Few would be surprised to learn that Warren Buffett was again named our country's second-richest man in the Forbes 400 this week, with a reported wealth of $58.5 billion. Many might be surprised to learn that Buffett's youngest son, Peter, is a musician-turned-philanthropist on a mission to change the way Americans think about charity.
The youngest of three children, Peter Buffett, 55, told me he had "a classic Midwestern upbringing," attending public schools for his entire childhood in small-town Nebraska. Peter had no idea what his dad did for a profession, but he noticed that the man came home happy everyday. When his mom and dad told Peter to "find something that you love to do" — that the money doesn't matter — he took their word for it. With his parents' support, Peter pursued a career in music and musical scoring for much of his adult life, even scoring a scene for the 1990 film Dances With Wolves. But despite his own success in the music industry, Peter always kept in mind something else that his parents believed in.
"They felt that everybody deserved an equal chance, everybody was unique, everybody had unique possibilities in their lives, and that the system was not always stacked in everybody’s favor," he remembered.
And so in 1999, when Warren Buffett gave him $10 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock to start a foundation of his own, Peter didn't take the responsibility lightly.
With his father's funds, Peter created the NoVo Foundation, which focuses on empowering young girls around the world to resist hierarchy, violence, and subordination on the premise that "only a girl will be the mother of every child." Peter told me that by targeting women and girls, NoVo could help reverse current trends in the empirical data, which show that poor outcomes for women and girls have devastating ripple effects on the socio-economic welfare in developing communities and countries around the world.
NoVo's initial resources made its task a manageable one. But when NoVo became a billion-dollar foundation in 2006, Peter realized that he had a lot more power to distribute an extraordinary amount of money to causes he deemed worthy of support — perhaps too much.
"There’s a whole lot of money in a few hands that get to decide what’s important," Peter said.
In a New York Times op-ed published this July, Peter laid out his concept of the "charitable-industrial complex," or "philanthropic colonialism." His essay calls for the creation of "new code" for Americans seeking to improve the world around them, arguing that the $316 billion philanthropic sector is in fact an industry of its own, perpetuating the problems of inequality and injustice that it purportedly seeks to solve. In the existant version of philanthropy, the rich give away just enough of their wealth to feel good, but not enough of it to address the underlying conditions that create the need for charity in the first place: limited access to clean water, education, healthcare, safer living conditions, and so on.
Peter believes the genesis of the system in which "capitalism and democracy got intertwined," as he puts it, has been a century in the making. From politics to the corporatization of America to the conversion of "citizens into consumers," Peter believes that what the BBC calls "the Century of the Self" has created a philanthropic system wedded to the status quo rather than committed to the idea of changing it.
"There should be real risks taken," Peter said. "We should be out there spending some mad money to try things that no one else will try, with the expectation that some things will fail."
His perspective is nothing new, and he would be the first to admit as much. After all, Saint Augustine believed that "charity is no substitute for justice withheld." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammed Yunus, and many others have spoken on the topic as well. Still, an age-old message itself resonates even more strongly when delivered by the son of a modern multi-billionaire.
Indeed, Peter's views have provoked significant controversy and conversation in the philanthropic world. Some philanthropists have said his argument reveals "an astonishing lack of understanding of both economics and of the extremity of global poverty," while others have critiqued Buffett for under-emphasizing wealth creation and high-risk investments in his own charity. But Peter takes the criticisms in stride, saying he and his wife Jennifer (who helps manage NoVo) don't purport to have all the answers.
What Peter is most interested in now is asking the right questions. "My frustration is the system itself," he said. "Where do you try to reform a broken system? Where try to build an entirely new system and what does that look like?"
How can a young person who wants to make the world a better place help build this new system? In Peter's view, young people should start by looking around them and then find a cause that ignites their passion. "If I were 25 years old, I’d be first of all looking in my backyard, because what’s good for someone here in Ullster County [in New York] where I live will ultimately help everybody," Peter said. "This is sort of a different version of 'be the change you want to see in the world.' If you really wanna do it, do it at home. Then do it at the community, the state level, and the national level it’ll grow out if it works."
This start-at-home approach to service sounded reasonable enough, but Peter believes it doesn't go far enough. Although he thinks we all need to "stop the bleeding" on a community level — ensuring that the homeless have shelter, for example, and that the hungry have food to eat — millennials have the power to do so much more. "Younger people have the appetite and idealism and energy for it like nobody else [to] imagine new structures — whether it’s new community structures, new economic structures, new agriculture structures," he said.
Whether the environment, education, health, agriculture or another issue is involved, Peter believes that mere reform isn't good enough. "I would not focus on trying to fix something as much as I would on people that are trying to imagine what’s possible," he told me. "We don’t have to start from scratch. We just have to think about what used to work, and what could work again if we weren’t sort of believing most of what we’re sold."
The philantrophist's radical visions may sound appealing to some, but are millennials already working in the non-profit sector required to quit their jobs at foundations and charities in protest? Peter doesn't think so, but he believes that we'd all benefit from a greater awareness of the power structures that facilitate inequality. "You’ve got to look everywhere you can about what’s perpetuating the thing that you’re trying to alleviate," he said. "By paying my bills am I somehow compromising the greater good? It’s being vigilant about values, about what you’re potentially colluding with or being influenced by."
In fact, millennials and others are already working to break through the so-called "philanthropic-industrial complex" and bring charitable giving to the people with crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. "The crowd-funding phenomenon offers the opportunity to live out some of the things we want to see happen," observed Peter. "Good ideas should come to the surface. Then, of course, what does 'good' mean?"
Though many of these questions will take years to answer, Peter says his worldview is essentially about "living authentically every way you can." It's about making "the dynamic system we live in" fairer and more equal for those less fortunate, while imagining new ways to build a better world. Even Warren Buffett is on board with his son's ideas.
Asked about Warren Buffett's response to his son's Times op-ed, Peter said that his father loved it. "My dad’s a truth-teller — he loves calling a spade a shovel."