What would you do if someone dropped hundreds of millions of dollars into your lap? If you are like Doris Eleanor Buffett, you will give it all away. During a dinner party at her younger brother Warren E. Buffett’s home, Bono suggested she write the story of her life and philanthropic philosophy. She teamed up with journalist Michael Zitz to write Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story.
The Doris Buffett Story
Life behind the closed doors of the Buffett household was not peaceful. Leila Stahl Buffett frequently went on the war path. Doris, the oldest child, was the most frequent target of her mother’s rages and was treated like the family’s black sheep:
Doris. . .never heard the words “I love you”. . .never had a story read to [her]. Rarely was [she] tucked into bed. Nobody ever said, “Call us when you get there so we know you’re safe.”
It appears Mrs. Buffett was exceedingly jealous of her gorgeous, brilliant daughter. Despite the fact that Ms. Buffet had a 150 IQ and was in the top 10% of her high school class, her mother frequently told her that she was stupid. Her mother blocked her dreams to attend Southern Methodist University.
Ms. Buffett went to “Auntie” Florence Post, an elderly widow with style and culture, for the affection and attention she didn’t receive at home. Doris attempted to escape from her mother’s abuse by accepting frequent babysitting gigs and used her earnings to buy fashionable clothes which only served to ramp up her mother’s jealousy. Ms. Buffett believes her mother had bipolar disorder, and I think her behavior indicates she may have been a malignant narcissist:
Your job was to make them look good, even walk a couple of steps behind them.
Although Mrs. Buffett made her son Warren cry too, she was less hard on him:
As a young boy, he said he often felt the urge to protect his older sister. “But I never did, because I was afraid of becoming the target myself.” Once he ran away from home to [Washington, D.C. to] escape her rants. . . “Warren was a boy, and boys, in mother’s viewpoint, were more valuable than women.”
Roberta (Bertie) Buffett Elliott, the youngest child, escaped her mother’s abuse and was sent to Northwestern University where earned a Phi Beta Kappa key.
In public, Mrs. Buffett was “vivacious” and presented a “totally sunny disposition.” Her great-grandson, Alexander Buffett Rozek, adored her.
Their father, stockbroker and Rep. Howard Homan Buffett (R-NE), gave his children “enormous approval.” Although he warned his children when his wife was on a rampage, he did nothing to protect them. While he served four terms in Congress, the family lived in Fredericksburg, VA. Omaha was their home base.
Ms. Buffett thrived in World War II-era Washington, D.C. during her high school years. She was the “belle of the ball.” She was invited to Margaret Truman’s birthday party at the White House.
Back in Omaha, she bristled at the pressure to get married:
If you were twenty-four and not married yet, you had to leave town. . . “Men were supposed to be smarter. In a marriage, if the woman was smarter, she’d better hide it. Men had. . .more power, and women were expected to smile and keep quiet. . .The only reason you went to college was to get your man, your ‘Mrs. degree.'”
. . .I remember five girls who were so bright they cold run General Motors, and they married. No way were those men their equal.
To thrive, children need 1) a healthy sense of responsibility, 2) self-confidence, and 3) intellectual curiosity. My sense is that because her mother’s narcissistic wounding was so intense that Ms. Buffett may not have been able to establish a solid foundation for her life until after her mother’s death.
Ms. Buffett’s life has taken the trajectory common for child abuse survivors. Her emotional, physical, and financial health suffered greatly. She’s had four failed marriages and has been estranged from her children. Her health has suffered: two bouts of cancer, three mini-strokes, and depression. When the stock market imploded on Black Monday in 1987, she found herself $2 million in debt. To avoid becoming homeless, she had to liquidate assets and rent out rooms in her home:
For the first sixty-eight years of her life. . .not much had gone right for Doris, despite being blessed with beauty, brains, and charisma. . .no matter how hard she was hit, she refused to stay down. Her stubbornness was about to pay off for thousands of people who needed a break themselves.
Giving It All Away: The Sunshine Lady Foundation
Ms. Buffett knows what it is like to pinch pennies. As a young wife in Denver, CO, she struggled to “live graciously” on $270/month with a food budget of $10/week. The family drove a 13-year-old car. Josephine Travis tutored her. Ms. Buffett credits Ms. Travis with planting the seeds for the Sunshine Lady Foundation.
Ms. Buffett didn’t become enormously wealthy until her mother passed away in 1996. She started the Sunshine Lady Foundation to give away her inheritance. She endeavors to level the playing field between the have’s and have not’s, to give women and children the safe and peaceful home she never enjoyed, and to provide medical care and education. She was a first grade teacher and worked at a women’s shelter in Morehead City, NC. Her foundation is linked to 2,000 shelters, and she believes that education is the key to a peaceful home. She is committed to help people who have had traumatic childhoods. Her greatest aspiration is to make a difference in people’s lives.
