Peter Buffett is a poet in philanthropist’s clothing. The youngest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Peter is an Emmy Award-winning musician and composer, and an author who cares far more about healing the planet—particularly addressing the plight of women and girls—than ego, status, or wealth. The NoVo Foundation, which he heads with his wife, Jennifer, is dedicated to catalyzing a “transformation in global society.” Its empowering, hands-off approach to philanthropy is runs counter to what he called “The Charitable Industrial Complex” in an op-ed for the New York Times that ruffled feathers of some among the super rich whose philanthropy he calls “conscience laundering."
His book, Life is What You Make It, asks the question: Do we choose the path of least resistance or the path of greatest satisfaction? I talked to Peter about his artistic journey and the novel experience of being Warren Buffett’s son.
Mark Matousek: Your father endowed NoVo with a great deal of money [$1 billion]. Is it true that he won't be doing the same with inheritance for his children?
Peter Buffett: Yes, that’s true. I see it as a gesture of enormous respect. It’s my father saying, “I’m not going to give you a crutch to walk on your whole life. I’m going to say, ‘I love you. I believe in you. Go figure it out.’” My siblings and I all agree that this is a good thing because that’s his success. I never expected a penny from my dad.
MM: How did your career as an artist prepare you to become a philanthropist?
PB: Until 2006, I didn’t know that I’d be working with philanthropy at this scale. The upside of being an artist is that I’m comfortable with the unknown—so when we give a grant to somebody, not knowing if they will succeed or not, I’m OK with that. I’m used to sitting in a room and making up something out of nothing. If you come to me and say, “Here’s where I am, here’s where I’ve come from, here’s what I’m thinking, and here’s where I think we can go,” I’m more inclined than most to say “Oh, okay, I get it. I see where you’re coming from.” If you tell me that you know what’s going to happen, I’m going to be a little suspicious. If you tell me that you want to create conditions for positive change to happen, that’s a lot more interesting than pretending to be sure what that change should be. That’s our ethos at NoVo: We’re trying to create conditions for things, not attempting to dictate the future, which often happens in the charitable sector. We want to help fix things but it’s the people who need the assistance, living in those conditions, who will have the best ideas in terms of creativity and possibility. At NoVo, we’re trying to turn money into love. Trying to really create something different in the world.
It’s been thrilling to realize that our work at NoVo is something I can use in my music as well.
MM: In your New York Times op-ed, “The Charitable Industrial Complex,” you wrote about “conscience laundering” among wealthy people who use charity to make themselves feel better.
PB: The idea for that column came to me at a philanthropy summit I attended. In my view, it was a distillation of everything that’s not so great about the world. People hoarding so much money have a hard time sleeping at night without somehow offsetting their greed with giving. Friends wanted me to put solutions into the piece but I didn’t want to be the one saying, “This is how you should do this better.” Just because I said the emperor has no clothes doesn’t make me an expert tailor. I’m not interested in claiming to know the answers. I just want to point to the problem(s). I want to help create conditions for improvement but to continually remain a student. I’m not going to go in there and tell you how to fix your problem. That’s philanthropic colonialism.
MM: I was especially moved by this passage: “Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But 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.” As a philanthropist, do you feel guilt when you choose not to help?
PB: Yes. It recently came to me that there’s a fine line between gratitude and survivor’s guilt. That is a line I tread. I’m so grateful for the parents I had and the resources I have, the life I’ve been given. I’ll call my dad every once in a while and say, “Thank you so much for this life. I am so grateful.” He always tells me, “But you had to make the choices.” I don’t want to feel like I have to live up to something. I want to live into something. It’s not, “I’m not worthy. How can I make myself worthy.” It’s, "Okay, I’ve got this, now what am I going to do with it? How can I live into the fullness of what I’ve been given?”
MM: How did you come to focus on women and girls at NoVo?
