Hands-on Philanthropy: A Radical Approach?

Gender and Giving Jul 9, 2019

While some philanthropists concentrate on systems change and big ideas, Doris Buffett has one big idea to provide a helping hand to people in need, one individual at a time.

“Many people have had bad luck at one time in their lives,” she has said. “People should have a chance to have some dignity.”

Helping individuals gain a second chance is “the biggest thrill you can get in this business,” but it’s not all sentimental or gushy. Warren Buffett once said of his sister, “She combines a soft heart with a hard head.” She thinks of her philanthropy as an investment; helping individuals to stand on their own two feet has long-term benefits to society as a whole.

Strengthening the Community One Individual at a Time

Buffett’s philanthropic nature was inspired by her family early in life.

Growing up in the Depression, she heard stories about how her grandfather, a grocer, helped people who were down on their luck. Her father, a stockbroker and Congressman, valued public service. Warren calls her a retail philanthropist; she is very hands-on in her charitable activities. In contrast, he refers to himself as a wholesale philanthropist. Each sibling has found a path that works best for them.

Through her first foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, Buffett focused on supporting programs that benefited individuals. Education is a common theme throughout her philanthropic efforts; she sees it as the best way to move people to independence and up the economic ladder. In 1998, she began a scholarship program to help talented, underserved students in North Carolina attend college. The program continues today and more than 1,200 students have graduated from college in the intervening years.

She took a similar approach in 1999 and created a national scholarship fund to help domestic abuse survivors achieve a college education, helping more than 6,000 women. Her motivation  originated when her friends, who had started a shelter, involved her. According to research, that personal connection is a common motivation for women in philanthropy. The fund morphed into the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program (WISP) which Buffett endowed with a $30 million gift. Over the years, WISP has awarded more than $36 million in scholarships to more than 4,000 women across the United States.

Since 2006 Buffett has expanded her focus on individuals through her Letters Program which she and Warren founded after he announced he would give his fortune to charity. Immediately, he was swamped with appeals from individuals asking for aid. He turned to Doris for help answering the letters. Over the years, she has enlisted the aid of countless “sunbeams” who helped her research the accuracy of the stories in the letters she has received.

In December 2018, the Letters Foundation published Letters to Doris: One Woman’s Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn. The 24 stories in the book are a living testament to Doris’ passion for making the world “a kinder, more compassionate, and more beautiful place: by taking the time to listen and learn from others, and finding a way you might be able to help.”

Teaching the Next Generation of Philanthropists

Beginning in 2003 at Davidson College in North Carolina, Buffett began to formulate what became known as the Learning by Giving Foundation. She wanted college students to develop “the urge to do things for people all their lives” and to help ensure that young people “formed the right habits early.” Undergraduate students enroll in a semester-long experiential credit course that guides them through learning about the nonprofit sector and grantmaking. Each class receives $10,000 from the Learning by Giving Foundation and chooses how to allocate the funds to nonprofits in the local community. Buffett has said that the students “learn the nuts and bolts. They probably know more than I do.”

To date, more than 5,000 students at campuses in more than 20 states have allocated almost $3 million to local communities. More significant than the raw data, though, is the ripple effect of these modest investments. As the students graduate and move into the work force, the hope is that they will be more engaged and active citizens, carrying forward the joy of giving throughout their lives.

(The Learning By Giving model is currently being piloted at the high school level with 60 high school juniors and seniors from Santa Clara Unified School District in Santa Clara, Calif.)

Few philanthropists are as person-to-person centered as Buffett and as she helps guide the next generation of givers, it’s a reminder that “philanthropy can bring you more joy than anything.”