Doug Warner: Auctioneer, activist, businessman
He spends a lot of time shouting dollar amounts, in increasing increments, nudging people to spend their money on a good cause.
He didn’t want to be an auctioneer, but fate (and his father) intervened. Now, Doug Warner is licensed to moderate the sale of goods, and he does so on behalf of a host of area nonprofits seeking to raise funds.
Auctioneering isn’t what Warner does for a living, mind you. He does it for free because he can, because he wants to, because it’s his way of giving something back to the community.
He does it because local nonprofits need the help.
He does it to honor the memory of his dad.
By day, Warner is a different kind of fundraiser: Currently, he’s on staff at Darkness to Light as its development director.
In 2010, he trained staff how to do fundraising, got invited to join the organization and committed to a two-year stint. Three years later, he is still there, going strong, exporting some of its successes to other places like Texas.
He’s a determined advocate of preventive action.
Data show that childhood sexual abuse puts victims at greater risk of health problems such as substance abuse, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. It worsens the school dropout rate and too often traps people in a cycle of abuse that’s increasingly difficult to break as victims age. The cost to society is enormous, Warner said.
Perhaps because the subject is often in the news — think of Skip ReVille, Jerry Sandusky or the Catholic sex abuse scandal — people have grown less tolerant of such abhorrent behavior and more inclined to support efforts to stop it.
Darkness to Light raised $1.2 million in charitable contributions this fiscal year, a $450,000 increase over last year, Warner said.
His approach to fundraising is indicative of an attitude that informs his whole life: Charity, he said, is a way to satisfy the philanthropist.
“It’s giving someone with resources the opportunity to achieve his objectives, not giving us (the nonprofit) the opportunity to achieve ours.”
Warner grew up in Elizabethtown, N.C., in the southeastern part of the state, about an hour from the ocean. He called it “a good place to be from.”
One grandfather owned a Piggly Wiggly in town and was mayor for 40 years. The other grandfather and his wife were farmers. Lots of family still live there.
His dad, Wilton McBride Warner Jr., who was called Bud, sold real estate insurance and was an auctioneer.
“Dad was an engaged, deep, connected person who really believed in service to the community and other people,” Warner said. “He treated people nicely.”
Warner said his was an idyllic childhood.
“There is no way (kids today) could grow up the way we did,” he said. “Our parents had no idea where we were most of the time, but that was OK.”
Everybody knew everybody else. The town came replete with a social safety net.
As a boy, Doug Warner would sell boiled peanuts and corn at his father’s auctions. By 12, Warner was working full time each summer at an area marina. It was an expansive territory, a big, safe environment for children and teenagers, he said.
Warner would take out the boat and skirt across the round, clear-water lake to meet friends, grab a bite to eat and hang out.
At Presbyterian College in Clinton, Warner studied business and political science. He thought he wanted to go to law school, he said. The small campus provided him a sense of belonging. Its Presbyterian character was familiar but far enough away from home to allow Warner to begin the process of forging his own path. He assumed leadership roles there, serving as president of the student body and joining the ROTC program.
Calvinist theology includes the doctrine of predestination. Warner stopped short of endorsing it whole-heartedly, but he noted that his college experience provided additional evidence that “you end up where you’re supposed to be.”
For the past seven years, Warner has sustained his ties to his alma mater, serving on its board of trustees. The school’s motto, “Dum vivimus vervimus” — “Where we live we serve” — made an indelible mark on Warner, he said.
Selling a city
After school, he went for Army officer basic course training, then went to work for First Union Bank in Charlotte. He finagled a transfer to Charleston because he loved the city’s history and people, its proximity to water and its overlapping living-working dynamic, he said.
Selling a city
“You end up where you’re supposed to be,” Warner said.
Banking held his attention for a couple of years, but in 1989, he went to work for the Chamber of Commerce. In 1990, he was deployed as a reservist to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. He spent a year running transportation and logistics, helping to load and unload supply ships for a year, before returning to Charleston and continuing with his satisfying work at the chamber.
“It was the best job I ever had, because I was selling this,” he said, gesturing expansively to indicate the whole city. He spent 11 years at the chamber, first as director of sales, then as deputy director.
Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, which once was part of the chamber, said she’s known Warner for 25 years since he first arrived in the Holy City.
“He is one of the most energetic and positive people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” Hill said. “One of the things I treasure about (him) is he’s very quick to identify the positive outlook to problems.”
She said his work with Darkness to Light and his volunteer work as an auctioneer enhance Charleston as a destination, which in turn is good for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“He’s improving the community,” she said.
Occasionally, Warner’s father would come to town to lead an auction for Communities in Schools and other groups. Once, in 1997, he came to do a steeple chase auction and suggested to Doug that he help. The son demurred.
Nevertheless, when Bud Warner finished a round, he made an announcement: “I’ve got great news,” he told the gathering. “Now my son is going to help me.”
Doug Warner muttered something under his breath, then joined his father on stage.
“He sold one, then I sold one. It was really fun.”
After his father died the next year, Doug Warner continued to do volunteer auctions, both to honor his dad and to benefit the community, he said.
It’s common for him to do up to 45 auctions a year. He’s helped raise more than $20 million so far.
In 2000, he left the chamber and started dabbling in real estate, buying lots, building houses, then selling the property for a profit.
The next year, during a vacation in Greece, he met Truman Smith, and soon the two of them were in the throes of a long-distance relationship. Smith, a businessman with a social conscience, lived in Dallas where he worked with a venture capital firm and ran a manufacturing company it owned.
They dated for more than three years before deciding to settle down together in Charleston.
Both Warner and Smith have been active members of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, advocating for gay rights and full inclusion.
“I want gay people to grow up in a world where they don’t have to question, ‘Am I equal, can I have a family, am I like everyone else?’ ” Warner said.
It was his active professional and public life that required him to be more open about his private life, he said. Among his various board memberships, Warner has served on the Log Cabin Republican National Board of Trustees.
Last week, Warner was the auctioneer for his church’s preschool program. The event raised money for The Little School at Grace Church and for the “Home to Grace” capital campaign.
On Tuesday, Warner was at the Daniel Island Club for the Needtobreathe Classic Golf Tournament auction.
“One of the amazing things about Doug is that his work in the nonprofit community crosses every single line,” said Warren Redman-Gress, director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance. “He has one of the most diverse commitments to the nonprofit community.”
When Warner was on the AFFA board, he was never afraid of challenges, Redman-Gress said. “He’s one of those people who says, ‘What’s holding us back from doing this?’ ”
Jane Riley-Gambrell, executive director of the Charleston area’s Communities in Schools, said it was Bud Warner who had presided over the Chocolate Affair auction for several years before his death and that Doug Warner quickly took over.
“He’s fabulous,” Riley-Gambrell said. “He obviously learned it from the master, but he also has it very naturally in him. He knows how to read the crowd. It’s hard work.”
She said Warner’s contributions to the nonprofit community, and by extension to the Charleston region, are priceless.
“I think we all know and respect his talent and his gift as an auctioneer, and his deep affection for the Charleston community,” Riley-Gambrell said. “It’s his gift to the community by supporting so many of us.”