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What if you could develop an item that could be sold in your live auction year after year, did not rely on any particular donor, and routinely sold for far more than the fair market value (FMV) of its component parts? What if it could be sold year after year to the same bidder? Or had guests actively looking for it in the catalog as soon as they saw one?

Many school auctions I’ve attended have at least one of these - an item I’ve started thinking of as a “Community Tradition”. Matter of fact, at the very first school auction I ever attended, 8 years ago, I was thrust into one without really knowing what I was doing.

I was approached by one of the other dads, who told me that they needed another warm body to be a part of the “MPS Dads Honey-Do Crew” - my part was to stand up when the item was auctioned, hold up a paint brush, and smile. Later on, I’d have to do some painting, but I was promised beer afterwards. “Why not” I thought, “I like beer.”

Meanwhile, my wife found the description in the catalog, and when I saw the look on her face, I wondered just what I’d let myself in for.

MPS Dads Honey-Do Crew : 6 cheerful, strong (and handsome!) men will come to your house on a date of your choosing and spend 5 hours painting, gardening, or doing general manual household labor. Need to clear some blackberry bushes? Paint the laundry room? Spread some mulch? You provide the supplies (and cold beer for the crew at the end of the day), the MPS Dads supply the labor.

Value: Priceless!

The bidding started out at $150, and went on for a good two minutes, coming down in the end to three bidders - including my wife. She dropped out at $650, and in the end, the winning bidder paid $875 - for an item that had taken one volunteer about 25 minutes to procure and another two minutes to write up.

In all of the auctions I’ve attended since, I’ve looked for these items - the community traditions that guests get excited to see year after year, and excited to bid on. And I’ve figured out a few things that the best ones have in common:

This last point is what makes these items work as perennials - if they get used up in a day or a few months and the experience is satisfying for the buyer, there is a strong chance that buyer will walk into next year’s auction intending to bid on it again. And that can breed rivalries, which can result in high bidding.

This year, I saw a new Community Tradition item at one of our customers’ auctions: “The Bar”. Every year, their parent group board members each donate a bottle of premium booze, and the auction team packages it in a nice wooden box, with a book of cocktail recipes, a shaker, and some glassware - and most years, the same guy buys it. Other community members know he’s got it circled in his program, and bid him up - this year it went for $900.

Progressive Dinners
are also common Community Tradition items - and can be sold as a signup item. Once you establish some sense of competition among the entertainers in your school to make the biggest splash with their portion of the evening, you may be able to charge a reasonably high ticket price - I’ve seen $75 per couple. Sell 10 of those couples tickets, you bring in $750 on that signup party.

By the way, the day of labor wound up being fun - and that crew of dads wound up becoming some of my best friends here in Portland. We also donated our time again the next year, and (with a few drop-outs and substitutions along the way) for 6 years thereafter. My wife always bid aggressively - and so did one of the other parents from our son’s class. It became a running plot - to see if this was the year that she could buy “the men”. When I wound up chairing the auction at my son’s elementary school this year, I instituted the tradition there, and because we were able to recruit 9 men (and 1 woman), we told the auctioneer to sell it as a “sneak double”. Which meant my wife finally did “buy the men.”

-Roger Devine

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