Charity demands charm

Separating millionaires from their cash is an art

“Asking people for cash,” says veteran auctioneer David Reynolds. “It’s my favorite thing to do.”

It may not be your idea of a good time, but odds are he’s targeting you. With public funding in freefall across the board, charitable organizations auction everything from Mariah Carey’s diamond anklet to Labradoodle puppies in hopes of raising coin.

“There are three charity auctions a night in Los Angeles,” says Sandra Rapke, whose own philanthropy includes co-founding the L’Affaire Divine Dinner to benefit the Bogart Pediatric Cancer Research Program.

From United Friends of the Children to Adopt-A-Landmine, charity auctions are a kinder, gentler way to approach L.A.’s affluent, who are hit up with the ferocity of the surf crashing on Carbon Beach.

“I know of two people with a net worth of $100 million who left their private schools because they felt like they were being strongarmed,” says journalist and screenwriter Christian Williams, whose own children attend St. Matthew’s Parish School (which is not, he hastens to add, one of the schools in question.) “They sit down to discuss what your donation is going to be and the head fundraiser’s finger is lying on a line. You think you’ll give $10,000 and it lands on $2 million.”

By comparison, offering four floor seats to a Lakers game or a trip to the Seychelles is a more benevolent method of separating millionaires from their money — especially when there’s a friendly and familiar face behind the gavel.

“Ann Colgin was the wine auctioneer for Sotheby’s,” Rapke says of the cult winemaker and her dinner’s co-chair, who also oversaw the evening’s live auction last month. “So she knows most of the people. She gets in their faces — ‘Don’t look at your husband, look at me! Don’t hide behind your wife!’ ”

However, familiarity has its limits. Reynolds, whose San Francisco-based Reynolds & Buckley consults on hundreds of fundraising auctions each year, says celebrities aren’t auctioneers. “It makes a little more sense than hiring the guy on ‘ER’ to do your brain surgery.”

Sharon Stone might disagree, as does Williams. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a better cabaret experience,” he says of watching Tom Hanks and Glenn Frye host St. Matthew’s annual fundraising auction. “They make people feel really good about their public giving. This environment makes it possible to accept that the guy next to you is really rich and that you’re a Bowery bum.”

Event organizers say a small handful of auction winners resemble that remark. Some are so well-heeled that winning a Napa weekend is nothing more than a charitable donation; others fail to pay for the items they’ve won.

“It doesn’t happen often,” says Rapke. “We know where they live.”

And there’s no faster way to annoy a philanthropist than to plead poverty.

“Don’t get me started,” says Barbara Casey. To support the third annual Malibu Global Awareness/Doctors Without Borders gala last month, the auction’s items included a week in her family’s Jackson Hole, Wyo., vacation home; she also provided PR through her firm, Casey Sayre & Williams.

Her work was pro bono, but a few guests thought their dinner tickets should fall in the same category.

“There are certain people who think their names alone are worth something,” she says. “And I think there was a newspaper ‘photographer’ who came without a camera.”

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