PETER AND JENNIFER BUFFETT
Peter Buffett has an unusual inheritance: the task of giving his father’s money away. He explains how he and his wife Jennifer run their multi-billion-dollar NoVo Foundation to help stop domination and exploitation, and to encourage partnership and collaboration.
How has your father, Warren Buffett, influenced your own philanthropy?
PB: Like the rest of my siblings, I never expected anything financially from my parents. It was always assumed that my father would give his money away. What we didn’t foresee was that he would trust us to give some of his money away. Without my father, and the wealth he created, we certainly wouldn’t be million dollar philanthropists.
But I think he’s also influenced me in other, more surprising ways. When I was a child he would spend hours studying company annual reports and scouring the balance sheets to look for undervalued assets – an investment that the market hadn’t recognised yet. He was certainly very good at spotting such opportunities and investing ahead of the market. I have realised that I’ve adopted this approach, but used it in a different arena. For example, I realised in our thinking around adolescent girls that they are the undervalued asset, and an investment in them will have a high return.
My dad was also extremely hands-off, as a father and as a philanthropist – which is very different to not caring. It’s that he has faith in us and respects our decision-making, which is very empowering. I think I’ve adopted this approach with the Foundation and our grantees. If we’ve made a significant donation to a cause, it’s because we believe in what they are doing and trust them to manage this money. We are partners, they don’t have to ask us permission for how they then use this donation.
How did the NoVo Foundation start?
PB: In the mid-1990s, Jennifer and I were given $100,000 to give away. This was our first experience of philanthropy and we started with smaller community-based donations, many based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where we were living at the time.
Then in 1999 we were given a $10m foundation. This was a far more significant sum, but still small enough so that Jennifer and I could manage it and learn the ropes of philanthropy. Over the next five years, with additional donations and invested returns, the foundation grew to $100m.
The death of my mother in 2004 caused my father to look again at what he wanted to do with his money, and how best to give it away. In June 2006 we were given a billion dollars for philanthropic work. This is when we set up the NoVo Foundation. It’s now worth around $3bn. As we’ve grown, so has the scope of our philanthropy: we started by looking at local community causes, but now also look at international issues.
Can you remember the first major donation you made?
JB: I think the first major gift we gave was to an arts organisation that was reaching out and teaching theatre and music to children from across Milwaukee. It was including communities and groups that had often been segregated and excluded. We were so excited to be able to support the vision they had with a million dollar donation.
Do you tend to make many smaller donations, or fewer large donations?
JB: Primarily we give larger gifts. We can make a bigger difference by making larger grants to fewer organisations. Making a million dollar donation can really drive an issue forward and have a significant and transformative effect on people’s lives.
PB: The money we give is like energy to these organisations. They are the ones doing the important work, and the money we donate enables them to use their energy and their time doing more of this, rather than spending it chasing funds.
I think our approach has changed as the donations we give have gotten larger. We’ve been able to address the root cause of some of the problems we see, rather than simply putting a band-aid over the consequences. We’re not just dealing with the consequences of exploitation, we’re trying to bring about systemic change so that it does not happen in the first place.
Do you agree together on which projects to support, or does one of you take the lead with certain causes?
JB: It is very much a joint enterprise. We are lucky because we share the same values. We have been together for 23 years, far longer than the NoVo Foundation has been in existence, and have spent time thinking and talking about our world view. For example, the imbalance that is created by inequality and exploitation. This has helped inform our philanthropy. We are still learning of course, but learning together.
PB: We have worked with a number of organisations which are trying to end violence against girls and women, and support those who have been affected by this. It is frustrating that sometimes it is assumed that this is Jennifer’s project. It is something we both care passionately about. It is vital that men speak out about violence against women; it is a humanitarian issue, it should never be pigeon-holed as just a women’s issue.
JB: You give a girl an asset and everything changes. She can go to school. Her self-esteem grows. Her value in her family and community is raised. She brings resources home to the family and can send other kids to school or help her parents. So that very quickly changes the life of that girl and those around her. We have visited all kinds of villages and settings where we see that happening. And it’s unbelievable – we see a trajectory that looks really positive.
PB: That idea of people feeling safe and emboldened to tell their story is so much of this - to feel that they have a voice, and that their voice is being heard. That people care when they do speak. One grant that was very meaningful was to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, made up of tomato pickers, who were only asking for a penny more a pound from these retail and fast food giants, whether it be Taco Bell or Wal-mart. Its groundbreaking Fair Food Program also gives assurances that they wouldn’t be sexually harassed or sitting in pesticide-laced water while they picked. This initiative took them a long time to accomplish, and they did it without a lot of funding. Our initial grants of $100,000 were some of its largest, and we are so glad to have since given a much larger and longer-term grant to them. But the point is that you could actually talk to these people and hear about these very specific changes that were happening because of this consistent work on the ground.
