Frustrated by low attendance and dismal profits at the school fundraising auction, a few years ago parent leaders at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Newport News, Va., decided it was time for some major changes. Mount Carmel’s parent group, the Home and School Board, took the auction upscale, offered more desirable items, and used innovative ways to get more parents involved. Now the event routinely sells out in advance, and profits have increased sixfold in just two years.

Looking Back

Like many parochial schools, Mount Carmel had tried a variety of ways to raise funds: spelling bees, jumpathons, raffles, and sales of cookie dough, candles, and wrapping paper. The Home and School Board decided to concentrate on two fundraisers—gift wrap and an auction—and make them profitable enough so that other fundraisers weren’t needed.

Parents gave the auction a complete overhaul. Three years ago, the auction earned a disappointing $11,000 selling themed gift baskets created by each classroom and items donated by local businesses and tourist attractions. Admission for the event, held in the school gymnasium, was a modest $10, including complimentary hot appetizers and a cash bar. Out of 350 families, just 90 people typically showed up.

“We were discouraged because not only was the event poorly attended but our PTO was doing almost all of the work,” says vice president AnaMari Clem. “We knew there had to be a better way. What we needed was to build enthusiasm in the school community to make the auction an event that families anticipated.”

Fortunately, Clem had seen just how successful an auction could be while living in Seattle, where she had chaired the highly profitable auction at her children’s school. “We wanted the community to come together to volunteer and support the event—and have some fun!”

Injecting Excitement

The first step in creating an engaging event was to change the venue. “We moved the auction to our church conference center, which was larger and much nicer,” president Tammy Rossi says. Next, the PTO decided to make the auction a classy night out by offering a full meal and a few bottles of wine at each table. With the ticket price doubling to $20, the auction suddenly became a welcome social event for parents and their friends.

The PTO recognized that the themed class baskets just weren’t cutting it. “Rather than have baskets full of spa products or pet treats, we asked each class to create personalized items for the auction,” Clem explains.

Working with an “outdoors” theme, children hand-painted table umbrellas, created mosaic tabletops, decorated garden benches, fashioned quilts, and painted wine glasses. Younger kids painted child-size picnic tables. With a few finishing touches from adults, these unique works of art became some of the hottest items at the auction.

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

Finally, the PTO asked every family to donate two items for the auction. “We stressed that we valued $5 gift cards to supplement baskets just as much as bigger-ticket items,” Clem says. “Our goal was to get each family involved regardless of their income level.”

Parents were also asked to be creative when it came to donations. “Most people think they have to give ‘stuff,’” says Rossi, “but we encouraged them to think more broadly. Do you have a boat you could loan out for a day trip? Could you make a fancy dessert? Would you be willing to take a group of kids to the museum for a day?”

Some unique items cost nothing but time. “Our local sheriff agreed to have someone shadow him for a day, including a ride in the police car,” says Clem. “We auctioned off the chance for a child to be prin­cipal for a day. A kindergarten teacher offered to read bedtime stories during a house call. One class even won the privilege of going uniform-free for a day.”

Reaping the Rewards

The first auction was a success, and the event is now a confirmed sellout. Not only did more than 50 percent of parents donate items to the auction; the school showed up in full force, as well. By mixing low- and high-end items for both the silent and live portions of the auction, more people were able to participate.

During a cash-only cocktail hour, participants bid on silent auction items. The auction went live as dinner was served. Volunteers who did not buy a dinner ticket received a bidder number if they worked throughout the evening. Some volunteers paid for dinner tickets and then worked during the cocktail hour; others worked as servers and were given dinner tickets as well as bidder numbers.

Parents loved that they weren’t being asked to donate to so many small causes and were happy to volunteer. The entire event, from setup to cleanup, took place in two days and involved about 60 helpers. Expenses totaled $8,000, including food, printing, rental fees, and decorations. The PTO raised an additional $13,000 in corporate sponsorships prior to the auction.

Parent leaders had hoped to net $25,000 the first year and $50,000 the second. “The auction exceeded our wildest expectations,” Rossi says. The PTO made $38,000 in profits the first year and more than $60,000 the next. That second year, the event sold out three weeks in advance, even after the ticket price was raised to $30.

The Hit Parade

The most popular auction items were those that were personalized by kids, experiential events, fancy desserts, and “fund an item.”

“We gave donors the opportunity to create an extravagant dessert for the auction since the dessert we serve with dinner is pretty simple,” Rossi says. For $25, attendees could buy a dessert for their table. “We couldn’t believe the mad rush as people scurried to be the first to select a treat. With 25 tables served and all desserts donated, the profits added up quite nicely.”

“Fund an item” was simply a donation to a school cause selected by the principal. The first year, it was the library. “We paraded a cart of old library books through the tables,” says Clem, “showing people how out-of-date some of them were. Then we’d ask for outright donations to improve the library. That first year, we raised $3,800 in cash, and year two we netted $4,600 for audiovisual equipment. Plus, by donating to a cause, everyone could participate in the auction, even if they didn’t find an auction item they liked.”

The Mount Carmel PTO was able to increase the amount of funds it raised by putting on a fun, community-oriented event—and best of all, the PTO wasn’t doing all the work.

“We organized the entire event with a core of 10 people who chaired various committees. Since the event is so much fun, we have very little turnover each year and no one burns out,” Clem says. “We never expected it to catch on as it did, and we couldn’t be more delighted at how it has pulled the community together.”

Tips for a Successful Auction

  • Create personalized items to donate. Consider items with children’s handprints and homemade decorative pieces.
  • Think creatively. The most popular items often involve experiences rather than things.
  • Ask families to donate a minimum of two items.
  • Emphasize that small items are needed as much as large items, especially when filling gift baskets.
  • Reach out to the community for auction items and unique experiences.
  • Take advantage of talents. If someone likes to bake or enjoys decorating, have them donate a special dessert or put them on the setup committee.
  • Get people excited by making it a community event, not just a PTO event.
  • Make it possible for people to work at the event in lieu of an entrance fee.
  • Ask local businesses to donate auction items and consumables used at the event.
  • Be specific about job duties when asking for volunteers.