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Crain’s: Engaging gala-goers with technology

Crain’s Business of Life – May 2013

Rather than fight smartphone addiction, nonprofits are trying to capitalize on it with technology that makes checking one’s iPhone part of the event, not an escape from it. “People are putting their heads down and texting during content,” says Mike Huffstetler, vice president at the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. “We’d rather have them engaged with their heads down than checking email.

The American Heart Association used Gesture, technology that employs guests’ own smartphones, for its Heart Ball silent auction this year. Guests who registered their phone number and a credit card obtained access to the silent auction catalog upon arriving at the event; a few began bidding the Tuesday before the event, when the auction was posted online for registered attendees.

The association had used BidPal’s devices the year before. Overall, the auction via smartphone was more comfortable for guests, says Maria DiCuccio, Heart Ball director. “People feel better using their own devices,” she says. Gesture staff helped guests who weren’t comfortable using the technology get started, then checked in with them periodically during the event. Staff also carried iPads to let guests without smartphones bid, Ms. DiCuccio says.

Heart Ball’s silent auction grossed $95,000, a 28 percent increase over last year, she says; she declines to give the cost of the technology. Overall, onsite fundraising, including the silent auction, accounted for $350,000 of the event’s $1.7 million gross.

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