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School Auction Fundraiser: Make It Fun and Festive

Tips for success, frequently asked questions, and top ways to increase profits for your next school auction event.

by Christy Forhan


Your PTO needs to earn some money. Your group has strong community support. You’re not intimidated by planning a large event. You can pull together a committed group of volunteers, maybe even 15 or 20 people. You can afford to wait several months for the payoff. You want to try something more interactive and engaging than a traditional sales fundraiser. Are you nodding your head? Then an auction fundraiser might be just the project for your PTO.

Auctions are fun, exhausting, profitable, complicated, and exciting. Unlike a fundraiser supported by a professional fundraising company, an auction requires your PTO to do most of the work on its own. But for the right group, the benefits of an auction fundraiser can outweigh the challenges of going it alone. Done well, a good auction can be quite rewarding for your group, often more so than other fundraising activities. An auction is also a social event that brings together families, friends, staff, and the community at large in mutual support of the PTO and the school. For some parent groups, the annual auction gala has become an important tradition, with the event growing in popularity and profit each year.

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

The planning for the basic auction gala follows a fairly consistent work plan. First you must assemble a strong team of dedicated volunteers. Your group then solicits donations, which will become your auction items. Fairly early on, you’ll need to make some important decisions about the format of your event. For example, will your auction be the only activity at the event, or will you incorporate the auction into a carnival, game night, or something else? Will it be held at the school or off-site? Will you offer food? Will this be an adults-only event? Will you charge for tickets? Will you offer both silent auction and live auction items?

Regardless of format, you’ll need to publicize your event and generate enthusiasm within the school and community at large. There are some administrative tasks that must be handled, such as tracking your auction inventory, managing ticket sales, and developing bid sheets and a catalog for your guests. Creative tasks include designing decorations and preparing appealing displays for the auction items. There’s plenty of up-front work to keep your team busy.

During the event itself, guests place written bids for silent auction items during a specified time period. When bidding closes, the highest bidder “wins” the item. If you include a live auction in your event, the auctioneer entices verbal bidding from the guests as a group, with the excitement growing until the final “Sold!” Typically winners pay for their items before they leave and take the items home so that by the end of the evening, all that’s left is a room full of exhausted, but happy, volunteers.

Keys for Auction Fundraiser Success

Start early. It’s not overkill to start planning six months in advance, even for a small school auction. Often, national companies require several months’ advance notice for a donation. Plus, the more time you allow for donation solicitation, the more items you’ll have. You’ll also want to lock in your venue early, especially if the event is off-campus.

Recruit strong volunteers. Your core planning team will be working together for several months and dealing with issues and challenges, so recruit wisely. This is the time to personally reach out to your most dedicated and talented members. There are plenty of jobs for less experienced helpers, too, so everyone can be involved at some point.

Make major decisions early. You’ll need to decide right from the start the basic format of your event. Planning a family-oriented auction in your school gym differs significantly from the planning you’ll do for an adults-only dinner gala at a social club.

Consider your community and design your event accordingly. Some communities are comfortable with an event at a fancy country club. Others might be more inclined to support a less formal venue. Location and format also affect ticket price, which could have a ripple effect on the bid amounts. The local economy also matters when designing an event like this; yes, this is a fundraiser, but you want people to be able to afford to bid.

Ask parents to help collect auction items. Challenge each family to obtain at least one item for auction.

Collect a range of items at different price points. Solicit big-ticket items like professional sports tickets or a mini-vacation package, but also seek out small- and medium-value items like restaurant gift certificates and jewelry. Several very low-value items can even be bundled into an appealing basket.

Delegate the work. There’s too much for one or two people to handle. The chairperson will have a lot on her plate. Redistributing even small tasks will help.

Engage teachers and students by encouraging each classroom to develop a special auction donation. Some of the most profitable items are student art projects. You can also assign a theme to each class and ask them to collect a basket of items related to that theme.

Consider using auction software. There are many tasks that go into a successful auction event, some of which are computer-dependent. You can certainly do the computer work on your own, but some groups prefer to purchase professional software.

Pay attention to presentation and bundling. You want your auction items to look appealing and valuable so guests are eager to bid. Signage, décor, and lighting can all enhance the display.

Incorporate the purpose of the auction into your marketing and decorations so bidders remember why you’re asking for their money.

Train on-site volunteers, including runners, cashiers, and spotters.

Set up early in the day so you have time to make adjustments if necessary. You might be surprised by how much table length you need to display all your auction items. Lighting can also pose a problem; you may need to bring in extra lamps so your guests can read the bid sheets easily.

Keep things moving throughout the evening. A DJ, an enthusiastic emcee, and especially a professional auctioneer can help keep the crowd energized and actively bidding.

Take lots of photographs. You’ll never remember how things were set up, so a stack of pictures will be valuable to next year’s planning committee.

Top 7 Ways To Increase School Auction Profits

  1. Make the auction the focal point of your event. It can be enticing to fit a silent auction into another event such as a carnival or family game night. However, you’ll make more money when your bidders aren’t distracted by cotton candy or “Simon Says.” Also, young children tend to lose patience when moms and dads are trying to monitor bids. It’s just about the same amount of work to manage a small “add-on” auction vs. a large exclusive auction, so focus on an auction-only event for maximum profit.

