Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How To Hold A Successful Fundraiser

A "topless" Martha Stewart mixed with killer bees and Sarah Palin. Dinner ladies were suddenly besties with Donatella Versace. Sort of. We were at the Saturday Night Live themed fundraiser for our kids' Kindergarten-through-8th Grade Oakland public school. I'm not sure how I could have escaped SNL phenom but I have never seen the show. (Maybe because I'm a Kiwi who lived in London for 15 years) There was no doubt: the Pats, with their tight perms and pressed khakis, stole the night.

D...k In A Box, two Pats, Roseanne Roseannadana
I don't pretend I've come even close to running these auctions in the nine years we've been at the school. The stress would drive me wild and crazy and not in a good way. But I have done bits and bobs around the periphery and I am speechless with admiration for the parents who run it.

Mary Katherine Gallagher and Martha Stewart's Topless Christmas
Me, Killer Bees, Kevin and the Wild and Crazy Guys

Our fundraising pays for, among other things; classroom aides, music, reading, art, language, science, some building maintenance and supports of local children's charities. As I wrote last year, the extent of our fundraising is a revelation to some of my friends in New Zealand where tax dollars actually pay for a decent education. In past years the school fundraiser has grossed up to $303,000. Most of my friends outside this area find it astounding that parents of a tiny (320 kids) Oakland public school can raise this much in just one night. Parents host trips and parties and local merchants donate goods and services, there is a silent and live auction and we all bid as high as we can afford.

Shy Ronnie and Bonnie

A couple of years ago we donated a New Zealand dinner and a Mad Men party at our house.This year we donated a "Beer Pong Saved My Life" Party. Guests will come as they were at college: dude, nerd, artsy fringy. A rousing round of beer pong will be followed by a visit from a gourmet food truck and fancy cocktails as well as keg beer. Our fellow Spartan, Justin, made this fabulous golden trophy which the lucky winner will carry home to take pride of place on their mantle. Normally I would be very reluctant to dress as a cheerleader - even a mad one like The Spartans - but it fit the party. Our other idea was The Coneheads but we thought that would be waaay too popular. Mass quantities of them. Funnily enough, zero parental units turned up in those terribly attractive elongated bald headgear. Yes, funny that.

Justin holds the golden trophy!
Jody's Tips:

1) Costumes:
Pick a popular theme so people are inspired to dress up. They have more fun and bid higher. Previous themes at our auctions: Superheroes (I was Poison Ivy, Kevin was Wonder Woman) Olympics (we went as Jamaican Bobsledders) Peace, Love and Green (we went as Green Day) and The Eighties (I was heyday Boy George, Kevin was community service Boy George clutching a broom).

2) Buy It Now
Stipulate "Buy it Now" prices on all silent auction items. Bidders can sign up for that top price instead of having to hang around the table watching the bids.  For example, many of the 20 couples who signed up for our party did the $400 "Buy It Now" price.

3) Free wine, no lines.  Say no more.  It's for the kids.

Statue of Liberty

 I asked Greg Quiroga, our auctioneer for seven years, what makes for a successful auction:

1) Do your auction during dinner

Maximize your attendee’s time, and don’t be afraid to focus on fundraising. There is a finite time between when people show up at an event, and when they are “done.” If you put your auction at the very end of the night, it will be perceived as the least important thing. People will leave. You will make less money. Give them 20 minutes at their tables to hang out, and then start your program.

2) Get your message out pre-event

Make sure people know they are coming to a fundraiser, and that they know where the money goes. Do not assume that your crowd knows how much money you need, or even why you need the money. Most important is to make sure people know what is expected of them when they arrive: do not invite people to a party and then blindside them with an auction. Invite them to a benefit where they can help you change the world, and show them how they can help you – simply by participating in your auction.

3) Do an appeal for straight donations

Whether you call it a “fund a need”, “raise your paddle”, “random acts of kindness”, “waterfall”, “fund the future” or any other name, make sure you do it. It is the point in the auction where you ask the crowd to come together and simply give you money. Done right it has the potential to be the emotional cornerstone of your event.  (Our school does "Raise Your Paddle." Adding this when Greg started seven years ago has raised $280,000 alone.)

4) Auction access

The best things you can sell in your fundraising auction aren’t things, they are access to events, experiences or people that one cannot otherwise get. Dinner in a nice restaurant is a good lot, but what you should be after is to get that chef to go to the winning bidder’s house to cook. “Celebrity” varies from event to event: at schools the principal is often a celebrity. At some organizations it is the executive director, a particular board member or even a group. Identify your organization’s “celebrities” and build lots around them.

