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How to Run an Online Charity Auction - The Clutter Money Process

eBay charity auction
By Chris McNamara ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Tuesday November 28, 2017

This article covers best practices for online auctions that:
  • support nonprofits (and gets donors a tax deduction)
  • reduce clutter from people's lives
  • increase the market for used gear for people who want or need a deal

All this is done through an online charity auction process
American Safe Climbing Association
we call Clutter Money: taking the stuff that clutters your life and turning it into money for the causes you care about. This works — since 2006 we've raised over $150,000 for the American Safe Climbing Association.

Also related
How to Run a Small Fundraiser: Raise $5-10K with 30 hours of volunteer time

The goal here is to provide a roadmap for other nonprofits and solicit feedback on how to make this process even easier so more nonprofits want to use it. At some point in history, someone created the "annual auction night model" that most schools and nonprofits use to fund their missions. But those events usually only happen once a year and can just auction more significant items. The Clutter Money approach is to make auctions available 365 days a year with a broader amount of things to sell.

We all have a lot of extra stuff. Some of its junk and some of it's not worth selling online. However, a lot of the clutter in our lives has real value if put in the hands of an experienced online auctioneer. Below is a process to collect that stuff, organize volunteers and run a successful auction that turns all that clutter into money for your cause.

This isn't a new idea. Organizations offer auction services for nonprofits. But as of 2017, those organizations have three drawbacks:
  • they take a big percentage of the auction revenue
  • they often just expose auctions to a smaller user base instead of a giant user base like eBay, and therefore these auctions don't raise as much money as is their potential
  • they don't encourage members of the nonprofit to donate items and instead rely more on soliciting companies for new products.
Repurposed pallets and cable spools turned into chaise lounges and accent tables.

In this way, they miss out on:
- engaging as much with their members
- the tax benefits of donating gear to charity
- de-cluttering their lives
- the environmental benefit of taking stuff that probably isn't being used
Repurposed pallets turned into bench style seating and coffee table.
and putting it back into use (the Re-Use Economy).


Schools and nonprofits have a lot of volunteer hours. Because the steps below are not that complicated, I feel it's worth it for most nonprofits to allocate those volunteer hours to the process below.

How to eBay Basics

Step 1 - Start with yourself. Be honest; if you have not used an item in 12 months, do you need it?
Make a list of all the spaces you want to scour: garage, basement, storage locker, etc. Prioritize each area in the order of most likely to yield good stuff.

IMPORTANT: Remove the all the stuff from an open area. It is essential to get everything out. Yes, every last thing. If you don't, you will hold onto things you don't use.

Make four piles:
1 Trash
2 Recycling
3 Stuff you have used in the last year and want to keep.
4 Things you have not used in a year.
Pile 4 now gets divided up.
- Stuff you are ready to get rid of and can likely be sold for more than $50 and fits in a small box. Use for your auction.
- Stuff you are ready to get rid of and can likely be sold for less than $50. This gets donated to Goodwill, cancer society, etc.

Note that $50 is the minimum value we think is worth selling. The amount is up to you. For some people/non-profits, anything less than $100 is not worth the hassle to deal with. For other people, $25 is the amount. Also note that If your item does not comfortably fit in a box 24 x 24 x 24 or smaller, it will likely be a pain to sell online. Shipping will be expensive and cumbersome. You can either sell bigger things on eBay with a "local pickup only" option or sell on craigslist or just give the item away unless it has a lot of value.

Remember to clean the item well. Things that are clean sell for more and get more positive feedback. Essential cleaning tools: washing machine, sink, scrub brush, rubbing alcohol, magic erasers, old towels, and Q tips.

How do you find out the eBay/auction value of something? Go to http://ebay.com and enter your item name into the search box. Next, scroll down the left column, to "Show Only" and check the box "sold lists" and check on "used" or "new."

Step 2 Get donations from the community
The nForce ascenders around pitch 18 on Wall of Early Morning Light  El Capitan.

Send out emails to anyone that has items to auction off. Look for items worth more than 50 that easily ship. The bigger ticket the item, the better. Unique experiences (climbing El Capitan with a superstar) or vacation rentals can often raise $500-1,000.

It's helpful to use Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) to organize donations. Here is sample form:

Step 3 Run The eBay Auction
Many excellent books and podcasts go into more detail. Below is just a cheat sheet of the most simple ways I have found. If you have suggestions on how to make this process more efficient, please email me or post below.

