"Going Once! Going Twice!" Awesome Auction Ideas

Vol. 12 No. 6


For private-independent schools, big or small, an auction can be one of the most exciting (and profitable!) ways to raise large sums at a single time. Our e-List for Advancement Professionals recently fielded an inquiry on the top auction items people have bought. We thought it’d be great to share some original ideas for items to go up on the block and some tricks and tips to remember when running your own.

Tips to Start Your Auction Off Right

Before you begin requesting items and services to put up for bidding, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure your auction is a success. First, consider a list of items that are historically less-than-successful at an auction. LA private school blog Beyond The Brochure posted an anecdotal list of hard-to-sell items, and the largest group of items by far was anything that restricts use, such as clothing in specific sizes or services with an immediate expiration date. Offering goods and opportunities that appeal to a broad swath of your potential audience will up the ante come Auction Night.

Beyond The Brochure also notes the importance of a theme and marketing of your auction, a sentiment echoed by The New York Times in an article about the atmosphere and content of school auctions. From a retro ‘80s-style dance party to a Caribbean beach-themed event—complete with calypso music from a steel band!—the auction is a social event for parents as much as a fund-raising event for the school. A school in Arizona shared their auction-ambiance idea with the e-List: A farm-to-table dinner created by a five-star chef, served outside on the Quad lawn. Superb!

Speaking of setting the mood, The Washington Post ran an article a few years back about local schools’ auctions and the choice to have a professional auctioneer host the event rather than have a parent or Trustee volunteer. While professionals add some extra up-front costs like travel and a hotel room, there’s a reason they’re professionals. Invest in an auctioneer, and you may see a big return come auction night.

Creative Items and Big Sellers at the Auction Block

No matter how much effort you put into the prep and execution of your school’s auction, in the end, it’s all about what’s up for grabs. From opulent to original, we’ve got a list of some excellent ideas from our Advancement Professionals e-List to consider at your school’s auction this spring. Keep your parent population in mind when requisitioning these items—you know better than anyone what people will spend big money to purchase.

  • “Head of School” for the Day!—One of the private-independent schools on our e-List suggested this as an inexpensive but interesting big-ticket item from their last auction. The winning student is given the “responsibility” of running the school for the day. Generally, it becomes more of a “shadow day” for the student involved to spend some quality time with the School Head.
  • Sleepover With Faculty—A few of your teachers volunteer to host a sleepover party for 20 elementary-age students at the school on a Saturday night, complete with games, movies, and pizza. The e-List member who suggested this said that it’s so popular, it generates a waiting list.
  • Trips at Home and Abroad—Several schools and articles agree: Vacations are great sellers. From trips to exotic locales to community members with time shares who are willing to donate their space for a weekend, trips can inspire wonderfully large bids.
  • Specialty Services—Auctions often offer potentially embarrassing items or services for people to bid on, like teeth whitening or tax preparation. These are big-ticket items, certainly, and ones people would be willing to bid for, but you might see less return if you make them raise their hands publicly. If your auction list contains many sensitive services, consider running a silent auction.
  • Items Handmade by Students—Sometimes it really is the thought that counts, and that’s especially true when it’s your child who made the item. Quilts finished by five-year-olds have sold for almost $3,000. One school’s best-selling item was a set of matched silk ties, dyed by fourth graders.
  • Prime Parking Spaces—How much would your parents (or faculty!) be willing to pay for those premium spaces in front of the office doors? Instead of “first-come, first-served” or lottery distribution, consider putting these spaces up for bid at the auction—they could rake in thousands annually.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 9 No. 7 It’s Auction Time!
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 9 No. 4 Ask the Development Expert
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 10 No. 4 Big Tickets for Your Annual Auction

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 27 No. 8 Ethical Issues for the Development Office
I&P Vol. 25 No. 2 Corporate Sponsorships and Endorsements: At What ‘Cost’ to Your Independence?

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