Our executive director’s husband, Henry Quinn, is a creative thinker and occasional blogger whose thoughts sometimes stray into topics of interest to the nonprofit sector. This is one of those times...
Your organization receives an item of value from a donor. Do you…
A: Take reasonable steps to get fair price in sale of that item?
B: Sell it to the first person that gets in line to buy it at a heavily-discounted price, so they can re-sell it for several times more than they bought it?
If your organization is having a used book sale, and you're not making online price-checking and selling part of your plan, you're choosing option B. Fortunately, technology and the internet have made it easier than ever for your organization to do the right thing and choose option A.
My wife and I go to a lot of book sales, and while I’m happy to get cheap books, I always feel terrible for the organizations throwing them. These sales are stuck in the 1980s, when individuals and small organizations didn’t have access to the information or sellers who might allow them to get a fair price for their books. The winners in this arbitrage are the dealers who show up early and pick the sale over for steals, and the loser is the nonprofit. IMHO, that’s a lousy situation.
Here’s what you need to make online pricing and selling part of your book sale strategy. Your plan is going to be to take all your books, find the ones of value, sell those for what they’re worth online, and put everything else out on tables just as you normally would. Note, as you read, that I don’t suggest you use anything other than free tech. And tape. And bubble wrap.
You need to decide where you’re going to sell them. Me, I use Amazon because I use Amazon for everything, but eBay and Half.com, Powell’s, AbeBooks and about a dozen other sites are also in this space. Check fee schedules and think about the support the site has for importing, listing, and tracking books.
You need to figure out which books are worth selling on-line, and which should go out on a table and sell for $1. A volunteer can do this by hand by entering an ISBN and seeing current sale prices for used books, or any number of apps will turn your phone into a handheld scanner – Google ‘book scanner app.’ Amazon even has a first-party app for this purpose.
You need those same volunteers to assess condition and list the books. This is fairly site-dependant, so I won’t go into detail, but it’s not brain surgery. When in doubt, unless the cover got ripped off or someone dropped it in the tub, you’re safe with ‘Used – Good.’
You need people to pick, pack and ship. This isn’t cost-free, and it can drag out, HOWEVER it can also happen on your volunteers’ schedule rather than absolutely needing to happen during a weekend when you’re going to be plenty busy with, you know, your book sale. This is also a good opportunity for you to go to Staples and ask them to donate mailers.
I wrote a version of this post that broke down the arithmetic of incremental dollars versus the volunteer time required to do this but I was afraid it would get edited out because no one likes math as much as I do. My main findings were that, conservatively, an online component is going to add 30 percent to 50 percent to the total dollars you take in, and the volunteer time required to get this done is going to have a return of something like $35 - $90 an hour.
The first point says this is real money. The second point says that if you need to cancel Sunday when you’re selling books for $1 an armload and put your volunteers in front of laptops the prior Thursday instead, you cancel Sunday.
There are other benefits of adding online selling to your book sale strategy, too:
- You’ll be able to attract volunteers whose schedules might not allow for a full weekend day, but who can give you an evening during the prior or subsequent weeks.
- The nature of the activity offers an opportunity to learn about how online bookselling works, and can attract a slightly techier, younger volunteer population.
- It enhances your donation solicitation – “You can trust our organization to make the most of your books, because if you give us something of value, we’re not going to sell it for a dollar.”
The arithmetic is clear, which is no surprise – if combing over your book sale weren't worth the trouble, book dealers wouldn't do it. And our professional responsibility to our organizations is equally clear: at a $40 - $50 / hour return on volunteer time, adding an online pricing and selling component to your book sale is a clear win.
I don't hate used book dealers. But given the choice between supporting them and supporting the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, it's a no-brainer. And I suspect ‘subsidizing used book stores’ isn’t in your organization’s mission statement, either. Go get a scanning app, and go make the most out of your book sale.