plus, I think a charity could probably make more money from a blind auction. If people don't know what other people are bidding and they really want something, they might be more likely to make a higher bid.

By starrynight — On Dec 13, 2012

@KaBoom - Organizing a silent auction does seem to be great for charity events, since it gives people the opportunity to do things besides just the auction. And it gives the charity the opportunity to make money in other ways too.

By KaBoom — On Dec 12, 2012

I helped out at a charity silent auction a few times when I was in high school. It was actually a lot of fun, and doing the auction silently worked out really well. As the article said, doing a silent auction doesn't distract from the rest of what is going on.

At a regular auction, the auction is the main event. However, at a silent auction, it's just one thing that's going on. At the charity event I helped with, there were a few other way people could donate, food, and displays about the charity. I saw people visiting all of the different parts of the even, not just the auction.

By anon144166 — On Jan 18, 2011

How do you have a silent auction on paper only; no event? I've seen it done with a list of items and spaces for bids. Has anyone heard of this or know how to set up bid forms?

By anon129130 — On Nov 22, 2010

I have a question. I am planning on holding a silent auction for my birthday and was wondering if you need any sort of license to hold it and how much that would cost me.

By anon91674 — On Jun 23, 2010

No gambling license is required. We certainly didn't have one. I use Group Dynamics for electronic SAs who are excellent and really good value for money. We generated 10 times the amount of their costs so it was well worth it. Good luck Scotty - Jezza

By anon76432 — On Apr 10, 2010

Please help with this question! Do you need a gambling license to do a silent auction?

By anon44081 — On Sep 04, 2009

do you need a gambling license to do a silent auction?

By scotty — On Jul 28, 2008

I have an interview for a position where I will be organising "silent auctions", any tips or knowledge which might help me ?

By mexicana — On Apr 29, 2008

Silent auctions are great ways to raise money for charities, schools, etc. Many people who wouldn't normally go to auctions will go to a silent auction because it is not as scary, as you don't have to put yourself out there like you would in a regular auction.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia...
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