Twenty years ago, business and philanthropy icon Warren Buffett began a unique charitable tradition by allowing people to bid for the chance to “power lunch” with him. The first winner was an entrepreneur named Pete Budlong who paid $25,000 in 2000. Then in 2003, the fundraiser switched from a live event to an eBay auction. In 2018, the most recent winner was anonymous and spent just over $3.3 million.
All told, the Oracle of Omaha’s power-lunch promotion has raised more than $30 million, making it probably one of the best appreciating assets in the charity world. The money goes to the San Francisco-based nonprofit GLIDE, which works to battle poverty, homelessness, and marginalization through social justice and spiritual community work.
That total will go up again substantially when bidding for the 2019 event wraps at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday, on May 31. With 12 hours to go, the auction had already set a new record-breaking total by cresting the $3.5 million mark. eBay declined to release the total number of bidders participating, but some parts of the process are publicly visible. The auction started at $25,000 and reached $3.5 million after just 13 bids. (There’s also a prequalification process to participate, guaranteeing those bidding can actually shell out the contribution.)
This year’s winner can join Buffett alongside seven of their friends at his classic spot, New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. “I like backing the right people,” Buffett added in a press release, about why he continues to do this. “There’s nothing like backing winners and helping people become winners.”
The initial concept was dreamed up by Susan Buffett, Warren’s late wife, who was a director at Berkshire Hathaway and the former president of the Buffett Foundation. In 2000, she was living in San Francisco and volunteering for GLIDE while attending their community-building events. “She came up with the idea of auctioning off a lunch with Warren Buffett and offering it during a GLIDE fundraising event in San Francisco called Soul of The City,” the company says in a statement. “The top bid for those lunches were $25,000. In 2003, Mr. Buffett suggested that eBay host the auction, which then grew tenfold to $250,000. By 2008, the auction had a $2 million-bidder for lunch with Warren.”
One of the benefits of eBay is that bidding is now global. Several recent winners have remained anonymous, but the list includes people from China, Singapore, and Canada. The last identified winner was Zhu Ye, chief executive at a Dalian Zeus Entertainment, a gaming company in China. In 2015, Ye paid $2,345,678 and gained a ton of exposure.
Philanthropic auctions are just one part of eBay’s nonprofit eBay for Charity efforts. Its platform allows everyday sellers to share some or all of their proceeds with specific charities. Buyers can also add in their own donations for various groups as they check out. More than 66,000 charities now participate with the combined efforts, raising $912 million overall since 2003.
Buffett’s lunch auction is the biggest single fundraiser by far on the platform. In 2018, the runner-up was George Clooney’s Harley Davidson, which sold for nearly $50,000 to support the veteran’s assistance organization Homes For Our Troops. A two-person “pitch lunch” with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban came in third. It raised just over $40,000 as part of an eBay partnership with ESPN to support the V Foundation against cancer.
“With the power of the eBay for Charity platform, we’ve been able to reach millions of people,” the company adds in a statement. “And each year, not only are we seeing repeat bidders, but we’re also attracting new bidders each auction who are looking to receive timeless advice from Mr. Buffett.”