Silent Auction Procedure   — Latest version as of 2011-08-30 15:28:25

Silent Auction Procedure

Forming a committee

The committee should be formed before the summer break begins as there are some work to be done and decisions to be made before the new school year begins. (e.g. Some corporations require that we submit our requests many months in advance.) At first, only the core members need to be selected. (It is unlikely to get many volunteers 6 months in advance of the event anyway.)

In the past, the same few people organized the auction year after year. This was unavoidable because it is a very complex event and there was no documentation on how to organize it. For the 2010 auction, Jocelyn Lieu and Donna Binder were the lead organizers. They learned it from the previous generation of silent auction organizers, and they have been in charge of the silent auction for many years. Jocelyn will not be at The Neighborhood School for the 2011 auction.

Because the knowledge of how to organize the auction cannot easily be transferred, every year, it automatically fell on the people who handle it previous year. There was no open process to volunteer, nominate, or vote for the organizers. Because of this nature of silent auction, becoming a lead organizer would require a minimum of 2 year commitment; one year must be spent training the new organizer.

Email list for the committee

Organizing silent auction through meetings only is practically impossible as there are so many decisions to be made and questions to be answered. Email should be the primary mode of communication. This way, nobody would miss any meetings or discussions. Everyone could be on the same page, at their own pace.

Since different people come in and out of the committee during the 6 months of organizing the auction, it is advisable to create an email list for the committee. This way, you could centrally manage who should be on the list and when. The number of emails exchanged to organize the auction is overwhelming for many people. The members who volunteered for the distribution, for instance, do not have to be on the list until a few days before the auction.

For 2010, we used Google Groups. The address is tns-silent@googlegroups.com. This group can be re-used for the future committees; simply add or remove members as necessary. This way, the new members would have access to the past discussions. A great deal of knowledge was shared on the list, so the new members should be able to find answers to many questions by searching the list.

How to divide the work

For 2010, the roles were divided as follows:

  1. Calling people on the list to ask them to go out and get more or less the same donations as last year
  2. Restaurants and bars
  3. Corporate donations
  4. Hotels and B & B donations
  5. Spa and beauty
  6. Clothing
  7. Toys and kid clothing
  8. TNS parents (services and business donations)
  9. TNS teachers and staff
  10. Theater and arts
  11. Letter and auction form distribution
  12. Online bidding
  13. Help with the set up on the Saturday before (Saturday, Dec. 4)
  14. Help on the day of the auction (Sunday, Dec. 5)
  15. Distribution

It is not clear how well this scheme worked. Many of these roles were left unassigned. Some items require more than one person, which means we need about 20 volunteers to cover all these roles. Sadly, we haven’t been able to mobilize such a large number of volunteers. We should either break them up differently, or find a better way of getting more volunteers. For instance, defining each role clearly may encourage more people to volunteer.

Solicitation letter and form

The letters and forms for 2009 and 2010 can downloaded from here:

http://tnsny.org/posts/files/56

Many copies of the donation forms and gift certificate forms were printed and distributed as backpack mail in October.

The letters should be distributed and circulated to our local community by October 1st, which means they need to be written in September. Only minor editing (mostly changing the dates) is necessary to create the new versions.

For 2011, the donation form and the gift certificate form should be combined into one. Since we enter all our donations into the website, and since the website acts as our master record, the donation form as we used to have it is no longer useful or relevant. We therefore need only 2 pages: the cover letter (the same as backpack letter) and the form.

Solicitation email

We have a database of all the donors from 2009 and 2010. The solicitation letter could be sent via email. The easiest way to do this is to use our account at Campaign Monitor (email marketing service). The email addresses in Campaign Monitor are automatically synchronized with those on the website. There are two email lists: one for businesses and the other for individual donors. In some cases, you may want to send email to businesses only. You can choose one or the other, or both.

Corporate solicitations

Most big corporations have annual budgets for donations, so the earlier we approach them, the better. For 2010, we were able to get donations from companies like Amazon and Whole Foods. Amazon’s Kindle was a hot item at the auction, so we should target more companies like them. The ideal time to start soliciting them is probably around May and June.

