philanthropy

Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story

Fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater will find a familiar figure in Doris Buffett, the subject of Michael Zitz’s new biography, Giving It All Away. Like the fictional Rosewater, Buffett (the sister of legendary investor Warren Buffett), has made it her life’s mission to share her fortune with people in need. As with Rosewater, many who seek aid from Buffett are individuals who, through no fault of their own, have fallen upon hard times, and it’s not uncommon for Buffett to personally telephone those who request her help. Unlike Rosewater, however, Buffett was not — as some might imagine — born into wealth. Indeed, a good portion of Giving It All Away focuses on Buffett’s early years, during which she endured the verbal abuse of her emotionally distant mother.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the stormy relationship between herself and her mother, Buffett gravitated toward adults who could provide a template for the kind of woman she would one day become. Most notably, a widow named Florence Post opened her eyes not only to cultural issues but to the value of kindness as well, planting the seed of philanthropy and, more important, resilience in Buffett’s heart at an early age. In her life, Buffett has overcome depression, failed marriages, and bankruptcy, and if there’s one thing that these experiences have taught her, it’s that everyone encounters bad luck from time to time.

Though Giving It All Away returns frequently to the subject of her generosity, Buffett also emerges as a complex “character” in her own right throughout the narrative. Most notably, Buffett’s involvement with anti-communist politics and her subsequent work with the Barry Goldwater campaign in the early 1960’s stands in stark contrast to her eventual support of Barrack Obama in 2008 and her interest throughout the last two decades in what might, for better or worse, be termed “liberal” causes. The irony, of course, is not lost on Buffett, who is quoted as saying, “There used to be a myth that communists were trying to take over America by influencing the five percent of college students who were most intelligent and the most sensitive… Now I’m trying to do the same thing.”

Ultimately, Giving It All Away paints Buffett as a social pragmatist. Though seemingly “liberal” on the surface, the causes she has supported over the years are all, in her estimation, beneficial to the whole of society. For example, as many states slashed funding for education programs in prisons, Buffett got behind many such programs and kept them afloat. Her reasoning was simple: although some might argue that criminals don’t deserve a “free” education, statistics show dramatically reduced rates of recidivism among those who have completed degree programs. For Buffett, then, supporting these and similar programs is pure common sense.

Inspirational without being syrupy, Giving It All Away does for readers what the caring adults in Buffett’s youth did for her: it gives us a template for generosity and, borrowing a phrase that gets repeated throughout the book, challenges us to pay our good fortune forward.