Pricing the tickets was a point of contention among the fundraising organizers at the Suffield Foundation for Excellence in Schools, which supports schools in Suffield, Conn. Board member Jim Zien notes that for the organization's first auction in 2002, many members didn't want to exclude anybody. "We had a lot of independent people with independent thoughts," Zien recalls. Since none were experienced fundraisers, Zien contracted with Fiske and let him settle the pricing decision, and many others following it.

Having an unbiased third party settle conflicts can go a long way toward smoothing out relationships and will increase the efficiency of the group, says Zien. So what price did they settle on? After analyzing their potential audience, the ticket price was set at—are you sitting down?—$175 per couple. Yes, that made it too expensive for a lot of their teachers, much less the general community, Zien admits. The price might be too high for a lot of schools. However, 287 people committed to coming and 282 actually showed up.

Fiske also gave Zien's group a clever moneymaking tip: The invitations were printed with more than just the base price. Also offered was the option of making a larger contribution by checking boxes with higher increments. To Zien's surprise, about 40 people chose to pay above the base price. At the end of the evening, the event raised more than $60,000.

The Right Stuff

Now that you've targeted the right kind of audience, it's time to secure items worthy of their spending power. Does that mean knocking on the doors of retailers and corporations in hopes of getting them to donate big ticket items? Not really, say Webber and Zien. Sure, don't exclude that method, especially for the silent auction. However, Webber and Zien have found that it's the one-of-a-kind experiences and unique items that are far more effective for garnering the big bids. For that, you need to be creative and mine your group's hidden assets.

Webber has been very successful with offering dinners with local celebrities. These don't have to be entertainment types. Local politicians and scholars work well. This year, Webber has found the father of a famous presidential scholar and is offering a dinner with him. Be creative. How about a dinner with the coach of the college football team on the 10-yard line?

"We also offer behind-the-scenes tours such as a visit to a baseball stadium," Webber explains. "People are excited by that because it's outside of their ordinary lives. We did a dinner at a firehouse with firemen and the fire chief. It sold for $250 and included a tour plus a chef that cooked dinner in the firehouse kitchen."

Don't overlook the talent within your group. Being a hunter, Zien offered a gourmet dinner of wild game for eight guests. It sold for $600. Is someone in your group a collector of memorabilia? Webber sold cufflinks worn by George W. Bush for $2,200. An autographed picture of Bush went for $5,000.

Sports celebrities are a popular resource. Steve Garvey, former Los Angeles Dodgers baseball star, has been honorary chairman for the Christian School of the Desert for many years. At one event, a donor offered $10,000 to sit with Garvey in the Dodger dugout seats for a game. Here's another example of the power of athletes. The school incurred a huge debt when it had to build a new gym. Fiske suggested to Webber that they allow donors to bid on naming the gym for a year. Bids have ranged from $7,000 to $10,000, and one year, the winning bidder asked for the gym to have Steve Garvey's name on it.

Of course, people tend to enjoy knowing that their own names will be seen in a positive light, and Webber gives them the opportunity by auctioning annual parking space signs that say "This parking space sponsored by...."

Vacation packages are good sellers, but to transform them into something spectacular, add custom benefits. If it's a condo in Hawaii, Webber suggests adding airline transportation, a special dinner, and a gift basket provided by a florist. Another tip for vacations: Make sure you promote them with plenty of visuals, such as posters or, better yet, a large-screen projection system. In fact, use those presentation tools also for creative dinner experiences or any item that is too small for the audience to view.

The Price Is Right

Although you have secured a lot of high priced items, don't pile them one on top of another. Offer a variety of values throughout the evening so everyone in the audience gets a chance to participate and enjoy making a donation.

"Don't put 10 dinners in a row, and don't put the most expensive things first," advises Cheryl Parker, of Partager Fine Art and Auction, Solano Beach, Calif. "It's like riding a wave; you start out low, then go up a bit, then back down again, then take it up a little higher."

If there are too many expensive items at the start, the audience assumes the entire offering is out of their price range and they leave. Too many lower-priced items cause the high rollers to lose interest. "I announce that everybody should have a chance to make a donation and bring in items that allow me to start the bidding low," says Parker.

Enhance the variety further with fixed donations, which work well for the purpose of giving everyone in the audience a chance to participate. Also, they add variety to the pace of the event. "People like having the chance to make a simple pledge without having to buy something more expensive," says Charles Cumberline, of Odle-Cumberline Auctioneers in Brush, Colo. "We had a fundraiser for a dental aid office, and at a predetermined time we solicited fixed-amount donations at a low of $85 for chairs and a high of $800 for computers."