Grace: Peter Buffett thinks charitable giving can do better -
Published Monday, August 5, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 3:20 pm
Grace: Peter Buffett thinks charitable giving can do better

Here's what happens when your last name is Buffett and you criticize charitable giving by the super-rich on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Your Twitter feed, which you never really cared about before, explodes. An avalanche of email hits. The blogosphere reacts with people praising you for exposing the unintended consequences of the wealthy giving to causes they may not understand and with people criticizing you for making it sound like giving to charity is pointless and self-serving.

“I wanted to start a conversation,” Peter Buffett explains to me a few days after the Times published his essay, titled “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.”

Did he ever.

The 55-year-old winner of a regional Emmy Award and resident of upstate New York is the youngest of Warren Buffett's three children. Like siblings Howard of Decatur, Ill., and Susie of Omaha, Peter uses a nonprofit foundation to funnel tens of millions of dollars from his father each year to worthy causes.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation focuses on improving agricultural techniques in poor countries and conflict mitigation in war-torn places in Africa. Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation keeps most of the money local and geared to early childhood education and other supports for low-income Omahans. Peter Buffett's NoVo foundation prioritizes projects that help girls and women by promoting anti-violence and education efforts around the globe.

The Buffett children long have been involved in charitable giving, following the example of their 83-year-old father, who, after he dies, will have given 99 percent of his Berkshire Hathaway earnings to charity. Mainly Warren Buffett will have done this through the Gates Foundation, which has agreed to spend it within 50 years of Bill and Melinda Gates' deaths. Warren Buffett has also donated generously to the foundations of Buffett's three children and late wife, Susan.

Peter Buffett

Buffett began making major donations to the foundations in 2006 — averaging about $64 million a year to each of his children's nonprofits. Last year he doubled the number of Berkshire shares donated to these foundations, which meant $140 million to each of his children's foundations this year.

With nearly double the funds to give away, Peter Buffett took a hard look at NoVo's work and asked his wife, Jennifer, who runs it, whether they were taking the right approach to philanthropy.

The philanthropy milieu they were exposed to — tireless workers in the trenches, a bureaucracy of competing nonprofits and the corporatization of charity — raised questions for him.

Was charity really helping alleviate human suffering? Or could it have the unintended consequence of deepening turmoil?

Could charitable dollars be holding back the poor who might otherwise rise against oppressive governments and other systems?

Was this even the right strategy as income imbalance continues? A left hand contributing to problems that the right hand tries to solve by dribbling out crumbs?

Here Buffett stands in the middle, with hundreds of millions to give away. Suddenly, everyone is his friend.

“I joke about the fact that, gee, with a billion dollars, you're better looking, you're funnier, you're invited everywhere,” Peter says. “My dad wasn't really off the business pages until the last decade, at most. People didn't really know who he was. People really did think I was related to Jimmy Buffett.”

But he's been feeling the weight of that gift. His father, the “Oracle of Omaha,” didn't give his children much charity investment advice.

“My dad in particular has this wonderful way of saying 'I trust you. Do what you want,' ” Peter says. “It makes you want to be more careful. When someone gives you freedom — 'Oh, my God! I've got to really pay attention.' ”

So Peter Buffett did pay attention. He dived into philanthropy, trying to learn as much as he could about the best way to help women and girls in poor countries.

And after seven years, he saw what he calls a “charitable-­industrial complex” whose effectiveness he doubts.

In his op-ed, published July 26, Buffett said:

» There exists a “philanthropic colonialism” that tries to fix problems “with little regard for culture, geography or social norms.”

» In the past decade, nonprofits have grown faster than business and government sectors, creating a philanthropy economy that's not exactly putting itself out of business.

» The very system that contributes to poverty and suffering tries to alleviate it with what Buffett terms “conscience laundering.”

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place,” he wrote. “The rich sleep better at night while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

Buffett wrote that he and Jennifer don't have the answers but are willing to listen. He called for a new charitable “operating system.”

Buffett said he's heard mostly praise. Critics say Buffett too quickly writes off the good being done through philanthropy. They say that while charities do need to be accountable to donors, some have a good track record of helping the people they intended to help.

“There are thousands of worthy charities that don't need reinvention, don't need a new model, don't need an entirely new mindset,” contributor Tom Watson wrote. “What they need is more capital, to serve more people, with the successful models they have.”

I called Peter Buffett to ask if I should stop sending my piddling checks to Teach for America and other causes I try to support. He said no — that the intent of his essay wasn't to stop charitable giving.

“I'm never going to say there shouldn't be a bed in a domestic shelter,” he said, “or an amount of food NOT going to feed the hungry.”

His own journey, from a raised-in-Dundee-attended-public-schools childhood to now being steward to some $100 million a year, has presented a number of learning experiences.

For instance, a Clinton Global Initiatives symposium in 2005 made him aware of the importance of helping girls in war-torn countries. He then began helping a girls sewing program in Liberia. But after visiting, he realized Liberia didn't need girls who were trained as tailors.

“What Liberia needs is electricians and plumbers. We shifted focus,” he said. “You can't assume anything.”

That trip to Liberia and another trip to Bangladesh were eye-opening.

“You won't know if you don't go,” he said. “That was my little rallying cry.”

He thought of the inanity of funding rural teachers when there were no roads for teachers to travel on.

“You start to see the problems behind the problems behind the problems,” he said. “We thought we would learn about the things we were doing. Then we learned why the things we were doing (weren't working).”

He and Jennifer are still learning. But the latest conference was so frustrating, Buffett said, he returned to New York and wrote a song. That wasn't enough, so he wrote the op-ed.

He does believe a lot of good people are trying hard: “I think everyone is doing their best.”

But take Haiti, which still has not recovered from the devastating 2010 earthquake. This despite billions of dollars donated. This despite the attention of three American presidents and the world.

“All you have to do is look around,” Buffett said, “and know our best … needs to be better.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

Keystone XL pipeline backers blast ‘political expediency’ as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, W Streets
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs, police say
Dems criticize governor hopeful Beau McCoy's ad in which he strikes a Barack Obama doll
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »