While the fundamentals of a fundraising auction haven’t really changed, several trends—primarily driven by advances in technology—have affected the way auctions are conducted. If your PTO’s annual auction needs a new angle or if your group is just starting to consider tackling an auction, read on to learn what’s new in auction fundraising.

You want people to come to your auction excited and ready to bid often and bid high. Using all the tools readily available in our tech-filled world can definitely help get the word out.

1. Consignment Items

Securing items is always one of the biggest challenges of a fundraising auction. You’d like to be able to offer an exotic travel package or highly collectible sports memorabilia, but you don’t have the personal connections to secure that kind of donation. That’s where professional consignment organizations come in.

A consignment house does all the legwork to arrange the vacation, get the autographs, and frame the collectibles. You simply select items from their list to be sent to your event. The most reputable consignment houses offer their items with no up-front cost. If an item sells at your auction, your PTO pays the consignment company the previously set fee for that item. If an item doesn’t sell or the bidding doesn’t exceed the minimum required for the consignment item (known as the “reserve”), then you ship the item back to the consignment company, no fee required.

Consignment items can add a big splash of excitement to your auction. You can generate a lot of pre-event buzz around a trip to Mexico or a guitar signed by a famous rock star. If you decide to use consigned auction items, be sure to promote them in advance of your event so your guests come prepared to bid high and enthusiastically.

But keep in mind that consigned items are not free. Your high bidder thinks she’s supporting your PTO, not realizing that some of her money is paying the consignment fee. If she came to the auction with a $300 personal budget and she spends it all on a consigned item, your PTO doesn’t get the full benefit of her $300. One way to offset the consignment fee is to ask a generous donor to underwrite the item. This is a great way for service professionals such as accountants or lawyers—folks who don’t necessarily have something tangible to donate—to support your PTO and get recognition in your community.

When evaluating consignment houses, ask whether they have a minimum number of items, who is responsible for shipping fees, and how the items are packaged and guaranteed.

2. Web-based Auction Management Systems

A good auction is a complex project. You have to manage ticket sales, bidding paperwork, the catalog, displays, cash-out procedures, and post-event analysis. It didn’t take long for a cottage industry to evolve that offers computer-based auction management software for the do-it-yourselfers. The latest version of auction management tools are Web-based systems that do not require you to install any software on your home computer. This means your volunteers can access the system from any computer, even right at your venue, which allows the tools to be an integral part of your event.

Auction management systems vary in their breadth of features. On one end, you can find systems that simply facilitate the creation of your silent auction bid sheets and catalog. At the other end of the spectrum are full-service solutions that can handle marketing, guest registration, ticket sales, electronic bidding at your event, one-step cashing out at the end of the evening, donor thank-yous, and myriad reports. The more sophisticated systems integrate all your data into one slick system that can simplify the workload on your volunteers and make your event run efficiently and professionally.  

Web-based systems come at a cost, of course. Some are set up as a subscription fee, which grants your PTO unlimited access for a period of time, typically a year. This can allow your group to do more than one event under the same contract period. Other companies provide a menu of services, where you sign up only for the tools your PTO needs for the specific event. Some tie their fee into the gross sales from your auction items, and others are flat-fee-only. Be sure to read the fine print carefully and ask questions before you commit to a provider. Don’t be afraid to contact the company’s references, too. Once you lock into a system, you are depending on that system to run your event, so do your homework carefully.

3. Online Bidding

The popularity of eBay has proved that the world is comfortable with online bidding. Your PTO can also get in on the action by affiliating with one of the many online fundraising auction companies, such as BiddingForGood, Charity Auctions Today, BenefitEvents.com, or SchoolAuction.net.

An online auction has several advantages not found in traditional one-night-only auction galas. An online auction can span several days, even weeks if you want. This extended bidding window gives your supporters lots of opportunity to ponder their bids, check their calendars for date-specific auction offerings, and get friends to bid together on big-ticket items they can share. What’s more, folks who can’t attend your traditional event can bid from the comfort of their home computer or smartphone. Distant relatives, friends, and school alumni can participate even if they live far from your school. A bidder who registers for and bids in your online auction can receive “over bid” notices and warnings that bidding is about to close. Keeping your active bidders engaged can encourage higher bids—and more money for your PTO.

