Peter and Jennifer Buffett: Questioning parts of the philanthropy business
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“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.’
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