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Raising the Steaks

In the April 2007 issue of Fundraising For Sports, Amherst Steele High School (Ohio) Head Softball Coach Bill Matthews discussed how his team raises $3,000 each year through its fall and summer softball clinics. In this month's newsletter, Matthews explains how his team made a profit of more than $6,000 at its recent steak dinner and auction.


by Danielle Catalano


Tim Lile has played an important role in Bill Matthews' life. Eleven years ago, Lile conducted an auction at Matthews' central Ohio farm shortly before Matthews sold the property. It was an emotional day for the Matthews family and Lile's first large-scale farm auction, but he was professional and humorous throughout the sale. "He did a great job in a very difficult situation," says Matthews.


During breaks in the auction, the two men would have various conversations, and with Lile being a sports memorabilia enthusiast and Matthews being the head softball coach at Amherst-Steele High School, it was natural that the topic of sports would be covered. When it did, the topic did change, and this got Matthews thinking more positively about the future.


"While we were talking, a thought popped up, 'I bet we could do something like this for the team.'" Thus began the planning phase of the softball program's inaugural steak fry dinner auction, which this year (the 10th) made a profit of more than $6,000.


Matthews explains how the efforts of Lile, softball parents, a butcher with cutlery finesse, connections to national sports organizations, business donations, and the high school's food service staff comprise the fundraiser. Below are the key ingredients for Amherst-Steele's spring steak fry success:


Preplanning. Preparing the steak fry is automatic for Matthews: Call Lile in February to see which dates in April he is available. At the beginning of March, meet with the assistant coaches and the 30 or so family members of his players to discuss the steak fry's itinerary, including the number of donations needed, how to seek donations, and review the menu and volunteer schedules. After the meeting, reserve the local Eagles fraternal order hall and place the order for table and chair rentals. In late March, meet with the high school's food service department about ordering potatoes at bulk rates and kitchen privileges and order the steaks based on turnouts from previous years.


Timing. April is the designated month for the steak fry for three reasons. "We're still in school so more people are in the community, the weather is more inviting, and it's before playoffs begin," Matthews says, whose team is a perennial visitor to post-season play.


Food. The menu for the steak fry is pretty basic, but far from spartan. The team charges diners $20 for potatoes, rolls, a Porter House steak, and beverages. Matthews is particular about his cuts of meat, and the best in the business in Amherst is Polansky's Butcher Shop. The prices are slightly above average, Matthews says, but it's well worth the cost: The butcher cuts the steaks 3/4-inch thick without charging the team for the extra beef.


When it comes to the potatoes, Matthews seeks the assistance of the high school's food service department. Not only can the department get better bulk-rate buys, but the director of the department lets the team bake the 40 pounds of spuds in the kitchen at the team's convenience.


"It's just easier this way," Matthews says. "Because the auction is smack in the middle of the softball season, time is really valuable. It's easier for the coaches and girls to spend an hour-and-a-half the morning of the auction preparing the potatoes in one place equipped to handle these amounts. When everything's done, we pack the potatoes still in their foil, into boxes, load up my truck, and take one trip to the hall. There's very little worrying."


The rolls are bought at a local bulk store and alcohol from a distributor the morning of the auction, bringing the total food bill to $1,900.


Location. Because alcohol is served and the exchanging of money occurs, the steak fry cannot take place on school grounds. Instead, it's held at the Eagles' fraternal order hall, where Matthews is a member and gambling rules are enforced. The team spends just over $800 in rental fees, which includes bartending, use of the kitchen and grill, and clean up services.


"The hall is perfect for our size, too." Matthews says. "We can set up the tables and chairs any way we like and there's still space for people to walk around, Lile and any equipment he brings, and a large area to display the auction goods."


Parents. "The key to our fundraising success is parents," Matthews says. "Parents and other family members are responsible for 90 percent of the auction goods." In addition to donations, parents also perform most of the auction-day duties, including waiting the tables, grilling the steaks, and helping set up the hall. During the March meeting, Matthews asks parents to either seek one donation for the auction or to donate an item themselves.


"We create flyers for parents to give vendors that explain our program's purpose and goals, how the business may donate, and what is acceptable for donation," he says. "Out of 30 families, 25 were able to get more than two items donated, and a handful of those got five or six items donated."


