Peter and Jennifer Buffett: Questioning parts of the philanthropy business

Jennifer and Peter Buffett

"There's this industry, essentially, around very real issues done in a way that has an element of a self-serving quality -- and it's certainly a self-perpetuating quality," says Peter Buffett, speaking of the world of charitable giving. That's not the sort of statement you might expect from someone who is both chairman of his own philanthropic organization, the NoVo Foundation, and son of one of the greatest philanthropists the world has even known.

Buffett, if you weren't clued off by his famous last name, is the son of Warren -- as in "the Oracle of Omaha;" one of the world's wealthiest men who has pledged to give nearly all of his $58 billion net worth away. About seven years ago, Peter, a composer and musician, and his wife Jennifer were thrust into the world of high profile philanthropy when Warren Buffett poured about a billion dollars into the NoVo Foundation. NoVo works to empower girls and women globally and to foster locally-focused economies.

But along the way, Peter and Jennifer have learned a number of lessons about what works and what doesn't when it comes to trying to use your money to fix a major problem, and even become critics of the way many philanthropies work. In a New York Times op-ed titled "The Charitable-Industrial Complex" published earlier this year, Peter wrote,

Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

With that critique in mind, Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio sat down with Peter and Jennifer Buffett as part of our "A Lot to Give" series to talk about their thoughts on philanthropy and charity.

Peter Buffett that while giving can be a flawed process, there's a reason he continues to do it.:

There is bleeding that should be stopped. There are beds that should be in domestic shelters. There’s food that should be in food pantries. There are things in the here-and-now that should be happening for sure. But we have the opportunity -- ‘we’ meaning anyone in larger philanthropic circles – to go upstream and take big chances on how to solve these problems. There should be money going into, like I said, the here and now, but if we don’t believe they can be solved, we’re sort of in the wrong business. That some of us have to be idealists and say you know what -- and also pragmatic in terms of let’s keep walking up the stream and find the problem and stop it.

Jennifer says that Peter's op-ed was meant as a constructive critique of the philanthropy, and that what the couple is encouraging is more coordination between philanthropies in order to get the best possible results.:

I don’t think that sector thinks that it’s perfect. But I think it’s very difficult because we all like to tell the happy success stories and feel good about what we’re doing. It’s more difficult to have the conversations about the difficulty of problems, about you know, the gaps, about the incongruences of the whole sector and the fact that, you know, people get to decide their own sort of self-imposed metrics of excellence and success and what not, and it’s not well-coordinated at all. So it was a good call out and I think the response generally has been really positive and very constructive.

One key line from Peter's op-ed is his use of the phrase "conscience laundering" to describe some people's motivation when it comes to philanthropic giving. He elaborated on what he meant this way.:

Any intelligent person at some point is reflective enough as they go to sleep at night, to think about what effect their actions may be having on the world. And, even conscience laundering sounds harsher than I may even mean it [laughs] in some ways, because these are not necessarily bad people. They're caught up in a system that does some bad things, and as they probably get older, and they start to see the effects, they might start to stretch their minds, and say, 'You know, I think we need to do something about this.'

We spoke to Jennifer and Peter Buffett together and then aired the interview in two parts. Below is the transcript for both interviews:

Jennifer Buffett: First of all, I think going overseas to get labor for increasingly lower prices and resources and things like that, which then can devastate a community or a region. But then even when NGOs go into communities and they get, staff gets paid a certain wage or whatever and it completely then offsets the wages of the people living there and then they can’t afford to pay their rent in a certain area and then all these NGO workers displace the people that live there and set the whole thing out of balance. I mean those kind of unintended consequences I think happen all the time, all over the world.

David Brancaccio: I was reading your piece in the Times, Peter, and you concluded it seemed to me that no charitable project can solve the big problems of shelter for people, access to water, healthcare, stopping sex trafficking… But ‘solve’ is a big word. You know that saying, ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’… You don’t think that philanthropy, if it can’t solve, can help a whole lot?

