How to: Turn online auctions into a nice little earner

If a charity online auction strikes a chord, it can become a gold mine - NSPCC's Dream Auction raised £500,000 this year, making it the most profitable online charity auction ever. Any charity, large or small, can host an online auction on eBay at minimum cost.

The eBay for Charity section is a dedicated fundraising area where charities can host auctions, selling items directly to supporters and the general public. But why do some auctions raise £500,000, while others struggle to make 50p? Here are some tips on where to start and how to make your auction a success.

1. Get signed up Charities that host auctions on eBay are known as 'charity direct sellers', a title that tells buyers that the organisation has been verified by eBay as a genuine charitable organisation. To become direct sellers, charities must register with MissionFish, the charity that operates the background technology behind eBay for Charity - follow the step-by-step guide at www.missionfish.org.uk/register.

Any organisation with proof of charitable status is eligible. Most direct sellers opt to open a PayPal account - this is an online payment system that collects money from buyers and passes it on to sellers for a small fee. Most buyers use PayPal to pay for their items and the company offers a special rate for charities - see www.paypal.com/uk/charity.

2. Decide what to sell "You might think you have nothing, but weird stuff sells on eBay," says Lara Straus Nagoski, UK business director at MissionFish.

Donated items such as jewellery, books, music and vintage clothing all sell well.

Don't assume items must appeal to people in their twenties and thirties - eBay's own research suggests people of all ages use the site. "Empty nesters are just as addicted as their kids, and people of all ages who are building collections love the site," says Straus Nagoski.

One area where charities can really excel is celebrity-based auctions.

HIV/Aids charity Mildmay achieved a highest bid of £8,100 from an auction to meet Cliff Richard, but the income didn't end there. "The losing bidder said he would donate £8,000 anyway if we could secure the same experience for him," says Paul Sayer, corporate fundraising manager at Mildmay. "Cliff is one of our patrons, so it looks like we'll end up with £16,000."

3. Research your market Charities can learn from other sellers. Look for similar items within eBay's current listings and copy their methods. Did they set the bidding high or start it at a penny? Did they set a reserve price? A reserve allows the seller to drop out of the deal if the auction doesn't reach a minimum value, but it can put bidders off.

Look at how other sellers describe their items, and how many photographs they include. eBay offers charities tips for successful listings - just visit http://pages.ebay.co.uk/community/charity/tips.html.

4. Get noticed The NSPCC advertised its Dream Auction on billboards, but there are alternatives. "Target those supporters you know respond to electronic communication," suggests Straus Nagoski. "Tell e-newsletter subscribers and internet donors because they are probably already using the site, so they are more likely to participate."

Remember that eBay makes headlines. If possible, grab media attention with celebrity-related items, then use the publicity to generate bids.

People visit eBay to check the progress of well-publicised auctions such as NSPCC's tickets to the Beckhams' World Cup party, which raised £105,000 as part of its Dream Auction. If the same auction offers more affordable items, they may stop and bid.

5. Keep track Charities that are registered with eBay receive a MissionFish homepage, which lists the items they are selling, as well as items that supporters are selling on their behalf. The page allows charities to track the funds they raise in real time, and a link can be publicised on a charity's website as a single port of call for supporters.

eBay suggests that charities with a lot of items to sell use TurboLister, a free programme that allows sellers to create a template and start items at a pre-defined time in advance, which could save administration time.

And if charities have problems during the auction process, MissionFish offers customer care at www.missionfish.org.uk/care - it promises a real person will get back to you.

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