As a parent, education professional, or volunteer, you know that schools of all shapes and sizes frequently have to turn to fundraising campaigns and events to power their missions. Yet constantly looking for new ways to engage your audience and raise important funds can be a challenge.

At OneCause, we help fundraising organizations—including schools, nonprofits, and other groups—generate the revenue they need to maintain successful operations, specifically through virtual and hybrid events. One of our favorites is the school auction.

Over the last year, many fundraisers have been cancelled, rescheduled, or transitioned to the virtual space as a result of COVID-19. Now, even with the vaccine rollout, the health and safety of your event attendees remains a top priority.

Adapting your fundraising events to be as safe as possible is never a bad idea. In this quick guide, we’ll share a detailed game plan for planning and hosting a COVID-friendly fundraising auction. Let’s get started.

Why School Fundraising Auctions?

Fundraising auctions are popular for schools of all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re an experienced auction-planner who hosts an annual event or looking to run a school auction for the first time this year, there are a number of benefits that go along with this popular school fundraiser.

School fundraising auctions can be:

  • Highly engaging and flexible for all audiences. If you’re looking for an engaging event where participants take an active role in the fundraising, an auction is an excellent choice. Auctions fit just about any audience. Just make sure your items procured appeal to your specific school auction attendees.
  • Built into a wide variety of other events. While auctions can certainly function as standalone events, they also work extremely well alongside other fundraisers like banquets, galas, and parties. This way, you diversify your revenue streams and have multiple activities to engage attendees.
  • Adaptable to the virtual world. We’ve seen tons of fundraising events go virtual in the last year, and auctions are some of the easiest and most effective ideas for moving online. Not only do virtual auctions protect guests and organizers from COVID, but they are accessible for anyone, from anywhere. Participants are no longer bound by geographic restrictions and can support your school from anywhere—and for a longer timeframe as well!
  • Easily made into hybrid events. If you like the accessibility offered by a virtual event but would like to incorporate in-person elements to your auction, a hybrid event is a great solution. In the case of a hybrid auction, you might host an in-person event with a silent auction that runs both onsite at the venue and online simultaneously.

Not only can school auctions provide an engaging experience for attendees and generate revenue for schools, but they create fun too. The friendly competition generated for an in-demand item or package is a powerful force for fundraising and engagement.

How to Plan a COVID-Friendly School Auction

Auctions this year will need to continue to be flexible and adaptive as the world emerges from COVID-19. Nonprofits will need to to find ways to engage supporters whether in-person or online. So, if you’re looking to host a safe and engaging school auction event, start with these six basic steps.

1. Determine if your event will be virtual or hybrid.

Both hybrid and virtual auctions each have unique benefits for fundraisers and can bring in a ton of revenue for your cause. Maximize participant engagement and set your team up for success, by being sure to:

  • Choose the right virtual event platform.
  • Look for virtual and hybrid event support.
  • Motivate participants with gamification tools.
  • Stay connected before, during, and after the event.

Before you dive in, you’ll need to make a crucial first decision: your event’s format.

Depending on your area, you might feel comfortable hosting an auction with in-person bidding as long as guests adhere to safety protocols. However, you might decide that in-person events are still risky, and opt for a fully-virtual approach instead.

If you’re not sure where you land on the feasibility of in-person events, it’s a good idea to survey your audience to collect their insights. What are they comfortable with? Would they be willing to attend a physical gathering should you follow COVID guidelines, or would they rather play it safe from home? Once you’ve determined how your supporters feel, let those insights guide your plans.

You’ll want to take logistics and audience preferences into account as you make your decision as to a virtual or hybrid event, but it’s also critical that you determine this early on. After all, the format of your event will shape just about every other aspect of your plan!

Regardless of whether you choose to host an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event, you’ll likely want to invest in dedicated auction software. This way, you can equip attendees with easy mobile bidding tools, essential for virtual and hybrid auctions.

2. Form a team and identify roles.

Before you can begin planning the logistics of your upcoming auction, it’s critical to select a dedicated auction team or committee to help. This might include parents, teachers, volunteers, staff, and other invested individuals who want to see your school’s auction succeed.

Once you have your team, make sure to assign specific roles to each person. Key auction roles include:

  • Auction chair and co-chair
  • Ticket sales chair
  • Event team (for hybrid events)
  • Tech chair and support (important for both formats but especially for virtual)
  • Social media and communications chair
  • Emcee/auctioneer
  • Additional volunteers as needed

You’ll also need your group to begin procuring items for your auction (which we’ll discuss in more detail below). Try to avoid assigning procurement to a single person. The best and most robust auctions have teams focused on securing great items from the local community, alumni, and school networks.

Now that you have a team of eager fundraisers, work together to determine your fundraising goals, budget, timeframe and schedule, revenue streams, and more.

3. Understand your jurisdiction’s current guidelines.

If you’re hosting a hybrid event, you’ll next need to research and understand any regulations or guidelines put out by your school or local jurisdiction. For example, are there social distancing or mask mandates in your area that you should be aware of? Is there a cap on how many individuals are allowed to safely gather?

