Mobile Bidding for Small Fundraising Auctions

06 Sep 2014 By Roger Devine

First of all, my apologies - this is long for a blog post. But I want to put it here, so we can engage in a conversation in the comments. Please do let me know your thoughts, okay? -R.

For several years, fundraising-auction chairs have been able to engage the services of a number of vendors to supply their events with systems to allow their guests to bid on items using mobile technology – smartphones and tablets.

These systems have made a splash at some of the more high-profile events, but have had a harder time making inroads with school auction teams, and with smaller non-profit organizations. Why? We see three reasons:

1) Not all guests are equally capable, or comfortable, with using mobile technology – although many of us have our heads in our screens most of the day; it’s still the case that segments of the typical auction-guest population “aren’t techie-types” or adopt new apps and devices more slowly than the leading edge.

The problem here is that the fundraising at most gala auctions is highly asymmetrical – the 80/20 rule almost always applies. And if one of your most-important 20% falls into this group of less-comfortable users (or can’t get a connection on their mobile network, or just leaves their phone at home), your event is risking a lower-participation rate from these critical supporters.

Exacerbating this issue is that fact that most mobile-bidding systems require you to put ALL of your items into the mobile-bidding system – all of your silent auction items, all of your live auction items, and your paddle raise. So it is imperative that all of your guests use the system – regardless of their personal level of comfort.

2) Current mobile-bidding solutions are expensive – expect to pay $4,000 or more to implement one of these systems. Why? It goes back to reason #1 above – because it is so important to ensure participation from all guests, the vendors of mobile-bidding solutions don’t just sell their software, they also insist on providing staff and devices for your event – to help guests bid on the items.

This can work really well – at events with the budget to pay for it all. We don’t doubt that these high-end auctions benefit from the extra fun and excitement that a new, novel twist can bring to a long-running event.

3) Inflexibility - With the systems out today, the auction chair has to load ALL of the items that will be sold during the evening into the system - and guests need to bid or pledge through the mobile system for all of them. So your $100 silent auction gift certificate and your $5,000 live auction vacation package get the very same level of visibility - a single entry in the bidding list, and maybe a couple of small pictures. And regardless of your auctioneer’s preferences, all of your live auction, and your paddle raise, must be conducted through the mobile system.

Here at, we’ve been watching all of this and scratching our heads. As currently implemented, these systems just don’t seem to make sense for our customers – the ones producing events primarily with volunteers, who keep an eagle-eye on their event budgets, and who count on being able to handle event-night largely by themselves. Still, our core customers have asked us about mobile bidding frequently, so we have come up with an approach that makes sense for schools, churches, and small non-profits.

Our Approach to Mobile Bidding

In order for mobile bidding to make sense for small auctions, we have to find ways to cut cost out of the system. So when we looked at adding mobile-bidding to our system, developing a new piece of software (or an app) was out. The core functionality was already in our system as our online auction function; it was just configured for using on desktop or laptop computers, not smartphones.

So first, we reworked our user interface to be responsive– meaning that it adapts well to whatever size screen you use it on.

Then we built the auxiliary functions – an invitation system for your guests; display screens of the bidding-in-progress for your gala ballroom.

Using a lot of our existing code helped keep our costs down in building the system. Now we needed to tackle reducing the organization’s costs to implement the system.

Here, we made a strategic decision: we decided against making mobile-bidding a method for collecting bids on all of your silent-auction items, live-auction items, and paddle-raise pledges. Instead, it’s a new section entirely – a new “department” in your event.

In this approach, mobile-bidding does not have to be implemented on an “all-or-nothing” basis; instead it can be used for a selected group of items that appeal to your most-likely mobile bidders, and you can leave other items and contribution options open to all of your guests.

The mobile-bidding section is like your Wine Wall, or Raffle, or games like Heads or Tails or Chicken Bingo – a part of the mix that each guest can decide whether to participate in. Some of them won’t - but once you go in this direction, that idea that every guest has to be able to use the mobile-bidding system becomes much less imperative; those guests can find other fun ways to participate. If they can just move on to other areas and still make contributions there, then it’s not necessary to pay for 3 or 4 expert guides to attend your event with loaner iPads.

Thus, you remove thousands of dollars in costs from your implementation.

This is how we are proceeding (mobile bidding will be available later this fall), but we would love your feedback on our thinking. Let us know in the comments below.