How Can We Make Our School’s Annual Auction More Successful?

by Barbara Barron | Posted December 12th, 2018

I am going to start by admitting to a bias that won’t shock you, if you’ve read my post about phon-a-thons.

I, Barbara Barron, am not a huge fan of annual school galas and auctions.

There. I said it!

I imagine you’re reading this because you feel similarly. Perhaps you’re the sole person in charge of pulling off an enormous gala for your school. And you’re expected not only to make it big and fun and classy but also to make sure you raise the audacious amount needed to balance the approved budget.

If so, I feel for you.

Or perhaps you’re on the other side of the fence, and absolutely live for your annual school auction! Maybe every year it’s a massive success that brings together your entire community! Maybe it’s the bedrock of your advancement program. If so, that’s amazing!

For both readers, may I provide some food for thought? Purely that.

I’ve broken this conversation up into three sections, each of them a counterargument I’ve heard about how a specific school’s auction is absolutely necessary.

Argument #1. We need to have our yearly school gala/auction because it brings our community together.

Does it? Really?

I’d like to offer a few counter-arguments to expand the conversation.

Let’s start with the ticket price. The typical ticket to attend one of these is $150-350 per couple, right? Maybe more. At that price, we know that at least half of our parent community will have to pass – even if they don’t admit that’s the reason.

How about our wonderful volunteers? They want to help. They’re engaged with the school. There’s no doubting their loyalty, their tenacity. But to many, we are saying: “Sure, please help organize this fancy party that you may not be able, or willing, to afford to attend.” Yuck!

And how about our faculty? At many schools, teachers are expected to donate their time and talents to be (read carefully) “auctioned off”. How humiliating. And when our teachers are pressed to attend these shindigs, they sometimes find themselves in an awkward, unplanned “conference” with parents, drinks in hand! Ah, no.

You see where I’m going with this? I’ll say it again:

A school auction is not the surefire community builder that many advocates sell it as. It just isn’t.

Okay, hmm. So even if our school gala/auctions aren’t really building community, they must always be great fundraisers. Right?

Argument #2. We need to have our yearly school gala auction because there is no other viable fundraising alternative.

Or, in other words, “Not having a school auction is leaving money on the table, Barbara!”

You know what? You’re right.

The parents who bid big at school auctions do so because they are caught up in the excitement and spirit of the event. The event gives them a place to do some fun “charitable shopping” for adventures and trips while supporting the school. They see it as a win-win.

So naturally, you ask: “Would these same people show up at your office for tea and write the same big check?” Unlikely. (And if they are, God bless them.)

So, yes, seen from that perspective, not hosting a special event like a school gala auction is tantamount to leaving money on the table.

But here’s another perspective…

At every conference I attend, or listserve I read, I see the question posed to our profession: “What’s beyond the auction gala? How do we get off this treadmill?”

The answer? We need to not need it anymore.

I’ll say that again, because it really tends to drive the central idea home.

The only way off the auction gala treadmill is to not need it anymore.

So how do we even fathom that? Well, it requires a radical rethink. It requires shifting our programs around. It requires a close look at the school’s budget.

This means, if we’re even going to entertain this idea, we’re going to need to take this upstairs, to our Head and our Board.

So let’s think about how we can do that.

Argument #3. We need to have our yearly school auction because we believe that’s what good school development programs do.

I need to question that. If we take a hard look at what we spend on these events (the actual cost plus the number of staff hours) less what we bring in, I don’t think the ROI on this would pass the smell test. These puppies are expensive! And exhausting.

But to stop doing it, to take your first steps off the school auction treadmill will require that we boldly face the twin Cs: change and chance.

Your Head of School (and your Board) need to believe that you can Change a longstanding tradition without harming the culture, with the very good Chance of raising those funds somewhere else while, ideally, building spirit and engagement.

So to start, we pose a big question to our team:

What could we do, using one quarter to one half of the budget we spend on the auction/gala, that would bring our community together and build true spirit?

Is it a series of potluck dinners, rotated to different homes? The old “progressive dinner” concept where your guests go to one home or location for appetizers, another for the main meal, a third for dessert, thus meeting and getting to know members of the community they’d ordinarily never meet?

Hmm. That sounds like real community building to me.

And what about for that group who really love the party? Let’s spend the other portion of the budget and put on a fancy event!

We could host a high-end speaker somewhere fun, charge a big ticket price, and then have a reception afterward to meet the speaker? Maybe get a big portion of the costs underwritten?

Or – hey – how about this good idea…?

Perhaps we could ask a forward-thinking top donor or trustee to pay for this whole speaker experience? Someone who understands that you’re trying to turn the Nantucket Ferry around and need some time?

“Whoa. That’s really specific, Barbara.”

That’s right! It’s very specific! And personalized. Like I have said in almost every blog post I’ve ever written, that’s what we’re shooting for. We’re constantly striving to do the specific and the small(er).

But here’s the thing: you can get even more specific than I just did. How? By using that in-depth knowledge of your community that only you and your team have!

And if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas that really hit the nail on the head – well, you know my number, don’t you?

For those of you who went into this article feeling great about your annual school auction, and still do, I congratulate you. You are a unicorn in this industry, and you should pat yourself (and your wonderful team) on the back for making it work.

For those of you who went into this article feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I hope that this had made you feel a little less so.

And if this article has empowered you, which I hope it has, I have some parting advice for you, before you go off and start drafting your plan.

As I said before, the life-changing moment you’re hoping for – the sea change – will only come when you no longer need the auction/gala to balance your budget. It bears repeating.

Your school must make development an everyday priority. That means hiring a great professional staff. That means training them (and key volunteers) to do smart, personalized cultivation and donor stewardship every day.

Because keeping donors happy and engaged doesn’t have to be expensive. But it will always take time. And the only way to get the job done in that time is to commit people to the task.

Think of it as “The Development Team Forward Model”, and budget for it over the long term. You’re not just ditching the auction here – which will likely relieve many or not be noticed by others. But there are other benefits. Think of them. You will refocus the team on stewardship. Your volunteers will not be exhausted. You’ll have a more engaged donor pool for your next capital campaign. Your next major gifts effort will have the power to change your financial picture for years to come.

Doesn’t that seem worth it to you? It certainly does, to me.

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsSage Ridge and others.(Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.