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Can love be the right metric for a billion-dollar philanthropy? A Buffett scion aims to find out

Reuters/Damir Sagolj
A Kosovar refugee boy looks out a window of his home inside a refugee center.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Go to your bosom. Knock there, and ask the heart what it doth know.

                        -William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Early this year, Jennifer and Peter Buffett, co-directors of the NoVo Foundation, wrote an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, calling for a model of philanthropy that “leads from the heart.” As the non-profit funding sector focuses increasingly on numbers (how to do the most good, based on evidence, not on sentiment), the Buffetts seek to counter that trend. The hyper-focus on measurement, in their view, ignores what truly motivates people to give away large amounts of money and, in fact, weakens the spirit of giving. The answer, according to the Buffetts, should be, simply: love. By emphasizing strategy and viewing grants as “investments,” donors prize head over heart and the spirit of giving gets lost. Peter says of the op-ed’s origins, “We’d been hearing, ‘How do you measure, measure, measure?’ And that has been bothering us for quite some time.”

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with measuring. Statistics and loving intentions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. “We use metrics, too,” Jennifer says. But she’s very clear about her objective as a philanthropist: “Whatever the issue is, you have to say, ‘Well, how am I going to do this in a thoughtful way to help solve a problem and empower people?’” And that’s a question that can’t always be answered by crunching numbers.

“We’d been hearing, ‘How do you measure, measure, measure?’ And that has been bothering us for quite some time.”

Of course, one can imagine a metrics-driven donor calling his own approach loving, too. The story of Paul Tudor Jones, founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, comes to mind: In 1986, he adopted a class of sixth graders in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn—giving financial resources to the classroom, taking the students on trips, and even personally going over their report cards with them. He would support them until they finished their secondary education, promising that if they graduated from high school, he would pay for their college educations. He believed (and was excited to prove) that if they had hope for their future, as well as means, they would perform better academically. Six years later, Harvard researchers assessed the performance of that class and came back with disappointing results—the children Jones had supported were no better off than their peers in a neighboring school; the two classes had similar rates of attendance, dropouts, and teen pregnancies. Subsequently, Jones, who, by his own description, had poured his “heart and soul” into the success of those students, felt that his efforts had been a waste. Believing he’d learned a valuable lesson, he switched tacks and became a leader in using metrics to shape effective giving. But contrary to the Buffetts’ philosophy, his heart was still very much in the game: Without numbers, he reasoned, he would never be able to help people effectively.

A love movement

So if love is not the opposite of numbers, what is it? To institutionalize love, or create a movement around it as the Buffetts are trying to do, it’s important to first define it—and determine why it matters to philanthropy. In this way, the Buffetts’ op-ed falls short. They offer examples of what love means in the context of charitable giving (“Love means actively seeking out collaboration with others” and “Love means truly embracing mistakes as part of a natural learning process, not simply paying lip service to the need for experimentation or risk.”) But they don’t define love specifically. And their examples could well be suggestions for maturity or tips to be successful in business. The op-ed speculates that giving in ways that demonstrate trust (as opposed to control) could result in more honesty and, by extension, deeper relationships between givers and receivers. But isn’t it true that someone could be controlling and not realize it? Or collaborate in an unloving way? Make mistakes in an unloving way?

The Buffetts are clear on what love is not—capitalist greed. In recent years, as income inequality in the US has grown, Peter, in particular, has been vocal about calling the motivations of high-level donors into question, as he outlined in an op-ed that ran in the New York Times in 2013. Today, more than a century after John D. Rockefeller established his foundation, the word “philanthropist” has become nearly synonymous with someone who uses personal wealth to fund initiatives that further the public good. Translation: philanthropists are rich. (See: Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.) That makes sense; it helps to have dough if you’re going to give a lot of it away. It’s just the relationship between wealth and charity that Buffett finds problematic.

Peter is been wary of the “conscience-laundering” aspect of philanthropy, whereby donors attempt to do good only after having “accumulated more than anyone could possibly need.”

I find it philosophically rich: In philanthropic terms, it’s easy to think of generosity as a singularly-directed current—a person or organization giving to those who have less—but if the giver is also receiving (for example, fulfillment or a sense of purpose), then the recipient is also providing value, by inspiring the generosity. Peter Buffett’s concern is that many high-profile donors have made their fortunes in the capitalist framework, a framework that has contributed to many of the problems those same donors now aim to fix. While that conflict of interest might not necessarily make one’s donation “unloving,” Peter is been wary of the “conscience-laundering” aspect of philanthropy, whereby donors attempt to do good only after having “accumulated more than anyone could possibly need.” According to Peter, if the donor is interested only in assuaging his own guilt, that’s not generosity. That’s not love.

