In a stunning end to The 2019 Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions Tuesday night, Bodo’s Lunch of Champions with Tony Bennett went for $54,000. In fact, thanks to Bennett’s post-auction generosity in offering a second experience, not one but two winning bidders each donated $54,000 for the experience, which includes a one-hour Bodo’s lunch with Bennett in his office. $108,000 to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
To these eye-popping expenditures, an all-to-easy response is “Must be nice!” Or, more judgmentally: “Who on earth would spend that kind of money for an hour of time with someone?”
In today’s world of X-characters-or-less social media and serotonin hucksters posing as TV “news,” passing judgment has become a national sport. In most cases, though, if you pause to reserve judgment, reflect, and dig a little deeper, rash judgments change. Here, nothing about the auction winners warrants opprobrium. Quite the opposite.
Meet the Winners: Like Kind
Though from different parts of the country, the two winners of the Lunch of Champions have remarkably similar biographies. Both are UVa graduates who moved away from Charlottesville and became very successful businessmen, one in private equity the other in real estate development. Having acquired more wealth than they need, they are both also active philanthropists, focused primarily on giving back to the communities in which they now live. They also share a fondness for Charlottesville, and, though they do not know each other, separately explained that, because of their connection to the area through UVa, they had been looking for opportunities to support Charlottesville as well. “I do a lot for the homeless where I live,” said one winning bidder. “And I really care about Charlottesville, too, but I had never done anything down there.”
As for the other bidder, let him explain:
My passion for philanthropy started when I was a student at UVa, volunteering with Madison House in their Housing Improvement Project program. I saw the impact it had on the families who were going to become homeowners. It has evolved over the years, but it started at UVa and I consider it part of the well-rounded education I received there. It also established my angle on non-profit work, which is to support organizations that are responding to basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) and that provide a hand-up as opposed to a handout . . .
Though I have been away for several years, the Charlottesville area is near and dear to my heart, and what BRAFB does fits the bill of what I like to support. It was very clear to me that BRAFB is a very well-run operation in terms of metrics and impact.
True, both winners are big fans of UVa men’s basketball, too. In particular they are believers in Coach Tony Bennett and the five pillars on which his program stands: humility, passion, unity, thankfulness, and, perhaps most of all, servanthood. As one winner explained:
Tony Bennett is a true asset to the Charlottesville community and not just because he wins basketball games. He is guided by values first, and it shows in how he runs his basketball program and mentors his athletes. The fact that he was willing to donate his time tells you all you need to know. In a way, this was my way to celebrate not only what his team accomplished in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, but to celebrate all that he does for the UVa and greater Charlottesville community.
And so, when these two bidders stumbled across The Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions, they saw a perfect fit: an organization that feeds the hungry of the city they love and a chance to support a fundraising effort by a man they consider the greatest college basketball coach in the country. One further allure, they said, was the auctions themselves. “You have created something from scratch and organized a major production,” one winner said. “Spectacular.”
While most of the auctions in The Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions were conducted entirely by email, Bodo’s Lunch of Champions was different. After a month of email bidding, the Bodo’s auction was one of the several big tickets items to end with live bidding at Prime 109’s Celebration of Restaurants. Bidders who were unable to attend but still interested in bidding were offered the chance to bid by proxy. All they would need to do, I told them, is provide a maximum bid and I would assign a proxy bidder at the event to bid on their behalf up to that maximum.
Most remote bidders followed this approach: they set a maximum bid and I assigned someone to bid on their behalf. But, the two eventual winners of the Bodo’s auction requested something different: the opportunity to participate by phone. One of the eventual winners emailed that his maximum bid would be $30,000, but added: “If it’s no hassle to have someone on the phone with me when the auction starts, I am willing to do that.” The other winner’s maximum was slightly lower. “I’ll go up to $24,000,” he wrote. “If it gets there, can you call me to see if I want to keep going? Outside chance I push a little higher.”
And so, for live bidding, I arranged for two trusted friends to be on the phone with the bidders who eventually won. A third friend was on the phone with an eventual runner-up.
Entering live bidding, the leading bid was $12,300. In increments primarily of $1,000, the remote bidders drove the bid higher and higher. $15,000. Then $16,000. Then $17,000. When it reached $22,000, I thought to myself “Let’s speed this up.” With The Charlottesville “29” in mind, I asked “Can I get $29,000?”. No one bit. Instead, we resumed a gradual climb, $1,000 at a time. Because of the food bank’s efficiency, each $1,000 increase meant 4,000 more meals for the area’s hungry.
Eventually, the bid soared passed the pre-set maximum bids for each bidder, and reached an amazing $50,000. Along the way, bidders and spectators alike asked if both of the leading bidders could win, doubling the benefit for our area’s hungry. “Let’s do two!” they said. Without authority to agree, I had no choice but to decline. When the bid reached $54,000, though, the two remaining bidders renewed their inquiry about doing two experiences – one for each of them. I again responded that I could not offer two myself, but would try to find out if it would be possible.
What motivated the bidders to sail past their prior maximum bids? “I realized the bidding was raising a lot of incremental money for a very good cause,” one bidder explained. “If I had won, that would obviously have been great, but even in defeat I knew I would have helped raise the bid and produce a better outcome for BRAFB. That’s a silver lining I could live with.”
For the other bidder, surpassing $50K was no accident. The bidder helps to manage and invest funds in a foundation his family created to support charitable causes. In turn, the bidder is allowed the freedom to decide which charities to support with any profits his investments yield. As it turns out, just last week he closed on a deal for the foundation, yielding $51,000. The bidder had this amount in mind during the live auction, as the bids climbed higher and approached $50,000.
Once the $51,000 number was surpassed, the bidder thought he would need to drop out. Fortunately, in the nick of time, his opponent offered a compromise, through their onsite proxies: “if they cannot do two experiences, let’s make a joint bid for $60,000, and we can share the experience.” Both bidders agreed, and the tentative winning bid was a joint $60,000.
The next morning, when Bennett learned of the bidding and the opportunity to do a second experience, he gladly offered one. You know, because he’s Tony Bennett.
In Defense of Generosity
One final commonality between the two winning bidders was their preference to remain anonymous – choosing generosity over notoriety. “I don’t like making these things about me,” one bidder explained. “It is more about the food bank, the work they are doing, and how gracious Tony has been to get involved.”
And so, this was not two hot-shots “wasting” $54,000 on one hour of someone’s time or for glory. Rather, it was two successful UVa graduates seeking a way to give back to Charlottesville, when they happened to come across The 2019 Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions. One learned of the auctions in a text message from a friend. Another saw the auctions on a friend’s Facebook post. As a result, thanks to the generosity of Bodo’s, Tony Bennett, and the two bidders, $108,000 has come from elsewhere in the country to help feed Charlottesville’s hungry. That’s 432,000 meals for our area’s hungry. As another result, while the food bank’s Director of Development watched it all unfold, tears of joy flowed down her face.
Thank goodness for generosity.