Peter Buffett calls for philanthropy to be rebuilt “from the ground up”

Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett and chairman of the NoVo Foundation, authored a razor-sharp critique of modern philanthropy for the New York Times. He looks at the “charitable-industrial complex” and says that philanthropy is actually operating in a way that keeps the “existing structure of inequality in place.” In no uncertain terms, he calls for a total reconstruction of the philanthropic sector (NYT, 7/27):

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.

What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.

WRAG is deep into planning for an important conversation with funders about philanthropic disruption. We’re excited to share more information about that soon. In the meantime, here are two responses to Buffett that are worth considering:

Forbes writer Tom Watson agrees with much of what Buffett outlines, but disagrees with his claim that the philanthropic sector is growing rapidly. (Forbes, 7/28)

– Also in Forbes, the Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock says that Buffett misses the mark and that philanthropy’s real problem is that it is generally not done well. But when it is – like when the Gates Foundation brings vaccines to Africa – the societal benefit is “valuable by any calculus.” (Forbes, 7/27)

What do you folks think? Please comment below – we’d love to hear your thoughts. And on a summer day, how could I write about a Buffett and changes without linking to this?

PHILANTHROPY | Buffett’s call to action isn’t the only major news in philanthropy. Last week, Darren Walker was named the new head of the Ford Foundation. Katherine McFate, CEO of the Center for Effective Government, hails the choice as an excellent one and says that Walker knows exactly how to trigger social change. (Chronicle, 7/29)

POVERTY | And keeping with the trend that something needs to change, new data from the Associated Press should shock you: about 80 percent of adults in the United States “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”  (NBC, 7/28)

– As Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr (MCPSSJS) enters his third year, the Post says that expectations of him are rising – especially considering recent reports on test failures. (WaPo, 7/29)

D.C. summer-school enrollment fails to meet target (WaPo, 7/29)

LOCAL | Entrepreneurs and residents along Columbia Pike wait to see what redevelopment brings (WaPo, 7/29) But only entrepreneurs and residents. Nobody else is waiting.

I’ve always heard that you’re supposed to spend as much on a wedding gift as your dinner costs. This is problematic for me, because I’ve been to a bunch of weddings with buffets that feature crab cakes. Apparently that rule isn’t a good one! Phew. Here are some great tips on how much to spend on various occasions.

Also, a lot of today’s news is depressing. Apologies for sharing it with you. This song from Vampire Weekend is really upbeat though!

One thought on “Peter Buffett calls for philanthropy to be rebuilt “from the ground up””

  1. I appreciate Buffet’s concern with the quality and process of philanthropy which had prompted us to start The Schimel Lode in 1998 to honor of my parents values and lives. We chose to focus on collaboration and innovation with participants (not grantees) in the DC area. That we had limited funds and Board talents also led us to this different focus.

    From the beginning, we offered free consulting services to promote nonprofit effectiveness (now called capacity-building). With what will likely be our final two major collaborations, we now have additional experience to briefly describe our efforts at transcending hierarchy and discouraging dependency. But after all the pro bono contributions of our working board (v. important names with money), we sense it will soon be time for others to influence institutions with alternative, while complementary, visions for the process of philanthropy. Perhaps our planned collaborative writing with some Lode participants about our approach, including warts and successes, may be of interest and use.

    Within a month of so, we will update our Web site to reflect the current situation. For those who want to visit it now, including the Resources on the site, please see

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