Tracey Sperry has been a self-declared "big eBay-er" ever since the online auction Web site launched. It was a personal obsession. At home, she browsed the site constantly, and delighted in browsing, bidding and buying. But Sperry, executive director of The Home-to-Home Foundation, a Waterbury-based nonprofit, soon began to wonder: Could Web sites like eBay have a place in her professional life as well?
Nonprofits like Sperry's have traditionally faced a common challenge in finding ways to raise funds. As a chunk of their operations have moved online, the Internet has become a new fund-raising frontier. At first, the options were limited to Web pages and mass e-mails to reach supporters and donors. Now, the Web offers everything from silent auctions to do-gooding search engines, and area non-profits are digging in.
Sperry found her fix on Missionfish.org, a non-profit extension of eBay. "It's easy to raise funds by converting in-kind donations into dollars," Sperry said. So far, she's used the free site to auction off a few individual items and has earned about $500. But Sperry said she has planned a large-scale auction in the future to supplement the two annual fund-raisers for Home-To-Home, which focuses on improving the quality of life for those in assisted living.
"We did it to increase our visibility," Sperry said. "I've had at least 30 inquiries, not even in Connecticut, to learn more about us."
Other local nonprofits have turned to cMarket, an online auction platform used solely for charitable fund raising. The 5-year-old site has garnered more than $30 million and amassed nearly 3,000 clients — among them The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury.
Prior to its involvement with Massachusetts-based cMarket, the school had "piecemeal-type fund-raising events," said Allison Grebe, director of the annual fund for the girls' day and boarding school. The school is private, so fund raising was never a dire necessity. But an online auction meant that it could do more than the annual budget would allow while helping the school connect with parents and alumni nationwide, she said.
With a committee of about a dozen people, the school collected 153 items and signed up for cMarket. Novices in the realm of auctions and complex computer lingo, Grebe and her committee relied heavily on the customer support and benchmarks cMarket offered.
"It really was somewhat dummy-proof," Grebe said.
And data-driven. The online element of the auction provides cMarket a wealth of statistics and figures, and cMarket CEO Jon Carson devours every byte of information.
"We're able to quantify that people simply make more money" using cMarket, Carson said. "It's simply more efficient."
And cMarket has taken steps to increase that efficiency over the past year. Tomorrow, cMarket will unveil its brand new system, which was completely rebuilt based mostly on consumer feedback.
The site has also invoked the expertise of a Harvard business professor to create intelligent bid alerts. Simply put, the company has determined what to say — via instant message — and when to say it to make you bid more.
For an annual membership fee of $495, cMarket allows organizations to hold as many auctions as they want. The company also takes 9 percent of auction earnings up to $100,000, a fee that does not apply to sponsorship dollars or money raised through the site's "Donate Cash" option.
The Ethel Walker School raised about $50,000 from its monthlong auction, which included $12,000 in sponsorships. Grebe said it was a great experience, despite a few snags.
The school had not accounted for the cost of shipping the auction items when the event closed, which came to several hundred dollars. Also, Grebe said she stored about 100 of the 153 auction items in her office, leaving a chaotic heap to sort through when the auction closed.
"I still walked away with, 'this is so much fun,'" Grebe said. "We accomplished our goal, which was to broaden our touch."
Search Engine Of Change
Another no-charge, online fund-raising option is Goodsearch.com, a search engine that donates half of its revenue to the charities and schools designated by its users.
Kelly Praumberger, development coordinator for the Hockanum Valley Community Council in Vernon, said she has registered her organization on the site. Each time a user conducts a search and selects HVCC as his charity of choice, HVCC gets about a penny. As of last month, HVCC, which works to meet the needs of the residents of Tolland County, had earned $20 from searches conducted through Goodsearch.
"It takes no effort," Praumberger said. "For us, it's another creative way for our donors to give back to the community."