Parents are also the force behind attracting patrons to the event. "A lot of them bring friends to the auction, who end up coming back the next year with their friends, so we really don't need to publicize this much, other than letting people know the date," Matthews says, noting their mentor roles.


"The parents are really supportive about this fundraiser, especially the parents of the older girls. They guide the freshman parents, and after the first time of seeing how things work, the freshman parents get more comfortable doing things."


Connections. Car washes, portrait sittings, hotel stays, gift certificates to area restaurants and entertainment venues are common items donated by businesses. Individual families usually donate sports memorabilia, theme and gift baskets, DVDs, and vacation timeshare packages.


But it's items like the 14-carat gold diamond-sapphire ring offered at this year's event by a jewelry store owned by a freshman player's relative that make the auctions unique, says Matthews. "The neat thing is that donations change each year as we get an influx of new athletes. Families have different sets of connections, so you never know what they can get."


Another unique connection is with equipment refurbisher Mike Molnar, owner of Kohlmeyer Sporting Goods. Molnar has been helping out the softball program for 20 years and does work for the Cleveland Browns and other national sports organizations. For several years now, Matthews has asked Molnar for tickets to the teams' sporting events, and each year Molnar sends Matthews a variety of tickets to auction.


Crowd Control. Turn out for the auction ranges between 200-250 people. This year, the crowd numbered 230—and that's the size the team prefers. "Although I enjoy the community support, it becomes difficult to run a small auction with more than 250 people," he says. "We've found that crowds near 300 get bored easier and you have to plan for additional entertainment. You may not have the time or resources to do that stuff, so 230 is perfect for us."


Bidding. Dinner takes place from 5 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. At 7:46, Lile positions himself on the center stage and "starts his comedy routine," says Matthews, referring to Lile's auctioning technique. He's quick to add that Lile is professional about how he conducts the bidding process and goes out of his way to make sure the crowd is informed about all that takes place—especially when it comes to competitive bids on items such as sporting tickets and autographed softball team jerseys. Both men make sure rules sheets and how-to auction tips are provided at the hall for patrons to read before the start of the auction.


Payment Options. When an item is won, the winner pays for the item by cash, check, or credit card and may take the item home that night. The credit card option was introduced at last year's auction—and its impact has been significant.


"We noticed that more people bid last year than previous years and the same thing happened this year," says Matthews. "People are more comfortable buying some items, like the ring which went for $800, with a credit card and don't have to worry about carrying around a large amount of cash."


Lile sets up the credit card machine and charges a three-percent transaction fee, which is passed on to the winner at the time of payment. "Tim tells everyone this at the beginning of the auction and several more times during the evening, so that everyone is well aware of the extra charge," says Matthews. He notes that the three-percent fee is well below the average 12-percent fee, which he feels further encourages people to use their credit cards.


Reverse Raffles. The auction ends at 10:15 p.m. or when all items are sold. There are two 20-minute intermissions during the auction though, where reverse raffles take place. The raffles at this year's auction brought in $1,200 for the team.


"We actually borrowed this idea from the basketball team," explains Matthews. "We needed something to do to give Tim a chance to catch his breath and grab some water. It also gives people who may have been outbid another chance to win something and a different way to get people to buy something on a smaller scale."


Auctioneer Attitude. "Tim is also important," says Matthews. "Tim has a personality people just love. Two years ago, he had a conflict with our date and we brought in someone else. The other guy was good, but he didn't have the charm that Tim possesses. He keeps everyone on the edge of their seats and the crowd just eats it up."


Post-Auction. After the auction finishes, if any steaks are left over, the team sells them in packages of four for $30. Patrons are invited to stay until closing (midnight), and cleanup begins at 11:30. About a week after the auction, Lile mails the team a check in the amount of the total credit card charges. Expenses are paid over a two-week time period, and money left over goes into the team's bank account.


In all, 70 items were auctioned at the steak fry, bringing in just over $10,000 in two-and-a-half hours, making 2007 Amherst-Steele's second best year.


For more information about Amherst Steele's softball program, visit the team's Web site: www.amherst.k12.oh.us/steele/sports/softball/index.html.





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