Of all the tasks necessary for a fundraising auction, procuring items is the one that can intimidate even the most enthusiastic volunteer. Great auctions are dependent on great items. There might be a hundred enthusiastic guests at your party, but they’ll go home with money in their pockets if they are not motivated to bid on your items.

So what’s the secret to securing a wide variety of high-quality items at every price point? To start with, your auction committee and PTO leadership shouldn’t be the only ones soliciting donations; enlist your entire school community in the effort.

Some PTOs insist that every family be responsible for at least one item or experience offered at the annual auction. Staff members and teachers can be asked to secure a donation as well. The best

auction items may be the special experiences only a certain teacher or family can offer. For example, Mrs. Brown from 2nd grade may also be a Pampered Chef consultant, while the Martin family might have a vacation cottage they’re willing to offer. The proceeds from your auction will benefit the entire school, so don’t be afraid to encourage everyone to secure a donation.

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Craft a Good Donation Request

Before sending off your auction team to start soliciting, develop a well-crafted donation request letter and donation information form. The letter should include a brief description of your PTO, the purpose of your fundraiser, the auction date, and a PTO contact person. Donations to your auction are tax deductible if (and only if) your group is designated a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity by the IRS, so include your PTO’s 501(c)(3) status, as well.

Format the letter on PTO letterhead, and have it signed by the PTO president and school principal. You will feel empowered with this prop in your hand, especially if you are uncomfortable with the thought of asking for something for free. The letter may be the only introduction a donor has to your group, so make sure it is well-written.

Also create a form to collect the standard data you need to properly document a donation. This includes details such as the donor’s contact information, a complete description of the item, its retail value, and any restrictions. Ideally, you should fill out this form as soon as the donation is secured, whether in person or by mail. These forms are the basis for your official auction catalog and bid sheets, so it’s vital to collect accurate data in a timely manner.

Distribute the letter and donation form in hard copy and electronic formats to everyone who is soliciting donations. Put the documents on your PTO’s website, too, so it’s easy to get additional copies.

Who To Ask—and How

Donors are all around your PTO. Personal contacts, community groups, and big corporations are all good sources of auction items, but the asking strategies vary somewhat. You’ll have the most success with a face-to-face conversation with friends and familiar merchants. For community groups like local sports teams and arts organizations, it’s usually most efficient to contact them by email or postal mail. When requesting donations from large corporations—which you should always do via email—you’ll need to follow their instructions and meet their qualifications.

The Personal Approach

Start with people you know. Mentally inventory the movers, shakers, and businesspeople you know personally. Consider family relatives and professional contacts who might have an item, service, or experience to donate. Think about the merchants you frequent on a regular basis. People who recognize you are the most likely to support your event, even if they aren’t personally affiliated with your school. Just ask.

It might seem easier to have a specific item in mind when you approach a potential donor. For example, if your committee is putting together theme baskets, ask for accessories for Pasta Night or supplies for the craft basket. As you pay your bill at a restaurant, ask the manager whether she would donate a gift certificate to your auction.

Even donors with nothing tangible to donate can be asked to make a cash donation toward the expenses of your auction. For example, a local law firm might be willing to sponsor the centerpieces or underwrite the cost of a consignment item. Keep a stack of donation request forms with you so you are ready to ask when the opportunity arises.

Sara Ward, cochair of the Gretchko Elementary PTO fundraising auction in West Bloomfield, Mich., recommends a standard line to break the ice for a face-to-face request: “Our school’s parent group is holding a fundraising auction soon. Do you ever support community events like this?” It’s a soft way to open the conversation while making it clear you are asking for help.

Community Donors

Be sure to target family-friendly organizations in your metropolitan area. Auction-goers love to bid on tickets or memberships to the zoo, local museums, musical venues, community theaters, performance groups, sports teams, tourist attractions, recreation clubs, local amusement parks, and the like. Many of these organizations are reliable donors because the donation may spark a long-term relationship with the bidder.

The most efficient way to solicit donations from local community organizations is by email or postal letter. Designate one or two volunteers to focus on local organizations and start early, about three months in advance of your event.

A quick Internet search for travel, tourism, and family-friendly activities in your area will turn up a long list of possible donors. Your team will need to do some research to find the exact contact information, but the effort will be worth it when the tickets and gift certificates start to arrive in the mail. Keep track of the organizations that respond, yea or nay, so the committee can maintain a list of contacts for future auctions.

National Corporations

Unfortunately, you probably won’t have much success asking for a donation from the manager of a national chain store in your town mall, even if you are a regular customer. Most large corporations have formalized their donation process so it’s fair, consistent, and in line with their corporate goals. Some have restrictions such as a limit on the frequency of their donations or a rule that they donate only if they have a brick-and-mortar presence in your community. You should also assume that every national corporation will require that your PTO has its 501(c)(3) designation as a tax-exempt charity. The most efficient (and preferred) way to ask for a donation from a national company is by email.

Designate one or two tenacious volunteers to focus on national donations. They should start early, about four months in advance, looking for possible donors and sending out your standard letter to those corporations that would appeal to your community.

To find corporate donation information, look around the company website for these key words: charitable, donation, contribution, community outreach, corporate responsibility, sponsorship, promotional, and customer relations. Often, this search will lead you to an email contact or standard donation request form. Another tip is to read through the company’s list of frequently asked questions or the site map of the company’s website. Sometimes the link to charitable giving is deep in the website, so you may need to do a little digging.

If you still can’t find an obvious link to the company’s donation policy, send an email to the customer relations and/or community relations department. You should find at least one contact email address under the “contact us” link found at the bottom of most corporate webpages. And it’s always possible to make a phone call to the corporation. You may have to bounce through a series of computer prompts, but if it’s a donation you really want for your auction, your persistence may pay off.

One notable exception to the “only by email” guideline for national corporations: franchises. Locally owned outlets of national franchises may be free to make their own decisions about charitable giving. Bring your standard donation request letter to the store, and ask to speak with the manager personally. If the manager isn’t available, come back when you can have a face-to-face conversation. Don’t rely on the teenager behind the counter to adequately pass along your PTO’s message.

Last but Not Least

Before you close the auction binders for the last time this year, make sure every donor receives a formal and proper thank-you note. Besides just being good manners, a thank-you note can provide the donor the documentation he may need to substantiate his charitable donation.

You might want to assign one or two fresh volunteers to this task. By the time your gala ends, your core volunteers may be pretty well burned out. But don’t let this job go by the wayside. You want your donors to see your group in a favorable light so they are generous supporters in the future.