OMAHA, Neb. — As they work to give away part of Warren Buffett’s roughly $47 billion fortune, his three children have adopted an approach that looks remarkably similar to their father’s technique for making all that money.
Like Buffett, each relies on tiny staffs. And just like their father invests only in businesses he understands, they restrict their giving to their targeted projects.
Warren Buffett doesn’t direct how the foundations created by Susie, Howard and Peter Buffett spend the estimated $2.6 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock they’ll receive, but his children seem to have absorbed his philosophy.
"I think the only pressure I feel from him is making sure we’re smart about how we spend the money," said Howard Buffett. "He’s had no influence on where we give money, but he’s had a big influence on how we go about it."
Buffett’s children have focused on different topics, reflecting their divergent interests.
Howard Buffett is helping farmers in impoverished nations produce more to reduce world hunger. Susie Buffett is strengthening early childhood education and looking for ways to reduce teen pregnancy. And Peter Buffett wants to empower women and girls worldwide through education, collaboration and economic development to end violence against women.
"We’re given this amazing opportunity to try and make change where we can," Peter Buffett said. "And being our father’s children, we don’t think small."
The Buffett children have all been running foundations their parents set up for them since the late 1990s, but they had to dramatically increase their giving after 2006 when Warren Buffett announced his overall giving plan and the children received their first annual gift of stock worth roughly $65 million to each of them.
They’ll have to ramp up their giving again because Buffett’s annual gifts of Berkshire Hathaway stock will increase to roughly $100 million to $125 million to each child next summer.
Although his children’s foundations will each eventually receive stock worth about $2.6 billion, their charitable work is still overshadowed by their dad’s main pledge to give the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stock worth more than $44 billion.
Warren Buffett is also giving nearly $4.4 billion worth of stock to the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for the investor’s first wife, who died in 2004. That organization promotes women’s reproductive health and tries to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
All three younger Buffetts said they’re glad their father encouraged them to take risks, so they wouldn’t be afraid to tackle difficult issues.
The Buffett children also said they are glad their parents had the foresight to set up separate foundations for each of them, so they could all go their own way.
Howard Buffett regularly travels to poverty-stricken parts of the world to talk with farmers and check up on projects his foundation has funded, but the 57-year-old often doesn’t tell his dad where he’s going until after he returns to avoid worrying him about the dangers of destinations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Howard Buffett, who raises corn and soybeans in Illinois, likes to get a close look at the challenges those farmers he’s trying to help face. He said when he’s travelling he’s reminded of how his mother would try to help anyone in need she encountered.
"It’s very hard for me to walk into those circumstances and not try to do something," he said.
In his giving, Howard Buffett tries to focus on programs that can be continued after the initial grant ends, so he doesn’t support introducing expensive hybrid seeds and irrigation in places where farmers can’t afford them.
The elder Buffett manages one of the world’s largest conglomerates with a tiny staff of two dozen at its Omaha headquarters, and Howard, Susie and Peter run their foundations with staffs less than half that size.
Peter Buffett, 54, said the three children also have applied their father’s belief in limiting his investments to areas he understands.
"You want to be as focused on an end goal as you can be," Peter Buffett said. "In a very practical way, it helps you say no."
Peter Buffett, who is a musician and composer, is working on leveling the playing field for women and girls worldwide through a variety of programs. He hopes that if girls, particularly in impoverished areas, can get access to more resources and education they’ll be ready to play a larger role in their communities and decision making.
Peter Buffett’s NoVo Foundation also support programs to help U.S. schools teach kids social and emotional skills and sound decision-making.
Susie Buffett said she enjoys trying to tackle messy, human problems that aren’t easy to solve, much like her mom did.
"That comes directly from my childhood. It is what I watched my mother do," said Susie Buffett, 59. "She had me in the car with her at a very early age in the housing projects and deep in the community. She was very involved personally. It was not a check-writing thing. It was her being there."
Susie Buffett was always interested in education, but she decided to focus her giving on early childhood education after asking Omaha’s schools superintendent where she could make the biggest difference.
Because Susie Buffett is the only one of Warren’s children living in Omaha, she also uses her Sherwood Foundation to support Omaha nonprofits that help make the city a better place and help low-income neighborhoods.
Warren Buffett’s decision to increase the amount of money he is giving his children’s foundations indicates he supports their work, and he praised their philanthropy.
"Everything has impressed me," Buffett said "They’re each doing things they have a special interest in which they have some special abilities too. And they work very hard at it."
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Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com
Sherwood Foundation: http://www.sherwoodfoundation.org
Howard G. Buffett Foundation: http://www.thehowardgbuffettfoundation.org
NoVo Foundation: http://novofoundation.org
Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation: http://www.stbfoundation.org
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: http://www.gatesfoundation.org