April 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April 2000 Current Issue
April 2000 Association StrategiesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Association Strategies

By Robert Eilers


How to put a high-tech spin on a classic, effective fund-raising tool

In the stable of fund-raising strategies on which organizations rely, the silent auction is an old but dependable workhorse. As with any successful endeavor, however, relying on it too many times can lead to donor fatigue. Foundations often are challenged to create new variations on the proven formula. Enter the online auction, where members can bid on the items over the Web.

In a traditional silent auction, associations raise money by putting donated goods or services up for bid. Holding the auction online offers the added advantage of accommodating members’ 24-7 work schedules. Because these auctions do not require on-site participation, going online extends them to a broader audience than the attendees at the convention.

The Foundation of Meeting Professionals International has been operating a silent auction for eight years in conjunction with our winter conference. In 1998, we made the decision to supplement the on-site event with an online component.

The first decision we faced was whether to contract with an existing site to host our auction or to find an affordable, off-the-shelf auction package to install on our own Web server. We chose the latter for three reasons:

  • Control. We wanted to customize the look and feel of the site as much as possible.
  • Solidarity. MPI had committed to creating a full-service member Web site, and we wanted the auction to be a part of that.
  • Revenue. Most hosted auctions required that we share a percentage of the winning bids. Coupled with the setup costs, we were afraid our proceeds would diminish significantly.

    With a consultant’s help, we identified four programs, ranging from $1,200 to $25,000. The capability range was similarly vast. We settled for the lower-middle ground and purchased Emaze Auction (, the software we still are using. When purchasing software, be sure to consider the following.

  • Style and template editors.Can you create a unique look and feel?
  • Security certificates and automatic encryption capability. This is necessary because the site will be collecting credit card information from your members.
  • Ease of management and administration. This has a major effect on cost; buying the software is only the beginning. Managing the auction in-house takes the time of your most techno-savvy employee. If a third party is building and possibly managing the pages, figure those fees into the auction budget.
  • System flexibility. Check how well the product handles images. (People seldom buy what they cannot see.) Will you use a member database to authorize bidders? If the auction will be open only to members, the software has to enable the site to require a member number or a password.
  • Friendly bidder interface. Online auctions are still new for many end users. Hand-holding is a must.
  • Our final product offers us a number of practical options:

  • Presetting opening and closing dates for each item
  • Uploading thumbnail and full-scale images
  • Showcasing “hot deals” on the site’s home page
  • Setting minimum and maximum bid levels and bidding increments
  • The system also sends automatic e-mails, using customizable templates, informing people when they have been outbid and when they win.

    Although we continue to conduct the on-site auction, MPI members unable to attend the conference say they enjoy bidding for prize packages online. So far, the online proceeds are just a fraction of the on-site auction’s, but we are convinced those dollars will grow.

    Robert Eilers is executive director of the Foundation of Meeting Professionals international ( based in Dallas.

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