In 2006, musician and philanthropist Peter Buffett got the kind of gift most charitable givers can only dream about: approximately $1 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock from his father, legendary investor and Berkshire CEO Warren Buffett, to be used for philanthropic work. The gift, which was doubled in 2012, now funds the NoVo Foundation, headed by Peter and his wife, Jennifer.
What the Buffetts have chosen to do with the money is both simple and wildly ambitious: They are trying to achieve true gender equality around the world. When he made the initial gift, Warren Buffett advised his son to fund ideas so big that only an organization of NoVo’s size could hope to pull them off—along with an assurance that not every idea would pan out, just as not every investment turns a profit. “One of my Dad’s key directives is that if we’re not making mistakes, we’re not doing what he asked us to do,” Peter Buffett told The Financialist in a recent interview. “That’s about the only directive we have: to push the envelope.”
NoVo spreads the money around. Since 2008, for example, the foundation has committed some $116 million to a joint project with the Nike Foundation called The Girl Effect, which seeks to improve the health, education and finances of adolescent girls living in poverty all over the world. NoVo funding helps to link 200 organizations in 40 countries together in a program called Girls, Not Brides, which coordinates global efforts to end child marriage. Men aren’t left out of the picture entirely. NoVo funds programs in American schools and communities that encourage a new vision of masculinity—one in which men and boys become powerful advocates against rape and domestic violence.
The Financialist talked to Peter Buffett about philanthropy and creating a better world for women and girls.
The Financialist: Out of all the possible causes, how did you decide that women and girls should be NoVo’s primary focus?
Peter Buffett: I was at the first Clinton Global initiative in 2005. I heard (National Economic Council Director) Gene Sperling talking about how important it was for adolescent girls to be educated, and I just thought, “Oh my God. This I can get behind.”
It may sound a little crass, but when I was growing up, I used to see my Dad poring over all of these giant books—you know, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, things like that—looking for the undervalued assets, for something he could recognize that the market didn’t. I think that adolescent girls are the most undervalued assets in the world. And we don’t really have to do a lot more than create the right conditions for girls to rise to their true potential. They just need to live in conditions that allow their natural abilities to develop.
Another reason is that I’d always heard that if you give a dollar to a man and a dollar to a woman, the woman’s dollar will go back into her community and family. The man’s? Not so much. Girls and women invest 90 percent of what they earn back into their families and communities, while boys and men invest 40 percent. From a pure efficiency standpoint, helping girls seemed like the investment that would have the biggest ripple effect.
TF: If the problem is that girls and women are undervalued assets, is your goal to change the way people think about them?
PB: Absolutely. Tackling some of these challenges requires saying, “The problem is not that this is happening to girls: It’s that it’s allowed to happen.” That gets into governmental, societal, cultural, religious and ancestral practices—things that are difficult to change. Ultimately, it’s all about the underpinnings of the structures girls and women are in.
TF: One of the Foundation’s key objectives is to empower adolescent girls. Why is that important?
PB: The most obvious answer is that the mother of every child was a girl once. That’s something no one has argued with me on so far. Wouldn’t it be great if women had children when they were ready and educated? And wouldn’t it be great if they had some sort of say in the world they and their children were going to live in? I’m talking about inheritance rights, land rights, voting rights—everything that gives people a voice in their own futures. If women are better off when they have a child, the child’s going to be better off, and it doesn’t even matter if it’s a boy or a girl.
TF: What are some of the challenges that are keeping girls from growing up in that kind of environment?
PB: The answer lies in the systems and cultures that women are born into. When girls are married off at 12 or trafficked at 13, which is the average age that sex trafficking begins for girls in the U.S., they are placed into situations that remove their choices.
But it doesn’t even need to be that extreme. In many parts of the world, women and girls are unable to pursue the education and career options that men can, which then limits their ability to live independently. Specifically, with many philanthropic efforts that focus on education, people often say, “Oh, it’s so wonderful – I’m sending girls to school!” But you have to ask them, “Do the girls actually graduate from primary to secondary school?” The truth is, you lose most girls in the developing world when they are marriageable, sellable or needed at home.
