School fundraising: Auction Nights and other ideas

Written by: Tom Donohoe | Published:
Image: iStock

If you get it right, school fundraising events can be among the highest earners in terms of additional income. Tom Donohoe discusses his most successful event – the Auction Night – as well as a few other ideas to bring together your wider community in support of the school

In the last edition of Headteacher Update, I described the principles that we have applied here at Anton Junior School in our various fundraising activities in recent years (Some of the secrets to fundraising success, Headteacher Update, January 2016).

In this follow-up, I want to outline some of the fundraising events that have been successful for us over the years – some of these are now events that we hold every year while others occur less frequently.

In each of our previous fundraising campaigns – for our all-weather pitch, an adventure play area and our dance studio – we have employed a mix of fundraising events and grant applications. While I am focusing on the former, I would also encourage heads to explore the latter as there is still money out there if you look hard enough!

So to the fundraising events we have organised. I am going to start with the most successful one in terms of revenue brought in and then provide brief details on a number of other events we have staged.

Auction Nights

Last term, we organised our second ever Auction Night, four years after our first auction. This time period is relevant as I don’t think this is an event you can repeat too often, partly because it is labour intensive to organise and partly because I think you need a different audience of people to attend.

At Anton, different staff take a lead on different events and I lead on this one. The premise is fairly simple – to source as many “things” to auction as possible and to sell them off on the evening. I pride myself on not paying for any of the auction items – they are all donated by local companies, individuals, families, etc so every penny bid on the evening is pure profit. We sell a hundred tickets for the evening and charge £10 – this includes a curry (made by the school cook and served by staff) and a welcome drink.

Planning for this event needs to start months before as obviously obtaining a large number of items for free is going to take time. We will auction pretty much anything that we think people will bid on! Some examples of items that were auctioned last term include: three months membership of a local gym; four course meal at a local restaurant; dinner, bed, breakfast at a posh hotel; signed Premiership football photos; a meal cooked for you in your own home; two nights of baby-sitting; four hours of ironing; and a deluxe log burner.

All of the above was obtained simply by contacting local companies. Obviously this was made easier where we had a contact within the organisation and here you can make use of your staff, parents and governors. You will be amazed who knows who and that will definitely help you call in some favours.

While I think it is important to have a good proportion of items that the majority of people attending will be able to afford to bid on, it is also essential that you have a few particularly cool things that you can use in your publicity prior to the event – this will help to sell tickets. Some examples that we had in our event last term included the chance to watch Southampton FC train and then meet the players, the opportunity to visit a Formula 1 testing facility, a topless (male instructor) spinning class (don’t ask, but it went for a lot of money), and a portrait painted for you by a well-known local artist.

We aim to have 60 items in total to auction off, but actually ended up with 80 at our last event and we list these in a programme that is distributed as part of our pre-event publicity – again this drums up interest.

We split the items into three sections and we carefully decide which items go in each section. The first third are auctioned after the welcome drink and as people sometimes are a touch reserved (and sober) they don’t tend to go for as much money. As such, I would strongly advise you not to put all your “big hitting items” in the first section.

After they have eaten their curry and bought a couple of drinks from the bar (where the prices are very reasonable!) the next section of items are auctioned off and we tend to double the total income of the first part of the auction.

We then have a DJ playing a few tunes for 20 minutes and people have a dance and another drink before we auction off the final 20/25 items. Again, this final section doubles the income of the second section (four times the total of the first 20/25 items). This increase is partly down to the actual items, but is more down to the fact that people are much more “relaxed” by this point in the evening.

We always have a raffle at every event we organise and the auction is no different. We put the usual wine, chocolates and smellies in as prizes, but we also put in a couple of cooler things that could have been put in the auction to make the raffle a bit more attractive.

I know it sounds dreadful, but I then send round a couple of the most popular staff to sell the tickets and while “punters” can buy one line of tickets for £2, the emphasis is very much on three lines of tickets for just £5. We don’t let them get away with buying as a couple either – both partners are encouraged to buy and as long as we time this right in the evening this is generally successful.

The DJ is important too, as it makes the evening more of an event for the people attending. Also, if you can persuade somebody well-known to act as your auctioneer for the evening, that is a real bonus. If not, I would suggest you engage the services of a local auctioneer, but make sure you meet them beforehand as they need to understand what you are trying to achieve, you need to give them an idea of how much money you are hoping to obtain for each item, and you need to check they have the requisite sense of humour!

The final point I would make about this event, and I think it applies to this event more than any other we have organised, is to try to sell tickets to non-parents. If you can attract local dignitaries and business people it means that you are not always targeting the same market to generate income. Our Auction Night last term raised a profit of more than £8,000, making it our biggest earner, which is why I have dedicated such a large chunk of this article to discussing it.

