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OMAHA, Neb. — Before billionaire businessman Warren Buffett started auctioning off private lunches to benefit the Glide Foundation, he was skeptical of the San Francisco charity where his first wife was volunteering.
But once Susie Buffett, who died in 2004, showed Warren the work Glide does for the poor and homeless, he was sold on the organization — so much so that he’s raised nearly $16 million since 2000.
“It was one-on-one working with people society had given up on,” Buffett said. “And experience showed society was wrong to give up on those people.”
The 15th annual lunch auction starts today with a $25,000 minimum bid on eBay, and continues until 10:30 p.m. Friday.
The lunch auction has become an important source of money for Glide, which has an $18 million annual budget. Glide’s co-founders, the Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, hope the lunch will draw another seven-figure price tag, but they also appreciate the exposure.
“I think it’s amazing to have Warren Buffett as an advocate,” Mirikitani said. The charity provides meals, health care, job training, rehabilitation and housing support to the poor and homeless.
Last year’s auction winner got a relative bargain by paying $1,000,100. Four of the previous five winners each paid more than $2 million, and the 2012 winning bid of $3,456,789 remains the most expensive charity item ever sold on eBay.
Other charities have used eBay auctions to successfully raise money, such as the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, which has brought in nearly $4 million since 2005.
Buffett is confident this year’s bidding will top 2013 — “I think we’ll beat it by quite a bit” — based on the limits prequalified bidders have set for themselves.
Buffett isn’t quite sure why people are willing to pay so much for a private audience with Berkshire Hathaway’s chairman and CEO, but he gives Glide part of the credit. The lunches typically last several hours, and Buffett tries to make sure the winners are satisfied.
The only limit on the conversation is what he might invest in next, but any other topic is open, including the billionaire’s investing philosophy and his thoughts on philanthropy and inheritance.
“It goes all over the map,” he said.
Traditionally, the winners of the auction dine at Smith and Wollensky steak house in New York City, which donates at least $10,000 to Glide each year to host the lunch. But in some years, the winner wants to remain anonymous so the lunch happens elsewhere.
Buffett’s company owns more than 80 subsidiaries including insurance, furniture, clothing, jewelry and candy companies, restaurants and natural gas and corporate jet firms, and has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co., IBM and Wells Fargo & Co.