News & Politics

A $7,500 Slumber Party?

Or a $2,000 parking spot? Private schools raise a lot of money through auctions. Here’s what sells—and doesn’t.

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A trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Dinner with the author of The Exorcist. Scrabble tips from the middle-school director.

Welcome to the eclectic and occasionally wacky items that went going, going, gone to the highest bidder at the Holton-Arms School’s annual auction in March. In one evening, the Bethesda school raised $260,000.

Holton-Arms keeps company with a dozen or so area private schools that take in big dollars from spring auctions.

What sells well: trips to such far-flung locales as Spain and South Africa as well as such unique experiences as swapping spots with the headmaster à la Freaky Friday. What doesn’t: lunches with some members of Congress.

This past spring, auctiongoers had their pick of hundreds of items, including a signed copy of Barack Obama’s Iowa-caucus victory speech, tickets to the Kennedy Center Honors, and a walk-on role in the TV show Scrubs.

“Depending on the star power of the parents, you can get some cool things,” says Jennifer Kaplan, a mother of four. Among her family’s spoils: a week at Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt’s Maryland vacation home and a session with a popular pediatric dentist who doesn’t take insurance. “They are a good way to give money to the school,” Kaplan says of auctions.

Most auctions support financial aid. “Our parent body is committed to maintaining economic diversity in our student body,” says Ellis Turner of Sidwell Friends School, which raised more than $365,000 at its last auction. Tuition costs nearly $30,000 a year.

Sidwell hit the jackpot more than a decade ago when a donor reportedly paid $76,000 to play golf with President Bill Clinton. Daughter Chelsea is an alumna.

Many donors pony up without a tangible prize. At its spring auction, the Maret School raised $190,000 in 15 minutes from donors who gave as much as $5,000 directly to scholarships. “It’s a feel-good moment, and it’s fully tax-deductible,” says the school’s Sally Dunkelberger. The event netted $437,000, which represents 20 percent of the school’s financial-aid budget.

The Bullis School in Potomac also uses its auction to pay for infrastructure projects. At the last auction, the school raised $55,000 for new classroom technology.

While many schools count on well-connected friends or alumni for donations—the Ambassador of Iceland arranged a trip to his country for the Edmund Burke School—often the most hotly contested items are special access the schools provide.

At DC’s Lowell School, a bidding war erupted between fifth- and sixth-grade parents for a class slumber party in the gym hosted by teachers. (The sixth grade won for $7,500; teachers later agreed to do it for the fifth grade for the same amount.) Interest ran so high for a parking spot next to the school that the donor parents offered two spots instead of one in their U-shaped driveway and raised $4,000. Says Jane Nuland, director of development: “We have learned that parents are willing to pay top dollar for a convenience.”

They are also willing to pay for things only a parent could love. At Georgetown Day School, fiberglass sculptures of grasshoppers, the school’s mascot, brought in more than $20,000. Each of the 12 grades help paint one of the large, tabletop-size creations. The school also benefits from artwork donated by Sam Gilliam, a nationally acclaimed local artist and alumni parent.

Time with teachers also sells well, says Dabney Schmitt, director of development at the Potomac School in McLean. Last year faculty members took high bidders on a hike of the Billy Goat Trail, to a Nats game, and on a tour of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a genomics-research facility in Rockville. “Teachers are really close with students here,” says Schmitt.

Because the auctions help students, many of them return the favor. At Holton-Arms, the student string quartet donated a performance. A student-made quilt fetched $5,000, the top-grossing item, at Capitol Hill Day School’s auction one year. At Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, middle-school students help raise money by offering such services as babysitting and skateboarding lessons. Edmund Burke students have added to their event’s entertainment by dancing the can-can, singing Broadway show tunes, and performing a trapeze act.

“When people are having fun,” says Cathy Kruvant, the auction’s organizer, “the auction is more successful.”

>>Want more ways to do good? Check out our full charity package