Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

Auctions and Swap Meets for Nonprofits

Raising cash from tried-and-true donors is now more trying than true. Efforts to stir donors to action fall flat more often than not. “I just can’t make monthly donations to charities anymore,” says Nana Duffey, a retired civil servant and regular donor. “So many family members are out of work because of the recession; I have to help family. I feel sorry for nonprofits, though. I know they’re suffering too.” Facing this near unbreakable Catch-22, nonprofits are augmenting seemingly futile attempts to retain regular donors with online auctions designed to cash-in on less charitable-minded audiences.

“Because the auction is online, you reach a far greater audience than you ever could if you had a live event,” says Ross Ellis, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Love Our Children USA. “However, if the auction winner is JUST interested in the item and not the charity, you will not gain them as a cash donor. Sometimes that happens. It’s the nature of the beast.” On the flip side, he says a nonprofit can attract the attention of new donors from the sea of online shoppers looking for good deals.

Ellis says unusual experiences draw the biggest bidders: “People pay a great deal of money for things that they wouldn’t ordinarily look for: experiences with celebs, for example.”

Indeed, online auctions are working well for nonprofits, with or without celebrity participation. “Our first online auction was in June 2001 on eBay and that year we sold $23,233 online,” says Suzanne Kay-Pittman, spokesperson for Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, Inc. The online auction was so successful that in June 2004 the nonprofit joined only to turn around and launch its own web auction site,, in August 2009.

“Our e-commerce department has become so successful that we are now the third highest grossing SGW in the country, with sales expected to top $1.3 million this year,” says Kay-Pittman.

One of the biggest upsides to online auctions is that it doesn’t impact other fund-raising efforts. “Onlinegoodwill and shopgoodwill only scratch the surface of our donations and the items that are sorted and listed account for less than two percent of our donations, so our Goodwill stores still have much to offer,” says Kay-Pittman.

Other online means of converting goods to cash -- or at least to more useful donations -- are beginning to crop up as well., for example, is a site that allows people to trade friendly favors. Non-profits that receive services they cannot use can simply post them on and receive Zakle Points in exchange. Those Points can then be used by the nonprofit to get the services it does need. “For example, a volunteer donates his services to a non-profit offering to drive people but what the nonprofit really needs is help setting up QuickBooks,” explains Eric Stamos, vice president of “All the nonprofit has to do is post the driving offer on Zakle and the QuickBooks request and it’s able to exchange the service it doesn’t need for one it does need.”

Perhaps it won’t be long before nonprofits begin similarly bartering or selling donated goods and services to businesses to help companies offset costs in this recession and add cash to nonprofit coffers. It appears that the only limit in ways to raise cash online is the nonprofit’s imagination.

Certainly the technology already exists, one example: Virtual Auction. “Our online auction platform allows for an auction house to operate several different kinds of auctions from online using only our virtual auctioneer directing the auction and reacting to online bidder, to audio/video, and audio only webcast,” explains Steven Kirsch, chief executive officer of Virtual Auction. “So anyone can broadcast themselves from their own home to millions of buyers.”

Lends new meaning to the phrase ‘charity begins at home,’ doesn’t it?
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