Guest Post: Jennifer Buffett’s best investment

September 3, 2008, 12:43 AM UTC

By Jennifer Buffett

During the Christmas season of 1999, my in-laws, Warren and Susan Buffett, made an extraordinary gift to my husband (their son Peter) and me. They created a charitable foundation and placed the two of us in charge of its operation. This gift proved to be not only a profound responsibility but also a powerful educational journey in philanthropy.

The years of working at our foundation have helped us learn how to do business in the not-for-profit world. We’ve tried to roll up our sleeves, observe, question, and adopt the best techniques. You learn a lot by trying things, falling short and then figuring out what didn’t work. This time that we’ve had to play wide and to learn has helped us. And most recently it’s helped us to develop a strategically-focused mission and organization.

We named the foundation “NoVo” with an intention to be fresh-thinking and innovative (NoVo is Latin for “to change, alter, invent”) and to go where our dollars can really make a difference. This is in keeping with Warren’s 2006 directive letter that accompanied an increase in funds and coincided with his Gates Foundation history-making grant. We followed Warren’s advice to avoid a reactive stance by salt and peppering dollars around to lots of organizations and people who came knocking on our door.

So we embarked on a strategic planning process. We asked ourselves, “What specifically should we focus on? Health? The environment? Education? Alleviating poverty?” We sat down with numerous experts — foundation professionals, NGOs, other thought leaders — and traveled to Africa, India, and Bangladesh. We grew to appreciate the interconnectedness of so many problems facing humanity. And we looked for intervention points that could help heal, even transform, the world.

In 2007, we had an Aha! moment. We landed not on one or two interventions but on an entire demographic: a group that comprises 51% of the world’s population and affects everyone — WOMEN AND GIRLS.

Women and girls are grossly under-funded. There are few resources dedicated to their empowerment and well-being, and there is no shortage of sobering statistics that present a strong case for funding them. Women receive less than 10% of agricultural assistance, yet they produce nearly 80% of the world’s food. Adolescent girls in the developing world receive only half a penny of every development dollar. Yet girls become the mothers of every child born.

Who supplies water and food? Who cares for the infirm, elderly and younger siblings? Who is intimately in touch with the cycles of life and rebuilds families after wars? We came to realize that the patterns of poverty, disease and lack of education either pass down through her — or the patterns end by investing in her. If we invested in girls and women specifically — to help them acquire marketable skills and education, maintain their health and delay marriage — their children would reap the benefits.

A couple of years ago, during a weekend with friends, I came to a clearer understanding when Melinda Gates shared her passion for women and girls. She explained how, practically speaking, women have a particular appreciation for context. By context, Melinda meant the human angle. As she talked about visiting health clinics in Africa with Bill, she focused on how the women perceived the health technologies they were using — or trying to use — in daily life. She appreciated these villages as living laboratories where healing could increase with the help of new technologies.

Melinda told us how the African women shared with her the range of factors that impacted healing: the distances they had to walk to bring water back to their families, their struggles to find adequate food, cultural attitudes of men, safety and basic hygiene, on and on. Appreciating context, Melinda realized, “If proper amounts of food and water aren’t a part of drug treatment, forget it.”  She said, “Women understand this, and it’s in their hands to secure what’s needed most of the time.”

Bill Gates is a technology man and a brilliant thinker. Luckily, blessedly, he has a wife who values context and the essential role that women play: Women are the caring stewards of future generations. Through the NoVo foundation, we’re investing with a passionate understanding of that truth.

By the way, I think my father-in-law, Warren, learned about the essential role of women from his 50-year partnership with his wife, Susan. There are times when I overhear my husband speaking with his father, and Warren will ask, “So what does Jennifer think?” It reminds us that being “smart” can mean knowing who to turn to. And often, no matter where in the world, she is sitting right next to you.

Jennifer Buffett is president of NoVo Foundation and co-chairs the foundation’s board with her husband, Peter Buffett. She also is on the board of the Nike Foundation.