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Friday, April 30, 2010

Retail Philanthropist

Doris Buffett has spent the better part of the last 14 years giving away her considerable fortune to people who have suffered some misfortune in their lives.

The 68 years that Buffett lived before that taught her plenty about misfortune.

Despite being the sister of one of the world’s richest men, Fredericksburg resident Doris Bufett has suffered plenty of pain and hardship during her life, a new book by Michael Zitz makes clear.

“For the first sixty-eight years of her life, whoever was to blame, not much had gone right for Doris, despite being blessed with beauty, brains and charisma,” Zitz writes in “Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story.”

First there was the childhood spent with a verbally abusive mother who convinced Doris she was stupid despite IQ tests showing her intelligence rivaled that of her younger brother, Warren. She wasn’t encouraged to attend college, had four failed marriages, lost nearly all her money in a 1987 stock market crash, had a falling out with her three children and has gone through counseling for depression.

But Doris Buffett life took a dramatic turn for the better in 1996–and not just because the millions of dollars she inherited in Berkshire Hathaway stock when her mother died ended any personal financial needs she would ever have.

To be sure, the fortune has allowed Doris Buffett to lead a comfortable life. She beautifully restored a Caroline Street house in Fredericksburg, and she also has a waterfront home in Rockport, Maine. She often flies by private jet, drives a nice car and loves diamonds.

But the primary fulfillment that the money has brought Doris Bufett is the ability to help others.

Buffett set up The Sunshine Lady Foundation shortly after she inherited the money in 1996. Over the past 14 years, she’s donated more than $100 million in her own money, and her goal is to give away her entire fortune before she dies.

Some of the personal misfortunes that befell Buffett have shaped the causes she supports. She’s given millions to educate battered women and prisoners, to build facilities for treatment of the mentally ill and to provide a better childhood for the underprivileged.

Letters pour in seeking help from Buffett’s foundation. The people who receive assistance are those who have suffered bad luck through no fault of their own, and who will be able to use the money to improve their lives. Her brother Warren, who knows a thing or two about giving away millions (or in his case billions), puts it thusly in the foreword to “Giving It All Away”:

“If you’ve created your own problems, don’t bother to call Doris. If some undeserved blow has upended you, however, she will spend both her money and time to get you back on your feet. Her interest in you will be both personal and enduring.”

Warren Buffett has been so impressed by Doris’ track record that he now forwards the letters he gets asking for help to The Sunshine Lady Foundation. He also sends the foundation money to help fund those requests–about $5 million so far, according to the book.

“He’s getting his money’s worth,” Doris Buffett said. “He couldn’t possibly do what we’re doing.”

That’s because while Warren Buffett is a “wholesale” philanthropist–minting money with his investing acumen and then giving it to foundations that can put it to best use–Doris Buffett is a “retail” philanthropist who interacts with and chooses the individual recipients.

Though she’s helped countless lives–including many in Fredericksburg, which captured her love during a short stint here as a teenager–Doris Buffett’s work has perhaps had the biggest influence on her own life.

“My life’s more interesting than it’s ever been,” she said. “I’m glad to have this much joy at the end of my life.”

Buffett, who is working on a genealogy project about her family, said she wanted to do the book to leave a record for her grandchildren and future generations. The rock singer Bono encouraged her.

Zitz, a longtime writer for The Free Lance-Star who has known Buffett for 18 years, said he thinks the book will inspire people.

“It’s a fascinating story,” Zitz said. “It will help a lot of people–especially women. Doris kept picking herself up and going on.”

The book will be officially unveiled at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting May 1, though it’s now available on Ama zon.com. The Free Lance-Star will print excerpts from the book over the next three days.

Doris Buffett and Zitz plan to sign copies of the book at a temporary store set up at the Berkshire meeting called “The Bookworm.”

As for her goals for the book, Doris Buffett hopes it convinces people to volunteer in their community, even if they don’t have tons of money to give away.

“Just be aware of the things that can be done,” she said. “You’ll get rewards that you’ve never dreamed of.”

Bill Freehling, Free-Lance Star

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