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Highlights from a Fireside Chat with Warren and Doris Buffett about Philanthropy

August 26, 2013
by Jack Reynolds

Happy Dog Days of Summer!  In the spirit of warm days, cool breezes and light reading, I want to share with you some thoughts about philanthropy that I acquired from a ‘fire side chat’ with Warren Buffett and his sister Doris.

I had the pleasure of hearing Warren and Doris Buffett speak at a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) developed by Rebecca Riccio, Program Director, Northeastern (University) Students4Giving.  The course is called GivingWithPurpose, and it is sponsored by the Learning by Giving Foundation , established by Doris Buffett to teach younger generations about philanthropy.  Part of Rebecca’s course includes interviews with leading American philanthropists, and the first interview  (a.k.a., fireside chat) was with Warren and Doris Buffett.

Doris and Warren BuffettWhat can the Buffetts teach us about philanthropy?  You guessed it, plenty.  The beauty of Riccio’s interviews is that they apply to all ages and offers us ‘regular folk’ an opportunity to sit in on intimate interviews with America’s leading philanthropists.  Let me share with you six (6) highlights from the Warren and Doris Buffett interview:

1)  Giving is a Lifelong Journey

The Buffetts’ father was a strong role model who helped Warren and Doris develop a passion for giving.  Warren Buffett has, in turn, been very influential in modeling philanthropy for his children.  Warren’s remark, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt, until they are too heavy to be broken,” sends a clear message about forming constructive habits.  Build good giving habits early and be a model for others. A related quotation of the Buffetts’ is: “Have the right heroes and march in their footsteps.”

2)  When Does a Journey of Giving Begin?

For the Buffetts, their journey of giving began in their 20’s.  However, now-a-days I have noticed that children are introduced to philanthropy in their teens, through both their families and schools.  If you wish to share your thoughts about when to start teaching children about philanthropy, please comment below.

3)  Find a Style of Giving that Works Best for You

Warren Buffett described himself as a ‘wholesale donor.’  Why? Because he prefers donating to foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Learning by Giving, and his own children’s foundations, which select the ultimate beneficiaries.  He places his money with direct donors whose causes, values and sense of mission he shares.

Interestingly, Doris is a ‘retail donor.’ Her style is both hugely labor intensive and, as she remarks, “enormously joy intensive.” Doris’ philanthropic style is passionate, businesslike and unsentimental, as she performs intensive due diligence.  Despite their different giving styles, both Doris and Warren agree that: 1) the process of giving is intensely personal, 2) you must find your passion and follow it, and 3) you need to do so in a way that works best for you.

4)  Narrowcasting is a Fine Thing

Warren Buffett mentioned a conversation that he had with Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, in which Tom Watson said, “I’m no genius, but I’m good in spots. I concentrate on those spots.” In philanthropy, the message is that you cannot solve all of the world’s problems. Find your focus and your passion and don’t get distracted. Doris, for instance, has had great success with prisoner education and higher education for battered women.

5)  Have Metrics for Success and be Prepared to Fail

It is wise to measure the results of your philanthropy. That is, establish metrics going in and measure the results of your contributions.  Philanthropy is a realm in which intractable challenges can be tackled, so know what constitutes success for you and don’t be afraid of failure.  In the words of Warren Buffett, “The rewards of success may outweigh the risk of failure. Don’t be too risk adverse and don’t assume that you will always succeed.” Quoting Walter Lipman, Warren Buffett said, “We sit in the shade of trees planted by others,” and he went on to say that, “we have a responsibility to plant more trees, to provide shade for those less fortunate than we are.”

6)  Don’t Define Philanthropy Narrowly

If you do not have money to give, you may have time, talent or expertise to give to causes you feel passionately about.  Or, you may be able to contribute a combination of time, talent, expertise and money.

I hope that this ‘summer reading’ has inspired you to share your thoughts and comments about philanthropy with your friends and family.  I believe we are a nation of givers and have benefitted greatly from the good will of others.

If you would like to rate this article or leave a comment, please do so below. If you would like to suggest a topic for a future article or talk with me personally, please give me a ring at 617.945.5157 or shoot me an email. In the meantime, happy summer!