updated 6/21/2009 3:11:06 PM ET 2009-06-21T19:11:06

Last year's winning bid for lunch with legendary investor Warren Buffett topped $2.1 million, but given the economic turmoil, it's questionable this year's bidding will approach that level.

Yet Buffett has built a devoted following, as demonstrated by the crowd of 35,000 people at his recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, and he offers only one lunch per year.

The online bidding begins at $25,000 Sunday in a charity auction that benefits the Glide Foundation, which provides social services to the poor and homeless in San Francisco. The bids will likely escalate significantly before the auction closes Friday evening at 10 p.m. EDT.

Glide's founder, Rev. Cecil Williams, said last year's big bid arrived just in time because demand for Glide's programs jumped roughly 20 percent in the past year with the recession. Glide relies on donations for most of its $17 million budget, so Williams is hoping for another big bid.

"We depend greatly on these people and their bidding," Williams said.

Buffett's late first wife, Susan, introduced the billionaire investor to Williams and the Glide Foundation. Buffett says he enjoys being able to help Glide with the lunch.

Buffett, who is Berkshire's chairman and chief executive, is primarily known for his investing success. Berkshire owns more than 60 subsidiaries including insurance, furniture, clothing, jewelry and candy companies, restaurants, natural gas and corporate jet firms and has major investments in such companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

But Buffett is also known for his philanthropy.

In 2006, he announced his long-term plan to give away the bulk of his roughly $36 billion fortune. Most of his shares of Berkshire stock will go to five charitable foundations, with the largest chunk going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The auction's winner and up to seven friends will lunch with Berkshire's chairman and chief executive. The owners of the Smith and Wollensky restaurant in New York contributed $10,000 to Glide and will again host the lunch.

Last year's winner, Zhao Danyang of the Hong Kong-based Pureheart China Growth Investment Fund, is scheduled to collect his prize by dining with Buffett on Wednesday.

"I am looking forward to enjoying lunch with Warren Buffett," Zhao said. "This is truly the chance of a lifetime."

Last year's winning bid on lunch with Buffett was the most expensive charity item eBay had ever sold.

Previously, the most expensive charity item ever sold on eBay was a letter from Democratic senators blasting conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh for using the phrase "phony soldiers" on his program. The letter signed by 41 senators sold for $2.1 million on eBay in October 2008.

The proceeds from Limbaugh's auction went to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which provides scholarships to children of Marines or federal law enforcement personnel who were killed while serving their country. And he matched the bid.

Buffett has been auctioning off lunches online for seven years but began auctioning the lunches for Glide off-line in 2000.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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