Susan Rockefeller and Toby Usnik in Central Park

Four years ago my friend Toby Usnik, head of corporate communications at Christie’s, came to me with an innovative fundraising idea, one that combined our shared passion for the environment with a visionary business plan that would not only raise a large quantity of funds, but also help generate a high level of awareness around an issue crucial to New York City and beyond—saving the environment.

The first Christie’s Green Auction: Bid to Save the Earth was held on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, in April 2010. We planted a seed that has grown into one of the most successful and inventive environmental fundraisers, attracting the support of the world’s top opinion leaders, philanthropists, celebrities, and activists. Our collaborative efforts have raised nearly $5 million for four leading environmental organizations: Oceana, Central Park Conservancy, Conservation International, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Now, with two auctions behind us and the next on April 11, Toby and I are happy to share the behind-the-scenes story of how we made our Bid to Save the Earth, and our vision for keeping the momentum going.

TOBY USNIK: I love the story of how the Green Auction began, because it goes so far back. Sue wrote a book called Green at Work when she was a career counselor at Stern School of Business at NYU. In that role, she challenged MBA candidates at one of the nation’s leading universities to consider green careers, and her book took the challenge national. In my mind, the roots of the Green Auction go back to that period.

SUSAN ROCKEFELLER: The senior management at Christie’s had a vision to increase awareness about environmental sustainability, and Toby came to me to brainstorm ideas, because I sit on the board of Oceana. We soon found that many people with different board affiliations were willing to come together to try an innovative solution to the complex problems our environment is facing. We have Oceana, the only global organization focused on ocean protection; Central Park Conservancy, with 843 acres of backyard right here in New York City; Conservation International; and Natural Resources Defense Council, which does some of the best work protecting the air, water, and other natural resources. The Green Auction is a fun way to bring people together to celebrate our great city while raising awareness about the work of these organizations that operate tirelessly on our behalf.

TU: Those organizations we have brought together might view each other as competitors for donors’ dollars. In actuality, however, getting them to link arms has made the totality of their impact even greater, because more people are inclined to participate in this, versus having to choose among individual fundraising efforts.

In its two years, the Green Auction has raised almost $5 million. To manage the proceeds we created The Christie’s Charity. The amount each organization receives varies by what each partner’s Fantasy Lot and Paddle Raise generate in the live auction; for the silent auction items, the amount is determined by which lots the individual partner brings in. For example, Oceana has brought in an outing with Bill Clinton, so it will get 70 percent of what the lot generates, and the other 30 percent is divided among the other three partners. Proceeds from all of the lots that Christie’s brings in are divided evenly among the four partners.

SR: This year we chose water as our theme because all four groups are doing programming around it, and because water is crucial to the survival of all living things. If everyone in New York drank water from the tap and eliminated the need to ship water in plastic bottles, which end up creating pollution in our oceans, we would help conserve both energy and water resources. The New York City watershed produces some of the best water in the country. We need to understand that on a global level over a billion people suffer because they don’t have access to water. It’s a matter of being grateful for what we have on a local level, but also understanding, on a global scale, the need for preservation.

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