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IfOnly.com grants unique experiences for charity

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 12:10 a.m.

Sure, you could buy that flat-screen TV or logo-studded designer handbag. But wouldn't it be a bit more exciting to have a private dinner cooked for you by celebrated chef Tyler Florence?

San Francisco tech entrepreneur Trevor Traina certainly thinks so, which is why he's launched IfOnly.com, a website where you can buy encounters with stars in the culinary, sports and entertainment world, with part of the proceeds going to charity. The recently launched site has already seen more than $500,000 in donations to charity.

Traina's emporium of experiences come at all price levels, from a modest $35 for a Twitter follow-back from Food Network star Chef Michael Chiarello to $48,000 to have Florence help you design a dream kitchen. Bonus: He'll cook you a celebratory dinner in it when it's done.

And, it also boasts an impressive depth of talent. A well-known figure in San Francisco Bay area business and social circles, Traina and his wife, Alexis Swanson Traina, creative director at the Napa Valley's Swanson Vineyards, are actively involved in the worlds of wine and food, fashion, sports and philanthropy.

Traina sees the website tying into two trends. On one hand, he sees a rising sense that money spent on an experience can be more satisfying than acquiring yet another luxury good, something partially brought on by the recession. Meanwhile, the link between fans and the famous has grown stronger, fostered by social media and reality shows.

“Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and cable TV, we've been let into the lives of many of the top luminaries, but we've still not been allowed into their living room or their kitchen or wherever they work,” says Traina. “What IfOnly is doing is bridging that last bit of the gap.”

The IfOnly model taps into a growing — though still small — trend of online giving, says Steve MacLaughlin, a fundraising expert with Blackbaud, a Charleston, S.C.-based company that provides software and other solutions to nonprofits seeking to raise funds. He's also noticed a shift toward experience-based fundraising, such as touring a nature preserve with a naturalist. “I think people are gravitating toward those types of things over the more material stuff because those experiences are unique and you can't get them just anywhere,” he says.

Experiences offered range from going shopping at a farmers market with a chef to getting an autographed cookbook. In other fields, items that have been offered include a private quarterback camp with former San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana (you have to ask for a quote on that one) or a pair of signed, game-worn shoes from Kobe Bryant ($8,000).

And it's not all big-ticket stuff. For $35, you can get a hand-signed guitar pick from Stephen Jenkins, lead guitarist for the group Third Eye Blind.

Though many of the people on the site (Traina calls them “luminaries”) are on TV and instantly recognizable, others are more specialized and famous only in particular circles; Traina would like to add more people who might not fit the conventional definition of celebrity but who are extraordinary nonetheless.

Stars who participate in the experience are required to donate at least 10 percent of the experience fee to a charity of their choice, although most donate closer to 70 percent, Traina says.

Michelle Locke is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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