When it comes to raising funds for charity, there are few things more effective than an auction. But when auction items go for less than what their donors hoped—or don’t capture the audience’s attention at all, then everyone misses out.

“We were working on fundraising projects and having conversations behind closed doors about how we’re leaving money on the table with auction items,” says Talena Barker, a former nonprofit fundraiser and founder and CEO of Bend-based Mission Limelight.

The biggest challenge? Most charity auction donations come from local donors, which don’t inspire high bidding because they aren’t new or unique to the local audience, Talena says. Thus, packages sell for far less than value, fail to excite guests and leave auction donors less than happy.

In trying to make the most of every auction, Talena found a creative workaround. She’d call like-minded nonprofits in other places and trade auction items in hopes of garnering bigger donations for them.

“We started setting up these informal exchanges,” Talena recalls. It took a lot of legwork, but the results—better auction items bringing in bigger donations—were worth it. Talena was certain that someone would turn this good idea into a company. Turns out, that person was her.

A marketplace for good

Talena and Lisa Shropshire, the startup’s Director of Outreach, have 30 years of nonprofit fundraising experience between them. They started Mission Limelight in January 2017, and have been in whirlwind of startup activity since.

Lisa and Talena with Mission Limelight.

Just a few of their milestones: Being chosen as part of the first cohort of the XXcelerate Fund’s accelerator program. Pitching Mission Limelight on the Bend Venture Conference stage as a concept stage finalist. And launching their product the same day.

So what’s Mission Limelight actually do? “The best way for people to understand how the product works is HomeExchange.com,” Lisa says. At its first level, the startup creates an exchange-based marketplace for donated auction items—a place for nonprofits to mutually search for and trade the best items for their auctions.

At the second level: Companies who regularly donate items can note their offerings on the Mission Limelight platform. Then nonprofits can search the inventory and select things that they think their audience would love.

Building a marketplace

The Mission Limelight win-win? Nonprofits end up with unique auction items that bring in higher donations. For companies, the platform reduces the work of fielding numerous asks for donated things, and are able to target their giving in a way to support their marketing efforts. Instead, they load their offerings into the platform with any philanthropic or advertising demographic parameters and then direct fundraisers that way.

With the increasing emphasis on corporate responsibility, Talena and Lisa say the next phase of Mission Limelight will be to help companies improve the tracking, understanding and reporting on their giving.

Building a marketplace comes with its own challenges. Talena notes that at the beginning you face a chicken-egg situation, with nonprofits wanting to join once the companies have and vice versa. That said, Mission Limelight has 18 clients and counting.

Mission Limelight as one of the BVC early stage finalists.

Go big and do good

For 2018, the startup is focused on getting more nonprofits into their system. They’ve raised $50,000 from family and friends. Talena says they’re pursuing more seed funding this year to spur sales and product development.

The long-term vision is to help businesses better examine their giving and provide an easier way for them to report their successes, all the while gathering data on donations, auction sales. The latter will help businesses and non-profits make smarter, more effective gifting decisions. “That’s our change the world plan,” Talena says.

You can learn more about Talena and her experience as entrepreneur at tonight’s Bend Chamber Year of Women in Business event.

Kelly Kearsley

Kelly Kearsley, the co-founder of StartupBend.com, is passionate about startups, entrepreneurship and Bend. In addition to writing this blog, she creates content and manages content projects for global financial companies, tech firms and startups. She began her career as a newspaper journalist and later worked as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in WSJ.com, Money Magazine, CNNMoney, MSNBC and Runner's World. See her work at kellykearsley.contently.com or kellykearsley.com.

You can reach Kelly by email at [email protected].
Kelly Kearsley