Buffett's Children Say Both Parents Set Example for Philanthropy

  • Social justice, equality were part of upbringing, they say
  • Susan and Peter Buffett appear at panel discussion on giving

Two of Warren Buffett’s children praised their parents’ example in a broad-ranging conversation about philanthropy that touched on their youth and lessons learned in giving away some of their father’s wealth.

"They absolutely shared the same values for social justice and equality," Susan Buffett, the billionaire’s daughter, said Thursday at a panel discussion on philanthropy at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. While their mother was much more active in giving back to the community, they both believed in the same things, she said.

"The thing we felt without words being said, the strongest between my parents, was that core feeling around every life has equal value," said her brother, Peter Buffett. He remembered a bumper stick that their mother had on the family car: "Nice people come in all colors."

Peter Buffett.
Photographer: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Warren Buffett has cemented his legacy as a philanthropist over the past decade even as he’s continued to build Berkshire Hathaway Inc. into a sprawling conglomerate. After years of being criticized for not giving much of his wealth away, he made a historic pledge in 2006 to donate almost all his fortune to charity.

The majority of his Berkshire stock will go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over time. He has also made smaller commitments to a philanthropy named after his first wife and the three overseen by his children.

Annual Meeting

Thursday’s event came as Berkshire investors stream into Omaha for Saturday’s annual shareholders meeting. Buffett, 85, built the company over five decades, amassing his more-than $60 billion fortune that helps fund his children’s charitable efforts.

The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for Buffett’s late wife, is a supporter of access to contraception and abortions and has also funded research. Peter Buffett’s foundation works to advance adolescent girls’ rights and end violence against women. Susan A. Buffett’s targets education and social-justice issues in Nebraska. Howard Buffett, who wasn’t at Thursday’s event, promotes subsistence agriculture, including in war-torn regions.

Separate foundations were keys to success because the children didn’t have to spend time agreeing on causes to tackle, said Susan Buffett.

"It’s completely different between Howard, Peter and me," she said.

Both siblings agreed that giving away money is harder than people might think because there are so many causes competing for attention.

Plenty of Need

Warren Buffett and daughter Susan Buffett attend a Hillary Clinton campaign event at the Sokol Auditorium in Omah
Warren Buffett and daughter Susan Buffett attend a Hillary Clinton campaign event at the Sokol Auditorium in Omah
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

"Sometimes things feel so overwhelming and huge," Susan Buffett said. "You do think sometimes it would be so much easier to give to the opera. They would just take us to lunch and say, ‘Thank you.”’

Peter Buffett said he works hard to distinguish symptoms from the root causes of problems when he gives. He has also learned that there’s a whole industry around donating money and sometimes people try to curry favor by acting nice.

“Philanthropy is big business,” he said. “When you have a billion-dollar foundation, your jokes are funnier.”

The siblings said they agreed in general with their parents’ approach: to make the children work from an early age and not simply hand them money. But the billionaire investor is loosening up, they said.

"He has mellowed enormously from where he was," Susan Buffett said.

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