A) Get an eBay User ID. Set up a username that is consumer friendly like GarageTreasure or ThisIsTheGoodStuff or AtticAuctions and not Bill1976. If you are doing a big auction, you want to make sure your User ID has some feedback. More positive feedback = more confidence from buyers. How do you get feedback? Tip Start by selling your least expensive things first. For some odd reason, eBay gives your feedback score the same weight whether you sell $2 t-shirts or $20,000 cars. Alternatively, you can buy a bunch of inexpensive things on eBay to raise your feedback score before the auction takes place.

B) Have the non-profit get a PayPal account. Go through all the steps to get as verified as possible. This way, at the end of the auction, all the money goes directly to the non-profit and does not need to be transferred around (which can incur transaction costs and is less trusted than paying directly to a non-profit).

C) Create a spreadsheet with all the item details. Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) is a great way to create a document everyone can easily share and update. Here is a sample spreadsheet for the October 9 Tommy Caldwell Auction.


D) Get the free eBay App for iPhone, Android, iPad etc. We just recently started using this and it's a game changer. The most annoying part of the eBay listing process is
managing photo uploads and the eBay app massively streamlines this process. Fast is vital because the longer this process takes, the less likely you are to do it.

There are two ways to use the app:
  • 1 - Only use the app - this is the fastest way to list an item. However, it can be a pain to do much typing on a smartphone and it is a pain to have other browser windows open to cut and paste text, etc.
  • 2 - Use a combo of the app and eBay on your computer. This is what we mainly do. We will use the app to get photos and fill in some details, and then we will schedule the auction to start 12-24 hours later. In those next 24 hours, fine tune on your desktop computer.

E) Taking photos. Get a large white background: a white bed sheet gets you 80 percent of the way there or go pro and get a big white seamless background. Take photos in a place with lots of natural light (but no direct sunlight). The shaded side of a building or under a frosted skylight is ideal. The most efficient photo method I have found is with an iPhone: a) enable Photo Stream b) take photos with iPhone, so they don't need any editing, cropping, etc c) open iPhoto (if both your phone and computer are on wi fi, photos should automatically transfer from phone to iCloud/My Photo Stream), d) upload to eBay.
I have spent soo much time trying to make products look great using artificial light
While these feather light slippers are stylish around town  they make an excellent super light and compact shoe for carrying up multi-pitch routes for the descent. A generous coating of seam sealer will extend the upper's life for hard abuse.
using studio lighting kits like this.
The Scarpa Crux have the cushiest midsole of all the shoes we tested. It performs well all-around  is fairly lightweight and made of mostly recycled materials.
It's tough to consistently get honest colors and no shadows. Don't bother. Use natural light.

Get creative!
The Trax rubber sole delivers excellent friction for smearing  and edges well. A canvas upper makes for a light and form-fitting shoe  but isn't durable compared to models with full leather uppers.
The Timbuk2 Classic is a fantastic bag and a great value. Notice the bike light attachment  hidden flap buckles  reflective material  and padded shoulder strap.

F) Clone a listing. Find someone else's auction for the same or similar item and then click "sell yourself" usually found under the main pictures as a link. Do a quick check to make sure it looks listed correctly, then continue filling in the step-by-step information about the item for sale. For example, if you are listing hiking boots it should show: clothing, shoes, & accessories>Men's Shoes>Boots. If not just add, or take out any info that you want.

*Be sure to load the title bar with as many keywords as possible. It is crucial to include the exact product name. For electronics try and get the model number and part number. It saves you and the buyer time.

Examples:
Patagonia Men's Down Sweater Jacket Parka Blue Size Small for Skiing and Outdoors
Keen Targhee 2 women's hiking boot for trekking and backpacking size eight black
Apple iPhone 5 S Black 32 GB Model number a3245kdkd

G) More Listing info: Be as detailed in the description as possible. Try and answer a few of these questions:
Where are the signs of wear?
When was the item purchased?
How many times used/how bad is the wear?
What is the retail price?
When was the item manufactured/how long have you owned?

