Unique Items Drive Fundraising Auctions

April 1, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

An autographed copy of the speech by Barack Obama after his victory in the Iowa caucuses; two torn, plastic Wal-Mart bags; Stephen Hawking in zero gravity. Even "Carnac The Magnificent" might have been stumped by the answer: Name three items sold by nonprofits via online auctions.

With an estimated $16 billion a year being spent during online auctions, there is no shortage of wacky stuff you can find. But what items are nonprofits (or their supporters) using best to raise money for their charity?

Sports tickets and sports memorabilia have a proven track record when it comes to online auctions. The New England Aquarium in Boston got a hold of tickets to this year’s Super Bowl three days before the big game. The tickets were posted on Thursday morning, with bidding reaching $4,200 by noon that day, before someone used the Buy Now feature and purchased them for $8,000. "You can’t do that in a room, because the event might not be for another few months," said Jon Carson, CEO of cMarket, an online auction company in Cambridge, Mass.

Tickets to opening day at Fenway Park in Boston were going for about $900 on cMarket a month before the game. Boston Red Sox World Series tickets were also big last fall. Lance Armstrong’s autographed yellow jersey from the 2003 Tour de France raked in $36,000 for the Pan Mass Challenge.

Sports memorabilia is a big seller, particularly among men, but items linked to a celebrity also bring in their fair share. Just ask Oxfam America, which is fortunate to have actress Scarlett Johansson as a supporter. With a little effort, she could be good for raising six figures for the charity by herself this year.

Two tickets to be Johansson’s guest to the premiere of her movie He’s Just Not That Into You, reached $8,200 after its first day on eBay before surpassing $40,000 via 170 bids.

Autographed DVDs of Johansson films Lost In Translation and Girl With The Pearl Earring fetched around $500 a piece.

An auction to benefit Memphis-based St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital featured UGG boots signed by a number of celebrities: actor Matthew McConaughey, which after 99 bids sold for $9,278; actress Liv Tyler, $7,720; and Martha Stewart, $3,000.

Likewise, political memorabilia can bring in the bucks, and organizations based in Washington, D.C., in particular could find an audience outside of their circle of supporters. The Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., approaches parents to donate anything they have that might be of potential value in an auction. For an auction that closed in March, the school received an autographed copy of the original speech that Democrat Barack Obama made after winning the Iowa caucuses in January. Bidding started at $1,000 and the speech sold for $2,600 after nine bids.

One Edmund Burke parent — a photographer for U.S. News & World Report — offered up his award-winning photo of President George W. Bush on a trip to Africa five years ago. "It was one of those unscripted moments with Bush looking sort of toward the camera, and in the background are several amorous elephants," said Claudia Comins, director of development and alumni affairs. The photo sold for $250.

The auction, which has been held the past seven years to raise money for financial aid for students, usually generates about $80,000 to $90,000, according to Comins. The highest-selling items tend to be trips, such as a cruise that went for about $6,000 while other trips generally average about $3,500. Some parents offer their professional services, such as massage therapists, as well as bonus travel miles or a weekend at vacation homes.

"Restaurants and trips are our best items because they’re so usable," Comins said. Online auctions allow the school to open its events to donors beyond students’ parents, to grandparents or alumni who don’t live in the area. "We’re definitely seeing activity outside the parent community."

Travel to Europe has been very hot, given the Euro to dollar exchange rates. "There is great demand for travel auctions for charities in the U.K. Auctions are a major fund raising strategy in the U.K. and since trips are priced in dollars they’re enormously attractive in England," said Stuart Paskow, president of North Miami, Fla.-based Mitch-Stuart Inc., which arranges fundraising-related travel. The fundraising U.K.-to-U.S. travel has been so brisk the firm recently opened a London office, Paskow said.

Different strokes for different folks In general, the number-one selling category in cMarket auctions is dining, Carson said. He advises nonprofits to "build your catalog around the mindset that you have two demographic audiencesÉand they want two different things." While women make up most of the bidders (about 75 percent), males generally are responsible for the largest bids. For women, the main item is dining, while for men it’s sports tickets and memorabilia.

The big money might be in travel, sports and entertainment but the volume is in dining, Carson said, because restaurants are much more amendable to donating a $150 gift certificate. The spring season for auctions generally starts in the third week of March and continues until the second or third week of June, when school ends in most places, Carson said. Schools comprise about half of cMarket’s auctions while other groups include human services (8 percent), the arts (8 percent) and health care (7 percent). cMarket has seen the volume of its online auctions at least double every year since the company started in 2003 and expects to surpass 4,000 auctions this year.

