Three Steps to Scoring Profitable Items for Your School’s Auction

Vol. 14 No. 9

development eletter Vol14 No9 auction

School auctions can be a fun—and profitable!—way to connect with donors while raising money for school programs. However, not all auction items are created equal, either in terms of monetary value or their popularity with donors. So this month, we'd like to offer a three-step process to securing the items your school community truly wants to bid on.

1. Brainstorm with your volunteers.

The people active in your school’s community often have great ideas about what they’d like to contribute and bid on at an auction event. So, pick their brains! Invite former auction bidders and active volunteers to a brainstorming session—with snacks provided, of course.

Then, steer the conversation toward what items they’d like to see on the auction block, both possible and practically impossible. Let the brainstorming committee direct the conversation, and only offer input when you think it’s necessary to keep the conversation on track (or from being dominated by a few strong voices).

Write their suggestions down at the front of the room, perhaps splitting suggestions between “small” or “silent” items and the “big ticket” items offered by an auctioneer. Taking private notes on a private tablet or piece of paper might inhibit their creativity, as they wouldn’t be able to piggyback off of ideas as easily.

Then, when you have a decently sized list, start asking volunteers if they have any connections to secure those sorts of items, especially the bigger ticket items. Make sure that brainstorming session doesn’t end until there’s a “plan of attack” to acquire the most popular items, whether from the invited volunteers and donors at the session itself or from the community at large.

2. Dissuade donors from contributing professional services—unless they’re Mark Zuckerburg.

It’s likely that volunteers will offer professional services up for bid at some point. An hour’s worth of financial consultation or tutoring are generally not items that will be popular with auction bidders, and may actually buy you problems if the donor becomes insulted when their offered service doesn’t sell well.

The exception to this rule is if the professional is extremely well-known within their industry, and you know there would be an active demand for their personal services. If Mark Zuckerburg approaches your committee and offers an evaluation of the auction winner’s startup business, then by all means accept it! There may be other local professionals whose services you know would be bid on by auction guests. Still, be wary of having many of these “items” on the auction block.

That’s not to say that beloved community members couldn’t offer unique opportunities for bid—they just shouldn’t be, well, generic. If a community member really wants to offer a personal experience to bid on, suggest something that would put a unique spin on their services.

  • A beloved teacher hosts a slumber party at school for the winning parent’s student and nine friends.
  • A phenomenal amateur baker offers to make monthly deliveries of specialty baked goods to the winner’s home—accompanied by a plate of cookies to whet bidders’ appetites.
  • The conductor of the local college band—or the school’s orchestra—allows the auction winner to conduct one musical piece at the spring or winter concert.

Conversely, see if you can steer a potential donor toward offering tried-and-true items that will actually sell, and make the donor feel as though they have contributed something personal toward the community.

  • Gift certificates to a favorite restaurant
  • Offers of tickets to sports or theatrical events, especially “box seats”—make sure these are offered in pairs!
  • Hotel stays or vacation packages at a tried-and-true vacation spot

These suggestions often require the prospective donor to pay for the donated item, rather than donating their time. That said, they can write off the item’s value come tax time as a donation—and they’ll have the satisfaction of having contributed a popular item toward the auction.

3. Request the item!

Since your brainstorming session has already invited your volunteers and involved community into your planning for the auction, there’s no reason why your volunteers couldn’t help you solicit these auction items from the community. While there’s power and influence in the Development Director him- or herself asking for an item directly—especially for larger-ticket items—the intimate touch of a friend or neighbor asking for the auction item should never be underestimated.

So, when organizing your volunteers to solicit for auction items, leverage the power of competition. Put your volunteers into teams, and keep track of how many items the teams garner, and the sale prices for these items. Offer recognition and a prize for those teams who find the most items and whose items sell the most.

Make sure your volunteers have the list of ideas created in the brainstorming session. It’ll be hard for them to remember all the different local restaurants, hotels, cinemas, and other businesses that were mentioned during the meeting, so a quick email with the lists of possible business donors helps the process continue smoothly.

Finally, follow up with those volunteers who had connections to “big ticket” items, like a signed Giants jersey or an opportunity to go backstage at the Met. These volunteers especially should be armed with their “school story” about the mission of your private school and how the money earned from the auction would be used.

If you’re looking for your own “brainstorming session” for the Development, Admission, and Marketing-Communications administrators, then it’s time to take your team to the Advancement Academy in Boston, Massachusetts (July 25-29). During this intensive five-day professional development experience, you’ll work with expert mentors to form your school’s integrated advancement plan, ready to execute the instant you set foot back on campus. To register, call 302-656-4944 and be sure to ask about team pricing!

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Development Directors Vol. 9 No. 7 It’s Auction Time!
The Source for Development Directors Vol. 9 No. 7 Ask the Expert
The Source for Private School News Vol. 10 No. 8 Food Truck Nights

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 37 No. 12 The True Amount of the ‘Perceived Cost’ of Attending Your School

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