PB: The world is out of balance. Working with indigenous cultures has helped me to see where this systemic imbalance comes from. I have a theory for why men oppress women: It comes down to our fear of intuition. Women give birth, nurture life, need to keep their intuitive sense developed in order to protect their young. What intuition does, if it’s strong, is allow a person to meet the future sooner—and that gives an evolutionary advantage. Because of women’s evolutionary advantage, men had to figure out a way of keeping them in check. So what did they create? A system where intuition doesn’t make sense. Where it doesn’t serve us. Where I think, therefore I am.
But it’s not just about women and girls. We’re talking about suppression of the feminine, including the feminine in men. If you look at the yin/yang symbols, you see there’s a dot of the opposite hemisphere in each side. There’s yin in yang, and yang in yin. Our culture looks down on the qualities that come with the feminine hemisphere. In terms of trying to rebalance things, the first stop must be girls and women. Because violence against women is not a women’s issue. Period. It’s a men’s issue. It’s a human issue for sure, but it’s a men’s issue. There aren’t many women perpetrating violence against women. And it’s mostly a men’s problem because of what gets suppressed in men early on.
MM: Which brings us back to conscience laundering.
PB: In the op-ed piece, I make a point of saying that [the rich] are not bad people. It’s just that the system has created some monsters out there who don’t even realize they’re monsters. When a CEO gets paid ridiculous amounts of money because he’s created so much value for the shareholders, well, within that limited frame of Wall Street that’s totally justifiable. In the framework of, "What are you doing to the world and even the workers within your own company?" that’s another story. There was a great op-ed in the paper the other day called “For the Love of Money,” by someone who is actually addicted to money. He calls these folks out by name, like the CEO of McDonald's who makes $20 million or something, at the same time that McDonald's published a pamphlet for their workers on how to get by on minimum wage or welfare or food stamps.
My brother lives in Decatur, Illinois. He’s a farmer. He realized that the food bank in Decatur was in need of a kitchen. It was in terrible shape and serving way too many people for its capacity. So my brother went there and said, “I want to support you with a grant but I want every city council member to come in here and serve for a period of time. They have to come through these doors and see these people and understand who their constituents are." It was amazing. That’s how I feel about the CEO of McDonald's saying the minimum wage is OK as it is. I want to say, “Try it. See what it’s like.”
MM: Now that NoVo has the means to give away $100 million a year, do you experience a lot of envy?
PB: Not really. What I do feel is that pressure, the energy, of people coming to me thinking that I can solve their problem because I have resources. From a foundation perspective, that’s expected, and you have to honor and be humbled by the work these people do. But on a personal level it can get kind of icky. I’ve become way more distrustful about new relationships. I was never like that before. I joke sometimes that I only recently became Warren Buffett’s son. For most of my life, I didn’t know what a big deal that was. We grew up in an ordinary-size house in Omaha, Nebraska. It wasn’t till I moved to New York that it became like having the pope as your dad, in the financial world. I called my dad up and said, “This is weird. I had no idea.” And he said, “Oh, yeah. I guess you’re kind of like a Rockefeller there.” More than envy, I’m more aware at the foundation of being the possible solution to someone else’s problem.
MM: Life Is What You Make It struck a chord for a lot of people. Are you planning to do another?
PB: I think we’re going to do a book where we out ourselves fully, say, “This is how much money we actually have, this is how we live, this is who we are, this is what we think is important." Not to be judgmental but to ask folks, “Hey, you with the $100 million, $500 million, or $3 billion: What’s it doing? What’s it for? Why do you feel you need that?" My dad is doing this giving pledge for people with $1 billion or more, and many of them won’t sign up to give half their money away. My dad jokes about how he wants to write a book about how to live on $500 million. It’s like, come on! They were honoring my dad recently and he said something really spectacular. All these ridiculously wealthy people at this dinner and you know what he stands up there and says? “Thank you, this is wonderful, but the truth is, the money I’m giving away had no utility for me. I had no use for it. The person who should get this award is the person who gives $10 to a food bank that they could have used to go to the movies, to buy food for the table.”
He really gets it.