Hot Nonprofit Auctions

May 15, 2007       Craig Causer      

The NBC show Heroes flaunts a lot of power — a Japanese comic book geek who can bend time, a cheerleader with the ability to spontaneously regenerate from any injury and a nurse who can mimic the powers of others. The key to the program’s success has been the characters’ various interrelations and how they have attempted to team up to save the world.

Much like in the fictional show, nonprofits are realizing that when it comes to online auctions, finding effective partners with which to team can provide a significant boost in revenue.

Charitable auctions raised more than $16 billion for meaningful causes during 2006, according to a report by the National Auctioneers Association. That number stands to grow, according to the report, which found a steady increase in total sales year over year from 2003 to 2006.

Jon Carson, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based online charity auction provider cMarket, predicts more growth in the charitable auction market, particularly online. “We see a bunch of anecdotal data points in the market that suggest there’s a shift from an early adopter stage to the next phase, which is generally referred to as early majority,” said Carson.

Of course, it never hurts to have a real hero come to your aid as was the case with the Landover, Md.-based Epilepsy Foundation.

Actor Greg Grunberg plays a mind-reading police officer on Heroes but off screen he was a significant force behind the success of the recent NBC Heroes Auction to benefit the Epilepsy Foundation.

“Heroes came about because Greg has been involved with the Epilepsy Foundation in California because of his son,” explained Kimberli Meadows, director of public relations and media outreach at the foundation. “We connected with him through our affiliate and from there it has just taken off. He then called and told us about this Heroes auction, which means that he engaged NBC.”

Grunberg was able to secure four pieces of artwork that are essential to the show’s general mythology. Auctions were held at www.nbc.com/heroes on March 26 and April 2 and each featured two full-size, autographed, limited edition prints by artist Tim Sale and drawings of artwork used in the show. Each auction lasted two days. The auctions brought in more than $50,000.

The NBC.com site brought the auction added traffic, as did Grunberg cutting 10-second promos about the auction that aired during the show. “The costs for us were extremely minimal,” Meadows added. “It’s more sweat equity than anything else.”

Spotlight on nonprofits

MissionFish has been helping nonprofits sustain money-generating auctions for years, but the organization has created a blueprint that targets the varying segments of the eBay community to raise even more money for charity. Dubbed “Spotlight on…” campaigns, they are intended to make the most of what eBay does best — connecting people around things about which they are passionate.

Themed promotions have been organized around issue areas that are relevant to the eBay community, including spotlights on Breast Cancer Awareness, Holiday Dreams (Katrina rebuilding), World AIDS Day, National Mentoring Month, Healthy Hearts, Arts Education and Saving Our Environment.

“This is the first year we’ve done these Spotlights, so we have been experimenting with every aspect of each campaign,” said Clam Lorenz, director of operations at MissionFish. “However, what’s constant in each one is that we’re engaging a cross-section of our users to coordinate their actions for a specific period of time. For example, in our upcoming ‘Spotlight on Saving Our Environment,’ we’ll have coordinated activity at every level. Our high-profile item sellers will organize some of their big-ticket auctions around environmental groups and eBay is promoting ‘Spotlight on Saving Our Environment’ (and the participating nonprofits) across a range of their buyer-facing channels.”

One of the first spotlight campaigns was held in October 2006 and highlighted breast cancer awareness. The event rounded up $101,992, a 137-percent jump from 2005 when the non-spotlight breast cancer campaign gathered $43,042. At the end of 2006, the Holiday Dreams campaign to aid rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina collected a record $601,554, of which only about 10 percent came from high-value, celebrity-donated items, Lorenz said.

The New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity was one of many nonprofits that benefited from the Holiday Dreams exposure. “The thing about the eBay community is that there are not a huge number of sellers, as I look at the spreadsheet,” said Bob Marye, development and church relations coordinator at the New Orleans Area Habitat. “But there are sellers that are consistent in their sales for Habitat. Roughly 846 transactions have taken place during the last 10 months and I’d say of those probably 15 sellers count for 90 percent of that total.”

Saintly Sum

Studies show that K-12 schools, public and private, is the number one category of adopters of auctions, followed by arts organizations, faith-based groups, and higher education. The best items were found in some studies to be, in this order, trips, sports items, art, entertainment/leisure, and dining. And while Carson and others advise including these mainstays in an auction, “the broader theme here, however, is the groups that can access the more interesting items, the celebrity items, and most specifically celebrity experiences, will generally always have a good outcome.”

For St. Mark’s Catholic School in Plano, Texas, raising funds traditionally centered on a one-night event. To promote its “fund-a-cause” goal of purchasing projectors and screens for every classroom, the school branched out and preceded the event with its first-ever online auction.

