April 28, 2020

Boosting Donor Retention After an Online Auction: Pro Tips

Written by
Kelly Velasquez-Hague

Charity auctions have always been one of the most effective ways to raise support for your mission. Traditionally, in-person auction events are a staple of nonprofit fundraising because they’re extremely engaging for guests and can generate substantial returns on investment.

However, with the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, nonprofits of all sizes are faced with new obstacles. With the need to cancel in-person events and move them online whenever possible, it’s certainly a challenging time for the whole nonprofit sector.

Taking an auction online and shifting to virtual strategies is definitely a challenge, but the move can actually simplify event logistics and planning. Without added venue, food, and entertainment costs and needs, fundraisers can focus more time on procuring great items and marketing their event to guests.

Amid today’s changing fundraising and economic landscape, nonprofits need a plan to not only successfully pivot their fundraising online, but also to develop revenue strategies that can bolster financial sustainability with deeper engagement and retention.

Whether you’re a business or nonprofit, one thing is true: retaining a customer (or donor) over the long-run generates more lifetime value than focusing on donor acquisition or lead conversions.

How can you position your online auction to strengthen your donor retention efforts? We’ll walk through 5 key strategies:

1. Provide unique perks to encourage engagement.
2. Focus on active communication with donors.
3. Promote additional ways to give.
4. Tap into the power of social fundraising.
5. Proactively study your nonprofit’s data.

With these strategies, you can build a stronger foundation of support for your nonprofit’s efforts. Sustained support from a galvanized donor base will be essential to help your nonprofit adapt and survive in today’s ongoing disruptions.

Let’s get started!

1. Provide unique perks to encourage engagement.

Providing tangible reasons to stay engaged with your nonprofit has never been more important than now. Although your nonprofit’s resources might be stretched, there are plenty of creative and inexpensive ways to strengthen long-term involvement.

After a successful online auction or virtual fundraiser, there is a window of time when you can turn post-fundraising excitement into new opportunities for sustained engagement.

First, decide what additional action you want your auction attendees to take. This might be pre-registering for your next event, volunteering (remote for now), signing up for your newsletter, or joining your membership program. Then, brainstorm how you will encourage them to take that action. Ideas include offering your supporters:

  • A discounted annual membership
  • Monthly sustainer programs
  •  Early bidding access or a glimpse of your item catalog for your next online auction
  • A free ticket for a special digital raffle or drawing
  • Mission focused merchandise, like a t-shirt, mug, or tote bag

Plus, there are other, less tangible ways to keep first-time donors engaged. Developing a high-quality newsletter or other digital resources is a great way to funnel readers into long-term engagement with your nonprofit. Incentivize sign-ups by creating the best newsletter you can. We’ll touch more on this point in the next section.

Your range of appealing auction items and marketing efforts do the heavy lifting before your event to draw in new attendees, but you need to go an extra step to keep their attention after, too. Once you have their attention, you can translate it into retained financial support.

2. Strengthen your communication strategies.

Retaining the support of your auction attendees (especially if your auction was the first time they engaged with your nonprofit) requires staying relevant and on their minds. Consider each of the following communication outlets:

  • Your email newsletter
  • Other emails, like invitations, announcements, and donation appeals
  • Social media posts
  • Video content
  • Printed mailers
  • Text messages

Each of these outlets can play an important role in a multi-channel digital strategy designed to boost your donor retention rates. Explore this DNL OmniMedia guide to learn more.

The underlying idea is that you can actively use your communications to keep donors engaged with your work and aware of your mission and its importance. When someone takes the time to read your newsletter each month, for instance, they’ll be more likely to register for future events and engage in future online fundraising opportunities.

Think about how you can strengthen your messages to tap into strategies that drive retention. What about your mission draws donors in and keeps them emotionally connected to your cause? What unique insights does your nonprofit have that your community would find valuable?

Focus on providing real informational or emotional value to donors with your digital and printed materials in order to keep them engaged and receptive to your messages. 

For events like online auctions, showing attendees the tangible impacts their support has had on your nonprofit is a smart move. Share fundraising totals and engagement statistics, then explain how your surge of support from the auction will go towards furthering your mission. Virtual fundraising and digital tools have made it easier than ever to generate the kind of data that’s useful for showing donors their impact.

3. Promote additional ways to give.

Much of donor retention comes down to making it easier to stay involved with your nonprofit. Your communications and perks definitely play a role, but the giving experience needs to be central to your online strategy. By offering a variety of ways to digitally support your nonprofit, you can increase both fundraising and engagement.