Plastic, or more plastic? Everyone agrees, if there’s one thing to make your auction a success, it’s being unusual. Sometimes they can be so unique that they garner more attention than dollars.

The Disabled Online Users Association (DOUA) knows all about that, having raised money from torn Wal-Mart bags thanks to members of the eBay community. The Wal-Mart bags sold for $24.50 after 17 bids. "This is one of the most unusual auctions run on our behalf. It wasn’t about the money so much as it was about bringing awareness of DOUA to the community," said Marjie Smith, founder and executive director.

The organization doesn’t have any employees but it does have about 60 volunteers, along with numerous supporters within the eBay community who put items up for auction to support it. DOUA, which Smith runs from her Buford, S.C. home, teaches disabled people how to make a living through eBay. "We try to get them off Social Security, disability and public assistance, and we start by teaching them eBay," Smith said. "If they can learn eBay, they can do their own Web site and spread out and do other things."

Founded in 2000 and serving almost 2,000 members, DOUA regularly gets notice about people conducting eBay auctions on its behalf, with donations ultimately ranging widely. The item auctioned off for the most cash went for about $1,200 a few years ago, Smith recalled, for a one-on-one meeting with a venture capitalist. The most common items are those one might find on eBay — doo-dads and knick-knacks — with users designating all or part of the proceeds for DOUA. MissionFish, the nonprofit that administers eBay Giving Works, takes a 20 percent cut of a donation between $5 and $49.99, with a smaller percentage as the donation gets larger.

Expenses Ð mainly Web hosting and graphic design Ð run less than $1,000 a year for the DOUA. "Everything we do is online," Smith said. "It doesn’t take a lot of money to help people." A charity listing sells every two minutes on eBay and it’s estimated that charity listings raise more than $55 every minute. The largest price ever recorded for a single eBay charity listing was $2.1 million, a letter signed by 42 U.S. senators, paid by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, benefiting the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Fund. Also in 2007, a lunch with investment guru Warren Buffett sold for more than $650,000, raising money for Glide Foundation.

What works on eBay are things that offer unique experiences, said Patricia Evans, vice president for donor development at Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation in Los Angeles. It doesn’t get more unique than a zero-gravity flight with famed physicist Stephen Hawking. The nonprofit raised $76,000 on eBay last year from a flight he donated to the organization. "Number one it has to be a terrific item, and then it’s how you present yourself and describe it; it’s in the production values of what you put there, and how it’s presented on eBay," Evans said. "All those things really have to work together, and then it’s management.

"eBay is this limitless opportunity as long as you do it correctly," said Evans. "It seemed to me this was the perfect candidate for eBay."

But, she warned: "You can’t just sit back and say you’re on eBay and the world will beat a path to my door." The foundation and its auction management company, Auction Cause, spent time on the presentation and promotion. In the case of a big-money item like the zero-gravity flight, bidders are required to pre-qualify.

Evans suggested nonprofits turn to existing relationships, even in another part of their organization, and use the eBay auction as "another vehicle to broaden the relationship." Starlight Starbright, with a budget of more than $9 million, raises an average of $100,000 annually through auctions, with a goal of increasing that figure by 50 to 100 percent in the coming years.

"We really see online auctions as an incredibly viable revenue stream," Evans said, with a strategy to continue to diversify.

Carmen Holmes, regional field representative for Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) chapter in Dallas, said their most successful auctions are gift cards, which generally return 100 percent of the value of the card or more, in addition to sports memorabilia, luxury getaways and dining.

MDA last year tested cMarket auctions in six markets (Dallas, Denver, Houston, Knoxville, Louisville and Phoenix), with the national organization coordinating communication among chapters. MDA goes live with an Internet auction a few weeks prior to the Labor Day telethon. Promotion via the Web site continues before closing the auction just before the live telethon event, Holmes said.

Items that can translate between markets help a national organization like MDA. With six markets being facilitated by the national office, they can coordinate and trade items, for instance, if Dallas is heavy in sports memorabilia but Denver has a surplus of ski packages. Last year, the Dallas MDA raised almost $60,000 from its catalog of items, which were valued at almost $128,000, Holmes said. Houston raised more than $200,000, the most among the test markets. NPT

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