“We would normally have a silent auction followed by a live auction,” explained Louis Murad, event co-chair and professional auctioneer. “We did those items that would be considered silent — items we thought would bring less than $1,000 online. That way we were able to solicit grandparents, extended family and friends of the school who would now have a chance to bid on items at any time during the day, but there was also an area where they could also just donate money electronically to the school.”

St. Mark’s instituted AuctionPay’s Online Auction solution, which helped reach out beyond school parents to relatives and other school supporters that were unable to attend its live event. AuctionPay’s online auction tools produced a flurry of online bidding activity that was convenient for many people outside the school’s local geographic range, added Murad.

In fact, a bidding war erupted between two grandmothers — one in Florida and one in California — each eyeing a lunch with one of the school’s teachers followed by a movie at the local cinema. The item was pegged to go for around $200, Murad said, but sold for $2,200.

The online auction raised $25,000 – more than one-fourth of the school’s total revenue of $97,000.

In some instances, the best auction items are the ones you had no idea about. Take Save the Children (STC), which learned along with the rest of The Colbert Report viewers that it would benefit from the sale of host Stephen Colbert’s portrait on eBay.

Colbert made the surprise announcement on his Comedy Central show at the end of last year, saying, “This is a real auction of a real portrait to benefit a real charity.” The portrait, a picture of Colbert standing in front of a picture of Colbert, eventually sold for $50,605 to eBay bidder “Colbertnationalist1,” the alias of the Charleston, S.C.-based Sticky Fingers restaurant owners.

“Basically, we were thrilled,” said Mike Kiernan, spokesman for the Westport, Conn.-based children’s charity. Kiernan said not only was the money a pleasant surprise, but so was the added benefit of reaching an audience “that every charity wants to reach. People in their 20s and 30s who are pretty savvy about what’s going on in the world.”

Maria Herrmann found herself in a similar situation after an auction item, a golf trip she at first dubbed “a minor tournament in Orlando,” turned out to be one of the most popular items on the bill at a recent online auction to benefit Points of Light Foundation (PoLF).

Herrmann said the golf trips, which included two tickets to the event, a weekend stay at a resort, and the occasional shoulder rub with the likes of Tiger Woods, sold for about $1,500 apiece, nearly double their original cost. Herrmann acquired the trips from incentive travel company Mitch-Stuart, Inc., which provides travel packages at no risk to charities.

“Because Mitch-Stuart’s prices don’t fluctuate based on market price, there are certainly times of the year that you can get a better deal. But nine times out of 10 their prices are competitive with the marketplace,” said Herrmann, who said PoLF has sold more than $1 million worth of trips provided by Mitch-Stuart since 2003.

To get the biggest bang for the buck, Stuart Paskow, the company’s chief executive officer and co-founder, advised capitalizing on the competitive nature of a live auction. “At a live auction, (charities) very often make twice as much as a silent auction.”

Walking “Items”

The Emmanuel Cancer Foundation runs a successful annual golf tournament, with an auction piece that generates around $100,000 each year from the sale of sports items, golf outings, the typical fare, said Ximena Gutierrez, central regional director at the charity’s Scotch Plains, N.J. office. To reach out to a very different crowd, young people in their 20s and 30s, the cancer charity decided to try something a bit racier.

This year’s fourth annual bachelor/bachelorette auction was held at the Colorado Café, in Watchung, N.J., a spacious venue popular for its live music, line dancing, and often unlimited rides on the venue’s resident mechanical bull. The space was donated, and promotion was made possible through Free FM, 92.3, allowing the foundation to waive charging an entrance fee. The foundation also garnered free promotion via New Jersey Young Professionals (NJYP), an online social networking group, which also provided a host of the bachelors and bachelorettes.

Laura Labriola, a Caldwell, N.J., resident and member of NJYP, said she learned about the auction through a posting on the group’s Web site. “I decided to sign up on a whim. It was for a good cause and I was single,” said Labriola. “I figured that getting ‘bought’ by a random person and going on a date with him is not that much different than meeting someone on an online dating site.”

Labriola and the other 19 participants accounted for $4,000 of the $5,500 raised during the April 12 event.

Celebrity auction items are generally solid sellers, according to cMarket’s Carson, who noted a charity auction at this past February’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival, generated nearly $280,000. One of the standout items was an opportunity to have pop singer Jessica Simpson record an outgoing voice message, which sold for around $500.

The National Hockey League (NHL) profited from its own celebrities when it auctioned two goalie masks, designed and painted by sports artist David Arrigo and signed by the six goaltenders who played in the 2007 NHL All-Star Game. The masks drew 190 bids and netted a combined $12,030 for the USO at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency, and The Sapper Mike McTeague Wounded Warrior Fund. NPT