In a recent email about charity auctions, a small nonprofit simply said that if you want to make serious money for your organization, go online (as opposed to the traditional silent auction). I agree. It’s tough to overlook the power of an online platform, unless you are content with leaving significant money on the auction table.
Over the last 20 years, I have used a range of auction formats, from silent and live to email and online, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Silent auctions are a mainstay with local events like galas, golf tournaments and school fairs. Attendees love them (myself included), hovering and waiting to the last minute to get the last bid in, and usually walking away with a deal. However, with a silent auction, you are limited to the number of guests in the room. You can now use technology to offer online bidding to non-event attendees before the event, and, for the charity, that doesn’t equate to maximizing value.
Live auctions can be a significant revenue driver if you are fortunate enough to have high end items and/or one-of-a-kind experiences. In a live auction, you need to ensure there is money in the room to do the bidding justice, or those items are better served elsewhere.
In this day and age, digital should be part of your auction strategy. Perhaps I’m biased because I helped launch and grow online charity auctions in Canada on eBay.ca, but, for me, the math is simple. With the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of potential bidders online, the fundraising potential is way higher. These days, there are many web sites (e.g. 32Auctions) that enable you to set up an online auction quickly and easily. But for this type of private auction, you will need to effectively market it to your supporters via social media etc. to create awareness and attract eyeballs. You can also leverage an existing platform with built-in traffic and bidding audience. The second is what I do because it is more effective and efficient for me. Some of the more popular platforms include:
Charitybuzz: US-based. List In USD$. Ideal for luxury travel packages, memorabilia, and one-of-a-kind experiences. Features a vetted community of 200,000+ high net worth bidders. Selective in their items, primarily accepting those that will sell for USD$1,000 or more (the minimum bid on any item is USD$500). Charge a 20% service fee (or USD$200 per item if it doesn’t sell for $1,000) and 2.5% payment processing fee. You provide them with item details, they do the rest (list, collect payment, ship). Listings usually run for 2-3 weeks.
eBay: Canadian-based. Must list in CDN$. Useful for any type of item, as everything usually sells (but not ideal for higher end items in my opinion). Millions of users worldwide. Fees are based on the final selling price, usually which is around 10% (but can be waived, if you qualify). This is a self-service listing experience, from writing item titles and descriptions to uploading photos, collecting payment, and shipping the item. Can list for 1, 3, 5, 7 or 10 days.
BiddingforGood: US-based. List in USD$ or CDN$. 450,000+ bidder community. Charges a 9% fee on items that sell successfully plus a standard payment processing fee if you use their payment processor. A self-service listing experience, they help onboard and have templates to make it a turnkey solution. You set your auction dates.
Kijiji: Canada’s #1 online classifieds website (owned by eBay). 16.7m unique visitors per month. Ideal for big items (e.g. furniture) or time-sensitive items (e.g. tickets), and very easy to get it on their site. No upfront fees, only fees to promote your ads (from $4.99 to $19.99, depending on which one you choose). Easy and quick to create a posting.
For my 23rd annual Auction for Wishes (in April 2017), I procured 335 items valued at $225k. To raise the most money, I strategically allocated each item to what I felt was the best suited online platform. I used
With a favorable exchange rate, currently for Canadians listing in USD$, Charitybuzz netted CDN$100,000, my highest total ever on that platform. While I have seen a significant decline in final bids on eBay over the past few years, I still use it because I have a good relationship with them and frankly, there aren’t many feasible alternatives.
It is frustrating to watch many items sell for much below their market value, but “whatever comes in comes in” because this is what the marketplace is dictating. BiddingforGood could prove to be a strong alternative to eBay, but in my case as a Canadian third party fundraiser, I was not allowed to set up an account with their IATS credit card processing service (the charity itself has to set up the account), and this impacted my auction.
The bottom line for me is that every charity should be integrating online into their auction program. Reaching a huge international bidding base is critical to maximizing funds raised, and my #1 goal is to maximize every dollar.
Ira, who holds an MBA from the Schulich School of Business, is a third party fundraiser for various charities, and an expert in special event management, auction strategy, and in-kind donation procurement. Feel free to contact him to further discuss in-kind donation procurement, he's always happy to chat about auctions. Sample auction site for Auction for Wishes can be found here.