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Bebo founder drops $1 million at charity auction

Michael Birch, who sold his site to AOL for $850 million, says he'll match all of the proceeds at Monday night's Charity Water benefit.

One of the displays on Monday night for Charity Water, which aims to bring clean water to developing countries by digging new wells. Melanie Aronson for Charity Water

NEW YORK--What's it like to watch a dot-com mogul spend $1 million? Well, it's sort of nice when it's going to a good cause.

On Monday night, at the annual benefit gala for the nonprofit Charity Water, Bebo founder Michael Birch, one of the event's co-hosts along with the likes of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and entrepreneur Sean Parker, made a surprise announcement. Shortly before the event's live auction to solicit donations for new wells, Birch declared that he would personally match all donations up to $1 million.

Charity Water, a favorite cause of the dot-com set, raises money to build wells in developing countries and then tags them with GPS devices so that donors can keep tabs on them in Google Earth.

Birch, who co-founded Bebo with his wife, Xochi, sold the social network to AOL early last year for $850 million. It's a price tag that never made a whole lot of sense, even with AOL's justification that Bebo's strong foothold among youth in the U.K. would help it with international expansion and that Bebo's technology would be the foundation of a new "People Networks" communication division. They also cashed out just in time: had Bebo been sold much later, it would've been more evident that potential buyers should have been conservative about the valuation of any general-interest social network that wasn't Facebook. AOL, now under new management, has more or less put Bebo aside like an expensive Faberge egg that unexpectedly clashes with the furniture.

Michael Birch hasn't announced a new project yet. But he's starting to emerge as an active figure in philanthropy: Charity Water founder Scott Harrison explained to the 1,200 attendees on Monday night that a crucial donation from Birch had kept the organization afloat last year. (It operates on a "100 percent" policy, meaning that all donations, many of which are very small-scale, go directly to building wells, whereas separate benefactors fund the staffing and operations of the nonprofit itself.) Birch also helped with a redesign of the site that lets interested members set up their own fundraising campaigns, encouraging donations in lieu of birthday gifts or as pledges for a goal (i.e. "If you help me raise $10,000 for Charity Water, I will legally change my name to 'McLovin.'")

Birch brought his young daughter, Isabella, onstage to help make the announcement of the matching pledge. While I'm not sure what to think of the idea of a kid announcing to a thousand-plus people just how much money her parents were about to spend, it was awfully cute that Isabella insisted on doing so with a finger drawn to her mouth in the manner of "Austin Powers" villain Dr. Evil.

And, yes, the goal was met: the $1 million was raised via auction in a matter of 30 minutes.