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Online Fundraising Auctions

By Jon Carson

The situation
At the end of 2008, California schools were faced with rising prices, a weakening economy, and news that California Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed to reduce public school budgets by $4.4 billion. Every chance to raise money to help California school children needed to be explored. The Brentwood Science Magnet School in Los Angeles was fortunate enough to receive a timely and much-needed donation: two VIP tickets to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play rival baseball team the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium. Unfortunately, the gift came one month after the school’s annual silent auction fundraiser.

Linda Schwab and Ariel Ganezer, cochairs of the school’s fundraising committee, were still reeling from the lackluster results of the silent auction. They debated the best way to capitalize on the ticket donation. Schwab and Ganezer, parents of sons in the fourth and fifth grades, respectively, considered holding an interim online auction.

A possible plan of action
Online fundraising auctions have emerged as a profitable way not only to engage the local community, but also to reach a national audience of donors and supporters. A pioneer in this area, the national PTA organization has raised more than $64,000 through multiple online auctions since their first event in 2004. In an ongoing effort to help their members, the organization uses online auctions as a creative and effective way to fund general programs such as back-to-school campaigns, as well as new membership development efforts.

It’s no surprise that online auctions are so successful in schools because they have a built-in base of support. Friends, family, and alumni all over the country can support the school just by bidding in a school’s online auction.

The Strandwood Elementary School in Pleasant Hill, California found this out first hand. The 500 student K–5 school enjoys an extremely active PTA, and parents donate thousands of volunteer hours working in the classrooms; landscaping; sponsoring reading, art, and music programs; directing the annual talent show; and more. To fund these programs, get more parents involved, and attract new families, the school runs an annual fundraising auction. They recognize, however, that only people attending the live auction would be able to bid and win the items, leaving a large number of parents and students out of the process and effectively limiting the revenue potential for the event. The chair of the auction committee, Cynthia Turner, was familiar with online auctions through other activities, and suggested adding an online component to the program.

To build awareness and excitement, attendees were encouraged to purchase their event tickets through the online auction site. Once there, they were able to bid on the popular Class Projects and Teacher Experiences, such as principal for a day and dinner you’re your favorite teacher, and preview some of the more exciting and valuable items that would be available at the live auction. The day the online auction was scheduled to close, the committee watched nervously as online bidding seemed to hit a plateau. Then, as time ran out, bidding heated up. To the committee’s great surprise and excitement, the numbers not only rose—they skyrocketed! There were bidding wars going on for virtually every class project and teacher experience. Bidders obviously had experience with online auctions, and apparently, everyone was waiting until the last minute to “win” their items.

At the live event the next night, the buzz around the room was all about the online auction and who bid what and who paid how much. People had fun with the online bidding, discussed new strategies for next year, and asked that the school sell even more items online next time. Overall, the school raised more than $12,000 than it had the previous year, and has already begun planning for next year’s event.

Five steps to a successful online auction
To make your online auction a success, be sure you plan properly:

1. Set a goal. Who will benefit from the funds raised? Create a mission statement that will help everyone involved tell the same story. Post this statement on your auction homepage, and include it in your item donation and sponsorship requests and e-mails. It also is very helpful to set a target amount of funds your PTA wants to raise by the end of the auction.

2. Secure items to be auctioned. This step is likely to be the most time consuming. Ideally, you know your immediate community and what items people might be interested in bidding on. Some communities can afford to bid on a smaller number of higher-ticket items, while others can help PTAs meet their target by bidding on a larger number of lower-priced items. The best-selling items in a school auction usually relate to the school itself, such as student art projects and principal for a day offers. Professional services, such as tax preparation, dental services, and massage/chiropractic, also are popular.

3. Set up your auction home page. It takes about 30 minutes to set up your auction home page using the auction templates and online tutorials. The system walks you through the process of setting up the auction site, building the auction catalog, selling sponsorships and event tickets, accepting cash donations; then it tells offers advice on promoting, running, and closing the online portion of the auction. The annual subscription fee for running one or more auctions with cMarket is $595, plus a small percentage of sales; other vendor pricing may vary.

Then enter the items as they come in. Be sure to include a photo whenever possible, a zippy description of the item, and an estimated value. Repeat the process with each successive item until the deadline you have set for opening the auction for bidding.

4. Promote your online auction. The more potential bidders you attract, the more potential donations you’ll receive to help you fund your mission. Send press releases and announcements to prospective bidders, your item donors, and local media. Use the method that makes the most sense—e-mails to businesses, the media, and PTA members who have supplied one to you; fliers sent home to parents and posted on bulletin boards at the local supermarket, community center, and other places where people gather; social media, such as Facebook and MySpace, to reach a the large network of friends that reach past your immediate community.

5. Acknowledge your donors, bidders, and volunteers. After the auction, don’t miss this final opportunity to motivate your new community of donors, bidders, and volunteers to do it all again next year. Thank your donors and bidders, as well as the volunteers who did the work of setting up the home page, soliciting donations, and writing and distributing fliers. Ensure items are awarded to the winning bidders in a timely manner. By managing the expectations of both donors and consumers, you will retain their interest and loyalty in future auctions.

And about those Dodgers tickets…
In the end, auctioning the Dodgers tickets and some leftover items from the silent auction helped the Brentwood Science Magnet School raise an additional $1,750. Schwab and Ganezer were very pleased with the auction, noting that though promoting the auction was difficult in the summer, running an online auction allowed them to draw bids from Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan, and even Massachusetts. The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive, and they are already making plans for their holiday online auction.

Online fundraising auctions for schools address many of the goals that nonprofit organizations share: raising funds, attracting new supporters and members, and building their community. Whether run in combination with live events or independently, online auctions have become a positive strategic element in school fundraising by enabling parents, relatives, teachers, administrators, and friends to support excellence in education, thereby making a real difference in the lives of children.

Jon Carson is the CEO of cMarket, a leader in online auction fundraising for schools and nonprofit organizations. Go to www.cmarket.com for more information.