  2. Use a professional auctioneer if you’re having a live auction fundraiser. A properly trained auctioneer comes at a price, but his fee can easily be offset by the increase in bidding during your live auction. A pro knows how to read the crowd, how to pick out the most generous bidders, when to end bidding, and how to keep the anticipation high so folks stay engaged. Invite a local celebrity to be the master of ceremonies, but hire the auctioneer.

  3. Close bidding on your silent auction items in groups, not all at once. By staggering the closing times, bidders can gauge their current financial commitment and then continue bidding if they feel they want to invest more for your group’s benefit. Most people come to an auction with a dollar amount in mind that they are willing to spend at your event. If all of the silent auction bidding closes simultaneously, it’s possible a bidder could be outbid on all her items, leaving her with a feeling of disappointment and her wallet still in her purse.

  4. Advertise the big items as well as those with restrictions so people can plan their bidding ahead of time. Catered dinners or a group boat trip will attract higher bidding from your guests if they have their bidding groups organized in advance. High-value items like fine jewelry or professional sports tickets should also be promoted before the auction. And remember that no one can digest fine print restrictions on a bid sheet on the spot. Your guests will be more likely to bid on the airline ticket voucher or weekend getaway if they’ve had a chance to check their calendars and the details of the item before the auction.

  5. Accept credit cards. Make this a priority item for your planning committee. You will need to establish a merchant account with a credit card processing company ahead of time. Also, be certain to test the actual processing of the cards at your venue. You’ll have a crowd of unhappy bidders waiting in line if your one data-transfer line goes down during cash-out. You might be better off accepting credit card payments manually and paying the slightly higher processing fee for peace of mind.

  6. Stimulate bidding wars over sentimental items. It might sound crass, but you are trying to maximize bidding. A handmade item from a class of students, such as a hand-painted chair, will attract competing bids from that classroom’s group of parents.

  7. Reach out to corporate sponsors. Offer special recognition such as table signs, prominent ad placement in your auction catalog, and “callouts” during the evening. If you can get a local florist to donate table decorations, that’s one less expense to cut into your net profit.

Auction Fundraiser FAQs

How does the silent auction work?
All of the silent auction items are set out in an attractive display at the auction venue. Each auction item is identified with a unique number, and each item is accompanied by its own silent auction bid sheet. Bidders walk around the displays and write down their bids on the bid sheets, using their name or a bidder number as identification. If someone wants to bid higher, they write down a new bid on the next line of the bid sheet. Typically, guests are provided with an auction catalog that includes a complete description for each item, its value, and its item number. Guests use the catalog to help them plan their bidding. At the appropriate time, bidding is closed and the high bidders are announced.

At a very small auction, winners could be announced verbally, but usually the winners’ names are simply written on the bid sheet. Winners pay for their purchases at the cash-out area and take their items home at the end of the event.

How much can we expect to earn from our auction?
Unfortunately, net profit is hard to predict, especially for your first auction. The changing economy also affects profit levels. In general, profit depends on the number of auction items you secure, the value of the items, the number of guests at your event, their willingness to bid on your items, and your overhead costs such as publicity, facility rental, food, and auctioneer. If you charge enough for tickets to cover your overhead costs, then all the auction funds are profit. A rough rule of thumb is that a silent auction can raise 60 percent to 75 percent of the value of the items. If you keep meticulous records, it will be easier to estimate your profit year to year.

How do we solicit auction donations?
Ask, ask, ask. Use many different avenues for donations. Mail out letters to large corporations, go door-to-door in your local business community, involve students in developing themed baskets or artwork, challenge families to secure at least one donation each. The St. Theodore Holy Family Catholic School PTC in Lake Charles, La., sends smart shoppers to watch for closeout sales; smaller items are grouped together into a gift basket. The group also sends volunteers door-to-door to solicit donations. And donation forms are distributed to families in May so they can be on the lookout for action items throughout the summer, says auction chairwoman Denise Savoie.

Should we charge for tickets?
That depends on the format of your event and your community’s experience. Tickets are usually sold for a sophisticated, “adults only,” off-campus auction gala in a community familiar with such fundraisers. However, if this is a completely new concept to your families, you might want to keep admission low or even free. When you’re setting your ticket price, however, consider costs and psychology. If you intend to serve food and beverages (highly recommended), then charge at least enough to cover those costs. Also, consider that people tend to believe there’s value if there’s a cost. So if admission is free, you might be sending the wrong message about the quality and importance of the event. Look around at similar events in your area to gauge what would be agreeable to your community.

School Auction Dos and Don’ts

Don’t underestimate the amount of work.

Do ask your families to help solicit donations.

Do be creative with your auction items. One-of-a-kind experiences and “priceless” items usually bring high bids.

Don’t overprice your opening bids. You want people to feel comfortable making that first bid, which will get things going.

Do offer items at a variety of price points. Not everyone can afford to bid on the trip to Las Vegas.

Do advertise the highly valuable items or those with important restrictions well in advance of the event. Encourage your guests to preplan group bidding and check their calendars for items that are date-dependent.

Don’t forget to send a proper thank-you to all your donors and volunteers.

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Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.


# ShopBidGive 2013-03-12 15:15
Auctions are great fundraisers for schools! You can also do an online auction to start fundraising earlier, then end at a live auction event. This allows parents who aren't able to attend nighttime events the opportunity to participate and bid on items they are interested in.

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