Auction "Pros" Raise Big Dollars


An online auction and gala evening netted more than $250,000 for this elementary school PTA.

by Joy Underhill


Although many parent groups hold auctions as fundraisers, few are as successful as the John S. Bradfield Elementary PTA in Dallas. Just last year, the PTA married a two-week online auction with an upscale auction party to net $268,000.

The K-4, 650-student school found it needed a way to raise money after the Texas Legislature passed a “Robin Hood” school funding law in 1993. The law requires affluent school districts to share property tax revenues with less wealthy districts. To help compensate for funds that the school district gives up, the Bradfield PTA decided to hold an auction that could directly benefit the school.

The PTA taps into parent contacts and local businesses to obtain auction items and in-kind donations. Some of the hottest items are trips, playhouses, and experiences such as ice-cream socials. Classroom creations and lower-priced items are usually reserved for the silent auction.

Parents put some ingenuity into the auction by creating an online category called “Teacher Treasures,” which brought in more than $17,000. “Kids love to spend time with teachers and staff outside the classroom, so we offered experiences such as an afternoon at the movies and a girls’ pajama party at the school. These items were incredibly popular and provided a lot of fun for the top bidders,” says auction cochair Elizabeth Gambrell.

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

The auction party is an upscale event with paid admission. The theme of this year’s party is “Rock the Schoolhouse,” and it will be held April 4 at the House of Blues music club in Dallas. Tickets to the event cost $125. “Our parents are already looking forward to an evening where they can dress up as their favorite rock stars and dance to a local rock band,” Gambrell explains.

For the live auction, the PTA hires a professional auctioneer to increase the bidding for the higher-priced and more popular items. Partygoers this year will place their silent auction bids on about 30 electronic touchpads placed in the party rooms. They will also be able to check the bidding status of silent auction items and preview live auction items on the touchpads.

The PTA begins planning the event a year in advance, but many of the committees don’t start working until five or six months before the auction. About 40 volunteers are needed to pull it off each year, handling jobs including communications, public relations, underwriting, item solicitation, setup, and event staffing.

The Bradfield auction has been around for at least a decade, but it became even more of a fundraising phenomenon three years ago when the PTA began using online auction company cMarket to sell items that previously had been offered only at a live auction party. The online auction features items such as trips, health and beauty goods, gift certificates, housewares, and tickets to sporting events, as well as popular events such as being a teacher or principal for a day. The idea paid off.

“By adding an online auction component, we were able to reach significantly more bidders and increase participation,” explains Gambrell. “The online auction alone generated $85,000 last year.” Bidding can take place at all hours, with a bidding frenzy typically occurring on the online auction’s closing day.

Initially, the bidding on certain online items was carried over to a silent auction at the party, but there was confusion about how it worked. This year, the PTA plans to simplify the process. During the online auction, people can preview—but not bid on—all live and silent auction items. Bidding on items for sale in the online auction opens two weeks before the auction party and ends the day before.

“[The online auction] has definitely enhanced our fundraising ability,” says cochair Andrea Hart. “The bidding process becomes all that more exciting when people can check out items online. By the time they get to the auction, they know what is being offered, and they’re primed to go after the items they want.”

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