TF: The NoVo Foundation places a high value on achieving economic equality for women, and the website cites a World Bank statistic that women make up a disproportionate 70 percent of the world’s poor. How are you tackling that specific disparity?
PB: It’s different in different places. In a place like Bangladesh, we work with a wonderful organization called BRAC, which is the largest NGO in the world. BRAC works through microfinance, providing small loans to entrepreneurs. I have met girls who suddenly are able to afford a chicken or two or a little farm after getting a loan. They can sell the eggs from the chicken, buy their school uniform and other things, and then their fathers seem to like them better because they’re bringing money home. It’s a weird dynamic where they’re suddenly seen as useful because they can bring money in, and there are parts of that that bother me. But I also see the girls getting a voice that they didn’t have before. And you can’t deny that that’s a wonderful thing. And here in the U.S., we support groundbreaking efforts of domestic worker organizations working to address some of the injustices faced by an extremely vulnerable group of poor immigrant women workers.
TF: What issues are you focused on for women and girls in developed countries?
Girls have such a raw deal wherever they are on this planet. Start with body image—what girls are told they’re supposed to look like and act like—and then go all the way up to women’s presence in leadership positions. You can look at Washington, D.C. and ask, “If it’s representational government, why aren’t half the Congressional representatives women?” Also, people sometimes assume certain issues exist only on the other side of the world, but things like sex trafficking exist in the U.S., too. If you go to Atlanta or Chicago, or stop at a truck stop along any interstate highway, you’ll find trafficked girls.
PB: Another one of the NoVo Foundation’s major initiatives is ending violence against women—both domestic violence and post-conflict aggression. How are you involved in those efforts?
While we support initiatives around the rights of women in a variety of ways, we also have to address what’s going on with men. Violent behavior toward women nearly always begins when adolescent boys start to learn violent behavior from the people they look up to. But it isn’t just the men who are overtly violent. There are a lot of men who just don’t speak up about violent or abusive behavior or attitudes toward women—they’re what we call “well-meaning men.” I think that working to bring about very subtle shifts in the behavior and attitudes of influential adult men can really change the next generation of boys. That blends into the work we do around social-emotional learning in schools, which teaches kids how to recognize their emotions and those of others and to feel genuine concern for other people’s well being.
We also created an operational program called Move to End Violence, which is designed to strengthen the movement in the U.S. to address violence against girls and women and to truly change the cultural norms which allow it to happen.
TF: When it comes to improving the lives of women and girls, what would total success look like to you?
PB: I would like to see all of this framed as a human rights issue. If people stopped thinking about this as an issue that only impacts women and girls and recognized that this is about all of us, I would consider that a success.
TF: Let’s talk about the practice of philanthropy. How would you describe your leadership style?
PB: I am always struck when I hear people ask the foundation staff about my wife and me, “So…are they around?” The corporate world has handbooks and business schools that tell people how to lead organizations, but with foundations, people seem to think that anything goes! I could be sitting here eating bonbons and looking at the newspaper and saying, “Let’s invest in that.”
Neither of us has ever managed anything before from a human resources perspective or a business perspective, so we try to tread lightly in those areas. But at the same time, we’re both opinionated and know how we want to operate. So we have tried to lead by spelling out the strategy around what we want to do, and then hiring to fit that strategy. It was a huge plus to start with no staff because we could find the perfect people for the job, as opposed to inheriting an organization that someone else had built. We are so thankful that we have the people we do, and we trust them to be better at the job than we are. But we’re still very involved. Jennifer and I are in the office every week for multiple days, depending on our travel schedules. We are absolutely present both in physical and conceptual ways at the foundation.
TF: What advice would you give to someone who has the means to give in significant ways, but hasn’t yet?
PB: My advice is to listen a lot and find the thing that actually gets you excited, and then figure out why it gets you excited. Ask yourself what is driving your interest. I think a lot of the best philanthropy comes from your own experience.
I would also say that people should not discount where they came from in their business lives. Philanthropy is not just about money—there are people with expertise and interests that can be transferred into the philanthropic world.