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Bidding for Dollars:
Online Auctions Help
Schools Earn Cash

As budgets stretch to the breaking point, many schools are discovering the powerful fundraising possibilities of the auction with a technological twist. Schools and their parent-teacher organizations are capitalizing on the flexibility, convenience, and popularity of online auctions to tap a limitless base of supporters nearby and far away. Included: Simple steps for setting up an online auction.

"Cuts in education are nothing new, but they are particularly painful this year with the housing crisis and resulting decline in property taxes that fund local schools," reports Helen Stefan. "Without that money, teachers and programs may be cut, class sizes could increase, and basic tools such as books and computers could be withheld -- all of which impact a student's ability to learn."

One way many schools and their parent organizations are dealing with declining budgets is by raising funds through online auctions. As director of public relations for cMarket and its entity for nonprofits called BiddingForGood.com, Stefan finds that online auctions outpace the success of traditional fundraisers because they are not limited by geography. Donated items can be sold to people across the country.

"Schools are particularly successful at online auctions because they have a built-in base of volunteers who can get unique items to place up for bid; and friends, family, alumni, and strangers all over the country can support the school just by shopping their catalogue," observes Stefan.


Online Auctions
For All

Helen Stefan of cMarket reports that the most successful online auctions conducted by schools are typically run by those that have already organized live and/or silent auctions.

"Those schools have the relationships and experience for that type of fundraiser," she explains, "That said, there are many cases of schools that bypass the live auction and go right to an online event."

Providence School Parent/Teacher Partnership in Jacksonville, Florida, for example, decided to do an online auction on a whim, noting the low cost to try it and the training provided by cMarket. The PTP raised more than $25,000 in its first auction.

"The key to a successful online auction is starting early," Stefan advises. "We're hearing from hundreds of schools that the economy is making it more competitive to get donations, so getting out early will enable you to build a more robust catalogue of items."

The next step is to appoint a team, assign roles, and build the auction site, which takes about an hour. Then it is time to obtain items and promote the auction. The cMarket Resource Center provides "best practices" and "how-to guides" to facilitate both.

Between August and October of 2008, at least 70 K-12 schools will run auctions through BiddingForGood.com. To date, about 1,000 K-12 schools in the nation have raised more than $15 million through online auctions run by cMarket, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nearly $7 million of that amount has been raised since the start of 2008. The individual auctions, each with its own home page, are consolidated into BiddingForGood, where consumers from anywhere can shop and support the school at their leisure.

"At a time when we're all feeling the impact of rising gas and food prices, the online auction is a fun, interactive way to shop and support local schools. As schools auction items that people shop for anyway, consumers will gladly make the leap to divert their purchasing power to support education and other causes," Stefan adds.

BUYER BE...ANYWHERE

While independent schools have historically made up the bulk of the online auctions because they rely on private financing for their operating budgets, more and more public schools have embraced this method of fundraising. Of the $15 million raised by K-12 schools, at least $3 million has been for public schools. The fact that $1.1 million of this has been earned in the last six months illustrates the growing need and the rapid rate at which the practice is being adopted by public schools.

The PTA at Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, has run an online auction for two years. They used BiddingForGood during its last event.

"We have been pleased with both of our auctions," says Susan Luce, one of the organizers. "It was easy, and the potential to make more money for the school was very attractive."

Obtaining donations for the auction is the most involved task for the Chesterbrook PTA. A group of committed parents uses its contacts within the community to solicit donations from businesses. Having the same person lead the event both years has streamlined the process. The parent-teacher organization also has a team of helpers which is devoted to data input.

"You have to be organized and keep all of the items cataloged so that you can get them to the winners," Luce advises. "We never input the items until we have them in hand to avoid future problems."

She adds that the PTA plans to focus more energy on restaurant gift certificates for its next auction because those items usually garner their value or more.

"Our PTA has used the funds obtained through auctions to install sound fields in the classrooms. The sound fields ensure that every child can hear the teacher no matter where he or she is standing," reported Luce. "The money is also used to fund ongoing activities each year."

The types of goods sold by schools vary, but many auctions include products and services from local merchants, tickets to sporting events, restaurant certificates, vacation home rentals, or professional services such as teeth whitening, tax preparation, massage, and photography. Surprisingly, some of the most desirable items in these auctions are virtually "free" and exclusive to schools. Having a child deliver the daily school message over the public address system for a week is one example.

