Buffett philanthropy emphasizes effective giving

by Andrew Branch
Posted 8/30/13, 04:32 pm

Billionaire Warren Buffett made a name for himself making money. But he wants to be remembered for his ability to give it all—$58 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock—away.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he intends to throw it away. The man famous for plotting successful business deals is trying to be just as careful in his philanthropy, only giving to organizations that will use the money well. Now, he wants to pass his strategy on.

In July, I started taking the online course taught by The Learning by Giving Foundation, which lets students in on Buffett’s philanthropy philosophy and gives them a chance to give away $100,000 of the Buffett family fortune. The class, which sought to encourage more giving by informing givers, not telling them who to give to, ended today. My classmates will vote next week on which organizations will get a slice of the pie.

The class taught students to use the RISE framework: Relevance, impact, sustainability, and excellence in management and operations. I was naturally curious how the course would handle the worldview-dependent term “impact,” especially since the Buffett family has made some questionable giving choices in the past, including offering $58 million to Planned Parenthood in 2008.

Rebecca Riccio, a Northeastern University professor, taught the course without taking sides. She told me Thursday the concept of impact, both organizationally and personally, is complex and nuanced and often does not lend itself to measurability. Riccio talked about helping people find their “own giving truth.” Yes, it’s a little relativistic, but not every issue is as wrapped up in politics or morality as poverty. With more than 1 million nonprofit organizations alone, reasons for giving vary from supporting a cancer walk for lost loved ones to worldview-based tithing at a local church.

“I do believe there are more and less effective ways to give,” Riccio told me. “But I think there’s a difference between trying to inspire people to give more effectively, and judging them if they’re not. I don’t judge people, I try to inspire them.”

In the impact section of the class, we learned givers can judge an organization based on its own definition of impact. Analyzing is often as simple as fiding out whether the organization knows anything about an issue. No one, Riccio told me, should try to define impact without having “respect and humility” to be informed: “Respect enables you to value the experience and the knowledge of the people affected by an issue, and the people who are already working on it. Humility allows you recognize that you have a lot to learn before you make a difference.”

And doing the work before making assumptions is always wise. Riccio may not always agree with her students’ worldviews, she said, but “there are tools I can provide that can help people be as effective as possible, in a way that is also comfortable with their worldview.” The class had more than 10,000 registered students, after all. 

As well as outlining the RISE framework, the class taught us how to assess whether an organization’s plan of action reflects knowldege of the community’s needs. Teachers also encouraged us to look at financial ratings from groups like Charity Navigator, which often gives easy access to IRS 990 financial reports.

We also heard from givers themselves, whether through the Google+ discussion board, or Riccio’s probing interviews with celebrity philanthropists like the Buffetts. The celebrities, interestingly enough, learned their giving habits from their parents. From journalist Soledad O’Brien, who developed relationships with girls she met on the job and helped put them through college, to Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who give to single-payer health care advocates. We learned from each subject’s creativity, even if the causes weren’t necessarily biblical.

An informed giver is much less likely to make poor giving choices. And in that respect, Learning by Giving gets it.

Andrew Branch

Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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