Local business solicitations

It is much easier to get donations from local businesses if you already have relationships with them. Otherwise, it can be tough. Restaurants are particularly popular targets for solicitors, so they receive many requests for donations. Without connections, they may ask you to email your request and then ignore. Or, tell you to come back when the owner is in. So, the best approach might be to find parents who have established relationships with the restaurants. Ask them to ask the restaurant owners.

New businesses are more willing to listen to your request as they could use the publicity.

Businesses that cater to kids (kids’ clothing, cafes/bakeries that sell sweets, toy stores, pizzeria, etc..) are also more willing to listen.

It helps to mention that their donation would be on our website with a link to their website.

Online Business Solicitations

Companies that do business only online are more willing to listen to your request. These companies can be anywhere in the US. Since they have no retail stores in New York, they like the idea of displaying their products at our school. (It’s sort of like having a table at a convention, which can be expensive for them)

For intance, we were able to get a soda maker from Sodastream. It was a popular item at the auction. For Sodastream, it makes sense to donate not only because they can showcase their product at our auction but also because the winner will continue to buy the replacement carbonators, recouping the cost of the soda maker over time.

Donation categories

For 2010, we had the following categories:

  1. Art / Craft  (paintings, drawings, pottery, photography)
  2. Beauty / Health / Fitness  (spa, hair salon, massage, gym)
  3. Books / CDs / DVDs
  4. Classes  (dance, music)
  5. Clothing / Accessories
  6. Dining  (restaurants, cafe, bakery, bar)
  7. Food / Drink items  (wine, grocery, cakes)
  8. Local Stores  (hardware stores, printers, pet stores)
  9. Miscellaneous  (things that defy categorization)
  10. Services  (lawyers, accountants, babysitting, consulting, tutoring)
  11. Tickets / Memberships / Subscriptions  (concerts, museums)
  12. Unique Experiences  (including activities with TNS teachers)
  13. Vacation  (summer house, hotel, tickets)

Breaking up the donation items into categories makes it easier for people to browse since most people are interested only in specific kinds of items.

Some categories are more popular than the others, dining (restaurants) being the most popular. We get a lot of books, CDs, and DVDs donated but they rarely sell.

Preparing the image of your donation item

The most difficult part of the donation form is submitting an image of the donation item, but having an image makes a big difference in getting people excited about the auction items, so we encourage people to find images they can use for their donation items. It could be a photo of the physical item, or it could be a logo of the business.

If you happen to have a digital photo of the item on your computer, all you have to do is to select it and upload it, but in many cases, no such photo is available. If it’s a common product, it is likely that you can find an image of it on the web. One way to find it is to use Google Image Search (http://images.google.com/). Search the name of the item and see what comes up. If nothing turns up there, you could also try Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/). You could also try Amazon.com. If it’s a book, CD, or DVD, they would probably have a product photo of it.

If the donation does not involve a product, but a service like a restaurant, do a regular Google search for that business name and find their website. There would probably be some images you could use on that site. And, of course, you could simply ask the donors if they have any photos you can use. If you explain that they will be featured on our website, they would probably try to find some good photos.

Now, once you find the photos you want on the Internet, the hard part is how to get the file so you can upload it to our site. With most web browsers, you should be able to simply drag and drop the photo from the browser to your computer desktop. This should create a file on the desktop that you could then select and upload from the donation form.

In some situations, this would not work (especially if the photo is presented with in a Flash animation). If so, you could take a screen shot of the browser window and create an image file.

On a Mac, hold down Command + Shift + Caps Lock all at the same time. While you are still holding them down, hit the 4 key above the letter keys (not the 4 key in the numeric key pad). Once you let go of the keys, your mouse cursor should turn to a cross hair. Now you can drag and draw a rectangle around the area where the photo you want is. If you let go of your mouse, your Mac should create a file on the desktop. You could then upload this file through the donation form.

On Windows, there is a “Print Screen” key. If you press that while you are holding on to the Alt key, Windows should copy the image of the active window into its clipboard. This can now be pasted into any image editing program like Microsoft Paint that comes with Windows. You then save this file as JPEG and upload it on our site.