The Buffett family has been vocal in their belief in social justice. In 2007, Mr. Buffett donated the bulk of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which does “wholesale” philanthropy ~ they give money to organizations to dispense to individuals. At the same time, he pledged to fund the grant requests that came to his office that he forwarded to his sister to be fulfilled ~ “retail” philanthropy ~ the grants are given to individuals. Ms. Buffett seems to share her brother’s frustration with people who are clueless about the link between adequate funding and social issues. Both aspire to timely make a difference:
Doris believes we can’t wait for change to come from a dysfunctional government.
A grant without collaboration is a handout, and we never give a handout. We give a hand up. . .making a deal. . .Each recipient becomes our partner in the deal. We treat our partners with dignity and respect, and our joy comes from seeing them empowered by their own actions. . .
She’s making sure that the people she helps make good choices, by holding them accountable, and requiring them to make good decisions.
In the business world, venture capitalists become angel investors for small, start-up companies. Using a similar investment philosophy, the Sunshine Lady Foundation invests virtue capital. Ms. Buffett is a very pragmatic philanthropist. She looks for the core causes of society’s dysfunctions and intervenes one family at a time. She believes early intervention is critical. For example:
. . .when young children are abused, their frontal lobes, the part of the brain that deals with logic, judgment and decision-making, are affected. . .eighty-five percent of brain development takes place before age three. . .Poor children fall behind and never catch up.
Grant applications are vetted by “Sunbeams,” who are Ms. Buffett’s most close and trusted friends. Before investing in someone, Ms. Buffett follows her brother’s practice of intensive due diligence:
By the time a check is sent, a thick pile of documentation has been collected and confirmed. To make sure the money goes to its intended use, most checks aren’t made out to individuals but to credit-card and life-insurance companies, auto-repair and car dealerships, home-repair companies, medical centers and others owed money by the letter writers.
Ms. Buffet expects grant recipients to leverage and exhaust all available welfare resources before asking for a grant. They are expected to present a viable plan and demonstrate commitment to their futures. Quite simply, if someone isn’t willing to invest in themselves, why should Ms. Buffett invest in them?
The Buffett family values hard work, integrity, and a strong sense of personal responsibility. Ms. Buffett and the Sunbeams are wise to the games of players. The Buffetts don’t bail each other out, and they won’t bail you out either. In fact, after Black Monday, the Buffett family turned their backs on Ms. Buffett. They refused to bail her out of her financial dilemma:
I had no Social Security because I had been married and hadn’t worked. I had no health insurance. It was beyond embarrassing in my family. It was shameful. I had not one ounce of entitlement and took total blame for what happened.
She accepted total responsibility for her choices and misplaced trust. Ultimately, Mr. Buffett gave her the benefit of his financial genius, but he didn’t give her money.
Ms. Buffett, like many abused children, tried in vain to win her mother’s love and affection by striving to be a perfect child. Despite her mother’s horrendous abuse, Ms. Buffett maintained her “Mary Sunshine” disposition. Her grants are intended to bring sunshine into the lives of the recipients:
She wants poor children, sick kids and abused women to experience a little happiness. . .”I think happiness is very elusive when you’re dealing with loss throughout your life. . .What’s better than some happy memories?”
Ms. Buffet expects grant recipients to send thank you notes and to pay it forward. She has endowed the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program (WISP, Inc.) with $30 million to fund the education of survivors of intimate partner violence. . .so they can become women of independent means and pay it forward.
Her vision is a world in which every home is a safe home. Her passion for treating society’s forgotten people with dignity and respect touched me to my core. My sense is that grant recipients are as blessed to receive her wisdom as they are by her financial gifts.
Ms. Buffett currently resides in a 1776-era house in Fredericksburg, VA, which is not far from where the family lived when Rep. Buffett served in Congress. She also has a condominium in Rockport, ME. She is exceptionally close to her grandson Alexander Buffett Rozek.
If you intend to apply for a Sunshine Lady Foundation or WISP grant, you would be well-advised to do your own due diligence. Giving It All Away is a fascinating book. It gives an intimate glimpse into the Buffett family’s financial philosophy as well as the challenges faced by survivors of child abuse. Further, it provides an excellent explanation of results-oriented philanthropy. After the book came out, Ms. Buffett did a series of videotaped interviews which provide a wealth of information regarding which grants get funded and which ones don’t. I highly recommend her interviews with Forbes and with Good Morning America.
Note: Doris Buffett isn’t the only member of her family who invests heavily in domestic violence prevention. Her nephew Peter Buffett and his wife Jennifer invest via their NOVO Foundation.
Update: Sadly, Ms. Buffett is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. She has relocated to Boston and set up the Letters Foundation which is being run by her grandson Alexander Buffett Rozek.
Update: Sadly, Ms. Buffett passed away on August 4, 2020 in Rockport, Maine at age 92. I don’t know if she got her wish that her last check would bounce.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.