Investing in people brings payoff for Doris Buffett
Doris Buffett – Warren’s sister – believes in helping by paying money forward
From the StarNews Online
By Ben Steelman
She’s been mistaken for Jimmy Buffett’s sister, but the other rumor is true: She’s giving away free money.
There’s a catch, of course. You’d better deserve it. Also, you’ll be expected to “pay it forward” – to help others later on, if you have the chance.
“It’s very hard work if you do it right,” Doris Buffett said during a phone call from her summer home in rural Maine.
“We’re investing in people,” she added. “People who have had bad breaks in life and need a hand. We’re not enabling – we’re empowering people.”
For most of her 82 years, the older sister of Wall Street financier Warren Buffett has been off the media radar.
She lived quietly for three years in Wilmington – “over in Landfall,” she said. Her Sunshine Lady Foundation has a small office in the Port City in addition to its headquarters in Morehead City.
Lately, though, Doris Buffett has been attracting more attention.
A new, authorized biography, “Giving It All Away” by Virginia journalist Michael Zitz, came out earlier this year from Permanent Press.
Buffett herself will be stepping into the local limelight Aug. 13 when she addresses a luncheon at Wilmington’s St. James Episcopal Church.
The event, in St. James’ Lee Parish Hall, will be a fundraiser for the Cape Fear Literacy Council. In addition to her speech, Buffett will be signing copies of “Giving It All Away.”
Buffett’s charities target battered and abused women, sick children and at-risk youngsters who might not otherwise have the chance to go to college.
In Wilmington, her foundations have helped fund such non-profits as the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, the Carousel Center, Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity and local scholarship funds.
“You can’t just give someone $250 and say ‘go for it,’?” Buffett said. “They need some infrastructure to help.”
She’s especially proud of one of her newest projects, the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program, which helps abused women go back to college.
“We’ve had 1,500 graduate so far,” Buffett said. “One went on to the Wharton School of Finance, my brother’s alma mater.”
Many of these graduates go into service professions, she added, from nursing to working in domestic violence shelters. (“We’ve had teachers galore,” she said.)
Buffett is especially intent on reaching children.
“Battering is learned behavior,” she said. “If you can get them out of a combative atmosphere, you can break the cycle.”
“I sent a lot of kids to camp when I was in Morehead City,” she added. (Her residence most of the year, these days, is in Fredericksburg, Va.) “We told them they could go for free once. If they wanted to go back again, they had to make good grades, do what their mothers told them to do and be kind to others.”
She chuckled. “I got a letter back from one little boy. He wrote, ‘I’m doing good, and I’m going to go on doing that after you go on to The Great Beyond.’?”
Of her famous brother, she said, “What you see is what you get. I like to say that Warren and I are introverts at home and extroverts in the real world.
“When I had Warren along to Sing Sing prison for the graduation of my college program there, he was so gregarious and pleasant, such a regular guy. We don’t do the haughty bit in our family.”
She attributes much of those family values to her father, a modest stockbroker in Omaha who served as a congressman during World War II. Howard Buffett had an ethic of public service and tried hard to help others, she said.
Through most of her life, Doris Buffett had to live within modest means. After her first wedding (she was married four times) “she scrimped to get by on her husband’s small salary,” Zitz wrote, “feeding her family on a food budget of $10 a week as they made do with a 13-year-old car.”
She did make money by investing in one of her brother’s early funds – only to end up $2 million in debt after the 1987 stock market crash. Her real fortune did not come until 1996, when she inherited substantial Berkshire Hathaway stock from a family trust after her mother’s death.
Buffett attracted attention with her vow to give it all away before she died. Her personal donations have amounted to $100 million to date.
She hopes her efforts will set an example to others.
“I just heard from a couple in Ohio who ran a pizza parlor all their lives. They’ve set up two scholarships so far,” she said. “It’s wonderful.
“One little old lady can’t change the world. But if enough people help other people, and those people help others, and on and on, you can have amazing results.”
Ben Steelman: 343-2208