Although the image could be any size or dimensions, if you want it to have the maximum impact, you should crop it to 450 x 450 pixels before you upload it. That way you know exactly how it would look on the website.

Filling out the donation form

On the home page of the silent auction site (http://tnsny.org/auction), there is a big button that says “Donate Online Now”. Clicking on this takes you to a form to submit your donation. In the vast majority of cases, TNS parents who solicited would fill out and submit this form, but it could also be submitted by the donors themselves. To submit donations, you must be logged in. If you do not have a login, you would need to register.

The first part is uploading the image. Click the button that says “Select & Upload”. It will prompt you with a dialog box to select the image file. The file format needs to be either JPEG or PNG (No GIF, TIFF, or BMP). Once you select, the uploading should automatically start and you should see a progress bar. When it’s done uploading, you should see a thumbnail of your image.

The dropdown control for donor contains all the past donors. Please look for your donor and see if it is already in our database. We do not want to have duplicate entry of the donor information. If you cannot find it, select the first item that says, “Select this to enter new”. 9 different form fields for donor information should appear. The first one is a check box that says “Check if this is a business”. It’s important to check this if it is a business, as we tend to reach out to them and thank them differently from individuals who donated.

Please try to fill out as many pieces of information as possible. The website address is used for linking to the donor’s site. The physical address is used to mail out thank you letters and tax forms. So, even the zip code is important.

The name of the auction item is very important. In some contexts, the name is the only thing people can see, so, if you enter “$50 gift certificate”, people would not know what the gift certificate is for. So, the organizers often have to rename the items.

The description of the item is important in order to get people excited about the item. Also, to show our gratitude towards the businesses that donated, we should try to promote the business a bit by describing what they offer and why you like it. Certain items require detailed explanations. For instance, if you are offering your summer house as a vacation, describe the location, what’s around it, what things to see and do, as well as conditions under which you are willing to offer the house.

For specialized services, you should be very specific in your descriptions. For instance, if you simply listed “legal consultation”, most people are not going to know what it means. There are many different types of lawyers and you wouldn’t want to go see an immigration lawyer to get advice about patenting your invention.

The value of the item must be entered. For donations from teachers (aka “unique experiences”), if you don’t know what value to put, enter $100.

“Notes to organizers” can only be viewed by the organizers.

There are a set of inputs that only organizers have access to.

The first one is minimum bid. If left blank, the system will automatically set to 50% of the value.

“Final price” is the winning bid amount. It is used only after the auction is closed.

“Winning bidder ID” is also entered after the auction is closed.

“Online only” check box would mark this item as online exclusive. It will not be presented at the live auction, and the highest online bidder will win this item.

“Bidding open” means that the item is open for people to bid on online.

“Featured” means that the item would appear on the home page.

If you uncheck “Listed”, the item would still be in our database but it would not be visible to the public.

“Paid” means the item has been paid for by the winner.

“Delivered” means the winner has picked up the item already.

The fields for “The Neighborhood School Contact” is necessary when the organizers have any questions about the item.

Pricing

Pricing the donations made by teachers (like “principal for a day”) is tricky as we would like to say it’s “priceless”, but to be realistic, we need to set one. For 2010, we decided to set them all to $100.

Jocelyn and Donna used to set the minimum increments based on their instincts, but upon studying the way they determined the increments, there was a certain pattern, so we formalized it as follows:

Under $100 — $5

Over $100 and under $250 — $10

Over $250 and under $500 — $25

Over $500 and under $750 — $35

Over $750 and under $1,000 — $50

Over $1,000 and under $2,500 — $100

Over $2,500 and under $5,000 — $250

Over $5,000 and under $10,000 — $450

The website now automatically sets the minimum increments (so they cannot be manually set).

There are items that are unrealistically high even if they are supposed to worth that much. For instance, we had a photographer offering a portrait session for $5,000, but it is nearly impossible for us to find an appropriate buyer for such a service. Even if someone is willing to pay $5,000 for a photo session, he/she may not like the style of that particular photographer. The same holds true for paintings, drawings, or photographs by fine artists. Finding buyers or collectors for these niche items is nearly impossible for us. (After all, if it were that easy, no artists would need any dealers or galleries.) If we were to keep the value at $5,000 there is a good chance that nobody would bid on it, but at the same time, if we were to lower the value to a more realistic range, like $1,000 to $2,000, we may offend the donor too.

