Blog Post

How mobile is reviving old school silent auctions

If you’ve had some experience supporting a non-profit or a local school, you’ve probably been through your share of silent auctions: a hundred items packed into a room, all accompanied by clipboards asking people to bid in between trips to the bar. It’s a low-tech form of fundraising, familiar to many but poised to be remade through mobile.

That’s what BiddingForGood, a sort of eBay for non-profit online auctions, woud like to do with the launch of its Smart Bidding technology Wednesday. The platform will bring BiddingForGood’s auction services into physical locations for the first time, enabling organizations to use mobile devices to jazz up traditional silent auctions and expand their reach.

Charity fund raisers who integrate their silent auctions with Smart Bidding can now offer users at an event the ability to browse, bid and monitor their bids from their mobile phone. Items can be listed with a URL or a QR code, allowing people to initiate their bids online. Then they can use the Smart Bidding technology to bid by proxy, so the system will automatically bid on their behalf up to certain limits. Users can also get alerts on higher bids and they can keep bidding on multiple items right up until the end of the auction. For bidders who don’t have smartphones, organizations are also able to set up laptop stations to participate in an auction.

The Smart Bidding platform also allows auction organizers, often non-profits and schools, to extend the hours of the auction and open it up to many more people. That means bidders can weigh in before, during or after an event and the items can be shared with people not in attendance, including visitors to, which gets a million shoppers a month.

Jon Carson, the CEO of BiddingForGood, told me in an interview that the use of mobile phones can compensate for many of the inefficiencies and friction inherent in traditional auctions. Auctions are often staged during parties or bigger events and the time limits, narrow audience and the work required to monitor multiple bids can also prevent people from actively participating. Carson said since quietly launching the service in a pilot last fall, participating organizations have seen their average number of bidders increase by 41 percent and their overall revenue go up by 20 percent. And at some events, more than 70 percent of the bids came from outside the room.

“You won’t see a clipboard in the room in five years because mobile works too well,” said Carson.

Organizations using Cambridge, Mass.-based BiddingForGood have raised $150 million since it launched its online service nine years ago. The service, which has raised $30 million in VC funding to date, makes its money by taking a cut of the proceeds. Even before Smart Bidding, mobile was already making an impact on BiddingForGood’s online auctions. Carson said about 15 percent of visitors have been coming in from mobile devices, though the site was not optimized for mobile. Now that the site is getting optimized for small devices with Smart Bidding, he said the number of visitors coming in on mobile has tripled.

Carson said the emergence of mobile comes at a critical time for fundraisers, who are seeing philanthropy go into decline thanks to a tough economy and waning government support. He said as more donors get mobile savvy, it’s opening opportunities to reverse some of the declines in giving. With mobile support, donors are giving more out of their discretionary budget spending, not out OF the money they’ve set aside from charities.

“The only way that schools and non-profits can stay in the game is identify new sources of revenue. Our role is to make them more effective in an e-commerce ecosystem,” Carson said.

Silent auctions are one part of charity auction fundraising, which generates $16 billion a year, said Carson. He said organizations put on 250,000 of these events a year. There’s no guarantee that BiddingForGood will be utilized for many of these events, but I think that it makes sense for mobile to play a much more central role in these types of fundraising endeavors. We’re already seeing how Square and other mobile payment companies are helping non-profits and big time political candidates like President Obama raise money. We’ve seen how text messaging campaigns can bring in a lot of money for natural disasters. Mobile is a real game changer and it is showing that it can be a potent tool for raising money.

Image courtesy of Flickr user pugg71.

4 Responses to “How mobile is reviving old school silent auctions”

  1. Charity Auction Fan

    This writer perhaps is not well versed in the online charity auction world. is eBay’s charity division. The site is optimized for mobile devices, with an eBay App that is easy to use. eBay is the better place for charity auctions as you have a nonprofit’s own supporters bidding against 100 million worldwide eBay members. Plus eBay offers nonprofits 100% free auctions, no listing fee or commission. And no, I do not work for eBay, just very familiar with charity auctions.

  2. paul shillinger

    Not really a comment on the article; I just wanted to thank you for being a decent human being who actually credits the people whose photos you use! -pugg71

  3. Nicholas

    There are other companies that do this, and a friend has used the technology for the past two yearly auctions. What is great is that like Pizza Hut for orders, users spend more money in apps and it raises returns enough to offset the technology implementation.