I’ve gotten a tiny taste of what it’s like to be Warren Buffett.
No, I don’t know what it feels like to have a net worth of $66 billion or to write eight-figure checks to charity; I work in the newspaper business, which, for most of us, is no way to get rich.
But when I recently wrote about the billionaire investor’s unusual philanthropic partnership with his sister Doris — he sends her the thousands of letters he receives from strangers asking for money, and she decides which ones to fund — my inbox exploded with e-mails from readers eager to contact them.
Most were responding to 88-year-old Doris Buffett’s call for Boston-area volunteers to help her read those letters and evaluate their merit. People from all over the world write to request assistance with medical bills, mortgages, car payments, personal debt, and more, and each year the Buffetts give away more than $1 million fulfilling some of those requests. Not surprisingly, lots of people leaped at the novel opportunity to distribute the Buffett fortune to folks in need.
Even though my story included a website address where readers could learn how to apply to become volunteers, many people sent me their resumes along with lengthy, heartfelt application letters. Some asked whether they should supply references or be prepared for background checks.
But many of the e-mails I received were also from people pleading for financial support. Some seemed to think I was the one giving away money, including a widow from Georgia who wrote, “I pray you will grant my request.” One woman mangled the Buffett family tree, confusing me with Warren’s sister and writing that she wished she could be “in you and your brother’s shoes.”
Before I wrote my story about the Buffetts, I was incredulous that total strangers would write to another total stranger — even a very, very rich one — to ask for money. It seemed so brazen, so forward, so unlikely to yield any result.
To find out how common this is, I had called Virginia Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., which advises people in their charitable endeavors.
Prominent corporate executives and the ultra-rich often receive pleas for money from strangers, she told me, although most of them ignore those requests and make donations to charities instead. Even Esposito’s nonprofit organization gets financial appeals from individuals simply because it has well-to-do clients.
“I just work here — I don’t have their money — and I cannot even begin to tell you the nature of the letters that I get myself,” Esposito said. “They are so plaintive, they are so sad, they sound so desperate. And if I am getting them, and I’m not known anywhere, then people who are known will absolutely be the target.”
Here’s what I’ve learned from that avalanche of e-mail, besides the public’s fascination with billionaires and their money:
Many of us have an inner philanthropist
At last count, nearly 200 people had e-mailed me to express interest in volunteering for Doris Buffett or to ask her for money. The aspiring volunteers include doctors, lawyers, teachers, college administrators, a venture capitalist, the head of fund-raising at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and former Boston news anchor Natalie Jacobson. Others wrote on behalf of friends and spouses whom they said would be ideal for the job.
One aspiring volunteer noted regretfully that she “would not be qualified” because she lives far from Boston (Doris, who recently moved to the Back Bay, wants local volunteers so they can meet with her regularly), but she offered to pitch in by vetting funding requests from her area.
“If she needs someone in northern/central Texas or lower Oklahoma, such as to take pictures or verify a situation,” the woman wrote, “I would like to be able to help her.”
One person called the opportunity her “dream volunteer job.” Wrote another: “I have often thought that if I ever won a large lottery jackpot, this is exactly what I would do.” One man offered to be an additional donor alongside the Buffetts.
And those are just the notes sent to me. As of Friday, Doris Buffett reports she received more than 800 letters this week from as far away as Thailand (she’s requiring applicants to apply by mail, not e-mail) and is reading all of them.
Individual needs are enormous
In a wealthy city like Boston, it can be easy to forget how much need there is in our country.
The e-mails I received asking for money arrived from all over the United States, and even from overseas. People poured out their hearts about cars at risk of being repossessed, vehicles overdue for repairs, and pets needing to be fed.
Requests included a new water heater, a new roof, college tuition, a $59,000 sprinkler system for a community center, heart bypass surgery, and taxi fare. A woman from Tuscaloosa, Ala., requested a tornado shelter (and noted that Home Depot sells a nice model). One person sent a long list of needs: “money to pay rent, car insurance, phone bill, utilities, dental insurance, food and credit card bills.”
Some churches, temples, and other charitable groups have emergency funds to help with expenses like these. But tax laws make it difficult for private charitable foundations to give money to private citizens; typically, they can only make donations to registered nonprofit groups.
As a result, many individual needs remain unmet, providing unlimited opportunities for philanthropic gestures. As one e-mailer put it: “So many small, yet large acts of kindness.”
Modern philanthropy can’t replace old-fashioned charity
The traditional concept of “charity” was to alleviate individual suffering, to provide a safety net for society’s most vulnerable members. That could be running a food pantry or emergency shelter.
But modern philanthropy takes a more intellectual approach. It tries to identify and eliminate root causes of societal problems like alcoholism and crime. It prefers the word “investment” to “donation” and uses fancy terms like “theory of change” to describe what it’s trying to achieve. Rather than buy a hungry person a bowl of soup, advocates of this type of philanthropy might write a big check to a nonprofit trying to end hunger.
Laura Gassner Otting, cofounder of Boston-based SheGives, a group of women who pool their money for charity, says the two approaches should work hand-in-hand.
“Of course we need to spend time thinking about how to eradicate poverty, but while we’re doing that, children are hungry,” she said. “You could spend hours and hours and millions and millions of dollars trying to solve homelessness, but meanwhile that homeless guy needs a warm bed to sleep in when it’s negative-20 degrees outside.”
Two final notes
A few readers have commented that, considering the Buffetts’ extraordinary wealth, they should be paying people to read letters rather than asking for volunteers. Some of Doris Buffett’s volunteers have become paid employees over time. Her letter-reading operation began as a tiny group of older women working pro bono with no idea how many letters they’d be fielding, so it’s evolved through trial and error — similar to any small business of sorts. As part of that evolution, Doris now pays some of her readers an hourly wage.
Some readers remarked that the amount of money the Buffetts give to strangers — at least $12 million over the past decade — is minuscule relative to their net worth. But the letter program is just a small component of their philanthropy. Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation has given away more than $150 million since its inception 20 years ago, and 85-year-old Warren Buffett has donated billions of dollars and pledged to give away most of his fortune before he dies. The bulk of their giving is to a wide range of charitable organizations and nonprofit groups.