EDITOR’S NOTE: Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2003, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

In this case study of a very successful special event, note that much of the event’s success comes from a major donor program cleverly embedded in the event’s design. As in all successful fundraising, personal solicitation is key here to getting large gifts.


When we became involved with fundraising at Santa Cruz Montessori School in 1998, the school’s primary fundraising efforts grossed $75,000. That year, the Annual Auction, which was the focus of our fundraising efforts, brought in $32,000. Over the years, by refining aspects of the event to suit the needs at the school and by concentrating on building a large volunteer base and a sturdy sponsorship program for the event, we have been able to increase the Auction’s income every year. Last year, the school recorded $276,000 in fundraised money, of which the Annual Auction contributed $167,000.


Our involvement began when the school director and the Board of Trustees identified that the Arts and Classroom Enrichment program needed additional funding. Since we both felt strongly about the importance of art in the classroom, we offered to chair the school auction to help fund the program. We were driven by the case.


Though we had been involved in nonprofit work in the past, we were new to the world of event fundraising. Neither of us had attended an auction and we knew very little about it. We gathered information from parents who had organized the event previously and then mapped out a plan of action.

First we expanded the volunteer committee for the auction from 5 to 50 (from a parent body of approximately 230 families) by tapping the Parents’ Club volunteer base, asking all of our friends, and advertising in the school newsletter. We realized that each volunteer was different in how they liked to work. Some people preferred working on their own at home while others preferred to work in a group setting. When we could honor these different work styles the benefits were great. Because each volunteer was able to offer varying time commitments, we made sure to express that any time given was appreciated and valued, whether it was one afternoon or months of commitment.

We increased our volunteer base over the years, making it a priority to engage and involve new parents each year. Auction committee meetings were designed to create a social atmosphere where parents could connect with one another outside of the realm of their child’s classroom and have some fun. Since it was often difficult for parents to take time to attend meetings, we made every effort to provide childcare, stick to our agendas, and run the meetings efficiently.

We knew that the more people we involved in the planning and orchestration of the event, the more successful the event would be. We broke down the work tasks into twenty-four sub-committees, with a volunteer chair for each (see sidebar).

In the ten months of planning leading up to the event, we held monthly meetings and encouraged sub-committees to meet regularly. Sub-committee needs and updates were reported at the general committee meetings. The general meetings also provided a time to acknowledge volunteers for all of their efforts.

We came to know the strengths, styles, and preferences of our volunteers and gave them autonomy to do their work. We realized the importance of individual contributions and we felt extremely grateful for the hard work being done by so many people in the school community.


The event consisted of a silent auction with hors d’oeuvres and a sit-down dinner followed by a live auction and dessert. We chose a theme for the party, such as a foreign country, and chose food, decorations, and music accordingly. We sought to provide a festive evening and an environment for parents to enjoy some time with friends, out by themselves, without children.

The first year, the silent auction consisted of approximately 300 items. Though in later years the silent auction grew to more than 600 items, we came to realize that the dollar amount raised did not significantly increase with the greater number of items provided. With more items, there was less opportunity to bid the items up in the time allotted for the silent auction. We eventually found that 400 silent auction items and about 40 live auction items were optimal for a crowd of about 230 people.

As a rule of thumb, one can expect to receive approximately half the dollar amount of the value of the silent auction items. Our goal was to raise $25,000 from the silent auction, so we needed $50,000 worth of donated items. Typically, certain items fared better than others in the bidding process, so we concentrated our efforts in later years on obtaining items that frequently sold at or above value, such as restaurant gift certificates, wine, and handcrafted items.

The live auction consisted of about 50 items, about 35 of which were art projects created by the children. Each classroom created three projects. For example, an elementary classroom of about 30 children contributed three ceramic birdbaths, with about ten students working on each birdbath. The names of the children were etched on the pieces. Parents tended to bid more generously on items that were created by their own child. The auctioneer always made a point of announcing the names of the children associated with each project.

The other 15 live-auction items were such things as weekend get-away packages, dinners, theater events, bicycles, and the like. We provided at least one high-value item. In the case of a Polynesian auction, we approached a major donor at the school, who donated a week at their Hawaiian vacation home!