To give the buyer some reassurance and clarity on their purchase you can insert this boiler plate below the description:
Fast Shipping. We ship by USPS Priority Mail, First Class with delivery confirmation or FedEx Ground. Your package will arrive in 1-10 days depending on how far you are from California. If you win multiple items, we will combine shipping costs to lower them for you. If you have special shipping needs, please contact us.
International Orders take 5-25 days to arrive via USPS First Class International Mail or Priority Mail International. Usually the item arrives in 5-10 days but occasionally customs will hold things up. We charge our shipping costs or less. We don't charge extra for shipping and don't charge handling fees.
If you have special shipping needs, just message us and we will work with you to get the best shipping option.
14-Day Returns for Any Reason. You can return the item for any reason within 14 days of receiving the item for a refund. You are responsible for return shipping costs. We have 100 percent feedback after shipping thousands of items over the last 10 years, and we want to keep you happy and keep our high ratings.
Payment With PayPal only. Payment is expected within 48 hours. If you need more time to pay, contact us as soon as auction ends.

Important: Double check that you filled out all the information and added as many specs as possible that eBay wants you to fill out, once the auction is listed you can not edit some of the information.

h) Figure out shipping. This is the crux and the reason so many people avoid online auctions. I ship USPS for items less than 5 pounds and FedEx UPS for items 5Lb+. I charge exactly what it costs me as nobody likes getting gouged for shipping. But many eBay experts feel you have the right to charge a few extra dollars for your handling time. Get a scale for under $20.

flat rate boxes that can be found for free at any USPS office or can be ordered and mailed to you for free have changed the efficiency and ease of shipping domestically.

I encourage adding international shipping to items that cost $20 or less to ship internationally. The downside is that only economical way to ship is USPS and their international tracking is lacking or nonexistent. So eventually something will get lost or the buyer will just claim it is lost and hope you refund them. This is a pain and will cost you money. HOWEVER, when you average this out over many auctions, you come out way ahead by opening your auctions to international buyers.

General pricing for International shipping:
International Shipping
do not check "Send it to the US shipping center,…"
  • Flat: same cost to all buyers
Ship to: worldwide
  • if weighs:
  • less than 12 ounces: Standard Shipping (1-5 days) - ship First Class Inter.
  • 13 ounces to 3 pounds: USPS Priority Mail Inter
  • 4+ pounds: DO NOT INCLUDE INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING METHOD

2 Recommended Shipping Options
1 - PayPal's shipping option makes it very easy to ship with USPS or UPS and track (no FedEx). As soon as someone pays, you just go into PayPal and click on the button to ship. You then get walked through the process.

2 - Endicia For Mac. I use Endicia because it is faster: you just cut and paste the address and hit print. But if you are not shipping a lot, by far the easiest option is to use PayPal. Endicia is also the fastest way I have found to calculate shipping for listing items. Using calculators and online shipping on USPS.com adds a lot of steps… and it's all about efficiency in this game!

G) Starting Time. The short answer: Sunday-Thursday between 6-8 PM. The real answer is that it depends on what you are selling. The only way to find the best time is to sell a lot of the same stuff at different times and collect data.

H) Starting Price. I list things for the absolute smallest amount I would accept for an item and still be happy. A more scientific and time-consuming but profitable way is to research what your item has been selling for recently (see how to search completed listings above), find the average, and list it a little below the average if you want your item to sell on the first go. List it above the average if you are willing to list your auction again and again if it does not sell (and willing to pay some extra fees to do so).

Step 4 Promote the Auction
The beauty of a place like eBay, is that a major audience/market exists already. So this is not the most important place to put time (much better to double down on time spent finding items to auction). That said, never hurts to post all over forums, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.

I recommend making a video that asks for donation. Here is one we made:



Important:Remember to check you listing frequently and answer questions. People may ask a question only to make sure you are trustworthy and responsive. The eBay app is very useful for this. Always check the box "Post this question and answer on my listings so all buyers can see it." This is a time saver so you are not answering the same question over and over.

Step 5
Collect the money with PayPal. I have the money land right in the non-profit's account for easier accounting.

Step 6
Ship the items and get the money to the causes. Shipping is a big pain for most people. If you live near San Rafael or South Lake Tahoe, California, I will gladly donate boxes and packing materials to any auctions for non-profits. Otherwise, you will need to collect boxes or buy them. If you are going to buy boxes, the best deal I found is Uline.com

Spread the word about this process. Tell other causes and nonprofits how they can raise money for their mission.


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Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris’ sanity. He’s climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?” Outside Magazine has called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He’s the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.


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