Learning philanthropy from the Buffetts

September 3, 2008, 8:41 PM UTC

Have you read the new Guest Post by Jennifer Buffett? Here’s a bit of background on this up-and-coming major philanthropist…

A year ago, I got to know Jennifer and her husband, Peter, who is Warren Buffett’s youngest son. It was Labor Day weekend, and the person who brought us together is a woman I recently told you about on Postcards: Pat Mitchell, who is one of the world’s great connectors. Pat and her husband, Scott Seydel, invited about 80 friends to Sundance, Utah to celebrate their wedding anniversary — their 7th, but no one was counting. I had met Jennifer before, briefly, at a CARE dinner, but that weekend she and I ran into each other at every turn — on hiking trails, square-dance floors, and in makeshift concert halls where “amateur night” included an Oscar winner (Pat’s pal Jane Fonda) and professional musicians like Peter Buffett. Jennifer and I ended up hanging out together much of the weekend and decided that some future collaboration was inevitable.

We’ve since gotten to know each other, as Jennifer has become part of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which I chair, and as I did the first-ever solo profile of her friend, Melinda Gates, this past January. I see several similarities between Jennifer and Melinda. They’re both smart, strong women who married into money and have stayed remarkably real and pragmatic and down to earth. They both feel huge responsibility to deploy their family wealth wisely, but neither woman goes for the easy shots philanthropically-speaking. As Warren Buffett, who is a philanthropic counselor to both women, said in his 2006 letter to Peter, when he pledged $1 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock to him as well as his other two children: “Expect to make some mistakes; nothing important will be accomplished if you make only ‘safe’ decisions.”

Wisely giving money away, as Warren likes to say, is more difficult to do than making it. That’s why Jennifer and Peter traveled extensively, weighed various options, and carefully strategized before deciding how to “invest” the philanthropic dollars of their NoVo Foundation. They now focus on women and girls in the developing world. NoVo pledged $15 million to support the International Rescue Committee’s work in West Africa. In May, NoVo partnered with the Nike Foundation to give a combined $100 million to help adolescent girls in developing countries. Just as you can learn a lot about smart philanthropy from Melinda Gates — and certainly from Bill and Warren as well — you can learn from Jennifer. Enjoy her story.