The most powerful thing I can think of off the top of my head that was absolutely first hand was going to an organisation in Harlem, GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), which is survivor-led, which is also interesting. We try our best to find organisations that are run by people who know what’s happening first hand, that are constituency-based. So when you’re in a room with 10 girls who have just put a timeline together of their lives from birth to 18 and read about and realise what these girls have experienced, it is overwhelming. And then one of the girls gets up and tells her story first-hand, where she was, what she experienced, how she got through it, how the organisation helped her, what her life is like now, where her life is going. It’s unbelievable. Because then you really have in your neighbourhood a very palpable first-hand story of transformation.
With such large donations, how do you monitor the impact that your money makes?
PB: One of the biggest gifts someone could make to the world would be to have a standardised and consistent form of reporting! We are conscious that we don’t want to burden the organisations with endless reports and paperwork, where they have to justify to different donors, in different formats, how they are spending every penny.
We want to neutralise the power dynamic; the fact is that the people with money tend to have the power. As such, we like to work as partners with our grantees, and to try to be supportive. We’ve given this money because we believe in what they are trying to do and we trust them. That said, it’s fantastic when we can hear and see first-hand the difference these organisations can make.
Do you collaborate with other philanthropists?
PB: We’ve collaborated with a range of different organisations, from Nike to government agencies. Philanthropists and funders can learn from each other, to help broaden the funding base or to raise awareness of certain issues. It’s important to learn from others, learn about the reality of life for most people on the planet.
JB: The biggest collaboration we have done was the Nike Foundation. And that was huge. It was a corporate foundation collaborating with us. The issue of girls is so buried, so misunderstood, so hidden – and this would be an unusual partnership in bringing so many assets to something so big – that we thought ‘we just have to do this’.
We invited a group of funders to learn with us about sex trafficking in India and prostitution. It was all funders who were sympathetic to the cause of women and girls; some funders who already knew some of the background on these issues, and some who didn’t know anything.
I think learning trips create a space for funders to learn from other funders who may know a bit more. And that learning is so important for philanthropists because I think so many people aren’t philanthropic because they haven’t been taught how to be or been guided to that work. So if you have trepidation or something is unknown, you don’t want to lean into that. It’s great when you can be passionate about a cause and have other philanthropists come join you. I think it’s an important role we play.
Having a lot of money can wall you away from the real world. It’s important to learn how others live and how you can help. I think that’s why it’s important to collaborate with others. I think there’s a danger that philanthropy can just be a big ego trip, or you get people giving money to the same kind of groups that helped them make money in the first place. It becomes more about you, rather than freeing up money and resources to help others.
Why do you choose to give through foundations, rather than as individuals?
PB: Our situation is such a bizarre one. We didn’t choose to be philanthropists – it was chosen for us. And we are humbled by the responsibility and the opportunity this gives us. It was structured to do this through a foundation. People sometimes think we are billionaires because of my father’s wealth and treat us accordingly, which can be a little strange. In many respects we are just typical mid-Westerners who have been afforded this amazing opportunity to do some good.
What advice would you give to others considering philanthropy?
PB: If they have the capacity to give, particularly at a transformative level, I’d just ask them what else they planned to do with this money. I get frustrated thinking about what people are doing with their money – their wealth running into hundreds of millions of dollars – when it could be put to such good use.
My dad has (jokingly) said that perhaps he should write a book on how to live on $500m dollars that would persuade people in the billion dollar wealth bracket to give half of it away. I think they’d still live pretty comfortably on $250m!
JB: I think people need to get out in communities and see reality. One of the things money can do is wall you away from the real world. And that is dangerous.
PB: Doing the inner work to prepare for giving, and giving well, is important. We’ve been together 23 years and we learned a lot about each other just in the past four years when we dived in further and committed ourselves to working together.
JB: Philanthropy is such an extension of your entire life, whether you’re aware of that or not. We just really value understanding our motivations, our biographies and everything that has shaped our world view. I think values are so important, but I would also add vision. I think it’s so important to have an understanding of your story as a protagonist in relationship to the world, and how you fit in the world and what’s happening in the world as well. We talk all the time about history. We’re part of a much bigger story and a much bigger context. I think being self-reflective and not being afraid is key, because your wounds, your limitations, everything is going to come out in your philanthropy.