By Claire Harlin
Steve Lewandowski’s job is to raise money, but his role is quite different than that of your usual charity coordinator. Instead of the direct mail and fundraising drive tactics many donors are privy to, he relies on his voice, personality and ability to engage an audience — and his unique talents have helped him raised millions for local causes for nearly 25 years.
Lewandowski is a local resident and small insurance business owner of many years in Del Mar, but if you recognize him, it’s likely because he’s been the master of ceremonies or head auctioneer at hundreds of San Diego fundraising events, and he’s also served for decades as the head announcer at the San Diego Polo Club. He’s grossed more than $1 million in several single live auctions and he’s appeared on big networks like ESPN, Fox and Polo TV. His popularity has grown to the point that he has had to turn down events.
“My schedule is so full that I have to say ‘no’ sometimes,” said Lewandowski, who specializes primarily in charity events, but does some voiceover work for TV and radio, as well as an occasional horse auction. He said he is already booking — and filling up — his 2014 calendar.
Lewandowski’s first auction gig was for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, held in 1988 at the Coronado Marriott, and his career came full circle last month when he steered an auction for a Coronado School of the Arts event at that same location.
“After my first event, people who would see me would ask me to do others, and now I’ve done events all over the country,” he said, adding that he’s frequented Washington D.C., Boston, Miami and Los Angeles — and those L.A. events, he said, are particularly fun due to their often star-studded audiences.
But his favorite part of conducting auctions is knowing he’s raising money for a cause, and the causes that Lewandowski — a third-generation serviceman — holds most near and dear are those honoring the military. Just last month, for example, he raised more than $850,000 at the Del Mar Country Club for an annual event benefitting the SEAL-Naval Special Warfare Family Foundation. Rancho Santa Fe philanthropist T. Boone Pickens was in attendance and spiced up the auction by matching winning bids.
“What’s so great about all the events I do is catching good people at their best,” said Lewandowski, who said he does about 35 auctions a year. “They’re having fun and they’re partying and they’re at their very best and wanting to do their best.”
But Lewandowski said he has also seen a number of crazy things happen at auctions over the course of his career — such as having attendees fall down or get out of hand.
“You want them to have some cocktails and get loose with the bidding, but there’s a fine line,” he said. “You don’t want too much. I’ve had people get annihilated; They come up and take the microphone or take the auction item. It’s all about knowing when to play into it and when not to.”