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Q&A: Jennifer Buffett, President and Co-Chair, NoVo Foundation

December 16, 2010

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.

Jennifer_buffett 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.

PND: What helped you get to this point of clarity?

JB: In the early days of strategizing the foundation's mission and vision, we traveled a lot -- to Africa and Asia as well as here in the U.S. We observed, listened, and learned. We brought in more than a hundred thought leaders, including an early architect of the Peace Corps, visionaries like Gloria Steinem, other foundation executives, and people doing important work in the field of global development. We talked with people on the ground whose lives were being affected by aid and looked at who, and what, was receiving money, and who wasn't. In all of those discussions, we were seeking to identify patterns.

We also asked tough questions: "What modes of thought and behavior have shaped the world? What are the underlying stories at work in the world? And who or what do they serve?" Our world is the result of at least two thousand years of empire building, conquest, domination, and the exploitation of resources and people. Belief systems captured in phrases such as "survival of the fittest," "manifest destiny," "every man for himself," and "man's dominion over nature" have been normalized. The result, as anyone can see, is a growing centralization of power and huge inequalities across the globe.

Peter and I both see the world as out of balance. Destructive and exploitative behaviors rule. And women and girls have been stripped of value and commodified as a result. The selling of girls, women, and children is a multi-billion dollar global industry. In the developing world, poor girls by the millions are traded for cows or cooking oil by their own families because their perceived value is so low. These realizations motivated us as we were strategizing the foundation's mission and the values at the core of our philanthropy. It's a vision of a world based on partnership and collaboration, not domination and exploitation.

PND: Obviously, girls and women are at the center of your work. How did that come about?

JB: We looked at who wasn't receiving support and resources, and who had little or no voice and few rights, and guess what? It's the same group that produces most of the world's food and does most of the world's work, the unacknowledged drivers of local economies and communities. On top of that, one out of every three girls and women suffer from violence. Girls and women comprise 52 percent of the world's population and yet they have been excluded from the decision-making process at every level in most countries.

We soon discovered that there were no large foundations dedicated solely to supporting women and girls as a solution to the world's most entrenched problems. We were convinced, however, that girls and women were the answer to many of the things we cared about. We knew that if women and girls were not valued, were not healthy, educated, provided with skills, protected from violence, and empowered, they would have very little to offer their children, boys and girls, or the future. And we thought we could do something to change that.

We want girls and women to have full permission to imagine, create, and build a world they want to live in -- in full partnership and collaboration with boys, men, and the planet. Sadly, that is not the kind of world most women and girls live in today.

If we are successful in effecting positive social change, we believe the feminine and masculine elements in both women and men will become more balanced. That is why we decided to focus on the 52 percent of the world's population that is not at the table.

PND: How would you describe the historical moment we're in right now with respect to women's empowerment?

JB: Such a great question. We're living in a time when so many women have the skills, power, agency, and freedom that only men used to have. At the same time, millions of poor rural women in India, Africa, and Asia with very little money or power have access to the Internet and cell phones. That is revolutionary! What if we linked women and girls everywhere with resources and information and support? It was never possible before, but it is today, and that is extraordinary!

At the same time, many women in the developed world see how much remains to be done and are only beginning to realize the incredible power they have to change things. Women are far from occupying an equal number of power positions as men; it's not even close. But when they do, organizations often perform better, in myriad ways. And it leads to a question, an increasingly urgent question: With all of the resources, tools, opportunities, and freedoms available to them, will women in the developed world be able to capitalize on their potential to advance the status of girls and women in the developing world? Will we look back in ten or twenty years and say we did everything in our power to support women and girls everywhere? Are we going to take all this grist for the mill and actually do something with it?

If you look around, you have to be encouraged. There are some great efforts under way. Women Moving Millions, which I'm involved in, is one of them. It's an effort to get women with means to think more strategically about these issues and, at the same time, to step up with financial support for women's causes. It's about women accepting the responsibility to lead and helping to move millions of women and girls out of poverty. We have it in our power to take this to the next level. I don’t think it's going to be easy, but we live in a time when, for probably the first time ever, it is possible.

PND: That women in the developed world, acting together, can effect real change in the lives of tens of millions of women and girls in the developing world?

JB: Absolutely. This is an idea whose time has come. The enormous economic and social benefits that come from investing in and supporting girls and women are starting to be acknowledged. And ideas that have proven to be effective are being shared and replicated. For very little money, a girl or woman can be empowered to transform her life and the lives of her family members. No matter the issue or problem, more and more people are asking themselves how women and girls can be integrated into the strategies and programs designed to address those problems. It's not a nice thing to do; it's the right thing to do.

PND: How are you and Peter turning your vision into concrete grantmaking?

JB: We work a lot on vision first, then we strategize and plan, plan, plan! We work hard to figure out what we can realistically accomplish and what we can leverage to advance our aims, and then we find the best partners we can and try to build their capacity, help them benchmark their progress, and adjust accordingly. NoVo is a Latin word meaning to "change or invent," and so we've also found ourselves innovating initiatives rather than just funding existing organizations.

For example, we work with the Nike Foundation, which has been hugely successful in bringing attention to the plight of girls around the world and showing how adolescent girls can be agents of change if we invest in them properly. The Nike Foundation, with our funding and involvement, also is working in unprecedented ways to help encourage and transform the way that big-system players -- governments, NGOs, and the World Bank, among them -- invest in girls.

PND: It sounds to me as if you're saying a woman's way of working is different from a man's? Have you seen evidence of that in your work?

JB: We've built NoVo on what I would call human principles, balancing and considering the head and the heart, not separating them or devaluing certain ways of being or working. We're seeing such an emphasis these days on business metrics, on technical solutions and mechanistic thinking. But when you're working in a field that works to build and support human capacities and change entire systems, it's not a good idea to fall into the trap of relying exclusively on metrics or a technocratic approach. We work in very thoughtful and planful ways to equalize power relationships, build expertise on the ground, listen, and nurture. That doesn't mean we aren't interested in sound structures, evaluation, and solid results. But again, to us, solutions should always have a human being, a human voice, at the center. So, in our work with girls, we ask girls questions and try to amplify their voices. And we think a lot about relationships and context. It could be a man's way of working just as much as a woman's.

PND: What troubles you the most when you look at what some of your colleagues and peer organizations are doing?

JB: It's not so much that we’re troubled by anything; it's more about having to compete for a pool of limited funds from foundations that tend to set up competitions for funding rather than encouraging like-minded groups to work together. It's really important to not just think about the "input" or intervention and just measure that -- how many bed-nets were bought, loans were made, or vaccines were distributed. That tells you nothing about the priorities or hierarchy of needs a person has in a unique place or what the intervention meant in terms of its impact on their quality of life. Instead, we need to focus on the complete picture. And that takes a lot of diligence and hard work.

We also need to remind ourselves that the funds in our endowments are really a form of risk capital. We can fund the status quo, or we can fund voices for change and systems innovations that improve life for millions of people on the other side of the glass. It's hard; people are afraid to challenge the status quo, and they're afraid to fail. I get it. But we need to stop worrying so much about being liked and respected and really ask ourselves whether we're happy with the way things are. I'm a big believer in funders being advocates for the most marginalized in society. We have it in our power to play a role in determining how society treats people in the criminal justice system, how it treats immigrants, or girls, or people with disabilities. It's an exciting time, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

-- Michael Seltzer

(Photo credit:  Taylor Crothers, 2010) 

(Both the NoVo Foundation and Women Moving Millions are past clients of Michael Seltzer. Special thanks to Jean Johnson, Senior Librarian, Foundation Center-San Francisco, for research assistance on this article.)

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