Unique Adventures Energize Nonprofit Auction Lots

May 15, 2005       Craig Causer      

Six Flags Great Adventure decided that it wanted to shake up its event to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network (CMN). With the April opening of Kingda Ka, the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster, the Jackson, N.J., amusement park auctioned off the opportunity to experience the inaugural ride, which includes being launched from 0 to 128 mph in 3.5 seconds and climbing 456 feet from the ground.

The eBay-hosted auction might not have started out of the gate as quickly, but it crested beyond the hopes of both CMN and Great Adventure.

“I wish I could take credit for this but it kind of fell into our lap,” admitted Bill Tawpash, executive director at CMN, New York Metro Area in Martinsville, N.J. “The idea really came from Great Adventure and their marketing team. They approached us as a potential charity and we were eventually selected.”

Whether it’s a stomach-churning spin on a coaster or a medical procedure, yes, a medical procedure, nonprofits are jazzing up online auction items.

Great Adventure had been tossing around ideas regarding just how to unveil the record-breaking coaster in a unique and spectacular fashion for the first ride, explained Kristin Siebeneicher, public relations manager at Great Adventure. The company looked at people who resembled its depilated, dancing Mr. Six character as well as people who are world record holders. But it came down to the fact that it was an opportunity to do something good, so the company changed its focus to a charitable endeavor, specifically one that would benefit children, Siebeneicher said.

The auction posted 18 lots, one per seat on the Kingda Ka’s first trip. Great Adventure selected a dollar amount that coincided with the height of the coaster with which to start the bidding for each seat. Winners would be seated in the car, front to back, from highest bid to lowest.

“We were a little nervous that $456 for a minimum bid was too high,” Siebeneicher said. “We felt it was a significant number … but even if we only met our minimum per seat, that would raise over $8,000. We really hoped that we could get beyond $10,000.”

All 18 seats were sold with the lowest winning bid being $710 and the highest topping out at just more than $1,690. The auction collected slightly more than $15,000.

CMN allowed Great Adventure to use its MissionFish account through eBay and did not accumulate a penny in costs.“This is going to be straight net dollars for us,” said Tawpash. “It’s a different and exciting item and we’re just as ecstatic as the winners are, I’m sure.”

Generation GAP

Parents are paying thousands of dollars to get their children jobs. No, it’s not a gesture of unethical love but rather a sign of the changing face of charitable auctions.

The Menlo School in Atherton, Calif., assembled an impressive array of internships for its online benefit auction, which it listed with auction services provider cMarket. The school offered up two paid internships at the San Francisco headquarters of clothing retailer the GAP, one paid internship at Smith Barney Securities Brokerage Corporate Client Group and one non-paid internship at a local theater company, TheatreWorks. Winners shelled out $7,200 each for the GAP, $2,200 for Smith Barney and $1,200 for TheatreWorks.

The winning bids were all the more impressive since the internships were free from any purchase costs. Each was donated as a result of the work of parents and staff associated with the school.

“Schools and organizations have done ‘experience’ types of items all the time,” said Libby Taylor, benefit chair for the Menlo School’s fundraising event. “This was the first time that we’ve done an online auction. We just wanted to offer a variety of things to purchase to appeal to that broader online participation. People want to give money for something of value beyond a party or a trip somewhere. There’s an intrinsic value with this not apparent in other experiences.”

The bidding for internships began at $1,000 and was based upon what the school believed a parent would be willing to pay. Taylor could not attribute the bidding war to any specific factor, although she did cite the “excellent” value of the internships that were procured.

Since the Menlo School offers all of its students internships throughout the year, Taylor mentioned that an added advantage was the increased awareness for both students and parents as to the benefits that the school has to offer.

For one Connecticut school, a variety of internships proved to be a tidal wave of support for its “Surf’s Up” event. Internships included the Universal Music Group, a local Connecticut Chapter of the Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., an internship in Robert F. Kennedy’s office at Riverkeeper and an experience at the state Attorney General’s office.

“People are always looking for interesting things fo r their children to do in the summer,” explained the event chair, who requested that both she and the school remain anonymous. “Internships don’t cost anything and it’s a good way for them to provide a little service and make a little money.”

