In 2016, I was asked to join a philanthropic project that was close to the heart of philanthropist Warren Buffett and his beloved older sister, Doris Buffett. The “letters program” first started many years ago. After going public with his giving pledge, Warren (like many well-known philanthropists) was flooded with requests not just from nonprofits, but also from individuals and families who had fallen on hard economic times. Being both thrifty and innovative, Warren and Doris realized that they could help make generational change in families around the United States if they could provide them with a little bit of financial assistance at the right moment — a bridge between that hard time and a path to financial sustainability. For many years, this program ran relatively informally (with letters piled on Doris’ couch) until we formalized the program and its operations in 2016.

Most often, the grants at the Letters Foundation fall in two categories. The first category of grants are economic investments: the Letters Foundation helped families who got behind on their mortgage so that they can stay stably housed, or helped a parent who had a higher-paying job offer but no reliable transportation to buy a used car. The second category of grants were simply an investment in the dignity of all human beings. Recently, we paid for funeral services for a young teen who had committed suicide and whose family couldn’t afford the formal funeral service their family so desperately deserved.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has underscored what many of us already knew: that many Americans simply don’t make enough money to financially weather an emergency. The resulting economic downturn is not only disproportionately affecting low-income people of color from a health perspective, but also from an economic one.

Given the rising interest in getting emergency funds to individuals in the U.S. in order to avoid the financial collapse of so many families during this crisis, I thought I’d take a few moments to share five lessons I’ve learned from my years leading Doris’ Letters Foundation:

  1. Decide how much leg work you and your foundation want to take on.
  2. Proceed with respect and admiration for the work already being done by community-based organizations and work to formally partner with them.
  3. Understand the urgency of this work and look outside the “traditional” models of giving.
  4. Check, and continuously reflect on, your bias.
  5. Listen, learn, evolve, repeat.

Read the full article about giving directly to families by Amy Kingman at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.