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Why We Simply Aren’t Doing Enough To Change The World: Interview With Peter Buffett

In late July 2013, Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that too much of philanthropy is focused on making the donor feel good, and not on providing actual solutions to pressing social problems. This behavior, which he refers to as “philanthropic colonialism,” perpetuates inequality instead of eradicating it.

The article sparked a sector wide debate with some praising Peter’s assessment that we pay too much attention to donors and not enough attention to new systems while others stating that he over simplifies the problem without offering any solutions. (Read a roundup of responses on the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

We talked to Peter about why he wrote the article, his reflections on the responses, and why he thinks everyone who works in the philanthropic sector needs to be “driven to lose their jobs.”

A photo of Peter Buffett.

Let’s start at the beginning: What prompted you to write this piece and what were you hoping would happen?

Well, it was prompted by the last seven years of observation. The term “philanthropic colonialism” came about many years ago when talking to NGOs about their experiences and I found that when I said that phrase, many people lit up and agreed. Too many folks out there were feeling that they were responding to the donor instead of to the ground.

I wrote a song about a month ago about this and realized that the song wasn’t enough, but I had no idea it would have this kind of reaction. I’ve been writing songs all my life, and my hit ended up being this op-ed!

How does your point of view affect your philanthropy, specifically in your work with the NoVo Foundation?

It just keeps us on our toes. We’re constantly challenging ourselves and questioning ourselves to ensure we are responding to things that are happening on the ground. It’s really about constant checks and balances. And I think you’ll also see soon, even more shifts in behavior with us. We try to adjust accordingly.

I haven’t talked about right or wrong approach or good or bad. I’m not into claiming I know anything, I’m into trying things out and leading by example.

In a recent interview in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Bill Gates echoed some of your statements questioning our emphasis on funding the latest, newest technology by saying, “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Do you think philanthropy really just has a priority problem and if so what is it and how can we address it?

I suppose you could call it a priority problem, but it’s deeper than that. It’s a systemic and functional problem. I really think we need two kinds of philanthropy. One is to stop the bleeding: the food, the shelters, all of those are necessary. But there should also be a real appetite for building scaffolding around a new system of behavior, new economies, new ways of looking at markets. We’re always talking about lifting people out of poverty from living on two dollars a day, but I am thinking, how can we all live on two dollars a day?

I think it’s just necessary to challenge the whole thing. Rebuild a system based on humanism. And yes it’s important to pay attention to here and now but we have to set our eyes on something different. Which is why I love the name of your site. We need Idealists, people who envision a different a world.

And speaking of Bill Gates, what responses have you gotten from big philanthropists?

I have gotten a few. I’ve received many responses from various organizations but not too many from the massive side like Bill and Melinda. I’ve heard second hand about George Soros in conversation about it and an internal gathering at Ford. So, lots of people are talking, but not really talking to me, and I think that’s a good thing.

You say in your piece, “Often I hear people say, “if only they had what we have” (clean water, access to health products and free markets, better education, safer living conditions). Yes, these are all important. But no “charitable” (I hate that word) intervention can solve any of these issues. It can only kick the can down the road.” You then say in the Huffington Post, “Everyone in the philanthropic sector should be driven to lose their job.”

Many of us who work at nonprofits are involved in this work of providing clean water, better education and safer living conditions and do in fact make careers out this. So what role do you think nonprofits have in what you call the “charitable industrial complex” and what role can we have in changing philanthropy?

Well again, there’s the here and now. People need those things, but we need to think long term and more critically.

Education is a great example. I heard from one person at a big philanthropic organization focusing on education in Africa, wondering why are we expecting them to import an education system we know is broken, that doesn’t even work for us?

Some of us have to look upstream. We need to ask, “Is it the best thing?” “Can this be maintained?” Every village has its own set of circumstances and the complexity is that we need to do this work effectively, then not do it anymore. What are the deeper systemic solutions?

This is an issue on both sides. So many foundations become institutions and no one walks off to their foundation job saying, “I want to lose this job today, how can I do this?” Same on the NGO side: It’s purpose and a paycheck and who wouldn’t want both? Being able to do something meaningful and put food on the table. You can’t argue with that. But then how can you make sure your deepest purpose is to no longer have a job?

So far the conversation has been pretty macro, focusing on foundations and organizations. What can we do as individuals when it comes to creating change and philanthropy?

One thing I’ve learned is that the quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” from Gandhi, is harder than you think. People are busy doing change, but being change—living from a place of compassion and understanding and then working from that place—just throughout your day can be much more difficult. I know this sounds kind of new-agey, but it really starts from the inside. You have to check your ego at the door.

The other piece of this is consumption: Once you start consuming culture, it starts consuming you. All of this stuff is meaningless compared to the relationship you have with the person next to you. We have to turn off spigot of consumer culture, which reduces people to the lowest common denominator.

Responses have varied from celebrating your point of view saying that philanthropy does not do enough to challenge the status quo to some saying you’re misguided on philanthropy, economics, and how nonprofits work. In light of the conversation that’s been brewing around this topic, has your thinking changed at all and what if anything are you doing to keep this conversation going?

I will say that I’ve certainly learned the power of turning a particular lever at the right way at the right time. The fact that one op-ed can unlock that much energy is fascinating. It has made me more conscious of that because it happened to me!

And a very careful next step for us at NoVo, because I don’t want to be pulled into a conversation around right and wrong, is continual trial and error regarding the power dynamic around money. We want to create relationships where people tell you the truth instead of what you want to hear, which is a big problem in philanthropy.

And I try to keep the conversation open ended and towards what’s better, instead of what’s broken, who’s better, and that kind of stuff. How can we create conditions for change, knowing that the voices will come from the ground up, and that we can’t predict what will happen? People want a specific answer, I know. But we have to be comfortable knowing that we can’t predict the outcome and we may even disagree with the outcome. We don’t want to say, “Here’s the answer.” Instead, we say, “YOU know the answer lets help you find it in your way, your time, and with patience. “

To learn more, visit Peter Buffett’s website and the NoVo Foundation.

by Allison Jones

Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.

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