What was the outcome?
I remember a flag going for more than $1,000! The flag was small. It was to be displayed by parents on their car at the school. It allowed the parent to go to the head of the line when picking up his or her child. That was the only benefit the flag provided.
Was the flag worth more than $1,000?
Of course not. Most of the items at the auction were sold for many times their market value. The participants understood the auction was a fundraising event. They understood the purpose of the auction was to raise funds for a good cause. The purpose was not to find bargain prices.
Auctions can be a great way to raise money for a nonprofit organization. But only when the participants are in the proper mindset.
People need to compete with each other to overpay for items. Seth Godin recently wrote about this on his blog. He suggests that you need to set the proper tone right from the start.
Seth describes a scenario where a few "stooges" are enlisted from the audience to ensure the first item sells for much more than the actual value. When the winner(s) receive applause, the tone is set and the rest of the participants are ready to outdo each other.
I like this approach. It fosters an environment that encourages overpaying for auction items.
If you're considering a charity auction in the future, focus as much on creating the needed environment as you put into finding items for the auction. Be creative when finding items to sell. Items that are fun and whimsical may draw more excitement and larger bids than items worth much more. Items that hold sentimental value can do the same.
What is important is how much money was raised for your cause, not the value of the items sold.