Peter Buffett: Well, therein lies the rub. There is bleeding that should be stopped. There are beds that should be in domestic shelters. There’s food that should be in food pantries. There are things in the here and now that should be happening for sure. But we have the opportunity – ‘we’ meaning anyone in larger philanthropic circles – to go upstream and take big chances on how to solve these problems. There should be money going into, like I said, the here and now, but if we don’t believe they can be solved, we’re sort of in the wrong business. That some of us have to be idealists and say you know what—and also pragmatic in terms of let’s keep walking up the stream and find the problem and stop it.

DB: I have to ask – Peter, did you ever hear from your dad about the New York Times piece? Did Warren Buffett call disinviting you from Christmas after reading this?

PB: [laughs] It’s funny how some people think that for sure but he did call and he was very proud of me and very proud of it. You know, my dad likes to, as I say, call a spade a shovel. And so he was I think very happy with it and impressed by the truth-telling that went on in the piece.

JB: I don’t think that sector thinks that it’s perfect. But I think it’s very difficult because we all like to tell the happy success stories and feel good about what we’re doing. It’s more difficult to have the conversations about the difficulty of problems, about you know, the gaps, about the incongruences of the whole sector and the fact that, you know, people get to decide their own sort of self-imposed metrics of excellence and success and what not, and it’s not well-coordinated at all. So it was a good call out and I think the response generally has been really positive and very constructive.

JB: We started traveling heavily in 2004-2006. I remember being in Rwanda, and I kept going to household after household and hut after hut, and the heads of the households were 15 year old girls. And the world was on these girls' shoulders. And I thought, 'Oh my goodness, no one is talking about this.'

PB: You know, only a girl will be the mother of every child. No one seems to argue with me on that point [laughs], which is good. You know, when again, at 12 years old she's making the choices between ... these are not choices. I should say she's not making the choices between being sold, being the utility for the household, getting the wood cooking the meals, taking care of the sick ... almost everything, again, falls on the girl. And if you want generational change yousupport her. You give her opportunities, give her choices, give her a choice to be a teenager.

DB: When you talk to philanthropists, about their motivations, this is a key thing, they say 'I give because I saw a need and I couldn't just sit here doing nothing, [I] needed to respond,' and they respond with their money. But there must be other reasons, to quote a Peter Buffet line, 'Conscience laundering ... laundering one's conscience?'

PB: Indeed, and any intelligent person at some point is reflective enough as they go to sleep at night, to think about what effect their actions may be having on the world. And, even conscience laundering sounds harsher than I may even mean it [laughs] in some ways, because these are not necessarily bad people. They're caught up in a system that does some bad things, and as they probably get older, and they start to see the effects, they might start to stretch their minds, and say, 'You know, I think we need to do something about this.'

DB: I've always wanted to ask you this, even before it gelled for us to sit down and talk about this, does the ability to give, to do philanthropy, give you power?

PB: Jen's over there nodding a big yes, and yes it does. I mean ... but that's the frustration to some extent, because there's so many passionate people doing amazing things, and here you are holding the purse-strings.

JB: I mean, I think if somebody has all the power and all the resources, and you want to stay in the good graces of that institution, you're going to take very few risks. You're gonna tell as many good stories as you can, but not necessarily the ones that would really help inform better philanthropy for more people or for an issue. So I think it's a difficult dynamic.

DB: By the way, before we go, this can't be true, did you find out about the billion dollars by a fax?

PB: That is true ...

DB: You had a fax show up?

PB: Yes, exactly which gives you the technical prowess of my dad, first and foremost. But it was also 2006, so we'll give him a little bit of a pass.

DB: And what'd you do, did you call Jennifer?

JB: You called me. I was coming out of the subway in Bryant Park and you said, 'You better come home, we got this fax, and i'll tell you what it is.' But I sort of I think screamed on Madison Ave. and said, 'Oh my goodness, our lives just changed.'

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...