The next generation of non-profits and the Sell-Sell-Sell trend

On Tuesday, I blogged about the idea of non-profit organizations looking in some non-traditional places to generate revenue such as “selling things” through unrelated business income efforts. Of course, I see non-profits also looking at “related” business income opportunities. Regardless, we’ll be talking about this topic for the remainder of this week.

Today, we’re going beyond the traditional thrift store and looking at some new high-tech ways that some non-profits are trying to “sell things” to generate income for their mission.

eBay: The Virtual Thrift Shop
Opening a thrift store involves a ton of considerations:

  • Writing a business plan
  • Securing a location
  • Hiring and training staff
  • Promoting your store and building a customer base
  • Promoting your store to in-kind donors
  • Inventory

The list goes on and on, which is why many non-profit executives quickly put this revenue generating idea on the back shelf.  However, in this new digital world, eBay is appealing to those non-profits who are intrigued by earned business revenue opportunities through the creation of their “eBay Giving Works” program.

This program allows you to list “things” on eBay with all of the proceeds coming back to your charity. If you don’t have staff to manage this, apparently there is an option to involve an eBay Trading Assistant (of course, I suggest recruiting volunteers to help). Some traditional non-profits, who still like the idea of having a physical space for their thrift store, are integrating this program into their operations by becoming an eBay consignment store.

The Imaginary Thrift Shop
The American Red Cross tried something that I thought somewhat different. Who needs to sell stuff, when you can sell imaginary stuff? This last holiday season they asked their donors to utilize their Holiday Giving catalog featuring “symbolic gifts”. So, donors could go online, log into the gift catalog, select a symbolic gift (e.g. comfort kit or phone card for US service members fighting overseas), and the Red Cross would send a holiday card to whoever you specify with a note indicating that a donation (e.g tribute gift) had been made in that persons honor by you.

Are you still having a hard time wrapping your mind about the idea of “virtual gifts”? LOL It took me a little while, too. Here is how the Red Cross explains the concept:

“Gifts purchased through the Red Cross 2011 Holiday Giving Catalog are tax-deductible contributions to the overall Red Cross mission. Items are symbolic of the work of the Red Cross, not a donation to a specific project or item.”

I have no idea how successful this campaign was for the Red Cross. I’ve tried contacting to a few friends who work for the Red Cross, but they’re apparently too busy saving the world. Oh well . . . if you think this re-invented online dutch auction sounds intriguing, then contact your local Red Cross chapter and do some benchmarking work.

The Reverse Thrift Shop
My friend Cathy Malkani came over to my house earlier this week. She is the fundraising professional at Hebron House in Waukesha, WI. She is trying to end homelessness in southeastern Wisconsin. During her visit, I learned all about’s non-profit wish list program. Apparently, your non-profit can create a wish list of “things it needs” that can be found on the website. People buy these items and ships it directly to your agency.

We all know there are donors who for a variety of reasons don’t like to make cash contributions to non-profit organizations. In my experience, these are the people who end up donating canned goods to their local food pantry. They are also the folks who passionately clean their closets and donate to non-profit thrift stores. Well, just made giving stuff a little easier with this program.

Donors don’t just decide spontaneously to go to to buy stuff for you. Cathy is promoting this program on her website, in the signature block of her email, and probably in her newsletter.

I know that this program doesn’t align well with the idea of non-profits “selling stuff” to generate revenue, but this example still involves “stuff” and it is budget relieving. Isn’t it?

Well, I hope you found some of this interesting and inspirational today. While the “thrift store” trend and entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the non-profit sector, you can see there are new ideas spinning off of this trend thanks to technology.

Is your non-profit using any of the programs mentioned in today’s blog post? If so, please scroll down and use the comment box to tell us about your experience.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847