What is a rummage sale? And how do I run one?

You never know what you might find at a rummage sale. Rummage sales collect piles of donated household goods - clothing, toys, dishes, furniture, etc. - to sell them for a good cause. It's the yard sale of yard sales.

Putting on a rummage sale requires a lot of space, many volunteers, and a big time commitment. The financial return on this kind of fundraiser tends to be modest. You're not selling a lot of big ticket items. Most will be inexpensive. People who come to rummage sales will also try to negotiate... "I know you want $0.50 for this lamp, but would you take $0.25." A good sale might raise $2,000-$5,000. You have to sell a lot of items at $0.25, $0.50, or $1 to start to raising a significant amount of money.

Gather your merchandise.

If you're planning a rummage sale, first you'll have to collect the items that you're going to sell. This is a big job in itself. You need to publicize your rummage sale and tell people how they can donate.

Marketing for donations should take the two or three months prior to your rummage sale. While this sounds like a lot of time, it really isn't. If you have two months, the first two weeks will be spent telling people about the rummage sale and announcing the collection dates. For the next six weeks, you'll be announcing your sale and collecting merchandise. This seems like a lot of time, but people will forget. You need to give them multiple dates to donate.

The way you collect merchandise is also important. You might have one or more drop off locations that accept donations. Volunteers need to be at those locations at the appointed times to collect the donations and store them safely. You might also need some mobile volunteers with a truck who will collect donations by appointment. The more valuable donations will be bigger - furniture, appliances, etc. - and difficult for donors to drop off. Make it easy for them by sending a truck.

Store, clean, and sort the stuff.

As you collect the donations, you'll want to store and sort them out. You can do this all at once (a really big job), or do it gradually as they come in. It really depends on how many volunteers you have and when they can work.

You'll need to clean much of the merchandise. You might tell people to clean items before they give them, but you're going to get some dirty stuff. So wash the clothes (all of them). Run a dust rag over toys and furniture. Whip up some soap suds and wash the dishes. You'll get a better price for merchandise that is clean. Also, plug in every electronic device or electric appliance and make sure that it works.

The next "sort" you'll need to do is for pricing. I know of two ways to run pricing.

The first is to get a price tag gun and put prices on every item. This allows you to sort items by type and have different sections of your rummage sale devoted to an item type. You can have a toy section, a dishes section, a tool section, etc. With this kind of pricing, your cashiers at the door will ring up all of the purchases on the tag.

The second way to do pricing is to sort the items by price and create sections where every item costs the same. With this second type of pricing, you might consider having a cashier in each pricing section. That way, your shoppers go pick out their items in that section and go to the section cashier, who counts the items and takes their money. This way of doing it avoids big exit lines, but requires more cashiers.

It's rummage sale day!

Prepping for the day of the sale is a big job. I say day, but it is possible to run the sale over several days. You just need permission from your venue. Multiple day sales are tough on volunteers, though, and the financial return will drop the longer you extend the sale. This drop in sales is due to the fact that most of the really nice merchandise will sell on the first day, if not in the first few hours.

You'll need lots of tables and lots of volunteers to lay out your wares. Your volunteers will need to manage traffic into the parking lot (because a big rummage sale will often draw lots of traffic the morning it opens). Volunteers will also help by being cashiers, cleaning up the venue, and assisting customers with bringing items to their cars. Be sure to train your cashiers on the proper way to handle money before the day of the event.

If you're looking for bags, you can send out a call for people to donate their plastic grocery bags. I know my house has a special place where we store all of our bags to be used when needed.

Get the word out!

Publicity for your rummage sale is very important. There's nothing sadder than a sale with no customers. If it's for a church, school, or ministry, make sure you're using every available means to get the word out. You can send emails to your lists, put announcements in a bulletin or newsletter, or announce it at gatherings. Churches have an advantage here, because they can talk to a large group of customers every week to announce the sale.

Don't stop there. Try to get on community calendars. Check with radio, newspapers, and television stations in your area and try to get on their calendar. Some radio stations will even allow you to do a public service announcement if you're doing it for a charitable reason.

Nowadays, social media is a huge way to advertise. Create a Facebook event and send out invitations to your followers. You might even consider spending a little money on boosting the announcement to bring in more people from the community.

Additional fundraising opportunities.

A rummage sale is a kind of charitable enterprise or indirect fundraiser. People are coming to buy cheap things, not because they want to support your ministry. That doesn't mean that you can't do some face-to-face fundraising at your rummage sale.

Consider having an area that explains the ministries supported by the rummage sale, and include an ask and opportunity to give. People will not give if they are not asked, but a percentage of them might if you make the effort.

In addition to having a real ask, you might provide some kind of concessions to your shoppers. I've seen rummage sales successfully combined with bake sales. Shoppers come in, get a hot cup of coffee and a home baked cookie, and then go out to shop. This does require additional volunteers and planning, so consider carefully if you can handle this component.

You might also consider incorporating a raffle for a big ticket item.

Wrapping it up.

When the doors close on the sale, your work is nearly finished. You'll need to count the money (which should be done by at least two trustworthy people) and deposit it in the bank. You'll also need to decide what you're going to do with the merchandise that remains.

There will be stuff left over. What should you do with it? If you have a large storage space that is unused and plan to do a rummage sale regularly, you could store it. You might decide that the leftovers are to junky to store. In that case, you might have a local thrift store that would take the remainder as a donation. If you can't find a Catholic Social Services or Good Will that will take the leftovers, you might have to put it all in a dumpster.

Make sure that you thank your volunteers and community after your sale is done. Give a report on the funds raised and what kind of good it will do. You might consider sending thank you notes or gifts to your lead volunteers.

Looking for more articles on charitable enterprises? Try these:

Check out The Fundraiser's Playbook for a full list of fundraising articles.

Would you like to learn more about raising money for Church and Ministry? Check out Letters From The Almoner, now available on Amazon.com.

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