Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story
by Michael Zitz
Permanent Press, 2010
224 pp., $28.00
The most important date in Doris Buffett’s philanthropic career was August 30, 1930—the day her little brother Warren was born. She now describes it as “the luckiest day of my life.” The good fortune of being related to one of the world’s wealthiest men has allowed her to find, after a long and often sad journey, her “purpose in life.” As the self-styled “Sunshine Lady,” she has given away over $100 million so far, mostly in small grants to individuals, and her “goal is for the last check I write to bounce.”
This earnest and intimate (if choppy and sometimes wait-did-I-just-read-that? bizarre) biography was written by a local newspaper reporter whom she had befriended while she was his landlady in her adopted hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The book weaves together Doris Buffett’s charitable giving and her life story, the former being personalized and shaped by the latter to an almost symbiotic degree. In purposeful contrast to “big foundations,” Doris Buffett practices what she and her brother call “retail philanthropy,” writing checks in response to heart-wrenching letters. People with problems that resonate with her personal story (domestic violence, mental illness, “bad luck”) get personal attention, often involving a phone call or a visit from the Sunshine Lady herself. Proudly eschewing today’s notions of scaling and strategy (her foundation’s executive director says that Doris’ philanthropic motto is “Why not?”), this may be philanthropy as personal therapy, but it has brought Doris Buffett a great deal of fame and public affection for the many lives she has touched.
Interspersed with stories about her favorite grantees are startling vignettes of Doris’ colorful and calamitous domestic life. Four ex-husbands figure prominently: the first, Warren’s college roommate, allegedly suffered from mental illness (a recurrent theme); she claims the second attempted to sleep with her then-18-year-old daughter; she turned state’s evidence against the third on fraud charges and then disguised herself as a nun to avoid process servers; she discovered the fourth’s infidelity via fax while she was undergoing cancer treatment. At one point the author mentions en passant that one of Doris’ daughters hasn’t spoken to her in six years and that she hasn’t seen her son since the 2008 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting.
She places the blame for the troubles that plagued the first seven decades of her life squarely on her “unsupportive” mother, whom she claims suffered from mental illness. (Warren and his younger sister dispute this, but acknowledge that she was tough on Doris.) Doris bitterly speculates that it may have been postpartum depression—but “it was a long post-partum. It lasted until her death.”
If her mother is the villain of the piece and her brother the hero, the divine presence in the background is her father. Howard Buffett was a four-term Republican Congressman from Omaha. A principled libertarian and friend of Murray Rothbard who abhorred price controls and strongly argued in favor of sound money and against overseas adventurism, he was a powerful influence on his children until his death. Doris even led an anti-communist organization in 1962 Omaha, telling the World-Herald that “the battle against communism is everybody’s battle.”
But that was a long time ago, and today, writes Zitz, “Doris and Warren have both gone through a transformation in terms of social awareness since the days they sat at the dinner table and listened to their father rail against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despairing that FDR was starting the country down the road to socialism and economic ruin with big government spending projects intended to jump-start the economy.”
Ironically, it was only upon inheriting stock from her mother in 1996 that Doris “knew real wealth” for the first time. Doris had been wiped out in the stock market crash of 1987 (her mother noted in her daybook: “Don’t give Doris a cent”) and only managed to get by at all with some timely and creative financial help from her brother.
But once she had some money, she decided to use it to help others who had suffered from “bad luck.” Charitable giving has turned out to be the late, great joy of her life. The “personal touch” is everything, and she claims to give out as much advice as money, which she says her grantees appreciate “because they really felt like someone cared about them.”
The book also provides some interesting glimpses into her brother’s philanthropic thinking. “We are really polar opposites in our approach to this,” says Warren. “I admire the way she does it more than the way I do it. . . . She really likes the retail aspect and I’m total wholesale.”
After he decided to give his fortune to charity but before he settled on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as the principal vehicle for his giving, Warren considered giving it to his sister’s foundation. But “she’s got the same problem I’ve got,” he says. “We’ve got a limited span of how long we can do this.”
Warren Buffett may have enabled his sister’s initial foray into giving, but she now plays a big role in aiding him. When he announced in 2006 that he was giving his fortune away, he was deluged with letters requesting help. He turns these “retail requests” over to Doris, and sends money to her foundation to cover the costs. She takes the letters (“only from the United States”) and then has her “ladies” (most of whom are over 50, so that they have “life experience”) rank them in order of urgency. She wonders why more big foundations can’t have at least a “small division with a special fund with one person in charge of it” to hand out emergency small grants to “unlucky” individuals in their communities.
For Doris Buffett, the personal is the philanthropic. As youngest sister Bertie tearfully points out, “This work that she’s doing now, that my brother made possible, is a real blessing.”
Tom Riley is vice president for communications at The Philanthropy Roundtable.