In their most recent op-ed, for all their talk about love, the Buffetts stop just short of admitting that they’re not sure how to define it:

Love can’t be quantified. But it seems to matter. So how can we infuse love into the motivating force behind moving money? There are certainly other unquantifiable forces at work—greed and fear to name two.

For the Buffetts, their stewardship of philanthropic dollars did not begin with greed or fear. It began with a change in fortune: Though both Peter and Jennifer acknowledge their “white social class privilege,” it is worth noting that Peter’s famously wealthy father encouraged him to be self-sufficient. At the age of 19, Peter received an inheritance–from his grandfather. They were the proceeds from the sale of a farm, which Warren converted into Berkshire Hathaway stock for Peter, worth roughly $90,000 at the time. It was understood that Peter should expect nothing more. On Christmas in 1997, Warren and Susan Buffett gave Peter and Jennifer $100,000 to be donated to organizations of their choice. Two years later, at Christmas, the senior Buffetts gifted an additional $10 million for charitable purposes. (Each of Peter’s two older siblings received equivalent gifts.)

Management of this money inspired Peter, a professional musician, and Jennifer, who had experience in fundraising, to educate themselves—they knew so little about dealing with large sums of money. They read everything they could get their hands on and spent time identifying how their own personal biographies intersected with their charitable inclinations. Jennifer felt compelled to address gender inequality; Peter, meanwhile, a child of the 60s with an interest in civil rights issues, was interested in social justice. (He had also once worked on a piece of music for Dances with Wolves, a major motion picture that delved into the history of exploitation of Native Americans.) Jennifer explains, “We bring everything we do into our experience as philanthropists.”

People closest to […] problems are usually the ones best equipped to address them.

But an unexpected turning point, sparking their current high-level giving, came in 2006, in what Peter calls “the big bang”—a fax from his father, detailing an infusion of 350 shares of Berkshire Hathaway stock, an added one billion dollars for Peter’s and Jennifer’s philanthropic interests. Catapulted to a whole new level of philanthropy, Jennifer and Peter established NoVo, heeding Warren’s advice that their giving be concentrated on needs that were not being met elsewhere. The mission of NoVo, which, in 2014, distributed $100 million in grants, is to “foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership.” From 2006 to 2009, the Buffetts, committed to donating the money thoughtfully, engaged in a charitable master class of their own making—they listened, read, and traveled both domestically and internationally.

What they learned—that the people closest to the problems are usually the ones best equipped to address them, or at least to advise outsiders—led to their leading-from-the-heart philosophy. Peter remembers one particularly eye-opening trip to Liberia, when NoVo met with the Liberian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other foundations; he showed up with certain ideas about education and what it might accomplish there, but when he came face-to-face with the magnitude of infrastructure issues in the country, he was shocked and humbled, forced to question his own authority to make decisions about, or even understand, a dire situation with which he had no firsthand experience: “When you walk into a place and realize they don’t have roads or safe drinking water, it makes you pause. The solution, it’s not yours to say.” In other words, the potential arrogance of philanthropy dawned on him: How could those with privilege and means make decisions for poor people without so much as asking for their input?

In the history of large-scale philanthropy, the Buffetts’ vocal approach to calling out funders—those whose intentions may be, at best, not “loving” enough, and at worst, utterly corrupt—and emphasizing the decision-making power of grant recipients stands out. And yet, though their hearts are in the right place, they haven’t yet provided a clear roadmap for action. Given the myriad ways that people give and are driven to give, can there be there an objective standard for “love-driven” philanthropy?

A short history of philanthropy

If “love” is difficult to pin down, at least we can define philanthropy. The earliest record of the word dates back to Ancient Greece. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus depicts Prometheus stealing fire and hope from the gods and distributing it to humans, encouraging them to improve the lot of all. In this original context—where all citizens have a stake in improving society—philanthropy is democratic, rather than hierarchical. Philanthropy, from its earliest roots, has been about love (philos) of humankind (anthropos).

Such, too, was the case when Benjamin Franklin founded the Junto in 1727, a group of men who met weekly to discuss current events and who eventually went on to establish, via donations and volunteerism, America’s first subscription library and a hospital, among other institutions. One of the four requirements to be a Junto member was “the love of mankind in general.” (Incidentally, Kant, who prized duty-bound action in his writing, called Franklin “the new Prometheus,” for his experiments with lightning as electricity.)