How to handle multiple copies of the same item

Certain items have multiple copies. For instance, we may receive multiple memberships for a museum or multiple copies of the same book. One way to deal with this is to list one copy as “online exclusive” and the other for the live auction. It’s also possible to keep one for the auction and use the other one for the raffle.

Sometimes we get multiple gift certificates from the same restaurant. If each gift certificate is small, say $25, then combine them and make it a single $50 gift certificate.

Promoting

For 2010, Marjorie wrote the press release and sent it to “TONY kids, East Village Grieve, the Lo-Down, Bowery Boogie, Paper magazine, New York Family and The Villager, plus friends at Shuang Wen and EVCS asking that it be posted to their school mailing lists.”

Her original press release can be downloaded from here:

http://tnsny.org/user_files/download/3093

She sent it on November 29th which is a week in advance of the holiday fair. Timing-wise, this is probably optimal for the web-based publications. Print publications tend to require that you submit it a few months in advance. This was not possible for 2010 since we didn’t know what we would be offering at the fair until we were in November.

For both 2009 and 2010, the flyers were created and distributed only about a week before the fair. This needs to be addressed in the future.

One of the points raised among the organizers related to this topic is that silent auction has always been treated as a “footnote” to the holiday fair. As it is the biggest fundraiser for our school, some feel that it should not be treated/promoted that way. This becomes particularly problematic if we want to encourage people who have no children to attend the auction (as holiday fair is primarily for children).

Opening the auction website for donations

The website is programmed to start the new auction automatically on July 1st of every year. This means all the existing auction items will disappear (hidden) from the site, and the silent auction home page will be empty with no items listed. At that point, the site is technically ready to accept the new donations. At the same time, the bidding will open also by default. However, you could keep the bidding closed by un-checking “Bidding Open” on the donation form/edit page.

Online-only auction

Items marked as “online only” or “online exclusive” closes 2 days before the holiday fair. As of this writing, there is no switch to close the bidding for online-only items (a feature list for 2011), which means that it must be done manually by running an SQL statement directly to the database. (e.g. UPDATE auction_items SET active = 0 WHERE exclusive = 1;)

For 2010, there were no clear criteria for what items should be online-only. Because the idea of online bidding was new for 2010, many people were probably unaware that some items were online-only. From 2011, we may be able to get a lot more bidders for online-only auction. If so, it would make sense to add some hot items to the online-only auction.

Having more items for online-only auction is helpful in reducing the number of items at the physical auction. We had many complaints that there were too many items and it was overwhelming. Many people also had trouble finding the items they wanted because there were so many items. If we can auction off more items online, this situation should improve.

Online-only auction is also a way for us to attract people without kids and those who cannot come to the holiday fair. The “final hour” is usually when most of the bidding take place, so if the bidders cannot attend the live auction at the fair, it is almost pointless to bid on any item as they would most likely be out-bid by someone else at the fair. However, if the bidding closes online before the fair, they can participate in the “final hour” and therefore have a good chance of winning.

Featured Items

Some items are featured on the home page of the silent auction site. To be considered for this, the item must have an image. The system randomly selects 20 items from all the items with “featured” checked on the donation edit form. Only the organizers can check the “featured” checkbox. Every time you reload the home page, the items change (provided that there are more than 20 items have “featured” checked).

For the record, another idea we considered was first-come-first-served. That is, the first 20 items to be featured would remain so until the end. This has the advantage of encouraging people to submit their donations as early as possible.

Collecting and storing auction items

We had a large envelope posted outside of the PTA room where people can drop off the donation forms.

For 2011, donation forms would not be necessary if the donations were submitted on the Website. (Donation form and gift certificate will be merged as one document.) All we need to collect are gift certificates and physical goods.

