Guest Post: Make Money Out of Thin Air – Ultimate Fundraising Auction Items

Would you believe I starred in the Nutcracker Ballet as the Snow Queen?  Courtesy of a fabulous benefit auction item!


It’s true. For this prestigious walk-on role, my 15 seconds of fame included a dramatic entrance in a faux-ermine floor-length cape and tiara. As I waved adieu, sugar plum fairies and mouse soldiers bowed deeply to me and pirouetted away. I treasure that unique experience, thanks to a creative auction item for Newport Rhode Island’s contemporary ballet company, Island Moving Company. Now, that’s making money out of thin air!Kathy Kingston Nutcracker

Do you crave fresh innovative fundraising auction items that get bid cards flying? Consider creative no-cost auction items that are fun, experiential, and match your audience interests that guests can’t get anywhere else.

Consider these benefits. These “out of thin air” charity auction items can build a deeper emotional connection to your organization, take on a life of their own, and produce bidder honor, loyalty and big profits.

Five Minute Maestro! How about guest conductor in an orchestra?  You can put this together for your local orchestra or even for regional or national orchestras.  What about an arts and culture event where there is a performance element?  During the 1812 Overture, your high bidder can play the cymbals or the timpani kettle drum!  Walk-on roles in the theater or opera are excellent experiential auction items that cost you nothing. Take a look at what opportunities are in your area, especially if you are part of a music, arts, or culture group. You already have a lot of contacts within your own organization and community!

Even though these special auction items have zero or low cost, place them in your Live Auction for maximum excitement and funds. For example, several years ago, I conducted a fundraising auction in New York State for Saratoga Economic Development Council with an incredibly unique item: the right to name the next newborn baby dairy calf at a local farm.  I opened the bidding at $100. Bidding took off; two power bidders emerged in a frenzy to name the little heifer. I dropped the hammer at $1,000 amidst exuberant cheering. Just as I said “sold”, the donor, Jane the dairy farm owner ran up to me with a basket of cheese and whispered in my ear, “Kathy, sell two! Bessie just had twins!”  Instantly, we raised $2,000 for the organization’s food pantry. In this case, it was a complete surprise because little did we know that the calves had been born at the time of the auction.  What is the moral of that story?  TWINS! Go ahead — double your “out of thin air” packages — just ask.


Creative Auction ItemOne of the best-selling items at school auctions are just these kind of imaginative experiences. Let’s look at Head of the school for the day, in which a student gets the opportunity to shadow the principal and do “cool principal-like stuff.  In that role, the student-principal for a day can participate in a lot of activities (e.g., make school announcements, have a teacher meeting, order pizza, sit at the principal’s desk, address an assembly, announce pajama day, no homework or open a band concert.) Head of the school for the day is one of the highest yield items.  It doesn’t cost anything and it usually brings in the thousands of dollars, I’ve auctioned this for anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000! Always get a permission slip from the Principal to double it too!

Favorite teacher experiences are also best-sellers. For example, at one auction making cupcakes with a six-grade teacher sold for $2,000, and, of course, we sold it twice and doubled our money. The list goes on and on: babysitting for a family, taking kids to a baseball game, art classes, museum visits, roller skating in the school after hours, sleep over in the gym with movie…the creativity amazes me! At any school, front row tickets to graduation, children’s concerts,  front-row tickets to holiday assemblies sell off the charts. Hint: For any front row seats, remember there are two sides of the aisle, which means you can sell it twice and double your money!  And you can also sell the second row too. School Auction Class gifts are a hit too.  For example, a cookie jar decorated with first graders’ thumbprints made into owls generated a highest bid of $10,000 after a bidding frenzy by first grade parents.   A key element to that item’s success was also having all of the first grade parents at the auction and pre-promoting the cookie jar before the benefit auction event. Art projects, garden mosaic tiles, adirondack chairs with school colors, homemade quilts, specialty baskets themed and so much more!

Here is another really wacky example of how to make big dollars and fun  out of thin air.  I conducted an elementary school auction at Roosevelt School in California. Their beloved principal was getting married just a few months after their auction. She created a “Reverse Bridal Shower” where the principal held a unusual fun activity for 12 young girls. At this reverse bridal shower, the kids were the “brides” and wore white boas and big blingy diamond rings, ate cake, drank sparkling cider, got their hair and makeup done, and played traditional bridal shower games modified for children. And of course, they all got party gifts from their favorite principal.  The reserve bridal shower sold for $1,600 to a group of first grade mothers. There was such fervent bidding that the principal agreed to sell a second one to another group of fourth grade moms.  School auctions are amazing – I just love them!

Imagine! Several years ago, Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series after a far too long hiatus of 86 years. I was conducting a benefit auction at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, which happened to be official hospital of the Red Sox. As a surprise auction item, wearing his World Series Champions ring, the hospital president walked up to the stage and offered this surprise Live Auction item.  The lucky winning bidder could wear his World Series ring for the rest of the auction!  The ultimate Red Sox Live auction item to wear The World Series Championship Ring!  I sold for over $1,000 on the spot!

