It’s always better to give than to receive, we’re told. But what if you could do both?
And what if it was possible to be positioned squarely in the middle of that intersection of giving and receiving, helping non-profits and making a profit at the same time?
Meet cMarket, currently enjoying the best of both worlds.
Launched in 2003 with an impressive “nut” of venture capital, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company sets up and helps manage on-line auctions for non-profit organizations. Period.
“That’s basically all we do,” said David Mello, vice president of client services for cMarket. “It keeps us pretty busy.”
Indeed. Over the past three years, cMarket has staged over 1,500 auctions — and the repeat customers are already lining up.
“We’d definitely do that again,” said director David Drake of the Maryland SPCA, which raised nearly $35,000 the first time it took its annual auction on-line. “In fact, we are doing it again — this year.”
Of the 180 items made available in the SPCA’s “Shop-a-Paw-Looza,” all but 15 sold.
“We tried to be creative,” Drake said. “We had a lot of pet-related items, and those went over very well.”
Dog birthday parties, for example, and free neutering. By the time it was over, according to assistant development director Elizabeth Johnson, “We made enough to feed all our animals for a year.”
Why Online Auctions Work
The word “charity” is out of fashion in the early 21st century. “Partnership” is in. In other words, donors like to feel that they’re getting something back for their contribution, and recipients like giving it to them. As an added benefit, preparing for an auction or other event can get volunteers a lot more involved than simply tearing open envelopes and hoping for checks.
Sometimes, if it’s promoted successfully, a non-profit’s auction can transcend charity altogether.
As cMarket founder Greg McHale explained in 2005: “Auctions tap into dollars that are often separate from the ‘charitable giving’ budget: household discretionary spending.”
Writing checks to non-profits is good for us, but not always pleasant. An auction, on-line or otherwise, can be the orange juice that disguises the taste of the medicine.
Moreover, doing it on-line, is one way to shrink the administrative cost line on a non-profit’s budget. These days, the more of the donated dollar that disappears between the contributor and the intended good works, the less attractive a cause can appear.
“It was a lot cheaper to do it this way,” said David Drake. “We used to have a silent auction, but it was just bringing in the same people. This allowed us to tap into a larger base, at much less cost.”
Setting Up the Online Auction
What cMarket offers is a sort of template for staging an auction, augmented with suggestions that match the individuality of each group.
“We help non-profits set up an online auction Website,” explained company spokesperson Shawna Stevenson, “with buttons people can use to donate items, refer a friend, e-mail an item page and sign the guestbook.”
cMarket does its work for a flat fee and nine percent of the take, none required on the front end.
“To tell you the truth, we really didn’t need to call on them (cMarket) very much,” said the SPCA’s Drake, “because the software was quite user-friendly.”
Auction Training & Support
cMarket also supplies on-line training and advice to non-profits to make the most of their auction.
“We’re available 9 to 5 by phone,” said Mello, “and you can e-mail somebody 24/7.”
“A lot of organizations have no trouble coming up with items to auction off,” Mello said, “but others do. That’s why we have an on-line store where you can purchase items at wholesale cost or below. If you’re in St. Louis, for example, we can offer some baseballs autographed by Albert Pujols. But we have all sorts of things.”
One advantage of an on-line auction, Mello said, is that its duration keeps the name of the organization in front of potential benefactors far longer than a one-shot gathering would do.
“We advise people to stagger the bidding time on various items,” he added, “to keep the interest up. It’s also good to include a few ‘buy now’ items that can be purchased for that price without bidding.
“Promotion is the key,” said David Mello, “and we have a lot of suggestions for that.”
So the options have multiplied for non-profits planning an auction — put it all on the line with a live auction, or put it all on-line.
Or maybe a little of both. It’s a brave new world.