Lessons from an Extraordinary Alumni Gala and Auction

I’m not a Middlesex School alum.  Yet, having spent almost 19 years there as Director of Development, I felt attached to the school enough — and close enough to a big group of alumni and parents — that when I learned the Middlesex Alumni Association (MXAA) Gala would be held on a night when I was already planning to be back on the East Coast, I packed my tuxedo and planned to join in on the fun.

At day schools, galas and auctions are typically the purview of Parents’ Associations.  Boarding schools focus their energies on non-event driven philanthropy, primarily direct mail and personal solicitations for Annual Funds and major gifts.  Several years ago, in an effort to smooth out the highly unpredictable income stream from the alumni golf tournament (heretofore their primary revenue source) the MXAA began to explore more sustainable funding options.  At the urging of Association President Lisa Molvar (Middlesex ’97) the decision was made to hold a biennial gala and auction.

The event was held at Boston’s elegant Four Seasons Hotel (also the site of the first gala two years earlier) and more than 240 alumni and parents (and a few hangers-on like me!) paid the $150 registration fee, filling the venue to capacity.   The decision to hold the gala every other year was a wise one because it keeps the event fresh, and once again it drew a big gathering from New York in addition to the Boston crowd.  Alumni from 1950 to 2009 were part of the action as were an enthusiastic group of parents, some of whose sons and daughters graduated several years ago.

The silent auction was held during cocktails – an essential element of any successful auction! – and items available for bidding ranged from Red Sox tickets to dinners at great restaurants to a framed original print of the school’s Olmsted campus plan circa 1901.  One of the peripheral benefits of the auction is that it provides the opportunity for alumni who live too far away from the event to attend to participate by contributing their vacation homes, wine from their vineyards, whiskey from their distillery (thanks Bully Boy!), rounds of golf at their clubs, or fly fishing lessons.

Another wise decision was the elimination of a seated dinner, offering instead a delicious array of hors d’oeuvres.  Not only does this save considerable expense, but it also allows for a much longer mingling and silent auction period!

At the completion of the silent auction, the group was encouraged into the ballroom where chairs were arrayed in theatre style, with VIP tables (sold to indivduals for a higher ticket price) in the rear of the room.  A professional auctioneer helped to set the tone, with week-long vacation stays in Jackson Hole and Cabo San Lucas and an original oil painting by acclaimed artist Sam Vokey (Middlesex ’81) receiving the highest bids.  All told, the auction netted considerably more than $100,000.

Thanks to this auction, the MXAA is on a stronger financial footing, and has been much more well-positioned to fund some of its ongoing activities, including summer internship stipends for young alumni and a more robust program of professional networking events in major cities.  In addition, over the last two years, it has added a new program that has provided more than $30,000 to cover incidental expenses for students who receive financial aid.  To date, this supplemental fund has provided support for athletic gear, school and team trips, winter clothing, and even a few prom dresses.

Of course, the best part of the MXAA Gala was that it provided a fun evening for alumni and parents, and brought them together in a meaningful way that will have tangible benefits for students and alumni for years to come.

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