Another profitable procurement technique is what I term “The SMF “Sock-Monkey Factor.”  There is no better way to make money out of thin air. Consider this story to stir your creative ideas for auction items. For example, the beloved founder a small social services agency made a sock monkey every year for their benefit auction. A sock monkey? You know the little brown sock with the two little button eyes?  And of course I sold it as Live Auction item #1, and brought up the wonderful founder while I sold it – in fact she lovingly held it when I was selling it. Every year it went for over $1,000! Naturally, guests clamored for one of her sock monkeys each year.    What about a “tribute auction item” for a honoree?  At Brookline High School in Massachusetts, they created a special “Best of Bob” auction item including all the things their honoree Bob, loves such as: front row tickets to Bob’s favorite theater, a gallon of Bob’s favorite ice cream, dinner at Bob’s favorite restaurant, a case of Bob’s favorite wine, a weekend for 2 to Bob’s favorite vacation spot, you get the picture!  Why do these types of auction items fetch top bids? Because these items are so personally and emotionally connected to the beloved founder or honoree and their great cause. These personal auction items become treasured legendary items and it is an honor to be the high bidder every year.  What can you create using my SMF Factor?

Let’s explore strange but profitable auction items?  How about was a 5-pound salami? Can you imagine?  It was always the top-selling auction item. Funny and engaging, for over ten years, a giant salami sells for hundreds of dollars and has become a legend at GALE Fund of the Cape Cod Foundation. No kidding, but I even sold a “toilet seat cover” that had plaques of the winners’ names and resold each year at St. Mary’s Church in Anchorage Alaska! Think of something that might be special to your guests that could bring back year after year. Get wacky!

Here’s one of my favorites. It is Head Table at the next year’s benefit auction event with VIP treatment. Have you ever seen that? At every auction in any venue, you can locate a head table right up front. This item becomes legendary and truly takes on a life of its own. Instead of ten people at the table, maybe you expand it to 12 to 14 guests. What would the Head Table Package include?  You might have two wait staff assigned exclusively to their table, special wine, extra courses, valet parking, and gift bags. You might include hotel rooms so that the guests can really relax and enjoy themselves. You can be very creative with benefits for the Head Table. For a cool twist, also auction a Tails Table, aka the fun and crazy table complete with party favors, noise makers, and distinct decorations. You can have a head table, tails table, or a fun extra table. The sky’s the limit!

What’s in a name?  You can name ANYTHING as an auction item. It’s tons of bid fun! How about naming a street or a road?  If you have a campus, you could designate a hallway, and auction off the right to name the hallway. There might be a small road or lane in your town that you could have dedicated and you could name that street or a road.  How about name your own sandwich? You could work with a local restaurant or deli and get them to agree to donate the naming of a sandwich, ice cream flavor or special dish.  A hot auction item right now is the right to create and name your own signature drink or martini at a local bar or restaurant.  Personalization – make it count!

Kathy Kingston

Achieve Immortality with this auction item. How about the highest bidder’s name as a character in the next book by a famous author or children’s book?  Bring a lot of excitement and dollars to your auction. The high bidder could be the hero or the heroine or even the villain in the next story. The author might use the buyer’s real name. Here is a really great imaginative variation.  What about your dog’s name in a famous author’s next book?  This can really be a lot of fun. It is always good to check your connections. Even if you do not have an existing connection with an author, go ahead and contact those favorite authors.

For the love of animals! What about a creative customized pet package?  For example, the auction package could include the opportunity to be a grand marshal in a walk for pets, a cover photo on the annual pet calendar, a special collar, a special cape, and an opportunity to be a judge in a pet contest.  How about featuring your favorite four-legged friend on the front of a catalog or calendar? Or create return address mailing labels with your pet’s photo!

Think about what you can add to your auction fundraiser to make it even more fun, profitable, and unusual.  We’d love to hear all of your ideas about how to make money out of thin air.  Share you best ones in the comments section!

As a thank you, please enjoy these special gift to help you maximize your fundraising. Just go to for a Special Report on Best Selling Auction Items including my list of my favorite high profit auction items, Record Breaking Fundraising Auction Tips Booklets and my Special Report: Triumph over Charity Auction Challenges.

By Kathy Kingston, CAI, BAS

Kingston Auction Company, LLC is the premier resource for record-breaking fundraising auctioneers, consulting, education & strategies.

Kathy Kingston, CAI, BAS    603-926-1919

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© 2014 Kathy Kingston. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to “Guest Post: Make Money Out of Thin Air – Ultimate Fundraising Auction Items”

  1. waverly roan

    Three of my 9 grandchildren attend a local VERY SMALL catholic school. It serves 60 kids, pre school through 5th grade. Each year, the operating budget is tighter, and parents/grandparents have to search for more creative ways to make ends meet. Our operating budget is $400,000.00 and we get NO federal or state monies. Generous donors have kept the school alive for many years, but now they are aging, and many no longer live in this community. We really need some help. The school may close its doors after many years, and what a loss this would be for the children.

  2. We have a bi-annual auction and so far have done well. One thing we do is called a Reverse Auction. Those who bid actually walk away with nothing other than the satisfaction that they have helped. It goes like this… A few years ago our school was in dire need of new desks and chairs. It would cost about $14,000. So we asked if anyone was willing to bid $14,000 to pay for the desks. If no one bid, then we’d ask if there two bidders willing to bid $7,000. We’ve done this at each auction and within a small handful of bidders our much needed item is paid for.

  3. Tara Shadduck

    One of our most unique “money out of thin air” auction items was the chance to choose the theme for the next year’s gala.


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