Practical Ecommerce

How to Choose Charitable Auction Software

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

Many non-profit organizations (NPOs) hold charitable auctions to raise funds. Often, software is needed to manage bidding, checkout, and administrative functions. To choose the software package that best fits your needs, consider the options you must have, those it would be good to have, and those you won’t use.

Auction Administrative Functions

Owned or hosted. The first decision to make about your auction software is whether or not you want to own the software package and host it yourselves, or pay an ongoing fee and have the software hosted in the cloud. (If you have an IT department, you want them involved in this decision.)

There are pros and cons to owning your software. The up-front cost is higher, but the ongoing costs are typically lower than hosted packages (estimate about 20% of the initial cost per year).

You may be limited to using the software on a single computer or paying for additional licenses. This is an important consideration because you’ll need the software to be mobile or Internet accessible so you can use it at your auction locations.

If you buy into a cloud-hosted system, you will pay a monthly or annual fee to access the software through a web-based interface. This lightens the burden on your IT infrastructure and personnel, and with a web-based interface, you’ll be able to use the software anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Responsive design. Another important feature to look for is responsive design. You want the auction software to be usable on a variety of platforms — desktop, tablet, and smartphone so that you can have mobile bidding and checkout.

Charity-specific software. Auction software is available in for-profit and not-for-profit varieties. The for-profit software is usually for companies who run multiple online auctions, such as competitors to eBay in specialized niches. The non-profit version includes features that make it compatible with the ways non-profit organizations would utilize the software.

If your NPO runs many auctions, numerous simultaneous auctions, or needs a high degree of customization, you might consider the for-profit software packages instead. If you only run one auction at a time, or a few per year, you’re probably much better off with a software package specifically for non-profits.

Website integration. When choosing auction software, look for a package with customization options that enable you to design the website to match your existing brand. That way, when your constituents visit your online auction, it will be clear that it is your organization holding the event.

Pricing. If your auctions are very simple, you may only need the ability to run the auction and allow people to bid. However, there are several other auction pricing options to consider.

  • Reserve price. The reserve price is like a minimum bid; an amount below which you will not sell the item. It ensures that valuable items are not under bid or sold at prices lower than their reasonable value. Almost all auction software allows reserve pricing.
  • Fixed price. Some auctions allow items to be sold outright at any time for a fixed price. These may be items of low value where the bidding is not expected to go far, or other items where you expect little competitive bidding. If you anticipate having many of these types of items, be sure to look for a “buy” or set price option.
  • Fixed price classifieds. A third kind of pricing option, fixed price classifieds, is not part of the auction itself, but are classified ads offered at a fixed price. This pricing option is not always available in auction software.

Controlled timing. If you have ever used eBay, you are probably familiar with controlled timing in auctions. The bidding on an item is only open for a fixed period, 24 hours, for example. If your NPO runs many auctions, or has an ongoing auction, you will need this controlled timing feature.

Most charity auctions are held in conjunction with events, so the timing is fixed for all items in the auction. The bidding ends when the event ends. If this is the case with your auctions, you won’t need the controlled timing feature.

Other features. Other administrative features to consider include the ability to approve and register bidders within the auction package. This may be an important part of the reporting and check out process.

If you hold large auctions, you may need to setup categories and subcategories for the auction items to make it easier for bidders to peruse them online.

Also, look at the reporting features of the auction software. While it’s unlikely any one package will offer every report you could want, be sure the package you select provides the two or three reports you use most often, and that they are easy to access.

Integrating one software package with another can be expensive and time-consuming, if you want to automate the process. If you only do a few auctions a year, it’s not a sound investment.

Whether or not you will automate the integration, consider how you will share data with other systems like your donor database, fundraising suite, event management, and payment processing systems.

Auction Management

Number of photos. One of the features to consider in auction management includes the number of photos allowed per item. This is more important if you run your auctions mostly online where people won’t have a chance to see the items in person. Closely related is the ability to offer a detailed item description.

Live and silent auctions. Will your online auction software support a live auction? Many NPOs combine both live and silent auctions, and it’s convenient to have one software package that supports both formats.

Inventory management. Anyone who has ever organized a charity auction has experienced the joy of inventory management. Just keeping track of all the items, photos, and descriptions can be quite a task. A good software package can simplify the process of inventory management and setting up the auction.

Other features. Other desired features include multiple language support, support for multiple users in multiple locations, automated generation of receipts and thank you notes, and automatically calculated shipping costs.

Auction User Functions

Item list appearance. Features that are important to bidders include the item list appearance. Think of how much has been invested by online giants like eBay and Amazon into their product listings in order to make buying a pleasant experience. You want to make your auctions fun and easy, and the item list appearance is a key part of your bidders’ experience.

Auto-bid. Experienced bidders will appreciate the ability to auto-bid. This is where the bidder sets a minimum initial bid and a hidden maximum bid, then lets the software continue to increase his or her bid throughout the auction, up to the maximum bid. It saves time for the bidder and ensures that you receive everyone’s maximum bid without interrupting their evening.

Mobile bidding. Newer auction software allows bidders to use an app on their smartphone or tablet to bid. This is convenient for the bidder and means you don’t have to supply devices at the auction. When bidding closes, the highest bidder is automatically charged for their items, so there is no line to checkout. Attendees pick up their items and go, or elect to have them shipped.

Receipt printing. Bidders like having the ability to print their receipts, even months after the event at tax time, in case they can’t find the original.

Cathy Qori

Cathy Qori

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  1. Jonathan Kazarian August 28, 2015 Reply

    Great article Cathy. I’m the founder of an online and mobile bidding platform called Accelevents. I’d love to chat with you about the benefits of text-message bidding on mobile.

  2. Gordon September 8, 2015 Reply

    What about handing and storing credit card numbers, and security for this?

    • John November 27, 2015 Reply

      You can setup a paypal account that is linked to the site. Check with Paypay if you are non profit I believe they have special types of accounts for nonprofits that cost little to none.

    • Jonathan Kazarian May 10, 2016 Reply

      Hi Gordon,

      Most online auction providers will have the ability to store credit cards or another means of payment. One thing to consider is whether you want to require all bidders to enter their CC info up front (which is a barrier to bidding) or just ask the winners for their payment info (digitally). For smaller events, we generally recommend the later which helps to get more people bidding. Keep in mind, you can always make the next highest bidder the winner if the highest bidder neglects to pay.

      -Jon (Accelevents, CEO)

  3. Zach Hagopian December 10, 2016 Reply

    Great article. As a founder of a silent auction software company and host of an annual fundraiser, I can relate to many of these features. I typically like to think of mobile silent auctions in two phases – pre-event and during the event.

    We encourage all of our clients to open their online / mobile silent auctions about a week before their physical fundraising event. This allows them to collect bids from a larger audience and for a longer period of time. Prior to an event, the majority of bidding will take place on an online bidding page. For this reason, the order of items, availability of images, and general user experience are very important features to consider.

    During the event, we see many users switch to text message bidding, as they are able to see items in person and thus do not need the images that are on an online auction page. At this point, the mobile bidding mechanism is the most important feature to consider. You will want a system that allows for outbid and winner notifications so that your guests can seamlessly participate in your auction while enjoying the fundraiser.