Robert Robinson is UK managing director of an innovative social enterprise that helps charities monetise their celebrity supporters
We established CharityStars.com because we wanted to help charities around the world raise more money by opening up a new sustainable donation channel for them.
We know there is a big demand from fans of high-profile individuals to buy items and experiences associated with those individuals. At the same time, we believe celebrities have a responsibility to use their profile to have a social impact on good causes. And so, putting two and two together, we set up a social enterprise that engages celebrities to donate items and fan experiences for auction on the CharityStars.com website. The site works in a similar way to eBay, with people bidding on listed items and the highest bidder winning that item.
We started out in Milan, Italy, working closely with the Italian football teams and auctioning items associated with the teams and players. Last year, we expanded our operations into the UK and have worked with a number of charities and their celebrity supporters to raise more than £1.5m so far.
We work closely with brands and corporates too, as it’s their products we are auctioning - for example, football shirts or hospitality packages whereby fans can meet players. It’s good PR from the brand/corporate perspective, being an opportunity for them to showcase their brand in a way that appeals to their CSR programmes, and offering them new ways to raise funds from the areas they sponsor.
The people bidding on our auctions are predominantly collectors or fans who are drawn primarily by the chance to own an item worn or used by the celebrity they idolise, and are not necessarily people who would otherwise engage with charities. In this way, our auctions open up a new donation channel for charities, without taking anything away from other channels.
The charity only has to allow us to utilise its celebrity and corporate connections, and we do the rest - including bearing all of the operational costs involved in running and marketing the auction. For donated items, we retain just 15% of auction proceeds to help us cover our costs, meaning we operate very leanly. The other 85% is donated directly to the charity as unrestricted funds. Our platform is now also accessible to private sellers too, who are looking to find a marketplace for high value art, cars and collectables, however with a charitable angle in place at all times.
We are focused on attracting further investment to help us grow abroad and become more sustainable. As a tech company we are very investment-worthy, as investors see an intrinsic high value in our partnerships, our connections, our IP and of course our growth potential. We have already secured venture capital funding and completed seed and angel investment rounds, with another round in the coming months.
In the meantime, we are gradually expanding our database of celebrities, brands and charities, and the auctions and campaigns we host on the site are growing in size - the average auction price has more than doubled and we raised six times more last September compared with the previous year.
We are also making the most of new technologies to develop software that will enable us to expand our range of products, so that we can, for example, run silent auctions at charity gala events. For the host charity, this has the advantage of giving them access not just to the bidders in the room, but to millions of potential bidders all around the world, meaning they are usually able to achieve a much higher end price for the item and raise additional awareness.
We’ve successfully run the silent auction technology with charities such as Transplant Links Community, Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and more recently the upcoming Global Gift Gala on 30 November in London where auctions will include the Pope’s skullcap, art by Salvador Dali, a rare item commissioned by Diana, the late Princess of Wales and Versace fashion show access in Milan, while looking to raise £100k for the foundation.
We have also developed raffle technology whereby, for example, instead of one person paying £1,000 for an item or experience, one hundred people can each donate £10 for a chance to win that item or experience. We launched our raffle technology successfully with Liverpool FC, and were able to raise £10k for their foundation. The prize was a hospitality package whereby the winner would get to be flown in and put up in a hotel, meet and sit with the team at the Players Awards as well as watch a game.
Working closely with corporates, charities and celebrities, while at the same time keeping ourselves at the forefront of digital technologies, means there are many elements to what we do, and a lot of moving parts. Slowly but surely, we are refining our processes to achieve the best possible outcomes for the charities we help. As part of this we’ve tested and refined different methods of strategic marketing. One of the most successful we've found is celebrity endorsement on digital and social media, as it helps give bidders confidence in the item’s provenance and therefore encourages higher bids and fan interaction.
As government funding decreases and competition for private funding grows, charities need to look at ways they can become more self-sufficient. We believe that looking beyond your current donation channels, and exploring the role new technologies can play, are key steps towards building sustainable income. One way charities can do this is through leveraging the high-profile status of their celebrity supporters and combining this with innovative technology to gain access to a much wider (both demographically and geographically) donor base.
Robert Robinson is UK managing director of CharityStars.com