Turn your fundraiser into a socially-distanced moneymaker

Rotarian Mike Pollard confers with volunteer Janie Griffin about the price of an item at the barn sale.

By Marty Peak Helman, Rotary Zone 32 Innovative Club Associate 

The Rotary Club of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in my district has held an annual fundraiser every summer, selling donated items during a live auction the first weekend in August. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the club, like many others, faced a problem:

How can a club hold a fundraiser during the pandemic, when traditional sponsors are facing economic hardship, community members have little extra to share, and social distancing alters the rules of what is possible?

During a typical year, the club stores donated items – furniture, boats, cars, bric-a-brac, tools, and books – in a barn until the auction, when members rent trailers and use sweat equity to move it all to a playing field where the items are sorted and priced. The top 200 items are sold by a professional auctioneer while everything else is sold tag-sale-style. The club typically nets over $50,000.

But when the pandemic began in March, the club stopped accepting donations. By May, it was clear the auction and flea market couldn’t take place. Then the club had an idea, and their experience holds a lesson for us all.

Club members realized that they could turn the storage barn into a sales venue, with appropriate masks and social distancing. Tentatively at first, the barn became the scene of an ongoing fundraiser every Saturday morning, averaging $2,000 to $4,000 in profit every week.

“We’ve always gotten calls for donations all year long,” club president Irene Fowle explains. “But now, we tell our donors that we can’t pick up until we sell enough to have space in the barn to take the new stuff.”

Because the donations are coming in more slowly, club members have a better opportunity to value and price the items.

“For example, we were donated two mid-century bureaus by a woman whose mother is moving into a nursing home,” club member Mike Pollard said. “I sent pictures of them to a dealer whom I’ve met through the auction, and we ended up selling them to her for $200 apiece.”

In the live auction, they would have gone for a fraction of that price since it was unlikely two bidders would be present who appreciated that style of furniture.

Other specialty items have sold on Facebook Marketplace and other online venues.

How can your club follow their example?

The first step, club members say, is to think beyond the logistics of the event to determine what makes your traditional fundraiser a success.

Is it the spirit of community the event engenders, or the thrill of finding a bargain? Is it the excitement of the venue itself? Once you’ve decides what makes the event tick, then you can think about how to duplicate that feeling in a virtual world. For example:

  • A sporting event that includes a shot-gun start (golf tourney, 5K walk or run) can be rethought to take place at specified times over a two or three-week period.
  • A spectator sport (duck race, polar plunge) can be moved to Facebook Live or videotaped and replayed later on the club or district website.
  • A fundraising dinner can morph to take-out only, or maybe eat-in-your-car in a parking lot or town park, perhaps with piped-in music or other entertainment displayed on a big screen or building wall.
  • An indoor event can move to a larger venue; tickets can be sold for specific entry times, or the event can be re-run multiple times for smaller audiences.

If none of these ideas “fit,” club members can think of new fundraising activities that by definition require social distancing: A road rally (where participants remain in their own car); a scavenger hunt (where participants move about in their own “pod”).

By mid-September the Boothbay Harbor club had met and exceeded the highest net that it had ever made at the one-day event, and the club plans to continue barn sales through Christmas. “This is so much better,” auction co-chair Laurie Zimmerli said. “We’re not hauling all that furniture to the schoolyard and back, and we’re getting better prices. We’re never going back to the old auction.”

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