COLLECTIBLES TO KEEPSAKES MAKE HOT COMMODITIES

"Schools themselves are a great source of no-cost items that parents can purchase like student artwork, a reserved parking spot, front-row tickets to graduation or a holiday concert, principal for a day privileges, private sports lessons with the physical education coach, a date with a favorite teacher, passes for a week in which uniforms dont need to be worn, and school apparel and memorabilia are always popular," Stefan says.

With few corporate sponsors, the PTA at William L. Valentine Elementary School in San Marino, California, relies on its knowledge of what the community wants to buy -- such as dining packages -- and its ability to create priceless treasures. For its most recent auction, each child crafted an original quilt square.


"Schools themselves are a great source of no-cost items that parents can purchase like student artwork, a reserved parking spot, front-row tickets to graduation or a holiday concert, principal for a day privileges, private sports lessons with the physical education coach, a date with a favorite teacher, passes for a week in which uniforms dont need to be worn, and school apparel and memorabilia are always popular."

"The squares belonging to each specific class were assembled to make quilts. Several parents helped with the sewing activity," shared Mona-Lisa Melford, who ran the online auction for the PTA. "Last year the project was a decorative plate for each class. These items are well sought after as keepsakes."

The auction also contained dining, spa and beauty, collectibles, clothing, sports, and recreational listings.

"Our items are obtained by soliciting donations from parents, friends, and neighborhood businesses," Melford said. "The funds raised through the online auctions go directly to fund arts, computer, and library programs."

A pool of products and services which are free or available on consignment is provided in the Bidding for Good Marketplace so that schools can offer an array of items to appeal to a broader group. These range from cruises, to hot air balloon rides, bowling parties, luxury hotel stays, jewelry, and home dcor.

"A simple but effective equation is more items + more bidders = more money," explains Stefan. "The sheer number of people associated with a school -- from parents to teachers, alumni, local merchants, distant relatives, and friends -- provides the fuel needed to run a successful online auction. The online platform also allows the school to attract more donors and sell sponsorships, and BiddingForGood further extends the bidding community nationally."

Schools often run online auctions in conjunction with live events. Live events are excellent for bringing the school community together to recognize supporters. However, because people can be distracted with socializing or may be uncomfortable bidding in front of a group, live auctions are not always the ideal means to raise money. Holding an online auction in advance provides a greater audience and enables participants to bid at their convenience.

"You don't have to bring as many items to the live event, which can be an administrative nightmare," Stefan shared. "In some instances, bidding will begin on auction items online and then carry over for continued bidding at the live event. In such cases, the school appoints an absentee bidder to bid on behalf of the online donor. Without the online component, that bidder would not be able to participate."

When schools receive a time sensitive or special donation, like Super Bowl tickets, they often list the item only in an online auction. These listings may attract thousands of bidders. Online auctions also come in handy because of their ease and flexibility. For example, the Pan Mass Challenge community bike ride had to cancel a recent live event due to rain storms, so the items were transferred to an online auction. In another instance, a school in southern California ran an online auction for Dodger tickets that were donated a month after its live silent auction. Even when organizations opt for a live auction, it is common for them to use the online platform to relist items that did not sell.

"The fact that I can get a unique item, say an iPhone, maybe for less than retail and support a school in the process -- from across the country and in the privacy and convenience of my home -- and trust that the school actually has and will ship the item, makes online auction shopping an easy choice for any consumer," Stefan observed.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

eBay
One of the most widely recognized sites for auctions, eBay offers resources to help newcomers get started and a special program called "Giving Works" that facilitates listings for nonprofits.

Charity Folks
Receiving much recent attention in the press is Charity Folks, a leading online marketplace for nonprofit fundraising, corporate cause-marketing campaigns, and celebrity-driven charity initiatives.

S&S Worldwide Grants and Funding Help
A free service where nonprofits can search for grants, recruit a grants writer, and even apply for grants offered by S&S Worldwide, a distributor of arts and crafts, sports, and educational supplies.

My School Auctions
My School Auctions makes it easy to administer your school fundraising auction. The site provides all the resources you need to carry out a successful and profitable school fundraising event.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 09/01/2008
Last updated 11/10/2010


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