We keep the gift certificates in an accordion file folder. Make sure to write down the auction item ID (obtained by submitting the donation form on the Website) on each gift certificate before filing.

We need to secure a relatively large cabinet with a lock. For 2010, we used the tall black cabinet with a padlock. Only the organizers had access to the key.

Since the space is limited, if the item is large, it would be better to bring it the day before the auction.

It would be helpful to mark each item with its auction item ID.

Some businesses who donated physical goods may even prefer that the winners come pick them up at their stores. This way, the winners can learn about their business and become repeat customers. It may make sense to suggest this to the business owners. This way, instead of a physical thing that could get lost, damaged, or stolen, we would just have to keep a gift certificate for that item.

The day before (Saturday)

Printing bid sheets: by category

On the day before the holiday fair, we need to print all the bid sheets. The website generates a PDF file of all the bid sheets complete with the highest bidder ID and amount already filled in at the top.

If you are logged in as an organizer, at the top of each category page, you would see a link that says, “download bid sheet”. Clicking on this would prompt you to save a file to your computer. It’s a PDF that contains all the bid sheets for that category.

For 2010, each category was printed on a different color paper so that it would be easy for people to find and identify different categories.

Arranging the space and the items

On the prep day, many tables must be secured. One table is used for registration. The other ones to display physical items.

In the past, the area right in front of the PTA room was always used for silent auction. One of the reasons is that it can easily be closed off after the auction ends. It’s also convenient that the PTA room is right next to it. For 2010, we needed to pull out the Internet connection from the PTA room, so that is another advantage of that space.

We need all the wall spaces for posting the bid sheets as there are many. We covered all the exit doors, the wall outside of the PTA room, as well as the glass wall of the stair case. The bid sheets were color coded and grouped by category. We created a large sign for each category.

Physical items were displayed on the table along with their bid sheets. The tables were covered with plastic table cloth or colored paper. Clothes were displayed on a self-standing rack.

For 2010, the registration desk was equipped with 1 laptop and 3 iPads for registering bidders. The desk was set near the sink area. There is an electrical outlet on the left side of the sink. A long extension cable is necessary to tap into it from the desk. We had a power strip under the desk.

We used a wireless router to access the Internet. There is an Ethernet socket in the north east corner of the PTA room, and there is also a ventilation window with grille cover on the outside through which you can pass the Ethernet cable to outside of the PTA room. Above the bulletin board attached to the outside wall, there is also an electrical socket hidden from view. You can plug in the power supply for the wireless router there and connect the Ethernet cable. This way, the wireless signal would be unobstructed. All the devices need to have the proxy configured.

The area tends to be relatively dark as there is no window in the area. There were some incandescent lights for lighting artwork. These lights were turned on for the auction and it helped to brighten up the atmosphere a bit. The lights are plugged in manually to the same electrical socket above the bulletin board outside of the PTA room.

At the end of the prep day, some valuable items were put back into the locked cabinet of the PTA room.

Printing a booklet

For 2010, a booklet was prepared and printed by Amy Richards. This was done a day before the fair. The booklet features some of the choice items from the auction in an attempt to draw people in. For each item, there is a photo, title, description, and value.

For 2011, we are considering selling advertising space on the booklet as we have found a few businesses who may be interested in buying the ad space.

It may also be helpful for outsiders (those who are not directly connected to our school) to have a page that explains the procedure of the auction including how the payment and pick-up process works. We also had the idea of printing a large poster that contains frequently asked questions.

The day of the auction (Sunday)

Timeline of the auction

11am: The fair starts, and the auction opens. People can start writing down their bids on paper.

3 - 4pm: “The Final Hour” and the live auction.

4 - 5pm: Payment and Pick-up for those who are still there.

5 - 6pm: Clean-up

Registration Procedure

First, if you are logged in as yourself, you need to hit “LOGOUT”. That should take you to the login/register page. If the person already has an account for the website, she just needs to login. Then go to the auction home page. In the right column, you can see her ID number.

If the person has never registered on the school website before, she needs to fill out the registration form in the right column of the login page. She needs to fill out first name, last name, email address, and password. Once she hits “Register”, she is already logged in. Go to the auction home page and see what the ID is. To register the next person, simply hit LOGOUT again. And, repeat the same process.

