Warren Buffett may be predictably liberal in his politics and in his giving, but he also has many admirable qualities. We should respect him for living in the same house for over sixty years despite his great wealth. He also deserves credit for remaining in Omaha. His method of disposing of his fortune is also one other donors should copy. He gave over 80 percent of it to the Gates Foundation, in part because the foundation will spend itself out within 20 years of Bill and Melinda Gates’s deaths. The remaining portion of Buffett’s wealth went to a foundation named in honor of his late wife Susie and to his three children, Peter, Susie, and Howard G. Buffett.
Of the three, Howard G. Buffett is the most interesting. For one thing, as I noted in this 2011 Foundation Watch, Howard G. Buffett is the only member of the Buffett family to admit to being a Republican. Moreover, while the foundations created by his brother and sister have somewhat disguised names (if you know where the money for the Sherwood Foundation comes from without looking it up, you have a very deep understanding of philanthropy), Howard Buffett’s foundation is the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Go to the foundation’s website and you’ll learn two things: the foundation accepts no unsolicited proposals, and even though it keeps a low profile, the world’s scammers know who Howard G. Buffett is, because there are no less than three scam letters which claim that they represent the Howard Buffett Foundation and the recipient is entitled to a big prize for responding to them.
Of course anyone who thinks foundations give away money via spam might also think that if you show up in the MacArthur Foundation’s lobby and yell loudly enough, they’ll declare you a transgressive genius and cut you a big check. I’m sure lots of foundations have fake spam sent from them, but the Howard Buffett Foundation is the first I’ve seen that devotes a substantial amount of space to this problem.
Since his foundation has over $4 billion in assets, Howard G. Buffett’s views should be of interest. Betty Liu has an extensive interview with Howard Buffett in this cover story from Bloomberg Markets.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has assets of just over $4 billion and has given away $775 million. Nearly all of it is in agricultural matters, mostly on ways to help Third World farmers improve their yields.
Buffett says “we try to avoid charity, if we can. We think of what we do as an investment.” For example, his foundation recently supported the construction of three dams in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By constructing these dams, “people will have electricity in their homes, businesses will be built, and farmers will thrive.” His foundation only practices charity in places so destitute that investments are impossible.
Buffett makes sure he is in the field a lot inspecting the Buffett Foundation projects. He says he does this because “every time I travel, I learn something. I don’t need to debate something with an academic who has just been to Rwanda. I just need to be in Rwanda more.”
Finally, I thought this statement of Buffett’s made a good deal of sense:
It’s very easy to do harm in philanthropy, especially when you don’t understand the unintended consequences—or have a way to deal with them. You have to be careful and remember to go by the old saying, Do no harm.
Most of what the Howard G. Buffett Foundation does is what large foundations should do: practical, hands-on efforts to improve the lives of the poor. I don’t see many grants from this foundation supporting theory, conferences, or political activity.
Howard G. Buffett is an underrated philanthropist. We should pay more attention to him—and respect what his foundation does.