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Online Auctions, Virtual Auctions and Hybrid Auctions

Since March 2020, we have all been required to rethink our fundraising strategies. Over the past year, we have turned to alternate formats to try to capture the generosity and energy of our patrons and supporters. With traditional in-room (or live) galas starting (or started) up again, it’s important to define and understand the alternate formats. Before we dive into the definitions of the alternative auctions, it’s important to define what a live auction is.


Live Auction: A live auction is any auction created to raise money, typically for a charity or nonprofit organization, through auctioning off items. These items may have been donated by auction sponsors and auction attendees will bid on them during the event. It’s typically two to three hours and will involve costs associated with food and beverages, venue, personnel, etc. With the right strategies in place, live auctions can be an efficient and effective way for organizations to raise money.


Alternative Auctions (Online, Virtual, Hybrid)


The three terms most often applied to these alternate formats are online, virtual and hybrid. This can be a bit confusing.  Often these terms are used interchangeably, which is incorrect. Each is unique, as outlined below.


Online Auction: While similar to the virtual auction, an online auction is no longer presumed to be “real-time” but rather at the guests/bidders’ individual time frame. They would log in when they wish, log out when they wish, place bids and then receive updates by email when outbid. In other words, bidding is “bidder- centric” as opposed to “event-centric.” There would be a start time to open the bidding and an end time when bidding is closed. Blocks or groups of items available for bidding may have different start and end times.


Virtual Auction: Although the term virtual auction can mean many things, for our purposes, we assume a few elements that must be present.  A virtual auction will provide the ability to bid remotely, a video feed of some sort to share a common experience in real time, and a way for the hosts to interact with the guests/bidders. This can be through a video conferencing service, or preferably by way of a direct interaction streaming video website that includes the bidding platform as well. With a single website the bidder/guest does not need to have two different websites open, with one to place bids and one to view the event.


Hybrid Auction: The hybrid auction and event combines elements of the virtual auction and an “in-room” gala. While there are guests present in the room during the event, typically the number of guests present are fewer than at a traditional gala. Most of the guests are attending remotely and viewing the event using the website of the virtual auction. The combination of the in-room gala with a virtual auction affords guests the choice of either attending (at a cost of course) or remotely participating (at a reduced cost or at no cost).


As states continue to open back up, and we adjust to fundraising in a post pandemic world, it is beneficial to consider a hybrid model for your next fundraising auction, since hybrid auctions have many advantages. By limiting the number of attendees in the room, space requirements are easier to manage, production costs can be reduced and locations can be more flexible. However, the feel of a live event can be maintained to provide interaction for a more entertaining “show.” The virtual element, however, opens up the bidding to a much wider audience, as the event is no longer limited by either space or time restrictions.