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Schools Find Help on EBay

Fundraisers in the Silicon Valley are auctioning items on the Internet to gain revenue for their campuses. But the results are mixed.

March 29, 2004|Karen Alexander | Special to The Times

ATHERTON, Calif. — As the high-tech economy in Silicon Valley faltered, parents at the well-heeled private Menlo School here began looking for new ways to raise money. Revenues from their annual benefit, the school's primary fundraising event, had plunged about 50% from the heyday of the Internet boom.

"You kind of get used to having all that money come in, and if it doesn't come in, you need to find something new," said Menlo School parent Kathleen Sweazey, a co-chairwoman of the fundraising benefit.

Rather than asking families to clean out their closets for yet another community rummage sale, benefit organizers asked them instead to round up high-value donations that could be sold on EBay, the Internet auction giant based in San Jose.

It was not surprising that these particular parents turned to the Internet for answers. Some of Silicon Valley's most notable business figures send their children to Menlo School, including EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman.

The EBay auction approach to fundraising is spreading through schools and community organizations in Silicon Valley at broadband speeds, although organizers of such drives say they have seen mixed results so far.

At Whitman's suggestion, Menlo School teamed up with AuctionDrop, a San Carlos-based consignment-style business that sells its clients' goods on EBay for a chunk of the profit. AuctionDrop has five locations in the Bay Area, and expects to open several in Los Angeles this spring. Other companies, including AuctionWagon in West Hollywood, are already doing similar work in Southern California.

AuctionDrop only accepts items that are expected to fetch $50 or more on EBay. It will sell its clients' merchandise on EBay and ship it to the winning bidder. Commissions vary depending on the final sale price, but can be as high as 38% for items that sell for less than $200.

Menlo School's 700 families were being asked to donate items that sell well on EBay: old sporting equipment, musical instruments, collectibles and personal electronics.

With five weeks left before the drive ends, Sweazey said the effort had seen only moderate success. The school had sold 75 items and raised $6,000. Twenty more items had been donated and were in various stages of the auction process.

"We are disappointed in the number of items people have donated so far. It turns out parting with some things is harder than we understood," Sweazey said.

That's what her fundraising co-chairwoman, Kalpi Kadaba, learned when she approached her children about donating some of their unused belongings. Without asking her children, she donated their outgrown bicycles. And Kadaba's 17-year-old son gladly gave up some of his older computer game consoles and game cartridges. But when she approached her 20-year-old daughter about donating the flute she had played in seventh grade, the answer was a resolute "no."

"The years she played the flute she did not enjoy it, and she wanted to quit every single day," Kadaba said. But when Kadaba told her daughter she wanted to give the flute away, the young woman told her, "I want to show it to my children."

Some donors have been surprised at how little their items fetched, according to Sweazey -- and that's before they take into account the commission that AuctionDrop charges for their services.

"People have gone so far as to track the item that they gave on EBay because they want the satisfaction of knowing that they gave something terrific," Sweazey said. "Some people are quite chagrined to know that it hasn't turned out to be as terrific as they thought."

Although the Menlo School benefit is one of AuctionDrop's first charity events, the company has recruited 41 nonprofit organizations and 36 other school groups to hold their own fundraising auctions on EBay. Many of them will make a strong push for donations this spring, before the end of the school year.

Effie Millionis, manager of business development for AuctionDrop, said the company is increasing its staff to help with its fundraising arm. The company has helped raise about $20,000 this year for charity drives, with about 60% of the money being passed along to the schools and organizations.

"Each school has an opportunity to build its own program, and we'll support them however we can," Millionis said.

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