After four years of casting their lines into uncharted waters, Missionfish founders Sean Milliken and Clam Lorenz landed a whopper in 2003. Or maybe it landed them.

Either way, the “Giving Works” partnership between Missionfish and eBay has transformed both organizations.

“They said they liked what we were doing,” Lorenz said in a recent telephone interview, “and that they were trying to find ways to get more into philanthropy.”

At the time, Missionfish was experiencing modest success running its own charity auctions on-line, using in-kind contributions to non-profits as bait.

How Missionfish Began

“That was why we started this,” Lorenz said. “Sean and I were working for the Boys & Girls clubs in Atlanta, and we were always being offered things like a truckload of basketballs or furniture, or other stuff we already had or couldn’t use. It occurred to us that there was some potential in this.”

So Missionfish began as a for-profit company with the goal of moving in-kind (or, as First Book executive Chandler Arnold calls them, “unkind”) donations out of storage closets and warehouses and into the hands of willing buyers. They soon found themselves slightly ahead of the curve.

“We had a couple of long and lean years,” Lorenz said, “but it probably worked to our advantage. We stayed small, we didn’t overrun our capacity, and we were able to focus very minutely on what people really needed.”

In 2002, Milliken and Lorenz switched their status to non-profit and slipped beneath the umbrella of the Point of Light Foundation.

“They give us the space to work,” Lorenz said, “and all the support we need. But we also have autonomy. It’s a nice arrangement.”

Soon after moving from Atlanta to Washington, Missionfish started its “Lunch With a Leader” on-line auction, reeling in such high-profile individuals as Laura Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Petty, Pattie Labelle, Rosalyn Carter and Warren Buffet.

“Warren Buffets auctions off a lunch for eight,” Lorenz said. “The last time, it went for $600,000.”

The identification with celebrities made Missionfish itself more visible — and e-Bay came calling.

Partnering with eBay

“All of a sudden,” Lorenz said, “we had the opportunity of reaching 85 million potential buyers.”

That number has now more than doubled, and Missionfish has been able to retool itself to adapt to eBay’s brisk pace.

“We work with over 8,500 organizations now,” Lorenz said, “and last year we raised $30 million for non-profits.

But that’s only a beginning, since Milliken and Lorenz are well aware that eBay as a whole has done $40 billion worth of business since its inception.

“We only have a staff of 17,” Lorenz said, “because we’re trying to keep costs down. It gets interesting sometimes.”

Here’s how the Missionfish Website explains the origin of the organization’s name: “The ‘Fish’ in our name borrows from an analogy by Share Our Strength founder Bill Shore. Rather than ‘giving fish’ to keep an organization running, or even ‘teaching them to fish’ for themselves, he says that what’s needed is to build ‘fisheries’ that can sustain a nonprofit’s work in a significant, ongoing way. We believe that MissionFish can be a Fishery —
producing unrestricted, consistent revenue for any nonprofit, allowing them to do more good.”

The Child Welfare League of America apparently agrees. The group hooked up with Missionfish in the early spring of 2004 and arranged for an online charity auction during National Child Abuse Prevention Month that April. According to the CWLA Website:

“The results of the auction were astounding. We accomplished all of our goals: to garner financial support for the Children’s Memorial Flag initiative, to raise awareness about the need to eliminate violence against children, and to broaden support for the League and its 1,000 child-serving member agencies.”

And they became Missionfish regulars.

Sellers who want to donate a percentage of their eBay sale to a non-profit can find an appropriate recipient in the Missionfish/Giving Works database. The seller then registers with Missionfish and designates what percentage
they want to contribute. Once the sale is completed, the seller gives Missionfish a donation of $3 plus 2.9 percent of the remaining profit (minimum donation, $10).

“These items are posted on eBay with the Giving Works logo,” Lorenz said, “and a non-profit can ask not to be connected with an item that might be inapproriate for its mission. For example, PETA probably wouldn’t want to receive money from the sale of a mink coat, and the American Cancer Society wouldn’t want to profit from the sale of a carton of cigarettes.”

Non-profits can also sell directly on eBay through Missionfish for free.

“Registering for this is relatively painless,” Lorenz said. “We need proof that your organization is a non-profit — generally, the 501c3 letter is sufficient, or we have other ways of verifying. We also make sure that whatever money is raised goes to the organization’s bank account and not to an individual’s bank account.

“Then we flip the switch and you’re in the database.”

While some other groups may use the Internet and eBay in non-profit fundraising, Missionfish’s connection with eBay is by far the most extensive.

“I keep thinking about that $40 billion that’s been spent on eBay,” Lorenz said. “One percent of that is $40 million. You can help a lot of people with that.”

Get more information about Missionfish.

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Posted on 11 August 2006

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