Charitable By Design
About 15 years ago, at an annual fundraiser for the Norfolk-based nonprofit ForKids, Vince and Susan Pilato kept whispering the same question to each other: What’s wrong with everybody?
Up for grabs that night: artwork created by children, many of them homeless, who had benefited from ForKids’ social services, along with donated pieces from local artists. “The art was beautiful,” Susan says, “but, on top of that, it had so much meaning – the kids’ stories, how the art was created, the generosity of the artists, all of those things together.”
Many people that night, however, seemed oblivious to the auction. They were talking, laughing, eating and drinking, but they weren’t bidding, at least not at the level Vince and Susan expected. Even when paddles went up, bids tended to stop around $100.
“I felt Vince beside me, kind of tensing up,” says Susan, who co-owns PC&A Business Environments, an interior design firm in Norfolk that counts TowneBank among its clients. “I knew he was irritated.”
When the next piece came up, Vince raised his paddle. Then he raised it again and again, until by the end of the night, he and Susan left with four or five pieces, a larger haul than expected.
“We were there to support the organization,” says Vince, a co-owner of Robert W. Hayes Company, which sells heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment out of Norfolk, Richmond and Roanoke. “We left that night thinking, ‘We can do better.’
A couple hundred dollars here and there? That’s not going to cut it. We have homeless kids to take care of. We need to be raising millions.”
Over the next decade, Vince and Susan played a major role in helping grow the ForKids art auction from an event that raised less than $90,000 in 2005 to one that netted more than $800,000 in 2016. Along the way, they’ve amassed a personal collection – scores of pieces proudly displayed in their home and their offices – that speaks to their fiercely held belief that every child deserves a chance at a good life.
Sitting together in their modern, light-filled home in Norfolk’s Riverpoint neighborhood, the Pilatos engage in the kind of comfortable back-and-forth you’d expect from a couple married 26 years. They finish the other’s sentences, nodding along, patiently reminding each other of forgotten details.
The pair met on a blind date in Norfolk. A friend of Susan’s set them up. When Vince, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, called to confirm the details, Susan thought she might be the victim of a prank. She’d never heard a Southern accent quite that thick. “We went out that night and never stopped talking,” she says. “We haven’t really stopped talking since.”
For all their differences – Vince is the extrovert who gets fired up fast and Susan is more reflective – both were raised in families with strong, clear values and an unshakable emphasis on the importance of fair play.
Susan’s early life was marked by tragedy. When she was 13, her mother died. With her two older siblings already out of the house, Susan and her father, John Compton, were left to “figure out everything together,” she says. “Before that, we really were the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family. Mom did everything.”
Susan learned to cook and help around the house but Compton, who co-owned the Green Gifford Chrysler-Plymouth-Nissan dealership, also encouraged his daughter to spend time at the office and
accompany him to work functions. He took pride in her budding entrepreneurialism. “He knew I wanted to run my own business one day,” she says.
In the late 1990s, when Susan co-owned the retail store Undercover, in Norfolk, a ForKids social worker approached her. A teenage boy was interested in interior design; could he visit the store? The one-day visit soon became a part-time job, and a crash course in life skills.
“When he came in, his head was down and he was just really shy,” Susan says. “We talked to him about shaking hands, looking people in the eye. We fell in love with him immediately.”
The boy became part of the Pilatos’ lives, spending holidays with Susan and Vince and Donna Counts, Susan’s longtime business partner. He also pulled the Pilatos into the ForKids world.
Raising the Bar
Susan had only a vague idea of what the organization did, but as she learned about it and the support services it provides to area homeless families, she became more passionate about advancing the nonprofit’s mission.
The Pilatos knew they could help improve the auction. Susan and Counts offered their professional services, designing the evening’s space to heighten the experience for attendees, and encouraging the group to adopt a theme each year. At the event itself, Susan and Vince committed themselves to driving up donations – sometimes beyond their own comfort level.
In 2005, they spent $1,800 on a painting called Hands Gogh, a cheerful take on van Gogh’s Sunflowers series. In the ForKids version, children’s handprints help make up the flower heads. The painting now hangs in the hallway of their home, a few feet from the playroom of their 11-year-old son, Sam.
In 2008, the Pilatos set an auction record, spending $11,500 on Thinker and Dreamer, a painting created by two children, David and Octavia, that sets two silhouettes against the backdrop of a
colorful neighborhood and includes some of the young artists’ handwritten hopes and dreams (“How I would change Norfolk is by fixing the economy and by making better laws”). Five years later, the
Pilatos broke that record when they paid $15,000 for Heart and Arrow, a sculpture by the artist Matt Fine that incorporated etchings made by children.
The average ForKids art piece now goes for about $9,000, in large part thanks to the Pilatos’ leadership, says Thaler McCormick, the group’s CEO.
“When Vince joined the board, in 2009, he challenged us to not let any children’s art go for less than $3,500,” she says. That year, she watched Vince raise his paddle every time a piece threatened to slip below that threshold. “People kept looking at him that night, thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
His determination paid off. That year, the auction brought in more than $500,000. More important, the higher bids set a new tone for the event: Thousands of dollars, not hundreds, became the norm. “It really changed the whole event,” McCormick says.
Since the inception of the auction, ForKids has featured pieces donated from professional artists, in addition to the children’s work, and for the past five years, the event has included collaborative works
between artists and kids, such as the Fine sculptures. Still, the meaning behind each piece – the back story, the history – often drives the Pilatos more than any single aesthetic choice. (The only art the Pilatos have invested in, other than ForKids pieces and work they bought at Norfolk SPCA auctions, is a LeRoy Neiman signed serigraph that they purchased one year in San Francisco. The painting reminded Susan of her father.)
“The work is beautiful,” Susan says, “and we’ve decided that if we’re going to pay that kind of money, we want it to be invested in our community.”
That’s not to say it’s always been easy for the couple to give. Since becoming involved with ForKids, the Pilatos have faced serious personal struggles – including Vince’s diagnosis in 2000 of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder. He’s feeling healthy now, but the recovery included months of intensive physical therapy. As the owners of two businesses, the Pilatos have had their share of “great years, and not-so-great years,” Susan says.
“There were a few of those auctions where we were going home with more pieces than we wanted,” Vince admits. “But we were not going to let the prices go down.”
Still, Susan and Vince are quick to put their own sacrifice in perspective.
Not long ago, a ForKids staff member briefed the board on a summer camp experience the group provided for area kids. During their time away, the children spent time outdoors and came to life. As they headed home, however, the mood changed. The burden of the kids’ lives returned – caring for siblings, feeling uncertain about where they’d be living, worries about where their next meal might come from. The kids climbed out of the car with something that, to the staff member, looked like dread.
“I get emotional thinking about that,” Vince says. “These kids are no different than our kid. Why shouldn’t they have a chance? That’s all we want: to give these kids a chance.”