Look to other schools and fundraising organizations in your community. What are they doing? How are they following the local guidelines in their auction or event? How are they communicating safety protocols in their promotion? Be sure to benchmark the competition, especially those going before you. It’s a great way to learn best practices for assuring safety and reassuring your supporters about your upcoming auction.

In addition, some jurisdictions have special rules around events that include “games of chance” like raffles and auctions, so double-check your state requirements before getting underway.

4. Begin procuring items.

The items up for bid at your auction are the stars of the show. To get the most from your auction, it’s important to invest time and effort into procuring high demand items that your audience will go crazy bidding on. We recommend you begin procuring items several months in advance to ensure you have the time you need to secure, pick-up, and curate your catalog.

This OneCause list of charity auction items highlights some popular items for school auctions such as:

  • Gift baskets
  • Memorabilia
  • Travel packages
  • Exclusive experiences
  • Memberships
  • Naming rights
  • Book readings
  • Technology

While some of these items could be a hit at any fundraising auction, their success ultimately depends on your particular audience, their interests, and their budgets. Be sure to offer child- and family-friendly auction items to best appeal to your school audience.

To keep procurement costs low and drive auction revenue, rely on community partnerships and relationships with local businesses to help supply your auction items. For example, a local tech retailer might be willing to offer donated or discounted laptops, cell phones, or video game consoles that you can auction off for much more than you spent to procure them.

If your auction is light on travel or one-of-a-kind experiences, consider filling in your auction with specially curated consignment items. These items offer the chance to feature luxury vacation, with flexible travel dates and no-risk options.

Once you’ve procured your items, for both virtual and hybrid auctions, you’ll need to create an online catalog using your auction software. This way, remote attendees can see the types of items up for auction and determine whether they’ll bid. For hybrid events, you’ll also need to consider how to present auctions for either live or silent bidding elements in person. When items are presented in an appealing manner, guests will be more likely to bid on them!

5. Outline how the event will work and begin promoting it.

For both virtual and hybrid auctions, you’ll need to begin promoting early and communicate the process to attendees. This might be the first time your supporters will experience an online auction or use mobile bidding software, so it’s critical to provide clear instructions.

Share a mix of announcements, catalog teasers, and bidding explainers leading up to the big event.

You’ll also need to determine when bidding will start. If you’re using mobile bidding software for a virtual auction, the bidding could last up to a week or so. According to this re:Charity guide to COVID-19 fundraising, “It’s a lot more difficult to hold an individual’s attention while they stare at a screen than if they’re immersed in the event environment, so the timing of activities may need to be altered slightly.”

For hybrid events, this might mean that online bidding will start early but culminate in-person on all or select auction items. Using auction software will ensure that both remote and in-person bids will sync in real-time, so participants can compete for the items they want from wherever they are.

To keep bidders’ attention while remote, make sure you’re able to notify participants as they’ve been outbid and encourage them to up their bids to stay in the game. This is critical because virtual bidding can span a much longer timeframe—you don’t want engagement fizzing out after the first few bids. On the other hand, in-person elements should be kept to a shorter period and focus on a smaller group of items.

6. Finalize event logistics and launch your auction.

As you begin to finalize the details of your auction, this stage can look significantly different based on the type of event you are hosting. We’ve divided this step into best practices for in-person elements as well as for virtual engagement.

For In-Person Bidding

During this final stage, confirm your event schedule and venue details, as well as other aspects of your in-person auction (if you choose to incorporate in-person elements at all). To keep your auction safe, you’ll likely want to plan for and provide added safety precautions such as temperature checks, socially distanced seating, and sanitizer stations.

For Virtual Bidding

In both virtual and hybrid auctions, bids will come in online, meaning you’ll need to finalize any logistics surrounding your technology. For example, where will your virtual auction be housed—in a dedicated mobile app? An event microsite? Both?

It’s a good idea to thoroughly test your technical components prior to the big event. This way, you can ensure you and your team are familiar with your virtual and hybrid event software so that things run as smoothly as possible.

You’ll also want to have plans in place for keeping up the energy throughout the event. For example, gamification, live-streamed appeals, a mix of engaging programming, and staggered item close times can ensure guests are hooked from the minute they get involved to the conclusion of your event.

After you’ve handled all of these elements, you’re ready to start promoting your school’s auction!

Fundraising auctions have the potential to bring in a ton of revenue for your school and provide students with the resources they need to learn and grow. But even as things begin returning to “normal,” it’s important to keep participants’ health and safety in mind when planning any upcoming fundraisers.

Luckily, with the right tools in your fundraising toolkit, you’ll be all set to host engaging, accessible, and safe events. Good luck!

About Author

Kelly Velasquez-Hague

Kelly Velasquez-Hague brings over 20 years of fundraising, nonprofit management, and sales/marketing experience to her role as the Director of Content Marketing for OneCause. As a member of the OneCause sales and marketing team, Kelly manages all of the company’s content strategy and execution. She is passionate about empowering great missions and loves that her current role allows her to continue to help nonprofits reach new donors raise more funds for their cause.

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