A Platform for Improving Lives: eBay’s Global Impact

Jun 28, 2018 2:25 PM ET
Campaign: eBay Impact

Originally published on WSJ: Business Partners for Impact

A week after 9/11, New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani approached Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay at the time, for suggestions on how to raise money for victims of the attacks. Putting in intense weekend hours, eBay staffers created Auction for America—a website that allowed eBay users to earmark auction items to benefit 9/11 victims. In short order, the site raised $10 million.

Through its global impact division and together with its global community, eBay has helped raise $810 million for public charities since 2003.1 The proceeds have been directed to a variety of organizations, including Save the Children and the American Cancer Society, via eBay sellers and celebrities, who have generously donated such things as couture dresses and artworks for auction. The eBay platform integrates charitable giving for buyers as well as sellers, waiving fees for auctions that donate to charity.

“Lunch with Warren Buffett is the highest-profile auction we have,” says Chris Librie, senior director of global impact and giving at eBay. The annual “Power Lunch” provides a substantial portion—about $2.5 million to $3 million every year—of the annual operating budget for its designated beneficiary: GLIDE in San Francisco, whose mission is to break the cycles of poverty and marginalization. “There are some people who really, really want to have lunch with Warren Buffett,” he says.

While proceeds from its charity auctions have been impressive, the company has set even higher goals for itself. By 2020, it hopes to raise $1 billion in funds for charities. If Librie has his way, eBay will reach that mark quite a bit earlier.

A Ladder Up

Librie’s division has created a number of programs besides Auction for America. One other that is making a significant impact on the livelihood of small-business owners is Retail Revival, which assists entrepreneurs in some of the country’s hardest hit areas. Its mission is empowering independent local retailers in rural and smaller metropolitan areas. Recently, eBay scouted cities to partner with and chose Akron, Ohio—a community with a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a substantial number of eBay sellers.

Known as “the rubber capital of the world” for its concentration of auto tire manufacturers, Akron has been struggling in recent years with housing and unemployment as well as the revival of its downtown area Despite its struggles, the city has maintained its strong entrepreneurial spirit. Brent Wesley, a local beekeeper and owner of Akron Honey Company, which produces natural products like urban honey and personal care products, says he used to pass a vacant lot on his way to work every day. Some might have thought it was just another sign of the city’s decline; Wesley thought it would be a great place for an apiary.

Librie explains that “the idea of Retail Revival is to onboard to the eBay platform a number of brick-and-mortar retailers as well as entrepreneurs in Akron and nearby Warren, Ohio.” The program also provides ongoing training and customer-service and promotional support.

Even business owners like Ken Burns, who already has an online presence for his specialty electronics store TinyCircuits in the former BF Goodrich rubber factory in downtown Akron, are finding that partnering with eBay expands their reach. “Our products are geared to a niche audience,” Burns explains, “and online is the best way to reach potential customers around the world in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do ourselves.”

Librie says the program “demonstrates how anyone with a bank account and access to the internet can start a business and become a successful entrepreneur.” And, he adds, “Suddenly, they go from having to rely on foot traffic to gaining access to a global market.”

A Chance to Succeed

For a small Akron retailer such as Noto Boutique, which sells women’s clothing and accessories, eBay’s push to provide opportunity is a chance to reach a greater number of customers. “For several years, I’ve heard people say things like, ‘I have a daughter in Colorado and she would love your shop, but you don’t sell online,’” says Lauren Ward, the boutique’s owner. “This has opened our shop to so many more people,” she adds.

Ward, a 32-year-old mother of three, says the eBay partnership has made her more confident about her business, which she started as a hobby, selling to friends in her apartment.

The boutique now has two employees and an occasional intern from local high schools or universities. Students may work anywhere from two weeks to an entire summer, and one has worked for Noto Boutique for the past three years. Like many small-business owners, Ward wears many hats. Keeping the books is her least favorite part of the business, she admits, and as the boutique starts producing more revenue, she plans to hire a bookkeeper. Ward is also anticipating a more dependable financial future and setting goals, such as buying a home.

Elsewhere in Akron, the partnership is helping retailers set their own business goals. Burns, who currently has nine employees and hit $650,000 in revenue last year, plans to expand his electronics business and create even more local jobs. Wesley is building brand awareness and planning ways to distinguish his skin-care products in the saturated personal-care and beauty market. With two employees, Wesley’s goal is to double the previous year’s $25,000 in revenue.

Being able to make connections with other businesses—often very small local artisans—and getting them recognized is another key attraction for Ward. “A really big part of this is being an outlet for them to sell the things that we carry on eBay,” she says. Recently, a customer returned to Noto Boutique to tell Ward that she had hired a dressmaker to make bridesmaids’ dresses after seeing the woman’s work in the boutique.

Doing good in the world is a natural philosophy for eBay, according to Librie. In fact, the belief that people are basically good at heart first inspired Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder, to create a way for people to buy and sell things to one another without ever meeting in person. “It may seem absolutely ordinary now, but 22 years ago, when he first started, e-commerce was new,” Librie says.

Omidyar’s belief has grown into a platform with 170 million users in 190 countries. “At its core, that purpose is still driving our engine,” Librie says. “We are all about bringing people together, and not only to help the causes they care about. We are also all about helping give budding entrepreneurs and small businesses an even better opportunity to succeed.”

1“A Record $84 Million Raised for Charities Through eBay in 2017,” Jan. 22, 2018, ebayinc.com