The annual springtime fundraising auction at Hill-Murray school is as much social event as it is an auction. There's a cocktail hour, silent auction bidding, a live auction and even a gourmet dinner for attendees.

But in a bad economy, for a school with 14,000 alumni all over the world, the school decided to add something different, something that is not quite as social: an online auction.

"I think it's time to go online," said Mary Mathson, who is development officer at Hill-Murray School in St. Paul. The school, which had about 200 auction items at its social event, also put seven items online this year and brought in $2,500 on its first auction venture on the Internet. "So many people do so much shopping on the Internet."

Minnesota's private schools have used springtime auctions at annual benefits to raise money for decades. The money helps schools do everything from offer financial aid to improve technology, and fills holes in school budgets.

But more and more of Minnesota's private schools are turning to the Internet to run the auctions that bring a considerable chunk of fundraising money every year. Most of the schools still hold annual galas, with a few items for a live auction, but many are conducting the bulk of their auctions online.

To date, at cMarket, one of the sites that schools use, Minnesota schools have raised $279,000 in recent years.

"More people are looking online for everything," said Julie Coskran, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Independent Schools. "I think the schools are meeting the needs of the time."

Other Minnesota private schools that use online auctions to supplement their annual benefits include Breck, Blake, Lake Country School and Cedarcrest Academy. Breck's first auction last year raised more than $90,000; the school brought in $52,800 this year.

Online auctions run by private schools are often run in a private marketplace that community members can access. Grandparents, out-of-town alumni and parents too busy to make it to the annual benefit, can all bid during the online auction.

Other auction sites also offer a school's items on a wider marketplace open to members of the public that want to bid on items from the nonprofits.

"We were happy this year to see that we did have some bids from alumni and parents of the alumni who don't live in the Twin Cities," said Barbara Brown, Breck's development director.

Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, a school that provides Jewish education to students after school or on Sundays, decided to run its first online auction last year.

The school made $14,000 in its first online auction, compared with $12,000 the year before. This year, it made almost $10,000.

"In this economy," said Randi Wolfish, the director of development at the school, "the more ways we can reach out to access donations, the better off we are."

While online auction sites can't guarantee that schools will make more than in past years, since every auction offers different items, "we're really confident that it does better than you would do otherwise," said Jon Carson, CEO of cMarket.

The site collects data from all of the auctions it runs, and can offer schools statistics on what has the best chance of selling: A vacation getaway worth more than $2,500 sells at an 82 percent rate, whereas low-end travel worth less than $200, such as a getaway to a nearby inn, sells at a 96 percent rate.

Some schools were concerned that the online format would turn off bidders who are not technology friendly.

"Most schools worry that they'll alienate people that really don't consider the computer to be their friend," said Cathy McLane, marketing and communications director for The Blake School.

Blake, which used the site, held gatherings for parents to teach them how to use the system, and "to help them get over reservations or concerns about security or unfamiliarly with online technology," McLane said.

The school says the site has had a positive impact.

"It just opened up the door, wide, to family and friends and people who can't make the event but want to contribute," McLane said.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460