Online Fundraising Auctions for School Groups

by Roger Devine

Should you replace your gala auction fundraiser with an online auction? Should you do both?

I love incorporating an online auction into my school fundraising event, and I’m going to share my ideas and thoughts herein. There are many many ways to do so; if I don’t cover your favorite, or if you have questions, please use the comments box at the bottom of this page, to turn this into a community discussion.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: online auctions do not require renting a venue, and they don’t require hiring an auctioneer or caterer. If those line items on your budget (and task list) make you break out in hives, then perhaps an online auction might be a good idea for you.

BUT… from what I have seen out there in the fundraising auction world, online auctions don’t raise anywhere near as much money than galas. Sad, but true.

And here’s why: gala fundraising auctions are philanthropy as spectator sport – bids go higher because there is a crowd cheering on the bidders (especially in the live auction, but also in the silent); because there is head-to-head competition within a short time frame, and because the guests at your event are feeling relaxed and happy about being at a fun party. And at most of the ones I go to, there are alcoholic beverages being served. Which definitely helps your guests decide to make one more bid on that class project, or signed basketball, or bottle of rare Pinot Noir.

Online auctions have a very different feel for the guest – it’s very easy to get distracted away from the auction; it’s NOT a very social event (although see the tips below), and the guests are as likely to be drinking a Diet Dr Pepper as a microbrewed beer.

So then the question becomes: what’s the best way to take advantage of what online auctions can offer, and avoid some of their pitfalls.

My first suggestion: don’t do either alone, do both.

I know, that sounds like a lot of work. But if you are using our software, it really isn’t. You enter the items you procure into the same database, and you have the choice of making the item available in the gala auction, in an online auction, or in both places. The same event website you use to manage the gala is also used as the “venue” for your online auction – once you select the admin setting to “enable online bidding” then guests can go register and bid on any items you have made available to them.

My second suggestion: run the online auction either before the event, or after it. But not during it.

If you want to start the bidding momentum on a few selected items before the event, open up the online auction a week before your gala. Set the closing time on the selected items available for online auction to the evening of the gala, and then on the morning of the gala, suspend the online bidding. Go into the Admin settings (Admin > Live Auction > General) and select the option to “Update min bids so they match the maximum online bid received”. Print bid sheets for these items, and take them to the gala auction, where your guests can continue the bidding from there on out.

Or do a “clean-up” auction. This is my absolute favorite online auction method. Start by talking to your auction team and telling them that you are going to do an online auction after the gala, but they shouldn’t tell anyone about it – you don’t want any guest to have an excuse to not buy a ticket for the gala.

Then close procurement on three days before the gala, and give yourself plenty of time to relax and print bid sheets and sleep a little before the big day. I know, I know: you’re saying “that would never work for OUR auction – we get people who bring us stuff right up until an hour before the event, no matter what we tell them!” You’re not alone.

But now, you do not have to break your neck getting everything in – you’re doing an online auction after the event, and that is the perfect place to sell those “later-than-the-last-minute” items. Smile, take the items, and stick them in the back room. You’ll get to them next week.

Similarly, on the night of the gala, if you have items that do not get a minimum bid, don’t get upset and slash the minimum bid. Just smile, take the unsold items home, and don’t worry about them. You have a plan for them.

Then, a couple of weeks after the gala, when you have recovered fully and are once again a well-rested, well-composed human at the height of your powers, enter those few late items in your database, make them (and the unsold items from the gala) available for online bidding, and compose an email to your parent group email list that goes something like this:

Hi Everyone,
If you were with us at our fabulous school auction a few weeks ago, you know we had a great time, and raised a lot of money – $XX,000 to be exact! Woo hoo! We couldn’t have done it without you, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
But if you couldn’t make it, or want one more taste of the bidding action, have I got news for you. Because we had a few items that came in late, and a few items that somehow got overlooked at the event, and we’ve decided to make them all available in an online auction that will open tomorrow, and run for the next ten days.

Add a link to your online auction browse page (our support team can help you with this – just email support (at) schoolauction.net) and encourage everyone to forward the email on to Grandmas and Grandpas, Aunts and Uncles, and post a note about it to their Facebook page.

This is a great way to leverage the ability of an online auction to expand the reach of your event, without handicapping the money-raising potential of the gala.