Excerpts from the Boston Globe interview with Warren Buffett about his team philanthropy with his sister:
On the small group of volunteers Doris Buffett assembled in 2006 to help review the incoming gusher of letters from strangers asking her brother for money:
“She was operating in Maine then, and they were wonderful little old ladies, but they were behaving like an oiled machine, processing these requests and making sure these people weren’t phonies. It was a little cottage industry. If I’d been a film producer, I would have made a movie about it!”
On the variety of financial pleas he receives:
“I had one fellow from, I’d say, Nebraska, who would always request $1.3 billion, and he must have written me 50 times. I got to kind of admire the guy because he was not negotiating. I think if I had offered him $1.2 billion he would have turned me down!”
On how his approach to philanthropy differs from Doris Buffett’s approach:
“I’ve always said I like to give away money wholesale and she likes to give away money retail. Every individual to her is special. If she picks up a little kid who has dental problems, her reaction is: ‘What dentist can see that kid?’ If I pick up a kid, all I’m thinking is: ‘Who can I hand him off to before he pees!’ I mean, she is genuinely interested in a guy who’s had his pickup truck stolen or whatever it may be. Through no fault of their own, they’ve been handed a bum deal in their life. And I empathize with those people, but I’m not going to spend my days working with them. I’m too selfish for that, and I enjoy what I do.
“My dad would have admired enormously what she’s doing. He would admire her more than what I’ve done — and I do, too. She gives money of her own and takes down her net worth every year by giving money away, and she really does want to die at zero. And on top of that, she gives all this time and energizes other people.
“I have never done any philanthropy that has changed my way of living or my family’s, and Doris has. I’ve given up nothing. I mean, I gave away earlier this month $3 billion worth of stock. I made an annual distribution to a lot of foundations. That stock has no utility to me. None. It can’t make my life happier. It can’t make my physical condition better. It can’t entertain me and it can’t do anything for my children. Having those stock certificates going to someone else who can buy vaccines or maybe teach people how to use small plots of land better in Africa and open up educational opportunities allowing for women to plan their families has enormous facility to others but hasn’t taken anything away from me. No question it does a lot of good. But there are no wishes I’ve had in life that I’ve given up in order to help someone else. I’ve given away something that has no meaning.
“But Doris is giving time, and time is the scarcest commodity. No matter who you are, you have 24 hours a day, and when you give time up you’re giving up something important. So if you were keeping a scorecard in life, you’d give her a higher score than me. If a person puts five or 10 dollars in the collection plate and that makes a difference whether they eat out or not, that’s giving something up. There’s nothing wrong with what I do, but if you’re judging the quality of our giving, Doris wins.”
On the Giving Pledge, the campaign he launched in 2010 with Bill and Melinda Gates to persuade billionaires to give at least half their fortunes to charity:
“I would say it’s been far more successful than I originally expected. I hoped we’d get about 50 people [so far, there are more than 155 pledgers]. I’ve called lots and lots of people, most of whom we didn’t know prior, and we’ve asked a lot of people to pledge half or more of their net worth, and I’ve been surprised by how many we’ve gotten. There are now pledgers in 17 countries. I never envisioned it would go beyond the US. I’ve met some terrific people and overall it’s made me feel very good about human nature.
“Now, some say they couldn’t possibly give half of a billion dollars away and, as I’ve mentioned a couple times, I think I’m going to write a book on how to live on half a billion dollars! I feel they need all the help they could get if they get down to a half-billion [and consider that distressing]! But overall I feel better about human nature than I did before.”Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.