August 2008

The uncertain economy is making it harder for schools to raise money through auctions, a study conducted by an online auction company reports. But with creativity and more lead time, an auction may still be an excellent way to bring in cash for your school.

Cambridge, Mass.-based cMarket, an online auction company for nonprofit organizations, surveyed 255 charity auction managers who conducted auctions between January and April 2008. More than two-thirds said the economy had a somewhat or very noticeable impact on their event. Twenty-two percent said they raised less money this year than last, and “nearly all are bracing themselves for an even tougher fundraising environment over the months to come,” according to the company.

Most said it’s harder to get merchants to donate items and services. Forty percent found corporate sponsors more demanding in terms of promotion in exchange for their support. About 32 percent reported lower attendance at their gala, and 21 percent reported fewer bidders compared to last year’s event.

Bidders who turned out showed less interest in discretionary items such as art and jewelry, but everyday items for dining, entertainment, and travel remained popular.

Even groups that reported very successful events found it harder to attract sponsors and donors.

“It’s not as easy as it used to be,” says Helen Stefan, cMarket’s direction of public relations. “There’s a lot of competition.”

Parent groups planning auctions—either live or online—need to start requesting items from local merchants earlier and cast a wider net, she says, adding that volunteers might want to solicit school alumni and others who might not have been contacted in previous years.

Groups also need to be creative in coming up with items the school can provide at little or no cost. For example, some schools donate front-row seats to a school performance or sporting event. In California, a parking spot has been known to net thousands. Other popular offerings include a chance to be “principal for a day,” a night out with your favorite teacher, and the chance for your child to select his locker.

Volunteers at a suburban Houston school told cMarket they were able to get corporate sponsors this year, but they had to use a personal touch rather than just an email or phone call. The school sent out “save the date” cards earlier, so guests could make their event a priority amid political fundraisers and other galas competing for dollars.

Another volunteer noticed fewer antiques and luxury items “coming out of people’s attics” this year, suggesting that people may be more inclined to hang on to their valuables or sell them for cash in times of financial hardship.

A Pennsylvania parent volunteer says in the report that her school will be more creative next year, and may offer a homemade Ethiopian feast catered by a student’s grandparents.

The good news is that auctions are still a viable way to raise funds, Stefan says. Parent groups willing to rethink their approach, start early, and be persistent will still be able to turn a tidy profit. They just might have to work a lot harder and smarter for it.