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Cause Shopping: The Emergence of Online Auctions

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Carolyn Pittman Headshot Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Carolyn and Ben Pittman

In this article we would like to acquaint you with the concept of cause shopping and explore two different types.

Our first type of cause shopping provides an opportunity to support any number of reputable non-profits, schools or churches. Just look around and odds are you will find a cause to ignite your passion, and provide opportunities for your support through your time, money and/or talent. This idea of looking for a cause to support is probably the most common concept of cause shopping.

The second type of cause shopping can be referred to as leveraged shopping or as the saying goes, getting the biggest bang for your buck. Leveraged shopping is spending money or making a purchase for something you may need or plan to buy while at the same time supporting a cause.

As we all know, the internet has changed the face of shopping forever. Coupled with the internet, the ubiquitous rise of smart phone use has created a powerful new type of cause shopping, considered by many to be the best win/win proposition for both the shopper and the cause. Most importantly, this type of cause shopping does not contribute to or create donor fatigue, which is a common challenge to most non-profits.

This leveraged shopping happens during a typical auction whereby an item of value is donated to a cause with others having an opportunity to bid to purchase that item during the auction.

For example, you search and find an auction online. Someone has donated a beach vacation you dreamed of taking or dinner at a restaurant you have never had an opportunity to visit. You place a bid, and win! The cost is much lower than the actual price of such a vacation or dinner. The proceeds support a non-profit or cause, you feel great about the bargain, and there is no donor fatigue from the experience. This is leveraged or cause-minded shopping.

As mentioned above, the proliferation of online shopping and smart phone use has changed the face of silent auctions. Rather than having to put out bid sheets and wait for people to come fill them in, supporters can now go online or to their mobile phone and see what is available to bid on AND place the bid. The biggest benefit for the cause is that they aren’t limited to just the people who purchased a ticket to the event. Emails can be sent to your database announcing the online auction weeks before the actual event. Bidding can start — which obviously helps in getting the bids higher.

The wonderful thing about online auctions is many bidders will be new to your organization and have no connection to your organization. New faces, email addresses, and passions for your organization. This growing category of cause-minded shoppers consists of affluent online shoppers. When you open your auction to them, they open their pocketbooks to you. There is no better way that we know of to amplify your ability to raise money.

What’s the advantage of attracting cause-minded shoppers? They aren’t using their charitable giving budget, for one thing. We all know that our charitable giving budgets are limited to our passions and related causes and charities. However, leveraged or cause-minded shopping comes from a different part of our budget. The great thing about this part of our budgets is that it is a bit recession-proof. When times are tough, many people decrease their charitable donations, but a family’s gotta eat, right? And your family vacation is important? So if you bid and win a vacation or certificate for a nice dinner, you are very happy, even when you have declined the last 10 requests to donate to a local charity.

Cause-minded shoppers are as passionate about good causes as they are about finding great deals on vacation packages, dining gift certificates, spa packages, consumer electronics, and all the other great items you might have in your auction. They would rather support their favorite causes having an online auction than shop for a vacation, restaurant, or activity website. Think about it, what are you looking for through your online shopping? Is there some category of items in an auction that you will jump on, no matter the economic climate or your charitable giving budget for the year?

So when you are worrying about the next direct appeal letter or the next capital campaign, consider how auctions can fit into your fundraising strategy. You may find that you get very generous support from big donors who have told you they are tapped out. They may not be ready to write a big donation check but who knows what great vacation, car, or opportunity they can donate or purchase. You might just luck out.


Ben Pittman established esuasion Marketing to help individuals and companies integrate computers with the internet to create “the power to persuade electronically.” Serving as a director of development and an executive director, Carolyn has a passion for non-profits and fundraising challenges. The couple lives in Pawleys Island, SC.

2 responses on “Cause Shopping: The Emergence of Online Auctions

  1. Dave Clark says:

    What do you recommend for an auction site ? Who is the best host for a non-profit auction site, and why?

  2. Travis says:

    I would like to ask the same question.

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