exclamation pointAs the mechanics of on-line auctions are refined and streamlined, they have become increasingly attractive options for non-profits.

Putting an auction on-line can extend its life, remove the uncertainty of a live event and vastly expand the audience of potential buyers. Moreover, there are groups such as cMarket and Missionfish who will offer not only a platform for such an auction, but hand-holding and advice.

Still, as with everything else, an online auction doesn’t just happen. And whether it’s put on by do-it-yourself software or through an outside entity, there are still things you can do (or not do) to make it run more smoothly.

These suggestions come from Missionfish co-founder Clam Lorenz and Dave Mello of cMarket.

DO ….

1. Give yourself enough time — time to find enough volunteers, line up enough sale items and set up a plan for publicity.

2. Hold a test auction. Sell a few items through the online platform of your choice to make sure you know what to expect when it’s time for the real show.

3. Find the right volunteers. List the job functions required for your auction, then enlist help from people with skills that match your requirements.

4. Seek specific donations.
Tell people what donations you are looking for and the approximate value range desired. Don’t leave it to anyone’s imagination.

5. Solicit sponsorships. The revenue gained from sponsorships is exempt from any fees and can help offset expenses for your auction. Remember that you can give back to your sponsors by putting their name and logo in front of desirable supporters, on your home pages and in your e-mails.

6. Bundle creatively. Add to the perceived value of an assembly of donated items through a common theme. For instance, you could combine some disposable cameras, a few folding chairs and beach towels, and suddenly you have a “Day at the Beach” package.

7. Name creatively. Make sure your item names are descriptive, but also intriguing and interesting.

8. Keep your values reasonable. Inflating values will not result in higher bids or revenue if they are unreasonable. The same goes for opening bids — it is generally best to start the bidding at between one-quarter and one-third of the actual item value.

9. Use reserve prices on key items, especially a) when the item’s donor stipulates that it cannot be sold for less than a certain amount; b) when you have purchased an item for the auction and want to make sure you don’t lose money on it or c) you have a subsequent event or auction where you can sell the item later if it doesn’t go for the reserve price.

10. Stagger the addition of new items, rather than putting everything out at once. That encourages return visits to the site, and also allows you to stagger opening and closing dates.

11. Push the final hours of the auction by sending out “last chance” notices.

12. Follow the rules of the marketplace. For example, eBay has very strict rules about shill bidding (when someone close to you bids on an item you’re selling). Failure to abide by these rules can result in real headaches.


1. Put all your items in one basket. If you have a live event, make some items available for bidding online only, and others available for bidding in the room only.

2. Rely on just one method of promotion. Use e-mail lists, snail mailings, your Website, organizational contacts, word of mouth and the local media.

3. List a catalog item without an image. If need be, request one from the honor, or from a manufacturer’s Website.

4. Forget about shipping costs

5. Wait too long to get a payment processing method set up.

6. Try to do everything yourself. Recruit volunteers, friends and family members to help with the item solicitation, sponsor solicitation and auction management. Otherwise, it’s stress waiting to happen.

7. Ship the goods before you get paid. You’d be surprised at how often new eBay sellers will ship out their merchandise before receiving payment form the buyer. People are usually honest, and the majority of buyers will do the right thing. However, when you’re selling expensive items, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Posted on 15 September 2006

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