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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Doris Buffett Goes Home

Doris Buffett Visits the Learning by Giving class at the University of Nebraska Omaha

By Steve Jordon

Omaha World Herald

Doris Buffett is in a race against time and, during a spirited afternoon with a University of Nebraska at Omaha class, she surprises everyone by doubling the money that the students can award to nonprofit groups this spring.

There’s a bounce in the step of the 83-year-old as she leaves the class, wearing a multicolored, front-buttoned knit jacket and gray slacks, her hair a white frame for her lively face.

She’s in her hometown for Nebraska’s first Learning by Giving class, a program to encourage philanthropy among future leaders, and she has just taken another step toward her goal: giving her money away while she’s still around to see what happens.

Student Jacqueline Horani wipes tears from her eyes at Buffett’s extra generosity. The students have spent months researching four Omaha nonprofits, preparing to award $10,000 to one or $5,000 each to two at semester’s end. Now they’ll have $10,000 to award to two of the charities, and the students cheered Buffett’s joyous decision.

“I was really inspired,” Horani said. “I really respect what Doris is doing.”

For Buffett, a sister of Omaha investor Warren Buffett and a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., the Omaha class is part of a campaign to improve people’s lives. More than 20 universities receive grants from her Sunshine Lady Foundation to award to nonprofits chosen by the undergraduates during their courses in philanthropy.

Plans are in the works to add classes at NU’s Lincoln and Kearney campuses and at Creighton University, said her grandson, Alex Rozek, a Boston financial manager who helps his grandmother on the college project.

Doris Buffett’s biography is titled “Giving It All Away,” and she is about halfway there, having made about $120 million in grants since she became wealthy — for the second time — in 1996.

During the recent UNO class session, Buffett told stories about her efforts to help people: » A small college in West Virginia that raised $9 million when she challenged its leaders to match her grant of about $250,000. » A college study program at prisons that turns convicts into solid citizens.

The 1,600 participants in her Women’s Independence Scholarship Program — escapees from abusive relationships — who carry a combined 3.7 GPA and renewed self-confidence.

She told how she once threatened to sit at a card table under an umbrella and hand out $5 bills so children in a poor neighborhood could afford to go to a new city swimming pool, until the city backed down and lowered its admission prices.

She talked about how she became the Buffett family’s “retail philanthropist,” starting with 1,400 letters that her brother forwarded to her because he didn’t have the time or staff to screen them. “We’ll take ’em,” she told him. Her brother contributes money to cover the ones that originated with him.

“We are helping people who had bad luck, not people that made bad choices,” she said. “We don’t do handouts. We do hand-ups.”

Scholarship and grant recipients sometimes are asked to refrain from getting tattoos or credit cards. Charities that hire bureaucrats and pay big salaries are out. She wants to fund down-to-earth improvements, not fine arts and culture.

“This is not dilettante stuff,” she said. “We’re trying to help people have a better life.”

She’s most gratified when a Sunshine grant stimulates other support. That’s why the college classes are so important: Philanthropy students can become fundraisers, operate nonprofit groups or turn into philanthropists themselves.

“You’ve got the vitality and the energy and the imagination,” she told the students as they explained their four programs:

City Sprouts, which operates a garden, providing fresh vegetables and education programs on nutrition, sustainability and other topics for people in north Omaha.

Bright Faces, which helps battered and low-income children through Building Bright Futures, the early childhood education project. » The D2 Center, an affiliate of Building Bright Futures that aims to return young dropouts, ages 15 to 20, to school. » At Ease, a program in Bellevue that helps people who are leaving the military deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. “You’re really tackling the big issues,” Buffett said. “They’re marvelous projects. All of these are good. I’m impressed.”

UNO Associate Professor Angela Eikenberry had taught a class on philanthropy at UNO six years ago that awarded a $5,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation. She joined Virginia Tech’s faculty and returned to UNO in 2007. She was looking for funding to resume the class, sharing the teaching with Sara Woods, associate dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service.

That’s when Rozek and his cousin Howard W. Buffett — Warren’s grandson — contacted UNO about the Sunshine Lady program. “It was amazing timing,” Eikenberry said. “We were primed and ready to go.”

The UNO class has 10 undergraduate honors students and five graduate students with a wide range of majors. This week they’ll make the difficult decision of which two nonprofits will receive grants.

“We want to attract students from all over campus,” Eikenberry said. “Philanthropy is such an interdisciplinary thing.”

The class explores how to run a nonprofit group, how to choose among nonprofit groups in awarding grants, the ethics of philanthropy, how to write grant proposals, what motivates people to give and who benefits. The students learn that philanthropy is an important sector of American life — even one that provides jobs.

Doris Buffett came to philanthropy late in life. She had inherited $12 million in 1987 but, she later said, was talked into a series of investments that left her with a debt of $2 million.

When her mother died in 1996, she and her sister, Roberta, inherited a large amount of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, the investment company her brother runs. Warren Buffett had removed himself from the estate, so the sisters divided up the stock, along with a trust their father had set up. The Sunshine Lady Foundation began that year.

Doris Buffett has a special place in her heart for people with mental illness, a trait that ran in her mother’s family and that came down to her as frequent verbal abuse from her mother that lasted well into her adult years. She speaks of her four failed marriages but moves ahead to broader problems.

She supports 16 young Afghan women who are attending college. In Afghanistan, she said, “no woman has a chance, period.” Buffett said her foundation carefully researches the causes it supports, spending only about 5 percent to 6 percent on administrative costs.

After the UNO class, Buffett is beaming. She loves working with people who are genuinely interested in helping others, and she said her foundation gives her contact with “the best people.”

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. I get to see the good that happens. I’m one happy old lady.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com

Link to the Article in Omaha World Herald here