People who have smart phones like iPhone could actually register on their own by going to the site on their phones.

Live auction

Live auction happens during the final hour. Works well for items like “Principal for a day”. [more on this, someone?]

Closing the auction (on the day of the auction)

Once the auction is closed, we need to collect all the bid sheets and enter the winning bids into the system. From each sheet, you can see the bidder ID of the highest bidder, the auction item ID, and the highest bid amount. You can enter them by going to the silent auction management page. If your login is registered as a member of the silent auction committee, you would have access to the management page by clicking on the link at the bottom of the auction home page. (Or just click here.)

Manage link

The management page looks like the image below. You see the 3 fields you need to enter a winning bid. Hit submit and you will get a confirmation of what you just entered. If you make a mistake, you can undo it. (You will see a link that says “undo”.)

Manage page

The second form in the above image is used once all the winning bids are entered into the system. If you enter a bidder ID and hit submit, you will get a page like below with all the items that person has won, and a button to pay for them by using her credit card. Clicking on the “Buy Now” button takes you to a PayPal page. Once the payment is successfully processed, PayPal will automatically communicate with our site and flag those auction items as PAID in our database. You can see which ones were paid by viewing the table view of the auction items. See the columns labeled “paid”.

Pay page

The bidders can actually access their own payment page like the one above and make the payment on their own. Once all the winning bids are entered into the system, each winning user will see a link like the one below. Clicking on it will take the user to the page like the above. He wouldn’t need our help to process the payment. If you can trust the person, you could even let him take the items, and have him pay for them later on his own. But make sure you check the “delivered” flag on those items when doing so. When he does pay, you will see it reflected on the table view.

Pay link

Distribution

Clean and Organize the PTA room

The first thing we need to do on the day after the fair is to clean and organize the PTA room. It’s usually a big mess. Each bidder should have a paper bag with his/her bidder ID written outside, and we put the items won inside. We then sort them on a table, so it would be easy to find the bag when the bidder comes to collect.

Distribution hours

The days and the hours for distribution should be fixed and clearly communicated before the auction. The schedule should not be left up to whenever someone is available.

The process of accepting payment and handing over the items

To set the items PAID or DELIVERED, first, go to the table view with all the items listed on one page:

http://tnsny.org/auction_items/table

You see columns: Final, Winner, Paid, and Delivered. Click on the heading of the table that says “Winner”. This will sort the whole table by bidder ID (Here’s a direct link to the sorted page). At the top, there are many rows where the Winner column is blank. That’s because these items had no bidders. If you scroll down further, you will see bidder IDs, and you will see that these IDs are clickable. Clicking on it will take you to the page where it lists all the items that this bidder has won. You see the bidder’s name at the top only because you are a silent auction admin. I’ve added at the bottom 2 links. One to set them all PAID. Click on this link if you received a check or cash. There is another link you click to set them DELIVERED. Click this link if the bidder picked them all up.

If the bidder picked up only some of the items, you will have to go to the edit page of the individual items and check the checkbox labeled “Delivered”.

The items paid with PayPal are automatically flagged as paid.

But I realize that paying with credit card is a lot of work if WE have to do it for them. It would be great if the winners could pay for the items through the website at home/work THEN come pick up the stuff. Otherwise, cash or check is easier. I think.

Online auction with unsold items

As of now, no user-interface has been implemented to close all the auction items, so it was manually executed directly to the database by setting the “active” column to 0. To open the auction for the unsold items, set “active” to 1 for items that does not have “final_price” set (and for the current year only).

Lower the minimum bids appropriately so that people would be encouraged to bid.

Thank-you emails and letters

If you are an organizer, you will see a link to download Excel spreadsheet of donors at the bottom of the auction home page. This can be used to prepare form letters.

[insert sample “thank you” letters]

[more details from Amy?]

Other Potential Topics

  • Debate about splitting silent auction from holiday fair
  • “Buy Now” (at the auction, so people can just buy items there and then without having to pick them up later.)
  • Email blast (Campaign Monitor): Not used this year

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