On a May evening, more than 300 people boarded a touring ship near Detroit and a scattering of smaller American and Canadian vessels to meet at a lodge on a Canadian island in the Detroit River. There they dined, browsed through artwork, antiques, hunting gear and other goods and services at a silent auction, and bid on a few big–ticket items during a brief live auction. When the ship departed that evening, the event had raised about $60,000 to support the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance.

Not bad, for one evening. But behind this success were months of preparation plus years of building relationships and establishing the event’s reputation among participants and sponsors.

Since the event began in 2006, the annual banquet has grown, corporate sponsors have signed on. Now a corporate sponsor provides the venue, the touring vessel and the dinner, allowing the Alliance to keep more net revenues. Ducks Unlimited members help solicit donations for the silent auction and promote the event.

Alliance chair Richard Micka’s top advice to organizations planning similar events is to pay strict attention to state laws on auctions, raffles and sales tax, and to hire a certified public accountant to help. (The Alliance also pays for an annual external audit.) Also, plan events at least nine months in advance, he advises. “We start planning for the next one the week after the banquet,” he says.

Auctions and Shops

Friends of Patuxent in Maryland sells space rather than items at its annual art show at the Patuxent Research Refuge’s National Wildlife Visitor Center. Artists pay $300 per booth to sell their works. This year booth sales and sponsorships netted about $5,000.

The International Wildlife Refuge Alliance in Detroit raises $60,000 by sailing the Detroit River to a Canadian island for an evening of dining, browsing and buying.
The International Wildlife Refuge Alliance in Detroit raises $60,000 by sailing the Detroit River to a Canadian island for an evening of dining, browsing and buying. (next page)
Credit: Janet Hug

While the group traditionally held a silent auction at the art show, in 2011 it opted for a holiday bazaar to sell new and gently used items—most donated by Friends members. While the bazaar raised less than the silent auction–$1,500 as compared with more than $3,000–it was considerably less work because it didn’t require soliciting business donations, said Friends of Patuxent chair Emmalyn Holdridge.

The group also operates a gift shop/bookstore in the visitor center. The store is staffed at least 28 hours a week by volunteers and managed by a part–time employee. “It’s a big commitment, and most of the volunteers we have are very dedicated and come one day a week,” Holdridge says. “If they can’t come, the bookstore doesn’t open, so you really need reliable volunteers.” Paying an employee cuts into net revenues but keeps the accounting and inventory operating smoothly, Holdridge says. The store raises $5,000–$10,000 in net revenues a year.

Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges President Rick Shields got a crash course in retail when he volunteered to manage the organization’s new gift shop in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge visitor center in South Carolina in 2010. For new stores, Shields advises stocking just a few of each item until sales patterns become clear, and to carry place–branded items. Nature shirts with refuge logos on the arm are top sellers.

Beyond revenues, Shields sees the store as an outreach tool for the refuge and Friends group. “People will come in, ask questions and browse. It’s a great way to start a conversation.”

Kendall Slee is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to National Wildlife Refuge System publications.