Some of the interships were listed with buyout prices along the lines of eBay’s “Buy It Now” feature. The school priced them at $3,000, a little more than they thought they would sell, but a couple internships were bought at that price, the event chair said.

Despite the success, the school learned an important lesson when auctioning off experiences that take place during the summer months. “People tend to plan early for the summer,” the event chair explained. “Our event was in May, so I think that hurt us a little bit because most people know what they’re doing for the summer by then. If you had the event in January or the fall, when people are thinking about the summer, it might do even better.”

Travel agents

Sitting on the beach while two-fisting margaritas hardly sounds like a charitable endeavor but many organizations are reaping the benefits of auctioning off lavish, high-end travel packages.

The Points of Light (PoL) Foundation in Washington, D.C., uses them for its live fundraising auctions and also sells them directly from its print catalog. The types of trips offered are seasonal, although the Hawaii packages that include airfare and hotel accommodations “go like hotcakes year-round,” according to Maria Herrmann, senior director at PoL.

“Say somebody lives in California and they’re looking to go to Hawaii for a week — that’s six days at a Marriott resort and airfare for two – it’s typically $1,500. We make anywhere from $500 to $1,000 on top of that,” Hermann explained. “We also list the retail price of all the packages.”

PoL secures its packages from incentive travel program provider Mitch-Stuart, Inc., on consignment. For example, the nonprofit will list an auction for a week in Kauai. If it doesn’t sell at the price that the organization has designated, it is not required to purchase that package. The trip is always available so if it is purchased, PoL has the funds to secure the order. It does not outlay any money in advance, nor would it sell a package at a price that wouldn’t be profitable, Herrmann explained.

“The program benefits nonprofits because there is no up-front cost,” explained Stuart Paskow, chief executive officer of Mitch-Stuart, Inc. “They are not required to purchase the travel package unless it sells. Nonprofits also have the option of designing their own packages.”

The certificates that are ordered for airfare and hotels typically expire 15 months from the date of issue, giving the winner flexibility in planning the trip.

The program has proven to be low-maintenance for PoL. The travel package program costs little beyond an extra sheet of paper that the organization sends out to alert members, Herrmann said. PoL does not have to handle the shipping, either. Mitch-Stuart conducts most of the fulfillment leaving PoL to basically accept the orders before passing it on.

These travel items have been offered by PoL since June 2004 and it has sold approximately 100-150 different types of packages, Herrmann said. The organization is currently planning to hold a live auction during its annual conference in August to open up the bidding to members.

“For an organization that sells coffee cups and books on volunteer management, it’s been a nice addition,” Herrmann explained. “Though it’s not necessarily the mindset of the people who are our traditional customer base, when you consider that we’ve made at least $500 on each of these (packages), that’s a nice sum of money in a year.”

Travel does not always have to be in the high-end to benefit nonprofits. For the Leukemia Research Foundation (LRF) in Glenview, Ill., its auctions are more often centered on airline certificates.

LRF typically utilizes American Airline certificates, valid for the continental United States, Europe and the Caribbean, and anywhere that American Airlines flies. When holding a silent auction, the organization attempts to pair the air travel with tickets, such as being in the audience for The Late Show with David Letterman in New York City or Oprah in Chicago.

“Our donors are very generous and we’re able to get things like tickets to Letterman or a condo in Telluride,” said Maria Zeller, the foundation’s director of special events. “Because we’re able to get those types of experiences, we’ll then get the airline certificates since that complete package makes us a lot more money in the long run.”

For complete packages, the foundation aims for an amount more than $5,000. Zeller said. It generally starts the bidding at a certain level rather than set a reserve price.

“We want to get the most money we can for the complete experiences,” Zeller added. “They’ve proven to be popular as well as good fundraising items for us.”

Monkey business

The power of the primate in American culture has been undeniable. Some of the most iconic images have teamed man and beast from Tarzan and Cheetah, B.J. and the Bear and the Wonder Twins, Zan and Janna, and their Wonder-monkey Gleek. So it should come as no surprise that monkey would once again aid man, this time in the realm of fundraising.

When a new species of monkey was discovered at Madidi National Park in Bolivia, the brown and orange, two-pound, foot-tall, fruit-loving primate had yet to be named. For the first time, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Bronx, N.Y., decided that it would auction off the rights to name the species. The high bidder will have their species name permanently entered into all future references, including scientific publications, field guides, and other publications.