Because the live auction had the potential to raise a large amount of money the night of the event, it was very important to us to obtain a professional auctioneer. A professional can potentially realize your organization tens of thousands of dollars; she or he is well worth the fee. In our area, a high-end auctioneer can cost from $500 to $900 for the night. Our auctioneer worked at our auctions for five consecutive years, providing us with crucial information that helped us improve the live auction process.


About a month before our first auction, one of our committee members suggested seeking sponsors for the event. That year, a few families became our first family sponsors, whose generosity increased our earnings by nearly $2,000. Our first auction netted $27,000 and cost approximately $5,000 to run. Seeing their hard work pay off, most of our volunteers were willing to do it again the next year. Sensing the unrealized potential of auction sponsors, the next year we decided to focus our attention on obtaining more family sponsorships as well as continuing with our usual push for silent and live auction items. Families at the school were the most likely to give large donations to the programs, as their children would be directly affected by the gift. We chose to focus our attention on them versus trying to obtain outside sponsorships because we felt they would be much more likely to give. In our initial letter to the parent body, we asked parents to offer their support by 1) donating an item for the auction, 2) obtaining a business donation, or 3) becoming a Family Sponsor.


Breaking the work into smaller bites, each managed by a subcommittee, helps the event run smoothly. The Auction committee worked in 24 subcommittees:

  • Auction Committee Thank You Gifts
  • Bid Sheets
  • Business Cash Gifts
  • Business License for Night of Auction
  • Check-Out
  • Classroom Projects
  • Clean-Up
  • Decorations
  • Delivery of Large Auction Items
  • Dinner Table Centerpieces
  • Disbursement of Tax Deductible Receipts
  • Donation Item Documentation
  • Graphics
  • Major Sponsorship Gifts
  • Post-Auction Wrap-Up
  • Posters
  • Program
  • Prop Construction
  • Silent and Live Auction Set-Up
  • Silent Auction Table Centerpieces
  • Silent Auction Table Closers
  • Slide Show Presentation
  • Thank You Notes
  • Wine Donations

With a sponsorship of $300, a family received two tickets to the auction (valued at $100); $200 of their donation went directly to support the Arts Enrichment Program. We offered higher sponsorships levels as well at $500, $750, and $1,500. We put up sponsorship acknowledgment boards at the front of the school and we added names to the board daily.

Our second auction raised $55,000, $10,000 of which was raised before the night of the auction through sponsorships. Our third auction raised $101,000, with $20,000 in sponsorships raised prior to the event. Each year, we added higher sponsorship giving levels in addition to the original $300 Family Sponsorship. The Family Sponsorship level allowed more families to offer their support and increased attendance. For those who could not afford $300, we created a “Friends of Montessori” giving level, where families would be acknowledged for any size cash gift to the auction.

By the fourth auction, we had almost 100 sponsors who gave donations ranging from $10 to $10,000. We identified major donors by previous gifts they had made to the school’s annual drive or capital campaigns or as general gifts. Prior to our involvement, most major donors had never been directly asked in person to give a large gift. By now, sponsorship had become a focal point of the campaign. Interestingly, people who sponsored the event also tended to bid generously at the auction.

Now the school director asked us to add fundraising for immediate financial aid needs at the school in addition to the Arts and Classroom Enrichment program. We expanded to identify donors who had a special place in their hearts for financial aid in addition to the needs we were meeting for funding for arts and classroom needs.


The fourth year, our goal was to raise the bulk of the money prior to the event. With our live auction bringing in close to $40,000, we also thought there might be another opportunity for raising money we had previously overlooked. We set a goal to find a donor who would match funds raised through the live auction.

We knew of a major donor at the school who cared deeply about retaining an economically diverse school environment. She had begun the Financial Aid Endowment at the school. We had talked with her in the past about other needs that she supported at the school. We called and told her that there were financial needs at the school we wanted to talk to her about and invited her to join us for lunch. There, we asked if she would offer a matching gift to the live auction up to $40,000 in support of the Financial Aid program. She agreed.

Our efforts to meet our auction goals were energized by this matching gift. The fourth auction raised $165,000, with matches and sponsorships totaling $73,000. The live auction brought $42,000, of which our donor matched $40,000.

