Charity Auctions Online: Benefits Beyond Financial Success

Cross-posted with eJewish Philanthropy.

You may have noticed that the gala benefit season is in full swing, and extreme donor fatigue has set in for some. In an email last week, a friend began by moaning, “I hate these things, and rarely go. But please come with me.”

Jews aren’t alone in this suffering. The Chronicle of Philanthropy last October headlined the dilemma as “Charities Rethink Galas.” The Chronicle suggests freshening things up with a silent auction, perhaps held alongside the cocktail hour, though there may be another way out of the rubber chicken (or sushi) circuit. On May 9, Lilith, the nonprofit Jewish feminist magazine, opens its fourth online-only auction as a route to raising funds without the extreme sport of event planning.

It may seem strange that in almost 35 years as a Jewish nonprofit Lilith has not yet held a large-scale fundraising event. A couple of years ago, though, when we hosted a small spring cocktail party in Manhattan as an egalitarian way to draw in women across the age spectrum for an evening of “friendraising,” socializing and good talk, we decided to pair it with a silent auction. The offerings ranged from ritual objects and art-glass paperweights to, well, sex toys donated by a women-owned business. Vintage clothing and jewelry, autographed books, a Hazon cycling outfit, original art, Zabar’s goodies, a Miriam’s Cup, and assorted “experiences,” including a portrait session with photographer Joan Roth. And while there was terrific fun at this face-to-face gathering – held, appropriately, at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where women go for advanced Jewish study – we questioned whether the modest financial take was worth the trouble. Since then, we’ve learned a thing or two. We discovered, as we were in the process of cataloguing items for the face-to-face auction, that there are online sites, like, geared specifically to assisting nonprofits manage auctions like ours exclusively online.

Starting in 2009, Lilith’s has had modestly gratifying financial success with twice-yearly online auctions using Bidding for Good. The financial benefit is no surprise, but there have been other, unanticipated lessons and outcomes beyond the auctions’ dollar value.

A virtual experience won’t meet all needs, and we know that Lilith salons (reported on eJP a few weeks ago) provide some of the real-time pleasures of intergenerational conversation that our cocktail party demonstrated. But we did see that we could connect with Lilith readers in a new way online by featuring stuff that feels consonant with what people already know of Lilith. We offer art from artists whose work has appeared in the magazine, music lessons and city tours by former Lilith interns living in interesting places, Jewish ritual objects with a feminist spin, and more. (We include items of general interest as well: vacation homes for a weekend, a personalized tour of a world-class private art collection, yoga sessions, book-doctoring consultations – though for the online auction we draw the line at the sex toys.)

Because the online auction items are largely goods or services that resonate specifically with our demographic, they can represent Lilith’s mission to amplify women’s voices for gender justice in the Jewish world. Some examples? New rituals for women spotlighted via tambourines like the biblical Miriam’s, a seder plate with a spot for the orange, Vashti flags, “blessing bowls.” Signed books by Lilith authors. Handicrafts made by the elderly in Israel. Humble aspects of women’s life stories through items like the brooches made by a former intern who has repurposed her late aunt’s now-vintage button collection. Travelers have won insider’s tours of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Jewish Buenos Aires. Book collectors (and who isn’t, even in this Kindle age?) bid on an hour’s consultation with a professional library organizer.

Lilith is lucky, we’ve come to realize, in ways that newer nonprofits may not be. Many startups simply may not have email lists deep enough to get an online auction’s fundraising ball rolling. Though a few items offered online might be so exciting as to go viral, for the most part the snowball starts – for us – with the nearly 9,000 names on Lilith’s e-newsletter list and our thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We all know that communication strengthens relationships, and the auction gives us yet another way to engage our core.

The very process of the auction connects you with new audiences, as well. Each e-mailed request asking a business for a donation features Lilith’s website and offers potential donors a sample copy. Similarly, we get to add every auction bidder’s email address to our Constant Contact list, so we can keep these new connections in play even after the auction closes.

Because some complete strangers are simply trolling the web to find hefty discounts at charity auctions, they may happen upon your online auction and learn about your nonprofit into the bargain. Lilith has had new subscribers (not droves, but some) come to simply because they were surfing the Bidding for Good site.

Acquiring auction content for the sponsoring organization benefits more than just Lilith. Organizations and individuals who donate to the auction gain, too. Think Groupon. Listing the website of each donor alongside the donated item’s description draws attention to entities people may not yet have encountered. When a Jewish day camp offers a session for any new camper, the thousands of people who get Lilith auction emails have a chance to learn about the camp’s great facilities. Same with a pass to a Jewish film festival, the DVD of a film about coming out in a Jewish day school, or a certificate for tuition at a JCC course. This kind of synergy expands the sources from businesses to other nonprofits, and generates new ways to think about collaborative community building in our nonprofit ecosystem.