From the book, Give Smart, by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.
Peter and Jennifer Buffett learned in the spring of 2006 that his father, legendary investor Warren Buffett, was going to transfer a huge sum, something upward of a billion dollars, into their family's NoVo Foundation. "You better get home, I think our life just changed," Peter told Jennifer after getting his father's fax. Though given no specific directives, they were encouraged to "focus the new funds and your energy on a relatively few activities in which NoVo can make an important difference." In response to this unique challenge, the Buffetts decided to embark on a joint journey of discovery. "We were in the office together every single day," Jennifer remembers. "We talked to so many people leading organizations to find out what was the 'opportunity of our time.' Little by little, trickles of information from hundreds of people around the world started to merge into patterns." One pattern, in particular, began to resonate with the Buffetts' own values and beliefs: the imbalance of power between men and women around the world. As Jennifer describes it, "In Africa or India you really see that men have the power and the dominant position, while women do not. And yet women are saddled with the burdens of holding families and communities together." These observations and experiences eventually led the Buffetts to focus the NoVo Foundation on "empowering women and girls as the primary agents of change." Having chosen an issue, they began by making significant grants to experienced, well-run organizations focused on the status of women and girls, such as Women for Women International and the International Rescue Committee. As they learned more about the field, the Buffetts increased their level of commitment even more. In May 2008, the NoVo and Nike foundations jointly announced a combined $100 million investment in the "Girl Effect," aimed at helping the 600 million adolescent girls in developing countries bring social and economic change to their families, communities, and countries. This investment has already begun to show results. For example, the Berhane Hewan initiative, located in a region of Ethiopia where 43% of girls are married by age 15, has helped 11,000 girls (97% of the participants) stay in school and delay marriage. Safe and Smart Savings has given 23,000 Kenyan girls access to savings accounts and financial education, thereby offering them a way to begin building an asset base and developing their economic independence. Through the Girl Effect, and other strategic initiatives focused on tragic problems like sex trafficking and violence against women in post-conflict environments, the Buffetts and NoVo are making gains on the issues about which they are most passionate.
No matter how well-endowed your philanthropic activities are -- even if you are fortunate enough to have a billion dollars in the bank! -- the number of good things you could do will always be greater than the resources you can bring to bear (not just dollars, but also your time and influence). The level of need at home and throughout the world is enormous, even overwhelming. New, urgent, or exciting opportunities arise continuously. And, of course, once people discover that you are inclined to be generous, the flow of requests for help arriving on your doorstep will increase dramatically. It is impossible to invest significantly in a great many things at once, however. This is the trap into which our friend (and a great many other philanthropists) regularly fall. It's not so much a question of making a "wrong" choice as it is of failing to make a choice in the first place. The temptation to do everything and satisfy everyone may generate accolades, but it rarely generates results.