The next auction built on this momentum. With continued and increased sponsorships and matching gifts, our fifth auction realized $167,000, with a total of $65,000 in matching gifts and more $35,000 in sponsorships earned in advance of the event. Each year we cast a wider net for sponsorships. As chairs, we asked our previous family sponsors to commit again to a gift. The auction committee wrote personal notes on the letters asking for auction sponsorships and made follow-up phone calls. We asked grandparents, local businesses, school vendors, including our bank and school suppliers. We also asked parents to supply us with the names of business contacts who may be interested in donating. Committee members also encouraged their friends to give. Because the event was so much fun, enthusiasm grew around the giving.


The costs of running the auction increased after the first year as the event grew larger. We needed to rent a larger facility and catering and decorating costs expanded. By the fifth auction, more than 200 people attended from our school, with the amount donated to the auction averaging $300 per person. Some people came and spent $10, one person donated $40,000.

Our total expenses were between $25,000 and $27,000 for each auction. We wanted to keep our costs down in order to retain the maximum amount of money for the programs. However, we did not want to sacrifice the quality and feel of the event and felt it was necessary to “spend money in order to make money.” The caterer was the largest expense, followed by facility rental and wine purchase or corkage fees.


We produced the auction for five years and it served as the main fundraising source for the school. As chairs, we were ready for a less time-consuming fundraiser. Though it was risky, we decided to try something new, built on our recognition that the lion’s share of the funds raised by the auction came from the sponsorship money of our major and significant donors. We decided to cater our new event to these major donors.

With the fundraising committee of the board, we brainstormed the best ways we could fundraise for the two major needs at the school that the auction had come to serve: the Arts and Classroom Enrichment program and Financial Aid. Since the major donor who had given $80,000 to the Financial Aid program over the previous two years had just become an alumni parent at the school, we knew it would be prudent to develop other avenues to raise money for financial aid needs.

At the suggestion of the fundraising committee, the school’s Parents’ Club agreed to fundraise for financial aid through a separate event. We continued — and increased — our individual major donor asks for financial aid, supported by the school director, who came to most of the lunches at which we asked major donors for gifts. This year, the board chair will also participate in major donor asks.

At the same time we began to focus our efforts on our new fundraiser for the arts, the Winter Arts Dinner. We invited the parent community to support the arts with a sponsorship gift and then attend the winter event. The general sponsorship levels ranged from $500 to $5,000. We also received leadership gifts of $10,000 and $15,000. We also asked our major donors for matching gifts. Our leading matching gift was $35,000. Other gifts ranged from $25 to $2,500.

Because the new event required a larger donation in order to attend, we instituted a new fundraising activity in the form of a raffle, so that any family could have a chance at winning a coveted classroom art project with a donation of $1 or more. Other more inclusive parent events were also planned so that the parent body as a whole still had the opportunity for the social interaction that the auction had provided. This approach balanced the needs of the whole community while leaving us with an easier event to run and a month or two less work.

We were excited about the opportunity to highlight the importance of Arts and Classroom Enrichment through one focused event. We concentrated all our efforts on creating an event that highlighted the importance of art in a child’s education. We changed the venue of the event to a seaside resort not far from the school, offered a small silent auction of 100 carefully selected art-related items, and hosted a small live auction of only twelve items. All decor and entertainment revolved around the arts, in keeping with our case.

The Winter Arts Dinner was a success. We exceeded our fundraising goal and saw the parent community strengthen its resolve to support the Arts and Classroom Enrichment Program. Though the event resembled the earlier auctions, it allowed us to fine-tune our case for the arts. Where the auction had split the focus three ways among arts, financial aid, and classroom needs, in this event we were able to highlight the importance of art by creating an evening that made art the focus.

The past six years have shown us the value of having a strong case, the importance of thanking donors and volunteers in a personal and timely manner, and the prudence of exercising flexibility and sensitivity to the volunteer base balanced with the needs of the school community. The success of the Arts and Classroom Enrichment campaigns depended on the relationships that developed while working towards a common cause and sharing a vision for the school’s future.