Take a look at your online fundraising and evaluate your online giving options. Additional ways to give that you might offer include:

  • Recurring donations. Provide dedicated donors with the convenience of automatic monthly donations. Be sure to take them off your regular donation appeals and instead build in frequent impact updates and thank you communications.
  • Smaller asks. Pre-set donation amounts on your giving page are a great way to influence online giving. Be sure to look at your average online giving amounts and anchor your amounts around your median gift. This will help you avoid turning off any donors with asks that are too high.
  • Membership tiers. Offer unique perks and digital resources your supporters would find useful. A membership program is an excellent way to keep supporters engaged online. Create tiers of memberships to let donors choose the perks and fees that are right for them. Then, segment your members into a tailored donor journey, with member focused communications, messages, and follow-up.
  • Matching gift programs. If any auction attendees are eligible for matching donations from their employers, definitely let them know. This is an effortless way for supporters to increase their impact on your nonprofit and easily multiply their gifts. Knowing a gift will be matched has been shown to increase donation amounts. Promote these programs to your donors after a successful event via social media, thank you letters, and personal outreach.
  • Virtual volunteering. Don’t let your volunteer program fall by the wayside as you shift to virtual strategies. Get creative to brainstorm ways supporters can still lend a hand to support your work. Ambassador fundraising and in-kind donated services like digital marketing expertise can be extremely valuable for boosting your online presence.

By offering additional ways to give, you cast a wider net and make it easier for more donors to stay involved. 

After your online auction wraps up, consider the ways that different segments of your base might prefer to interact with your cause. Review your donor data to identify opportunities whenever possible by looking for average gift amounts, employer information, occupation, and more.

4. Tap into the power of social fundraising.

We mentioned ambassador fundraising above as a way for individuals to give back without reaching into their own pockets. Ambassador campaigns and peer-to-peer fundraising are forms of social fundraising, in which you empower supporters to fundraise or promote your cause on your behalf.

Social fundraising has a few major benefits for nonprofits:

  • It can drastically expand your online audience, which is particularly valuable in the lead-up to virtual events like online auctions.
  • It strengthens your relationships with volunteer fundraisers and ambassadors, key individuals whose support should be actively stewarded.
  • The personal touch of learning about your cause through a friend or loved one provides social proof and can increase new donor acquisition.

By enlisting ambassadors to help promote your next online auction, you can tap into all three of these key benefits. Review your donor and volunteer data to identify individuals who are dedicated to your cause and well-connected in the community, then reach out and gauge their interest. Provide them with useful digital resources, set goals around the number of new registrations or donations to secure, and then let them loose!

Alternately, you might choose to host a more decentralized peer-to-peer fundraising campaign, encouraging supporters to set up their own giving pages to share online.

Both of these social fundraising strategies are effective at bolstering your donor retention over time. By engaging key supporters and allowing them to get more personally involved, you build stronger long-term relationships. For smaller organizations in tight-knit communities, like schools or community foundations, this approach can be a game-changing fundraising strategy. Explore the OneCause guide to school auctions for examples of this strategy in action.

5. Proactively study your nonprofit’s data.

Your data from donations and events is invaluable when it comes to boosting donor retention. Engagement data can tell you which strategies successfully secure support and which don’t, helping you to continually refine your strategies. This is the same approach that savvy businesses take to tackle their own customer churn rates.

If you don’t have a solid data management infrastructure in place (like a CRM platform and/or event tools that provide robust reporting features), you should begin exploring your options now. Especially as nonprofits shift into increasingly digital spaces, being able to truly leverage all of the data that your online efforts generate will be crucial. First, segment donors into useful groups, like:

  • Brand new donors
  • Loyal repeat donors
  • New event attendees
  • Lapsed donors or past volunteers
  • Mid-size or major gift prospects

Focusing on a specific segment allows you to more effectively target each group with your strategies. Want to re-secure the support of lapsed donors? Incentivize them to get back in touch with perks and special invitations. Want to ensure new event attendees register for your next online event? Offer them early access or discounted rates.

For your online auctions, dedicate some time post-event to dig into your data. Insights from your events are extremely valuable for continually improving them. Ask questions like:

  • Which items received the most bids? The highest bids?
  • Which items received few bids or none at all?
  • How many active bidders did you have versus inactive registrants?
  • Which marketing outlets were most successful at attracting attendees?

The answers to these questions will directly improve your next auction. Leaning towards what your bidders loved and shifting attention away from what they didn’t is a surefire way to boost the chances that they’ll come back for your next auction.

Using a full tech stack of auction software and support tools, like prospect research databases and marketing platforms, will help you generate more data to learn from. Stay on top of developments in the nonprofit tech field and invest in new resources if you find particular parts of your strategy are lagging behind.


As the world deals with the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical for organizations to double down on retention, whether of customers, donors, or volunteers. For the nonprofit sector, the increased importance of technology has, in some ways, made it easier than ever to update your retention strategies.

To improve your donor retention rate, be sure to focus on building stronger relationships with supporters, learning more from your data, and continually refining your offerings and communications.

If you invest time and resources in hosting engaging events like online auctions, this is particularly important. Give your bidders a great experience during the event, and then tap into that satisfaction to retain their support for years to come!

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors raise more funds for their cause.