The old adage is still true: It's not what you know, it's who you know. But let's update it just a bit: It's not just who you know, it's when you know them--and better to know them when they're overnight multi-millionaires.
Anthony Kennedy Shriver invited a few pals to the 11th annual Best Buddies Ball Saturday night in McLean: America Online Studio head (and Washington Capitals owner) Ted Leonsis, U.S. Office Products founder (and a Capitals owner, also) Jonathan Ledecky, Proxicom CEO Raul Fernandez. These new moguls, in turn, invited more of their pals from Northern Virginia's high-tech world, new to the world of philanthropy. Lots of people make money, but you've got to give some away to mingle with the likes of Muhammad Ali, who was honored at the dinner.
"I think a lot of being successful in this country is being in the right place at the right time," said Shriver. "You do the right thing, it brings you together with the right people."
The right people, in this case, were hundreds of young business lions who gathered at Hickory Hill, the Northern Virginia homestead of Ethel Kennedy. "Could I have 900 people over for dinner?" Shriver asked his aunt, who agreed to open her home for the black-tie fund-raiser.
The setting provided a heavy dose of Kennedy glamour and guaranteed a high turnout from the famous clan. Eunice and Sargent Shriver greeted guests in the tiny reception room near the door. Son Tim Shriver arrived wearing a tuxedo shirt with the Best Buddies logo painted on the front. Ted Kennedy raced in to hug nieces and nephews, praise the Buddies and extol the virtues of the Internet. ("We call him 'Senator New Media,' " teased Leonsis, punching the Massachusetts Democrat playfully on the arm. "He is so online, it's scary.") Even Ethel's pooch, Rabble Rouser, got into the act, working the crowd for pats and kisses.
Anthony Shriver, 34, founded Best Buddies in 1989 while a student at Georgetown University. The nonprofit organization, which matches the mentally retarded with high school, college and professional mentors, now boasts 500 chapters in this country and overseas.
When Shriver began fund-raising for it a decade ago, he turned to his family and close friends. The Kennedy name and outreach were unmatched, but the vast majority of donors were members of his parents' generation and political circles. "We had an established, older crowd," Shriver said. But Saturday night's take--a record $750,000--was largely thanks to money from thirty-something new millionaires.
On Friday, President Clinton hosted a White House Conference on Philanthropy to encourage new Gatsbys to give to charities. Last year, Americans donated about $175 billion (approximately 2 percent of the gross domestic product); Clinton wants it to be higher, and invited AOL head Steve Case to lead the drive.
Best Buddies has already tapped into the high-tech crowd using Shriver's name, connections and his legions of plugged-in student volunteers. The donors, said Shriver, "think what we're doing is very young and cutting-age. It's their demographic and it's our demographic."
So the top sponsors for the dinner--the Ledecky Foundation, America Online, Tutornet.com, ClearData, Coca-Cola, Gap, Joan Kroc, Ted and Lynn Leonsis, Proxicom and Tiffany--showed a heavy high-tech quotient (last month Leonsis launched "E-Buddies," linking AOL subscribers to Best Buddies online), and the rest of the list was filled with companies from up and down Northern Virginia's high-tech corridor.
The connections became clear when Ledecky took the stage: His foundation donated more than $100,000 to underwrite the dinner. He met Shriver through a mutual friend in Florida and then was introduced to Leonsis when they chaired the event last year. "We didn't meet until we had our picture taken with Carl Lewis," Ledecky said. That photo op led to a breakfast meeting, which led to a deal to become the new owners of the Capitals.
Turns out the quality of mercy was good business. "I really like people who take their civic and charitable efforts seriously," said Leonsis. "I saw Jon in a different light. You see him here, he's not talking business, he's not doing deals."
The ripple effect continued.
Lynn Leonsis agreed to chair this year's gala, and her husband bought three tables and called his buddies--Mario Morino, the General Atlantic Partners, among others--to pitch in a few thousand bucks. Then he turned to Fernandez, whose company went public last year and made a not-so-small fortune, and asked him to co-chair. "We went, 'Tag, you're it,' " said Leonsis. "This is viral marketing."
What could he do? Fernandez agreed and brought in his network of business pals. The dinner sold out, the tent was expanded, and sold out yet again.
And so a stream of Town Cars made its way along the little two-lane street in front of Hickory Hill Saturday night, causing massive limo-lock. Guests filtered through the house, sipping wine and staring at Kennedy family photos, before heading down to two huge tents erected on the sprawling side lawn.
The full moon shone down on the clear sides of the dinner tent, which was a tad chilly despite the piped-in heat. "Access Hollywood" hosts Pat O'Brien and Nancy O'Dell headed the glitz list, which included actors Fred Savage and Tom Arnold, "American Pie" teen star Thomas Ian Nicholas, and "Ally McBeal" roommate Lisa Nicole Carson.
Each table was adorned with a miniature boxing ring of white roses with butterflies floating above. Guests flocked to the table where "The Greatest" patiently posed for pictures all night long.
Ledecky began a chant from the stage: "Ali, Ali, Ali . . . " and the former heavyweight champ received the only unsolicited standing ovation of the evening. Ali's wife thanked the crowd, then the boxing legend leaned into the microphone.
"I'm very happy; I'm glad to be here," he said, his voice barely understandable. Ali, who has Parkinson's disease, said he wished it were possible to meet everybody in person, then finished: "Thank you. God bless you. Good luck."
The highlight of a live auction was four gloves autographed by Ali that were sold for $5,000 each.
"I've seen them go cheaper at silent auctions," said one guest.
"No, these are going to triple in value when he's named athlete of the century," said another.
By the time the Pointer Sisters hit the stage, the tent was chillier and the dance floor resembled a high-tech mosh pit. Departing guests, clutching their Gap goodie backpacks, encountered a 45-minute wait to retrieve their cars from the valet.
Ah, but those are minor quibbles to be tackled by next year's co-chairs. Leonsis has his eye on MicroStrategy's baby billionaire, Michael Saylor, who was a mere guest this time around.
"It's his turn," said Leonsis. "Michael, we're coming to get you."