Many online bidding systems offer your PTO the ability to customize a website for your group as part of their fee. You can add photos of the items, special messages about your group, and even logos for your PTO’s best sponsors. Bidders peruse your offerings, bid, and then submit payment online if they are the high bidder. Your PTO is responsible for sending the actual items to the high bidders.

Some online bidding systems also offer a full line of auction management tools to support a traditional auction gala. You may want to consider using an online auction as a preview of your live event. You can offer a few prime items online to spark interest in your fundraiser. Be sure to clearly explain whether the online bidding will be closed (and the item sold) before the start of your live event or if you will carry over your online items to the gala.

Another good use for an online auction is to offer any late-arriving auction donations, or items not previously sold, as a follow-up to your primary gala. Instead of scrambling to prepare paperwork for your late donations the day or two before your gala, these items are offered to your supporters a couple of weeks after the event.

There are many companies that offer this kind of service, and features and fees vary. Before your PTO signs a contract, look over the features, visit some of the auction pages already set up by the company, review the pricing carefully, and contact references. Ask yourself whether the site is easy to navigate and the items are presented in an enticing way, and whether you would be motivated to bid yourself. The online auction is an extension of your PTO, and you want to be confident that the look and feel presents your group in the best light.

4. Easy Credit Card Processing

Your PTO is no longer limited to accepting only cash and check payments. Today, companies like Square, PayPal, and PayAnywhere allow parent groups to easily accept credit cards, using their own smartphones as the data collection device. Each company requires its own proprietary swiper, a small accessory that attaches to your phone. The swipers cost about $15 each, and some of the companies will reimburse your PTO for the cost of the swiper once your account is activated. It’s wise to purchase a few swipers for your auction so you can run several credit card checkout lines simultaneously.

The fees charged vary but are typically in the range of 2 percent to 3 percent of the transaction’s value. That means a high bid of $100, paid with a credit card, will net your PTO $97 to $98. Be sure to review the fine print from each credit card processing company so you can select the best plan for your PTO. The fees add up, but the convenience of paying by credit card usually encourages higher bidding. And once your PTO has the account and swipers, you can use the system to accept credit cards for other PTO functions.

While the new smartphone swiper technology is very easy to use, it’s a good idea to a have a backup plan just in case your phone connections fail on the night of your gala. Be ready with paper-based credit card forms so your cashiers can continue to accept credit cards if technical difficulties occur.

All the systems have a feature to post credit card transactions directly into the computer afterward if you cannot swipe the card in person. You’ll pay a higher fee for this type of transaction, but it allows your PTO ultimate flexibility. Regardless of how you accept the transaction, be sure to record the last four digits of the credit card number, along with the cardholder’s name, at the time of checkout. You’ll need this information to match the transactions on your payment history report (from the credit card processing system) to the actual payments you expected for your event. For privacy reasons, the payment reports don’t show the name of the cardholder. Review the report within a day or two of your event to ensure that all transactions were posted correctly.

Some of the more sophisticated Web-based auction management systems offer optional credit card processing in their suite of tools. Compare the fees for integrated credit card processing with the option of setting up your own account to ensure you’re not overpaying for features your PTO doesn’t really need.

5. Social Media

Even if you rely on a do-it-yourself, paper-based auction system with no newfangled technology tools, you can still use social media to promote your auction gala.

At minimum, your event should be prominently featured on your PTO and school websites. As well, incorporate news of your event in your e-newsletter and email blasts. Set up a Facebook page for your PTO (if you don’t already have one), then create a public Facebook event for your auction. Use the features of Facebook to share details such as date, time, location, and how to order tickets. You can also post information about your big-ticket items and instructions for silent auction bidding. Thank donors and volunteers on your Facebook page, too.

Use Twitter to spotlight new donations as they come in. You might also want to consider using an online invitation system like Evite to reach out to potential guests. Just remember that if you are charging for tickets to your gala (a common practice), you’ll need to follow up any electronic RSVPs with a personal note to get payment.