WSW: Philanthropist Peter Buffett Approaches 10 Years Fighting Abuses Against Girls, Women

Oct 30, 2015

Philanthropist Peter Buffett talks with Earlene McMichael at the WMUK studios at Western Michigan University.
Credit Earlene McMichael, WMUK

Philanthropist Peter Buffett says foundations sometimes try to solve the world's problems themselves rather than acting as facilitators of change -- that is, seeking answers outside their walls, especially from people already doing the work well.

In a wide-ranging interview with WMUK's Earlene McMichael, the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett adds that, when donors do give funds, it sometimes comes with too many restrictions on their grantees, a practice he calls "philanthropic colonialism." (Listen below to the interview, plus to a longer version.)

"Early on in our learning journey (about philanthropy), I would listen to the stories of mostly the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) out in the world getting the money to do the work -- highly committed people, you know doing what they believe to be right -- but then these donors would come in and tell them what they think they should do," Buffett tells McMichael on WMUK's WestSouthwest public-affairs show on Oct. 29.

He says bans against using funds for general operational expenses are just one of the limitations, for instance, that frustrate grantees. They are left wondering "how are we going to keep the lights on and the phones working and things like that."

"So this control from above was, essentially, so obvious to me," Buffett says. "And, in one meeting with a group, I just blurted out, 'That sounds like philanthropic colonialism.' And everybody got excited and said, 'Somebody said it!' "

Buffett, an Emmy Award-winning composer and youngest of Warren Buffet's three children, is co-president of the NoVo Foundation based in New York City. "Novo in Latin means 'to create change,' " says Buffet, who came to the WMUK studios while in Kalamazoo recently to perform at an invitation-only event hosted by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

He covered a variety of topics in the interview, including how he landed in the philanthropy field, how to discover one's passion and how it is to be Warren Buffett's son. 

The NoVo Foundation will mark its 10-year anniversary in 2016. Its mission is to be "a change agent" in girl and women equity and violence issues, such as sex trafficking, child sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Peter Buffett says he and his wife, Jennifer, are at work on a book detailing what they've learned from nearly a decade of running the foundation together. 

"I say often to the folks at the foundation that these are generational things, and many of the things we are working on we will never see the results of," says Buffett,  author of 2010 New York Times best-selling book, "Life is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment."

"So what you do see is the small wins," he adds.

"When you see a girl that was trafficked and now she's not and she's telling you she's going to school and she's got this life ahead of her, you look at those small things -- and you believe they will be big things in the future."