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Doris Buffett, philanthropist thrilled to ’answer somebody’s prayers,’ dies at 92

For those battered by misfortune, Ms. Buffett could be a godsend.
For those battered by misfortune, Ms. Buffett could be a godsend.Keith Bedford/File/2016


With the Sunshine Lady Foundation and The Letters Foundation, Doris Buffett often gave away small sums that loomed large in the lives of those who benefited from her philanthropy.

The grants, made in response to personal requests via letters, paid for winter boots and children’s clothing, dentures and tooth extractions, furnaces and used cars, funerals and tombstones.

“You are thrilled when you can answer somebody’s prayers,” Ms. Buffett told the Globe in 2016, a few months after she had moved to the Back Bay.

Ms. Buffett was 92 when died Tuesday in her Rockport, Maine, home.

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She had founded the Sunshine Lady Foundation in 1996, and she later cofounded The Letters Foundation with her brother, Warren Buffett, who took a different approach to philanthropy.

“I’ve always said I like to give away money wholesale and she likes to give away money retail,” he told the Globe in 2016.

“Every individual to her is special,” he added. “If she picks up a little kid who has dental problems, her reaction is: ‘What dentist can see that kid?’ … 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 she was there for those who, in letters, persuaded her that they could get on their feet again if they were offered a helping hand.

Ms. Buffett made clear in a Globe interview, however, that she and those who worked with her screened out people whose woes were due to a reckless approach to life or to frivolous spending.

“We’d be wasting our money, and we don’t do that,” she said in 2016. “We’re investing in you; that’s the way we feel about it.”

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In the forward to Michael Zitz’s 2010 biography “Giving it All Away: The Doris Buffett Story,” her brother cautioned that “if you’ve created your own problems, don’t bother to call Doris.”

But for those battered by misfortune, Ms. Buffett could be a godsend.

“If some undeserved blow has upended you, however, she will spend both her money and time to get you back on your feet,” her brother added. “Her interest in you will be both personal and enduring.”

She was already a philanthropist when her brother announced, in 2006, that he planned to give away nearly all his money before he died — a fortune then estimated at $44 billion.

He is one of the world’s most successful investors, and his public announcement led to a flood of requests for money.

While he ran Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that includes Dairy Queen, Duracell, and Geico, he entrusted his sister and a group of women she had recruited to consider the requests, assess their merits, and gauge the impact on those they helped.

Ms. Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation, which she founded in 1996, and more recently The Letters Foundation have channeled tens of millions of dollars in large and small donations to individuals and organizations committed to educating prison inmates, battered women, and low-income teenagers, and to improving the lives of the mentally ill while also easing the burden on their caregivers.

She avoided donating to what she called “the SOBs” — symphonies, operas, and ballets — and focused instead on the underprivileged, as she did with The Letters Foundation.

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I rounded up a bunch of ladies, and we started reading letters. Some of them were nutty, but most of them were from people who were genuinely desperate and just needed a little help,” she told The New York Times in 2011, adding that the letters were from “decent people who just didn’t have the breaks somebody else did.”

Initially, the requests were vetted by an informal group of seven or eight woman she had brought together in Maine. Their goal was not so much to enable the beneficiaries as to empower them.

“The best return is when lives change for the better in some way,” she said. “That’s the commanding thought behind all I do.”

Doris Eleanor Buffett was born on Feb. 12, 1928, in Omaha, Neb., a descendant of a 17th-century Long Island, N.Y., pickle farmer. She represented the sixth generation of her family to live in Nebraska’s largest city and belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Her father, Howard H. Buffett, was a stockbroker and four-term Republican congressman. Her mother was Leila Stahl.

In the forward to Ms. Buffett’s biography, her brother wrote that “she — and our sister, Bertie, and I — were educated by a wonderful man, our father, Howard Buffett. ... He encouraged us to go our own way, instilling in each of us a confidence in our potential. The route Doris has taken would please our father beyond measure.”

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Doris and her siblings were given intelligence tests when they were children. She later discovered that scored only two points below Warren. “He got a lot out of those two points,” she said of her brother.

After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., she attended George Washington University and later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska. She married Truman Wood, in the first of four marriages that would end in divorce.

In addition to Warren, Ms. Buffett leaves three children from her first marriage, Robin, Marshall, and Sydney Wood; a sister, Bertie Buffett Elliott; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Ms. Buffett started the Sunshine Lady Foundation after inheriting a fortune in Berkshire Hathaway stock from her mother, who died that year. Her brother provided some $10 million to review the thousands of letters he had received soliciting small contributions. She eventually contributed more than $200 million of her own.

She later left the foundation in a dispute between the staff and the family and, with her brother, founded The Letters Foundation, which has made more than 1,000 grants.

In 2018, Ms. Buffett published “Letters to Doris: One Woman’s Quest to Help Those With Nowhere Else to Turn.”

Though she lost a fortune in the 1987 stock market crash, “Doris, by no means, lives a spartan life,” her brother wrote in the foreword to “Giving It All Away.”

“But she does give away money that, were it used personally, would make her life easier,” he added. “She is one of the rare well-off individuals who reduces her net worth annually by making charitable contributions.”

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Much of the money she gave away went to her hometowns, including Fredericksburg, Va.; Wilmington and Beaufort, N.C.; and Rockport.

In the 2016 Globe interview, her brother said that even though his philanthropy has been extensive, “there are no wishes I’ve had in life that I’ve given up in order to help someone else.”

His sister, he added, took a different course.

“Doris is giving time, and time is the scarcest commodity,” Warren said. “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.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed.