Will Buffet Family Foundation Influence Other Funders?

Non-Profit Quarterly linked to an interview in Fast Company in which Warren Buffet’s grandson talks about his approach to philanthropy as he takes up the reins of the family foundation.

As I read the interview, I vacillated between mild dread where I hoped no one else decided to adopt the approach and feeling that his approach was sensible and might provide leadership that would strengthen the general non-profit infrastructure in the United States.

What made me most uneasy was his focus on quantity over quality.

“The first question, for instance, is “Assuming we are successful, how many people would we reach directly with the funding of this gift?” Proposals gets 3 points for affecting +1 million people, 2 for greater than 100,000, and 1 for less than 100,000. Those proposals with a less ambitious scope can secure a coveted spot on the portfolio team by being particularly unique or cost-efficient.”

While he does allow for funding of smaller efficient and effective organizations, I just wonder if that will get lost in the desire to report numbers served and therefore reinforce the idea that you have fudge numbers and always report success or lose funding.

Where this is coming from for him is wanting to get away from non-profits making emotional appeals and move toward discussing the complex factors which contribute to the problems the non-profit is trying to address.

“In the philanthropic world, the problem is the product, in the business world, the product is the solution.” says Buffett, who argues that NGOs are forced to “sell suffering.” The needless focus on sappy narratives often overlooks sophisticated solutions that can’t be easily marketed with a T-shirt-clad celebrity holding a small child.”

This is where I feel he is most sensible because he is determined to fund every step in the chain to addressing a problem, including the unsexy areas. But to do that, he wants the redundant organizations to either get out of the business, partner with other groups or refocus themselves.

“…rather than dolling out cash to independent, uncoordinated actors with the most heart-string-tugging story, they could take on an entire social problems (like food security or breast cancer) by systematically lining up nonprofits to tackle each part of the causal chain, from federal policy to victim resources.

“If you are an NGO, doing the exact same thing as another NGO, and that other NGO is doing better than you’re doing it, then you are in business for the wrong reason,” Buffett says in an exasperated rant against the individualist nature of charities. Overlapping operations, he says, not only waste money through redundant overhead, but keep brilliant minds occupied with logistical distractions that sap their potential impact.

“We will give you money to execute your mission,” Buffett says, “if you work together and identify the most cost-effective and successful ways to achieve that.”

Meanwhile, looking at the entire causal chain of a crisis is key to revealing missing links in the solution, such as political or logistical hurdles that are essential to success, but not appealing enough to raise dollars.”

Granted, the focus of the foundation he is leading is on agriculture, water and feeding school children rather than arts and culture. However, the practices of a Buffet family foundation is bound to have widespread influence with funders in other areas. It is possible that other foundations may use the same criteria.

Given that the question about whether there are too many arts organizations in existence has been a hot topic of late, it is conceivable that funders are already thinking along these lines.

So let me ask-

-how many arts organizations would seriously discuss merging or refocusing if a major funder told them they were redunant and less effective than another organization?

-how many might consider abandoning major activities that were redundant if the funder offered major support to expand in their areas of strength?

-would the arts in your community be more vibrant if there were groups that focused specifically on different niches within the chain? Such as:

-organization that handed advocacy for the arts with local government
-organization that focused on advocacy for the arts in education in conjunction with other advocacy groups
-organizations that purely perform
-organization that coordinates outreaches to schools by designing programs that emphasize the strengths of the performance and presenting groups

There are more functions that different groups might handle, of course, but this serves as a good example. You might look at this and think about how difficult it would be with all these tasks so decentralized, but think about how more schools would benefit if there was an organization that was making an effort to provide uniform coverage of your entire city/county. How much easier would it be for artists to make a living in the community if there was an organization that was hiring them to do outreaches in schools or connecting artists with students seeking instruction.

All this in an environment made conducive for these activities by groups who solely focused on influencing law and policy in government and school boards. Their advocacy is made credible by the existence of organizations who attract and employ strong performers and other organizations who develop exemplary education/outreach programs and train the artists to execute them effectively.

This approach may decentralize efforts and require a lot of cooperation between different groups, but does improve on the current situation where everyone does a little of everything with different degrees of success provided they have the funding and personnel.  As Howard Buffet acknowledges, there is a lot of unsexy infrastructure that no one really wants to fund that is crucial to the success of non-profit efforts. What a boon it would be if someone would fund all those places at a level smart people would be willing to engage in the work.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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