Nonprofit prefers online fund-raiser

Charity: It turns out that selling donated items over the Internet can let the recipient realize more of the proceeds.

October 17, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

The Abilities Network recently hit what might be considered a grand slam in the nonprofit world: A local artist and radio personality agreed to donate nearly 150 sets of sports and rock 'n' roll memorabilia, from a life-size Beatles display to a signed Eddie Murray plaque and a baseball cap commemorating his more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

The Towson-based nonprofit began to plan an elaborate live auction to turn a profit from the items. But the cost of an auction space, food and live music quickly added up to $10,000 - about what the organization hoped to raise.

The group's leaders were contemplating that grim fact recently when they hit on a better idea - skip the hall and the staff and the sound system and turn instead to eBay, which has created a page on its Web site where nonprofits can sell.

Raising money online is a concept with growing appeal. Nonprofits, politicians and others with a need to raise money on a tight budget are turning increasingly to the Web in search of ready cash.

"It will still be a fund-raiser for us without having to incur that kind of cost," said Kristin Zissel, a spokeswoman for the agency, which serves people with developmental disabilities.

Representatives of the nonprofit sector began to see how the Internet could help their causes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when significant donations were made online.

Agencies that are successful with online fund raising typically gain about 5 percent of their revenue that way, said Alejandro Amezcua, associate director for communications and outreach for the National Council of Nonprofit Associations in Washington.

By using eBay rather than a traditional auction, the Abilities Network and other nonprofits not only expand their potential profit pool. They also gain a channel that consumers feel secure punching their credit card numbers into, said Michael Bisesi, director of Center for Nonprofit and Social Enterprise Management at Seattle University.

"Quite honestly, the security of putting your credit card online, people are going to be willing to do that with eBay or Amazon or another well-known organization," Bisesi said.

He said the tough part of using the Internet to solicit donations is that, unlike with direct mail, the sender needs permission to contact the recipient in order to avoid spam issues.

But many organizations, such as public radio stations and museums, use the Internet to enhance their means of collecting pledges - rather than as a replacement for paper checks. The Internet, Bisesi said, may appeal to people who already donate to an organization by decreasing costs and increasing the efficiency of giving money. New donors or those giving huge sums probably aren't inclined to pay online, he said.

The Abilities Network is hoping the Internet will expand its list of potential buyers from Maryland residents to shoppers around the globe. "Some of these items are so potentially international," said executive director Lee Ann Kingham.

An organization that works with children and adults who have developmental disabilities, the Abilities Network spent $5.8 million on its services last year. Those services include helping adults with developmental disabilities to find jobs and manage their households, training staffs at day care centers to accommodate special needs children and offering support services to families of children with disabilities.

The organization came upon the collectibles for its auction when Bob Hieronimus, a local artist and radio personality with connections to the music industry, sat in on a meeting last year and decided he wanted to help the cause.

"I was so surprised that they help so many in so many different ways," Hieronimus said.

Hieronimus, whose brother-in-law sits on the Abilities Network's board of directors, donated sports and rock 'n' roll memorabilia from his collection.

Now, Web-surfers can bid on 142 pieces or groups of memorabilia through either Oct. 20th or Oct. 24, depending on the item, by simply typing "Abilities Network" into eBay's search option or going onto the Abilities Network Web site (www.abilitiesnetwork.org) and clicking on the agency's "RockAbilities auction."

Among the items Hieronimus has donated are a black and white guitar autographed by Ozzy Osbourne, a Rolling Stones 1981 tour program signed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and a Ryder Cup pin flag signed by Tiger Woods.

Some of Hieronimus' collection came from old friends in the music business. Other items he bought before their worth increased. The Tiger Woods autograph, for instance, Hieronimus estimates is now worth a few thousand dollars.

"It's like playing the stock market in a way," Hieronimus said.

"I bought low on Tiger Woods because there was a time when Tiger Woods' autograph was a measly $60."

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