SBJ/May 27-June 2, 2013/In Depth

Building a little Buzz for charitable causes

CharityBuzz earned headlines in mid-May when it auctioned off a one-hour lunch with Apple CEO Tim Cook for $610,000, with proceeds benefiting the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The stories, however, focused primarily on the enormous selling price and not the auction website’s innovative business model.

Started in 2005 by Coppy Holzman, a veteran of charities and e-commerce, CharityBuzz has become the proverbial eBay for the online community of socially engaged philanthropists.

Once-in-a-lifetime experiences are up for bid on CharityBuzz.
Celebrities from politics, entertainment and sports provide meet-and-greets, memorabilia and other behind-the scenes offerings to be auctioned for specific charities. CharityBuzz promotes the opportunities to its network of 80,000 buyers through regular emails and social media updates. The website gets approximately half a million unique visitors a month, Holzman said. It then oversees the auctions and the transactions, and takes a 20 percent fee for each sale.

“We have the largest community of philanthropists anywhere on the planet, period,” Holzman said. “Nobody else has tens of thousands of people who will pay top dollar for these opportunities because they know the money is going to charity.”

According to James Robinson of Alliance Marketing Partners, the marketing agency for CharityBuzz, the website has generated approximately $80 million in total fundraising.

Sports plays an important role for the business. Holzman’s first auction was for a golf outing with former President Bill Clinton and actor Chevy Chase. The second auction was a tennis lesson from John McEnroe. Today, a quarter of CharityBuzz’s total fundraising comes from sports auctions, such as pitching lessons from CC Sabathia or even a speaking role in the upcoming film about boxer Roberto Duran. Sports memorabilia and premium tickets are also popular auction items.

A quick perusal of the website shows jerseys and baseball bats used by the 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, dugout box seats for an Arizona Diamondbacks game, and a signed Tony Hawk skateboard.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has donated a pregame opportunity to meet the coach on the field prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 22. The winning bidder will then watch the game from a suite at Gillette Stadium. The New York Yankees had offered the opportunity to watch the July 8 game against the Kansas City Royals from the Legends Suite.

Sports sponsors play a big role as well, sometimes offering up inventory or access from their partnerships to raise money for charity. For example, McDonald’s donated a meet and greet with Kentucky coach John Calipari and a courtside seat, with the money raised going to Ronald McDonald House. Cadillac auctioned off some of its Super Bowl packages to benefit the Detroit public schools.

The current push by CharityBuzz is to sign partnerships for regular charity offerings in the sports industry. It has already signed deals with Madison Square Garden, the Tiger Woods Foundation, tennis stars McEnroe and Chris Evert, the NFL’s Justin Tuck and retired Yankees catcher Jorge Posada.

The star power of the athletes, Holzman said, drives new bidders into CharityBuzz’s website, and the bidders are then enlisted into the company’s email chain and social media network. According to Holzman, the model has helped the company increase revenue 40 percent year over year.

CharityBuzz started in 2007 out of Holzman’s spare bedroom. Today, he has 40 employees and offices in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Said Holzman, “We want to disrupt how charity works.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.
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