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How to turn your auction into a virtual event: Learn how one school did it in 48 hours

April 28, 2020

Annual spring auctions are a time-honored tradition at many independent schools, often serving as large fundraising opportunities for financial assistance offices. The onset of COVID-19 changed that for schools across the country, leaving development offices scrambling to decide how to proceed. Oregon Episcopal School was one of them.

With less than three days until their auction was set to take place, Oregon Episcopal School, along with the rest of the state, learned that the governor was limiting all public gatherings to less than 250 people due to the encroaching coronavirus. The next day the school announced that they were closing the campus for the next month. Though they couldn’t hold the auction as planned, OES’s Development Office wrestled with their options (cancel, go virtual, reschedule) and decided that the show would go on.  In one day, they worked through all aspects of executing the plan, including running the bid process, IT logistics, and volunteer outreach. They next day, the independent school virtual auction, complete with auctioneer, went live.

For schools that decide to do a virtual event, OES offers the following advice:

Person with computer

Prioritize clarity over speed
Don’t rush to communicate before the plan is final; changes will only confuse people.

Connect to your mission
Remind donors why your mission is important and how they can support the school community.

Give detailed instructions about training
This is new for many people and they need training. Consider using video tutorials and the option to ask questions through a call/email/text center for quick response.

Activate your volunteers
Enlist your volunteers to create buzz and awareness through peer-to-peer outreach.

Focus on the special pledge appeal
Create energy around these pledges by announcing a goal, recognizing donors in real time, and providing regular updates on progress towards the goal.

Cultivate “live” auction bidders
Shop packages around to donors to prompt opening bids from an in-person auction. Make a list and make sure everyone knows how to use the necessary technology.

Use vendors experienced in working with schools
These outside vendors will be able to more easily coordinate with internal IT and other event stakeholders.

Think ahead about post-auction
Make a plan for how you will collect payments and distribute invoices and receipts.

As OES has demonstrated, fundraising doesn’t have to stop in a virtual world. Designing an independent school virtual auction, while not ideal, is really about a school’s ability to refocus attention in an efficient way that will ultimately reflect the mission of the community.

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