Many schools, especially private schools, depend on auctions for fundraising, but are they doing it effectively? Don Webber asked that question in 1990, when he volunteered at the Christian School of the Desert in Bermuda Dunes, Calif. A retired professional fundraiser himself but with no experience in auctions, Webber wanted to help his granddaughter's school. He found himself inheriting a yearly auction that was, in his words, "little more than a yard sale, earning $8,000." Yet last year that auction earned $250,000, and this year, Webber's goal is to break $300,000.

How did Webber turn the school's "little" yard sale into a blockbuster? He found a professional fundraising auctioneer and discovered a wealth of information and methods for creating effective auctions. Today, fundraising volunteers from around the country come to observe the Christian School's annual auctions to see how it's done.

Webber and his auctioneer, Jay Fiske of Bellevue, Wash.-based Northwest Benefit Auctions, plus others, are glad to share their secrets. Their methods aren't for everybody. If your goal is to create a nice social event that brings together the school community and earns money, too, these ideas likely won't appeal. They are strictly aimed at bringing in dollars. Big dollars. But they work, and using even some of them can build your auction to new heights.

One step is to follow the golden rule of the professionals: Raise your fundraiser's status from a one-day event to a year-round business. "The planning process is the real key, and you've got to treat it like a business," says Fiske. "Any retail establishment would do the same thing."

Fiske's approach doesn't start with the gala evening. His most important work as both an auctioneer and consultant is in the planning stages, and that, he emphasizes, is where the fundraiser's money is. "I work with clients three to six months prior to the event. We can affect their bottom line 50 to 75 percent in the planning, but only about 15 percent when it comes to the night of the event."

Yes, a good auctioneer can use humor and finesse to get an audience to dig deeper, but auctioneers still have to have something to sell. "If an auctioneer has $100,000 worth of merchandise, that 10 percent adds another $10,000," Fiske explains. "But if the auctioneer worked as a consultant and there was $150,000, the 10 percent is worth $15,000. But that's on top of the additional $50,000 in items. So the planning process made a 50 percent difference, and the auctioning part of it only made a 10 percent difference."

148 silent auction ideas for items to sell (plus 7 to skip)

Treating the event as a business also makes a difference in the day-to-day operations. In his consultations with Webber, Fiske demonstrated how to develop a five-year plan. He then introduced Webber to AuctionMaestro software, an auction program that guides users in setting up the committees, creating milestones, budget tracking, sponsorships, catalog creation, bid tracking, and even thank-you letters. "If somebody wanted to run an auction, the software would guide them through every single step and they wouldn't be reinventing the wheel every year," says Fiske.

Adopting software is a real timesaver, says Jennifer Stout, president of the Home and School Association at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a preK-8 Catholic school in Newport News, Va. "The biggest problem is that you have to keep track of everything," Stout notes. "From years past I have done the database using Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Publisher. I'm looking for software packages right now." Stout suggests taking a look at Archetype Auction event management software.

The Match Game

Fundraising software programs are critical for keeping the merchandise and selling teams coordinated. According to Fiske, many organizations make the mistake of doing their planning in a vacuum, with one part of their team looking for items and the other looking to fill the room, yet they don't match the audience to the items. "The $10,000 item has to have a number of $10,000 bidders in the room," says Fiske. "If there is a bidder with $25,000 in the room, make sure there's a $25,000 item. The auctioneer can't fix that on the night of the event."

To ensure the right audience, fill the room with people who have an interest in your cause and a willingness to spend money, then make sure you serve them a meal. Don't hide the fact that your intention is to raise money—bidders always eat, but eaters don't always bid. If you fill the room by selling tickets for a dinner, you end up with room full of eaters. For some it's an unpleasant fact, but a key factor in separating the eaters from the bidders is ticket pricing.