Nonprofit organizations across the country use silent auctions as an effective way to fundraise for their causes. In the state of Arkansas, as recipients of state funding, nonprofits focused on things like medical research, children's services and the arts work with state officials to conduct their auctions, held in major metropolitan areas throughout the year. 

In January, Arkansas launched a new system to simplify the process of closing out silent auctions, replacing traditional manual processes. The new system, used in three auctions since being released, has met with positive responses, according to Phil Billingsley, general manager for the Information Network of Arkansas, a subsidiary of NIC and the state's e-government partner. The new system greatly reduced wait times after auctions, simplified the payment process, and eased auction management for organizers.

“It would benefit [the organizers] by making the process more efficient and the people attending the events are happier,” Billingsley explained to Government Technology. “If the governor’s mansion restoration committee wanted to have a fundraising event, same thing. It just makes the event more organized and a smoother process for all.”

At the end of the night at a silent auction, he explained, the old process was often cumbersome, slow and confusing. Notifying the winners was a problem for organizers -- people were confused as to whether or not they had won and the checkout process could take a half hour. “There was a lot of confusion and chaos, people asking the volunteers if they won, people not knowing if they had won. That was part of the problem,” he said.

As for the payment process, he explained, four volunteers or workers sat at laptops waiting on the winners. They would manually add up the winning items and the whole thing was managed on clipboards. Payment was taken using the computers and card-swipers.

“It was kind of frustrating for the event organizer and the people that were attending the event. So what we did was set up an automated solution that helps with the end-of-night process, primarily,” Billingsley said.

Arkansas' Silent Auction Management System was written using PHP scripting language, backed by a SQL server database. Billingsley estimated the system took about two months of part-time work to develop. “This was so new for us and so new for them, it was kind of a learning process,” he said.

Now, auctions are much smoother and simpler to manage, he said. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “One event organizer told us this was the first year that they have had zero wait lines to pay." Billingsley reported that at the first event, 44 percent of winners self-paid using their smartphones.

The new system allows event organizers to assign auction workers different duties in the system, accept payments and send out automatic notifications to winning bidders. The system dashboard provides an overview of the whole auction, and can be accessed by auction workers with tablets, smartphones or computers.

Every bidder is notified via text or email of their bidder ID number, once they've registered, either before or at the event. The bidding process was essentially kept the same. When bidding, bidders write down their ID number and their bid. At the end of the night, auction docents walk around and enter winning bidder numbers and bid values into the system using a smartphone or tablet. In addition to information about winning bidders, the system can store additional information like item value, starting bid, bid increment, or graphics from sponsors for each auction item. All of that information, Billingsley said, can be printed out onto a bid sheet.

As winning bidders are entered into the system, the system dashboard displays the progress of winning bidder entries. When all winning bidders have been entered into the system, the dashboard will show 100 percent progress and organizers will know that the system has notified all winners via text or email of which items they have won and how much they need to pay.

Winning bidders then have the option to pay right then on their smartphone or tablet using the online payment portal, or find a docent walking around with a card swipe-equipped tablet and pay that way, like they do in retail stores like the Apple store.

What was once a confusing, sometimes frustrating process, Billingsley said, is now highly automated and therefore, much faster. Non-profit organizations holding auctions to benefit causes like cancer research, heart disease, child abuse or public schools can now keep their attendees happier and increase future attendance, he said.

Image from Shutterstock.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com