“The guy who discovered the monkey (WCS conservationist Dr. Robert Wallace) worked in the park for a number of years,” explained WCS spokesperson Stephen Sautner. “He thought to himself that he wanted to protect the park. He could do the normal thing when you find a new species — you name it after a colleague or after the place it was found. But he really wanted to use it to try and raise money for the park. So he came up with the idea himself, approached us and we took it and ran with it.”

The auction ran from February 24 to March 3. The winning $650,000 bid was placed by Internet casino GoldenPalace.com. The online casino has chosen to name the species Callicebus aureipalatii, which is Latin for “Golden Palace,” since the “.com” cannot be translated. GoldenPalace.com is no stranger to winning unique online auctions. The company garnered attention in November 2004 when it placed the $28,000 winning bid in an eBay auction selling a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich bearing what some believe is the image of the Virgin Mary.

The funds raised will go directly to a group in South America called FUNDESNAP. The Bolivian-based NGO is closely affiliated with the park service and is responsible for managing Madidi National Park. The park service has designated the funds for enforcement, protection and management of Madidi and its wildlife, Sautner said.

While the WCS has auctioned off naming rights for individual animals at The Bronx Zoo, it found that getting the word out to a more global audience was the key to a more active auction. According to Sautner, the bidding war began once the nonprofit released video footage of the monkey, which was picked up from the United States to Australia and Europe and Africa.

Offering the opportunity to label a species is not an everyday occurrence, but WCS is hopeful that it will ge t the chance to try the auction again one day.

“It’s rare to find these animals,” Sautner said. “We have been really lucky in that we’ve discovered another species of monkey in Asia late last year. There’s also another species in Africa that we’re not able to announce yet. It’s not something you can do every day because you don’t find these new species regularly. It’s usually once every several years that you’ll hear that an organization found something in the Amazon or something like that.”

Model idea

The March of Dimes (MoD) might argue that the revelation of America’s Next Top Model will come from the pages of a retail catalog rather than the lips of Tyra Banks. San Francisco-based children’s clothing retailer Gymboree is consistently inundated with emails from parents asking how their children can become models.

The company took the inquiries and coupled it with its long-standing partnership with MoD to create a fundraising auction that offers opportunities for mothers and their children to appear as models in the 2005 Gymboree Holiday Photo Shoot.

Now in its third year, five modeling spots are up for bid. As of press time, the Mother-Daughter modeling package had reached $20,100 with one day remaining. There were four modeling packages the previous two years, all of which went for approximately $20,000 each, according to Jacklyn Schatzow, public relations manager at Gymboree. The first year the packages went for approximately $10,000-$15,000.

“There is no work on our end,” explained Kristen Fiore, development director of March of Dimes’ California chapter. “Gymboree just runs it through eBay and MissionFish. The individuals who win the au ctions pay us directly through MissionFish. Last year was the first time we saw amounts really take off — all of the auctions they ran were over $15,000. So I’m not surprised that the mother/daughter modeling package has gone beyond $20,000.”

“Vas” difference

Shelly Patten, special events coordinator at the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LSPCA), offered up the organization’s most talked about item with a smile. One of its event committee members is a nurse and was able to convince a doctor to donate a no-scalpel vasectomy. But that’s not the half of it.

“When we got it (the vasectomy), we thought it would be really cool if we put it with a cat neuter,” Patten laughed. “You know, take care of the men in your life all at one time.”

The couple who won the package did not want to have children and they had been married for seven years. The wife won it for her husband and while Patten is unsure if the vasectomy was ever endured, she stated that the couple did, in fact, “take care” of one of their cats.

The value of the entire package was approximately $550 and the LSPCA received a winning bid of $120. The payoff did not arrive from the bidding but from the attention that the item brought to the auction event. A local disc jockey hawked the items at the organization’s event and the package caused a viral response online, according to Patten.

“Odd items like this, although they may not be popular items to bid on, are great novelties and word of mouth,” Patten added. “The biggest benefit for us is that it got us a lot of viral attention via email. We would definitely do it again. It wasn’t how much money this particular item brought in itself. It was how much it generated indirectly by making it lighthearted.”