5) Hire a professional fundraising auctioneer

You want a professional who is focused solely on fundraising, will consult on your event in advance, and has a proven track record engaging crowds similar to yours. Of course the professional fundraising auctioneer is going to say this, but the difference a professional can make in your event is significant. (For example, this year raised more than three times what the auction raised before Greg was involved.)

What other tips would you add to this list?


  1. All sounds marvellous. Thanks for the tips, Ms. Jody.

  2. Saving these tips for next CatWalk fundraiser for Spinal Cord Injury research. Thanks, Jody!

  3. "A "topless" Martha Stewart mixed with killer bees and Sarah Palin." Now there is a synopsis for a great novel, right there!

  4. We go to a few 'balls' which are fundraisers and one of your tips I'm going to suggest to the committee is the Buy it Now price on Silent Auction items. That is such a simple, effective idea.
    I remember one year putting a bid on a silent auction item then, before we left, checking that someone else had bid more so we were safe to go home. The next day we were informed we had 'won' the item so had to pay up: the person above us had changed their mind and scribbled off their name!!

  5. It looks like it was a fantastic night! I love your theme this year! Congratulations to all the parents on the work and effort that was put in!:)

  6. Sounds great! I've been involved with these sort of fundraisers here and none of them sound as fun as yours ( or raised as much money). A Mad Men party is a great idea and I may well steal it.

  7. That is a seriously impressive number you were able to raise!!! I've helped out with fundraisers at my kids' schools for years and never came close to this number. I am in awe. I would be bidding the "buy now" option to be at your party any time:)

  8. What a blast! I love SNL. You really must find a "best of" tape or episode so you can catch up on all the cultural references. My husband went as Justin TImberlake - Dick in a Box - one Halloween and it was such a huge hit. Seeing your friend dressed similarly made me laugh!

    I am the crazy mom that is in charge of our school's auction. Moment of weakness when I said yes. Ours, however, is more of a carnival with a silent auction. Kids attend so no liquor (boring). As a result, we also don't raise as much $!

  9. What an awesome party idea! There are so many great SNL characters from which to choose - and you look great as one of the Spartan Cheerleaders!

  10. I think I should print this post out and keep it - you make so many good points.

  11. Great theme, Great advice..... this looks like a fundraiser that would be fun to attend, not simply required....

  12. Fabulous, fabulous tips! This seriously looks like the most fun ever! :)

  13. Jody- In awe of those fundraising numbers, cannot add anything to those accomplishments...

    I am most impressed it's a K-8 school. Love that! Our public elementary school two blocks away is K-5, and I wish they could be in that school, like, forever.. College even!

    Love your theme. SNL is one my husband and I always tape (on VHS no less - how old school!) I SO want to see a live taping one year. On the top of my bucket list!


  14. I am so glad that you posted this Jody. I'm sending it to my friend April right now. It is so helpful for others who are interest in doing this but have no idea where to start ... and OMG... I LOVE that topless Martha costume. Will definitely steal one of these years :).

  15. This is a definite cut out and keep! Brilliant ideas and they sound such fun - almsot wish I could bid....

  16. Great summary Jody. A few tips I would add:

    1) The power of marketing the event cannot be underestimated. It sets the tone for the entire evening. Communicate, communicate, communicate--and find a fun way to share the information (i.e., for the Super Hero theme, we wrote a comic strip; for the Ancient Olympic theme, we used language and imagery consistent with those times).

    2) The invitation can help create buzz for the event. The year I co-chaired the event, we delivered a poster invitation(scroll) in a gold tube, made to look like a baton. It often doesn't cost much more, but again, sets the tone for an evening people won't want to miss.

    3) The sweet spot for our auction has been "themed" parties held by couples at the school Everyone wants to get to know other people, and this is a fun way to do it.

    4) Appeal to people's common sense. When communicating (especially for a public school auction), remind people about the tax benefits of contributing and buying items...and give them stats on what a private school education would cost. Spending $1,000 at one event sounds like a lot, but when you compare it to private school tuition EVERY MONTH, all the sudden it doesn't seem as daunting...not to mention that a good public school contributes to better property values.

    My last three tips sound a lot like yours...but I agree that they are very important:

    5) Encourage people to dress up. When people get into the spirit of the auction by dressing up, everyone has fun. (We gave costume ideas in a weekly newsletter, although the SNL theme was WIDE open...hardly necessary to give ideas!)

    6)Find a way to offer some free cocktails. No doubt about it, there is a correlation between heavy imbibing and heavy bidding.

    7) "But it now" prices singlehandedly turned our event from a decent-earning event to a phenomenal-event(as you said over $300,000 per year). If a few people will "buy it now" at the beginning of the night, everyone wants in.


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