Where some of Warren Buffett’s magic, and money, goes

Warren Buffett knows philanthropy.

He’s pledged to give away more than 99% of his wealth (during his lifetime or after his death) through the Giving Pledge, a program he created with his buddy Bill Gates to encourage the world’s billionaires to donate at least 50% of their wealth to charity.

Buffett also supports a couple of charities with which he has deeply personal connections, and often does so by unconventional means. In particular: auctions. (For Buffett, seeing how these pan out must be half the fun.)

Buffett’s latest charitable endeavor is the sale of a cutting-edge piece of digital art, featuring his likeness and wisdom, to benefit the Omaha chapter of Girls Inc., a non-profit which supports girls.

Much more on that, but first let’s look at these two charitable efforts write large.

You’ve likely heard about the “lunch with Buffett” auctions for a meal with the Oracle at New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. The proceeds from this go to GLIDE, a San Francisco church that is a center for fighting poverty. Buffett’s late wife Susan connected him to GLIDE in 2000, Susan passed away in 2004, and Buffett did these “Power Lunch” auctions for 21 years.

Hedge fund manager Zhao Danyang (L) and his son Zhao Ziyang (age 5 1/2) stand with billionaire investor Warren Buffett after placing the winning bid in a charity auction for lunch with Buffett in New York, June 24, 2009. Buffett, the Omaha, Nebraska-based chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, handed his wallet to the younger Zhao and then whispered him a stock tip as they passed by photographers after completing television interviews at New York's famous steak house, Smith&Wollensky.  REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES BUSINESS SOCIETY)

Hedge fund manager Zhao Danyang (L) and his son Zhao Ziyang (age 5 1/2) stand with billionaire investor Warren Buffett after placing the winning bid in a charity auction for lunch with Buffett in New York, June 24, 2009. REUTERS/ Chip East

The last of these was held two months ago, with the winning bid fetching a cool $19 million. In total, Buffett raised more than $53 million from these auctions, a remarkable haul for GLIDE and, more importantly, for its constituents.

Then there’s Girls Inc., the other beneficiary of Buffett’s auctioning largess, including that digital art piece. girls inc. is also connected to Susan Buffett, as well as his daughter Susie. “We used to gang up on him,” Susie told me.

“I’ve been a supporter of Girls Inc. of Omaha for many years,” Buffett wrote in an email. “This wonderful organization is creating a brighter future for women and girls.”

Buffett’s late wife founded the Girls Inc. predecessor organization in Omaha in the 1970s, and Susie Buffett had been on the national board for many years; Susie’s good friend Roberta Wilhelm is the president of the Omaha chapter.

“My dad’s always been super impressed with Roberta and thinks highly of the organization,” says Susie Buffett. “There’s all kinds of fun connections with Girls Inc. and my dad.” Starting with the upcoming auction.

Later this month, Girls Inc. of Omaha will be selling a Buffett-signed piece of digital artwork created by Motiva, an Israeli company headed Ronen Shiloh. The work is a little difficult to describe — see video here — but basically it’s a digital portrait of Buffett with lettering behind him which lights up, spelling out some of his famous quotes.

The digital art of Warren Buffett being auctioned off for charity.  (Source: Motiva)

The digital art of Warren Buffett being auctioned off for charity. (Source: Motiva)

Susie Buffett tells me a businessman named Danny Moskovitz showed her the piece at Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley conference last year and asked about auctioning it off. “My dad was fine with it,” Susie said. “He just said he would like it to go to Girls Inc.” We’ll check back on August 31st, one day after Buffett’s 92nd birthday, to see how much it fetches.

Though of course, this is just one entry in Buffett’s long-time auction history. You may recall that in 2008, Buffett made a million dollar bet with a hedge fund, wagering that an index fund would outperform the hedgie’s picks over ten years. Buffett won in the end, and in 2018, $2.2 million in proceeds went to Girls Inc.

But wait there’s more!

In 2015, Buffett auctioned off his 2006 Cadillac DTS and raised $122,500 for Girls Inc. of Omaha, or roughly $111,300 more than the car’s estimated value and $49,300 more than he raised when he auctioned off his Lincoln Town Car back in 2006. (Buffett once drove me around Omaha in that Caddy. Let’s just say I’m glad he parted with it.)

Then there was the time back in 2009 that Buffett bought 17 Hilo ukuleles for Girls Inc. Buffett threw in $344.23 and a lesson.

Reuters did a great write up, but here’s my favorite part: “Buffett spent about an hour with 13 girls at the group’s building, trying to teach them the songs ‘Red River Valley’ and ‘Happy Birthday.’ It had to be pointed out to some of the girls who Buffett was.

“After the fact, one girl came to the office and asked, ‘Our ukulele teacher is the second-richest man in the world?’ [Roberta] Wilhelm recalled. ‘And I said that’s true. And she said, ‘The first richest doesn’t play?”

“In fact, the first richest, Bill Gates, does play. Buffett taught him.”

In 1999, Buffett auctioned off his wallet, replete with a stock tip tucked inside to John Morgan, who was on the board of Girls Inc., for $210,000 — which went to Girls Inc.

Morgan had the idea to raise even more money by selling the name of the stock for $1,000, which he did to some 30 people.

Morgan, who’s gone on to be a poker player of some renown, also bought a portrait of Buffett for $100,000, with the proceeds again going to Girls Inc. Morgan later donated the portrait to the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

In 2011, Morgan, bought a childhood home of Buffett’s, and — surprise! — donated it to Girls Inc.

“It was a house Warren lived in when he was pretty young,” says Wilhelm. “There’s a mark on one of the doors where he attempted to hit a sister with a hammer and it left a dent that’s still there today.”

Buffett has also supported Girls Inc. by appearing at its annual charity luncheon, along with the likes of Barack Obama, Desmond Tutu, and Billie Jean King. Then, there was the time Buffett himself spoke.

“My Dad doesn’t do speeches, but this time he did,” says Susie Buffett. “Maya Angelou was supposed to come and she ended up canceling at the very last minute. The girls were devastated.”

Susie marched over to her Dad’s office and “asked” him — in no uncertain terms — to come over right away and speak. “And he did. He spoke all about girls and their potential and how the sky’s the limit. The message for the girls was amazing.”

Speaking of messages, there’s a Buffett quote on the Motiva piece that caught Roberta Wilhelm’s eye.

“‘Women make me optimistic about America,’ that’s our favorite,” Wilhelm says. “But it also speaks about who [Buffett] is and how he feels about women and the potential of young girls. It’s magic.”

Magic — and a little bit of money — have been just the ticket for GLIDE and Girls Inc.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on Saturday, August 6. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 am ET. Subscribe

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