August 5, 2013

Warren Buffett’s Son, Peter, Fires Shot at ‘Charitable-Industrial Complex’

Peter Buffett writes in a New York Times op-ed that philanthropy needs a ‘new operating system’

Peter Buffett, far left, with his famous dad and sister, Susan. (Photo: AP) Peter Buffett, far left, with his famous dad and sister, Susan. (Photo: AP)

When your name is Buffett and you run a large charitable foundation, you get noticed. Even if your first name isn’t Warren.

You can elbow your way onto The New York Times op-ed page. In mid-July, Peter Buffett, one of Warren’s three children, wrote in The Times that he had identified “something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism”—a donor’s “urge to ‘save the day’” by trying to solve local problems “with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms,” often with unintended consequences.

Peter Buffett, a musician, with his wife Jennifer runs the NoVo Foundation, set up for him by his father in 2006 with a promise of continuing generous contributions. Last year, the elder Buffett contributed $1 billion to NoVo and to the foundations he had established for Peter’s two siblings.

Now, Peter Buffett wrote in his opinion piece, he saw something worse on the philanthropic landscape: the emergence of a burgeoning charitable-industrial complex at the same time inequality continues to rise.

“Philanthropy has become the ‘it’ vehicle to level the playing field.” Gatherings, workshops and affinity groups abound.

He said the desire of wealth makers to “give back” is “conscience laundering’’—an effort to feel better about “accumulating more than any one person could possibly need.”

This just bolsters the structure of inequality, he wrote.

Buffett bemoaned the influx of “business-minded folks” into the charitable sector, people who ask “‘what’s the R.O.I.?’ when it comes to alleviating human suffering.”

Philanthropy, he said, is experiencing a “crisis of imagination.”

Buffett said he wasn’t seeking an end of capitalism. Instead, “I’m calling for humanism.” He said it was time for a “new operating system,” for “new code.”

He concluded that “as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine. It’s an old story; we really need a new one.”

ThinkAdvisor asked a number of prominent players in the philanthropy/nonprofit sector what they thought of Buffett’s observations. All declined comment.

The blogosphere was less reticent. Some welcomed his op-ed.

Others took his remarks to task. One writer discussed what he’d gotten wrong about philanthropy. A Huffington Post blogger commented on the “unglamorous truth about ending poverty.”

Yet another writer offered a point-by-point refutation of Buffett’s “so-called charitable-industrial complex” argument.

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