Jennifer and Peter Buffett: Power Shift Key to Social Change

(Peter Buffett, left, is both an accomplished musician and famed philanthropist)

Jennifer and Peter Buffett – daughter-in-law and son of the billionaire investment expert Warren Buffett – penned an intriguing op-ed for Time early this week that fits in with the philanthropy zeitgeist. On the heels of the Ford Foundation’s announcement that it will begin focusing on systematic change that empowers underprivileged communities, the Buffets (who head the NoVo Foundation) seem prepared to follow suit.

The Buffetts write:

Over the last decade, we have been on a journey, at once both global and deeply personal, toward a deeper understanding of the economic, cultural and political systems that shape our world and what transformative change really means. And if anything is clear, it’s that true change will always require challenging conversations about “us”— not a monologue about helping “them.”

In our work around the world visiting NoVo grantees, we started to see how philanthropy often thinks that it knows what’s best for communities rather than the other way around. Social progress was seen as something that should be driven by experts from outside, with new “solutions” and technological innovations that could drive “impact” in communities who needed help from others. We came to recognize philanthropy that dictates solutions top-down to communities as patriarchal at its core, even when it’s intended to help women and girls.

How we give is therefore intrinsically linked to why we give. Form and function have to align. A philanthropist from on high will never reach down and “empower” a girl in Sierra Leone. That girl is inherently full of power and potential, and we should start by asking what stands in the way of her having a strong voice and influence on the decisions that shape her life and her community.

Whether or not this rhetorical shift lends itself to future NoVo operations that genuinely offer empowerment solutions versus one-off fixes remains to be seen. It is, however, welcome that yet another high-profile grant-maker has come to see some of the contradictions and inefficiencies of token philanthropic wisdom.

Click here to read the whole op-ed.

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