Fireworks Night

Each year we organise a Fireworks Night and make sure it takes place a day or two before the main event in the town. Obviously we use a well-known company to do the actual fireworks, but we also have fairground rides, two barbecues, hog roasts, floodlit play-areas, refreshments, sideshows and stalls, etc.

We send out 10 fliers with every child for them to distribute to their neighbours. Each year, around 2,000 people attend, they enjoy the display and spend money happily. We tend to make a profit of around £4,000.

Christmas Fair

Like most schools we hold a Christmas Fair and raise just over £2,000 from the event. As well as making funds, this is an event when it is really nice to socialise with parents and chat. We do ours on a Friday straight after school so we catch parents before they go home and it is a bit less painful for my staff than coming back into school on a Saturday.

Ladies’ Pamper Evening

An event you might want to consider, but to be honest I probably wouldn’t repeat myself, is a Ladies’ Pamper Evening. This involved us persuading lots of local companies in the health and beauty industry to come up to school and provide treatments for free or at very low cost. We then sold tickets to interested mums to come along on the night, but it was a lot of work to organise for the financial return of just under £1,000.

Dads’ and Kids’ Night

Our annual Dads’ and Kids’ Night is a real winner. Each year we make around £2,000 in two hours and with very little effort required. We sell tickets in advance for £3 and make it clear that “Dads” can obviously be grandads, step-dads, friends’ dads, older brothers etc. On the evening each teacher organises an activity that takes place in their classroom, for example X Box, hula-hooping, board games, parachute games, a cube challenge, a pub quiz, etc. In the hall we have our pool tables, table tennis tables, air hockey and table football and the dads enjoy playing against their children and often against each other!

Our bar is set up in the hall and proves popular. We also sell hot dogs and burgers. Dads tend to be very generous when we send round staff selling raffle tickets. The event runs from 6 to 8pm and in terms of income per hour is a real winner.

The A Word

Another annual event is The A Word, when our year 6 parents are treated to an evening of gourmet food prepared by their children under the watchful eye of the executive chef and several of his staff from a top local hotel.

We persuade supermarkets to donate groceries – enough food to feed 60 people a four-course meal. All the crockery, cutlery, tablecloths and napkins are borrowed from a hotel nearby. The chefs work with our year 6 pupils throughout the day preparing and cooking the food. Other pupils are formally trained in service and on the night they perform this with a flourish. Drink flows, wine is sold by the bottle and lots of new friends are made.

It is always a really magical evening and every single parent approaches us at the end to thank us for a superb time, and it tends to make a profit of just under £2,000. We have replicated some of the features of this event at a Curry Night for year 4 parents which is just as popular.

Anton’s Got Talent

While it is not very imaginative, Anton’s Got Talent does always prove to be pretty successful and enjoyable nonetheless. We do this event every two years and on each occasion children are given the opportunity to audition and a variety of acts (about 20) are chosen to perform on the night. Parents snap up tickets and the event sells out. A bar, soft drinks, snacks and the obligatory raffle are all available. The children rise to the occasion and two of the three judges (former teachers) are consistently pleasant and complementary, the third is stereotypically negative in a nice, humorous way. A profit of just over £1,500 is raised.

Staff vs Parents Match

We negotiated with our town football club, Andover FC, to have free use of their stadium on a Friday night in order to stage a staff vs parents football match. As well as this adult match, prior to kick off we also organised several matches between pupils.

We publicised the event to parents and asked them to complete “sealed bids” for them and/or their child to secure a place in (a) an infants match, (b) a junior match, and (c) a parents vs staff match! With the entrance money, refreshments and the obligatory raffle, the total profit for the event was just under £2,000.

Other ideas

We hold a number of regular, smaller events too. Anton Youth Club Nights, Film Nights, Cake Sales and Discos are held throughout the year. These are fairly straightforward to organise and staff on the night, but still manage to raise a significant sum. We have also held a football-based play scheme during the school holiday – local football teams were persuaded to “lend” us fully qualified coaches at no cost so that all of the income was profit.


The final point I would make if you are considering launching a strategic fundraising campaign is to prepare yourself for disappointment. There is no doubt in my mind that determination, resilience and my own favourite, “bouncebackability”, are absolutely essential if you are to achieve your aim.

You need to be ready for downs as well as ups – just last week we received hugely disappointing news that having worked incredibly hard on an application for funding from Sport England, we had been unsuccessful. You must be able to take body blows such as these, pick yourself up and carry on.

If there is something I have discussed here that is of particular interest please feel free to contact me.

Further reading

Some of the secrets to fundraising success, by Tom Donohoe in Headteacher Update, January 2016:

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