EMPHASIS: Youth, Education, Human Rights
FOCUS AREAS: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast
In 2006, Jennifer Buffett received the fax that changed her life: an approximately $1 billion gift from her famous father-in-law that put her and her husband Peter on the philanthropic fast track. “He didn’t even ask us!” she says of Warren’s hefty pledge. Now, through the NoVo Foundation, she deploys grants to programs that focus on women and girls, including the Nike Foundation‘s Girl Effect; Women & Girls Rebuilding Nations, a five-year, $17 million effort to fight violence against women in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast; and Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to reduce the estimated 10 million girls worldwide who are married before they turn 18. “I am not one of those ladies who lunch,” Buffett says. “I am here, doing the work.”
She carved out time to speak to Fast Company about turning $1 billion into positive change.
Creating a philanthropy from scratch sounds incredibly satisfying, but really hard. Where did you begin?
We spent two years bringing a ton of people in here to learn from them, everyone from authors to researchers, heads of non-profits we admired, people from the NGO world. What could we do that would be catalytic? What could we do that would really make a difference? What interventions make sense? And then, we traveled the world. We wanted to go to tough places where society had fallen apart. How do you help put a country back on the road to sustainability, to justice and fairness and peace? What has been learned there so far? What’s being done and not being done?
What we saw over and over again was that women and girls were being left out–of everything. So marginalized and exploited, part of no conversation. And the violence was off the charts.
Did your father-in-law’s philosophy play a role in your thinking?
Yes. Warren talks about undervalued assets, places where tremendous value is held but not necessarily recognized. We’ve been so inspired by him and his trust in us. His philosophy of life and business is so applicable in everybody’s life, really. So that idea resonated with us: That women and girls are undervalued assets.
How do you choose your project areas?
Our theory of change is simple: Let’s get to the last girl. So to do that, we’re expanding our approach a bit. In addition to our work with Nike, we are thinking about trafficking issues, violence, and some work that I’m really moved by called social and emotional learning.
Sex trafficking is a particularly entrenched issue.
It is. And we’ve developed a strategy around focusing on that, focusing on India, West Africa, Chicago, and New York. We’re looking at the connections. It’s economic, it’s social, it’s attitudinal, the justice system has failed. In some cases it’s the cops that are sending the girls back or exploiting them.
We also have an operational project called Move to End Violence. We saw so much violence in this country but no social movement to address it. It affects one in three people. It’s everywhere. The CDC put out a study that says that every other woman will be assaulted in some way. We started asking the question of leaders and stakeholders about any sort of movement, policy, or funding toward ending violence against women. We spent about a year asking the experts, and it turned out that service provision, after the fact, is where the money goes–not prevention.
Is there a way to measure the impact of love and care?
I love the influence that the business community has had on philanthropy in terms of organizing best practices and things like this. But I fear that we’re losing the human element, that we’re being so overly tied to metrics. I feel like we really need to think about that and not go so far in that direction. Or you end up funding bed nets or vaccines, these technological one-offs that you can measure but you don’t really know the result of.
How does social and emotional learning fit into your work?
We looked around at education, with its punitive, competitive paradigm. Pressured teachers who are teaching to the test. Bullying. Fightsabout classroom size. Metrics. How would we address this in terms of nurturing a new society prepared to be more collaborative? Those are not easy things.These are not soft skills. The question is not do we fire teachers or create smaller classrooms. It’s what if we created environments in schools were it mattered that a kid showed up every day, and that people cared that he was there? And he wasn’t afraid of being picked on by other kids, and kids had real conflict resolution skills to work out their differences? So we started working with Dan Goleman and the social and emotional learning community. We are trying to grow thatfield.
What work in the field has inspired you the most?
I just got back from India. I was in the largest red light district in Southeast Asia, which is hell on earth. The economies are so poor there, and based on the intergenerational selling of girls. How to disrupt that?
But I was so hopeful after being there. Seeing girls and women who had been so oppressed, but who are standing up and organizing in small groups, and then in larger groups. And that’s how it happens. An individual wakes up, knows her rights. Knows this is wrong and says, “I don’t care how many times I’m beaten, I’m going to change this.” Then creates a social network with other women and girls, so when she is weak someone else is strong–and they can all begin to stand up and demand better treatment.