Since the beginning of organized philanthropy in the United States, women have been counted among the most effective advocates for the concept of "private dollars for the public good." Early on, far-sighted pioneers such as Margaret Olivia Sage, who established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 for "the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States," and Alva Vanderbilt, who helped fund the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, demonstrated through their actions the power of the biblical injunction “to those whom much has been given, much is expected.”
When Warren Buffett stood on stage at the New York Public Library on June 26, 2006, and made public his historic decision to donate the majority of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the press focused on the magnitude of the gift (over $30 billion) and the implications for philanthropy, at home and abroad. Little note was made at the time of the smaller yet substantial gifts Buffett made to the foundations established by his three children, including a gift of $1 billion to his youngest son Peter's NoVo Foundation. Today, the NoVo Foundation awards approximately $55 million in grants annually in three areas: encouraging social/emotional learning, seeding a local living economy movement, and empowering women and girls worldwide.
Frequent contributor Michael Seltzer interviewed Jennifer Buffett, president of the foundation, in November.
Philanthropy News Digest: You and I were both present at the New York Public Library on the day your father-in-law announced he had decided to give the majority of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What was going through your mind as you sat in the audience?
Jennifer Buffett: That this was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. We knew that, based on the work we had done up to that point as a smaller foundation, we were being given an incredibly unique opportunity to step up our philanthropy -- to be as cutting edge, thoughtful, and strategic as we could be.
And what was going through my mind was that we suddenly had an enormous opportunity to invest real resources to catalyze change during a unique time in the history of the country and the planet. I didn't know then what we'd focus on or how we'd go about doing it, but I knew that we would be putting a lot of hard work and energy into going deep to figure it out. We also had a clean slate -- no existing board of directors, or mandate from on high, or somebody else's vision to fulfill. All my father-in-law asked was that we try and focus our resources and understand the difference we were trying to make and to stick with it. He also encouraged us to take risks.
PND: What has changed in the four and a half years since you've been at the helm of the foundation?
JB: A lot. But the most important thing has been our development of a clear vision and framework in terms of how we view our opportunities and understand the world. Peter and I knew early on that we wanted to support holistic and human-centered solutions -- and that those seemed to be interventions that were sustainable and had great and lasting potential. We believe that people internalize and carry forward real change, and that relationships and systems need to be carefully considered any time one intervenes, no matter how well-meaning one is. Considering the "how" is just as important as the "what" one does or focuses on.
We knew we wanted to get at the root of the problems we face and not fund top-down "productized" interventions that made us feel good about ourselves in terms of "x" amount of things we distributed in some far-off region or social environment we didn't understand. We care about so many issues -- poverty, health, education, the environment, social justice, and human rights -- and we saw them as linked. People asked us what "things" we would focus on. After a while, we realized that was probably not the right question. We thought that if we focused on girls and women, who were being left out of decision-making and were severely undervalued and -resourced, we could touch on all these issues in some way and that all boats would rise. Even today, I believe we are the largest foundation that defines its primary mission as empowering girls and women as agents of global change.
We also decided to work to promote a "whole child education" approach, which emphasizes the social, emotional, and creative growth of children as well as their intellectual growth. There needs to be more of a focus on the factors, conditions, relationships, and environments necessary for healthy whole child development that results in real learning and creative, empathic, socially and emotionally skilled, and resilient children; a focus on marrying, not separating the head and heart, body, mind, and soul.
The data shows that academic test scores improve -- and negative behaviors decrease -- if healthy relationships and school climate are addressed as an inherent part of learning. Bullying is off the charts in U.S. schools and is destroying many children's lives. If kids feel cared for, if they feel valued and empowered, they are less likely to be subject to bullying and violence because healthy, nurturing environments naturally discourage these kinds of destructive behavior. What if we were able to not only create these kinds of environments but to sustain them for generations of kids? We think it would result in a much less violent and more creative society.
We're also investing in some networked efforts on the national level to share tools and innovations that promote "local living economies," sometimes known as "local first" efforts. A local living economy rests on the idea that economic power should, to the greatest extent possible, be situated locally, where it has the best chance to create and sustain vibrant, livable communities and healthy ecosystems. Supporting your local farmer and knowing where your food comes from is one way to do that.