The progression toward metrics has been logical. But has it become too logical?

For almost two centuries after Junto began, metrics weren’t part of the conversation in the American philanthropy world, but a major turning point came in 1913, when Rockefeller established his seminal foundation. In Random Reminiscences of Men and Events, Rockefeller explains that he was giving in a “haphazard fashion as appeals presented themselves.” He writes,

I…worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way, without sufficient guide…There was then forced upon me the necessity to organize and plan this department…on as distinct lines of progress as we did our business affairs.

In his lifetime, Rockefeller gave away nearly $540 million, to ends that included eliminating hook worm, funding to the research that led to the yellow fever vaccine, helping to relocate Jewish scholars from German to American institutions in the 1930s, and establishing the Harvard School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. His well-organized approach to giving was undeniably effective.

Late in Rockefeller’s life, a second wave of philanthropy began, established by the likes of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan. This set of new philanthropists built upon the format established by Carnegie and Rockefeller, merging charitable and business sectors by including corporate executives on foundation boards. (In “Metrics Mania: The Growing Corporatization of US Philanthropy,” Alison R. Bernstein, now the director of the Women’s Institute for Leadership at Rutgers University, offers a thoughtful, comprehensive historical view of corporatized giving.) In this second wave, foundation directors viewed the dispensation of grants through a lens of corporate expertise rather than directing recipient spending, paving the way for today’s climate of measurement and its emphasis on deliverables and ROIs. The progression toward metrics has been logical. But has it become too logical?

A love ethic

Earlier this year, Pamela Shifman, executive director at NoVo, picked up the phone and called Rajasvini Bhansali, the executive director of IDEX (International Development Exchange), an organization to whom NoVo had just given a seven-year $2.65 million-dollar general support grant. Schifman said, “If it doesn’t feel like we’re overstepping our bounds, would you be interested in [funds for] rebranding?”

Unbeknownst to Shifman (and her colleagues at NoVo), IDEX, an organization that supports community-led change around the globe, had been discussing a rebranding for five years, but couldn’t afford it. That Shifman would make that offer unprompted, based on her own assessment of what might be helpful—and in such a respectful way—floored Bhansali. Organizations, on the whole, are used to requesting support to meet their needs, and so it was a welcome surprise to Bhansali to have a funder proactively inquire.

“It seems like a simple thing,” Bhansali says, “but to have that approach is a very loving way [to help IDEX] to capacity-build” (a not-for-profit term for increasing an organization’s overall effectiveness).

Again, I snag on this word: “loving.” Surely, the anecdote strikes me as an example of respect, an important component of love, but is it actually “loving”?

Love, then, is a sentiment that must lead to an active demonstration.

Feminist and cultural critic bell hooks might say yes. On Dec. 22, 1999, three days before the Buffetts received the $10 million injection of funds, her book All About Love: New Visions, hit the shelves. In its pages, hooks laments the lack of love in modern-day society and describes the need for a “love ethic,” a practice that can be ever-present in all that we do, personally and professionally. When I read her book, I remembered something a friend of mine had said years ago, challenging the notion of “unconditional love”: Love is unconditional by definition—that is, if love is conditional, it is not love. Hooks emphasizes the importance of “loving actions.” For example, one can claim to love a child, but if that person doesn’t treat the child with respect and give him agency, the claim is empty. Love, then, is a sentiment that must lead to an active demonstration.

Maybe that’s what the Buffetts are talking about. Maybe what’s troubling about focus on metrics is that that approach doesn’t necessarily require action to be linked to sentiment. First, philanthropists should feel, then self-reflect. Then act. An example of how the Buffetts demonstrate that philosophy at NoVo is their recent institution of a 30% tipping policy when foundation employees take a cab or meet at a restaurant in the course of their work: They care about the people they encounter (feeling). They are aware that they make more money than most servers, and that a generous tipping policy could assist in income redistribution (self-reflection) by putting money directly into the pockets of people who can immediately benefit from it. And so they put their money where their mouth is (action).

The Buffetts are doing meaningful work and making an impact, but is it fair for them to suggest that there might be standard for all philanthropists? After all, couldn’t it be viewed as unloving to impose their definition of love on everyone? To their credit, Jennifer clarified, “We never want to be the Emperor with no clothes, where people just agree with what we say.” But how to account for and embrace all the different ways that donors might define love and giving?

Maybe the goal among philanthropists shouldn’t be to give lovingly (a semantics nightmare), but to give thoughtfully: What unique understanding do I, as an individual, hold about the world, and how can I use it to contribute?

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