Sunshine Lady Foundation

Warren Buffett's sister launches an online philanthropy course

June 25, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Doris Buffett, 85, wants to teach young people how best to contribute to charity. Giving With Purpose, a six-week online course, is a family affair.

By Carol Loomis

Doris Buffett

Doris Buffett

FORTUNE -- The name Buffett is in the news, but the first name is Doris, not Warren. His older sister by three years -- that makes her 85, him 82 -- she is pursuing a decade-long interest by sponsoring a new, free, online course about philanthropy.

The goal of the program, called Giving With Purpose is to teach college students -- and anyone else who cares to register -- how to beneficially contribute to charity. That's not necessarily easy. There are IRS rules for giving that must be learned, and there is wayward, wasteful philanthropy to be avoided.

But for registrants who apply themselves well in this new course, the prize at the end is real Buffett money to give away.

Doris Buffett got to this stage of philanthropy by starting with small donations about 10 years ago in North Carolina, where she then lived. (Today she is a resident of Virginia). Her usual practice in those days was to aid local people who had run into bad luck -- a sudden illness, for example, or even a broken-down car -- and needed a few thousand dollars just to struggle along.

Her gifts earned her the name "Sunshine Lady," and that led her to set up the Sunshine Lady Foundation.

MORE: Spanx founder joins Giving Pledge

When Warren Buffett announced in 2006 that he would begin giving his vast fortune to charity (and again, in 2010, when he joined with Melinda and Bill Gates to form the Giving Pledge), he was inundated with letters from people asking for help. He responded by sending the pleas along to Doris, the acknowledged philanthropy expert in the Buffett family, and by also promising her money for deserving letter-writers when she needed it. Recalling those days, she remembers that the original shipment from Warren included 410 letters.

Doris thereafter applied some skills she'd learned while working years earlier in a district attorney's office to sort out the letters between deserving and not. A small army of unpaid women -- called Sunbeams -- helped her in this job.

Gradually Doris broadened her giving, and the once small Sunshine Lady Foundation grew into a large force. Over the last four years, its contributions (some of the money from Warren, but most from her) have averaged $10 million annually.

The foundation still gives money to ordinary people down on their luck, but Doris has also added some special projects: educating prisoners in such places as Sing Sing, sending battered women to college, and also giving college scholarships to North Carolinians generally.

The foundation's scholarships have some strings attached to them. Besides requiring a recipient to maintain a 3.0 grade average, they also compel the student to pledge (in a written contract) that he or she will not engage in body piercing (except ears); tattooing; the use of illegal substances, alcohol, or tobacco; carrying a credit card; and sustaining an unhealthy body weight. Says Doris, "That's the grandma in me coming out."

Another project that the foundation added -- this is the forerunner of today's online course -- was sponsoring college courses about philanthropy, in which students actively investigated local causes to determine which deserved Sunshine Lady grants ranging up to a per-college total of $10,000. Among the 30 or so participants in the course have been University of North Carolina, University of Nebraska, and Georgetown.

MORE: Warren Buffett is bullish ... on women

The new online course (which starts in mid-July) will last for six weeks and provide people over the age of 18 a chance to give away money, upon their intelligently vetting one or more local charitable causes. Doris Buffett and a second foundation she started in 2011, Learning By Giving -- which she funded with $5 million -- will oversee this work and distribute the contributions. The technology this program needs has meanwhile been supplied by Google, whose "course builder"  enables the construction of a MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course.

Two younger Buffetts are closely involved with the new online program. Doris's grandson, Alex Buffett Rozek, 34, who manages a small Boston investment partnership, is president of the Learning by Giving foundation; Warren's grandson, Howard Warren Buffett, 28, who will be teaching social value investing at Columbia this fall, is on the foundation's board. Rozek has served as a director of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, and the younger Buffett has worked with his father, Howard Graham Buffett, on the latter's eponymous foundation.

The six-week course covers all of the steps that a student requires to make informed judgments about giving away money -- for example, what impact does a charitable organization have on its community and what will be the impact of your money on the organization? But guest speakers having a hands-on knowledge of philanthropy will also make video appearances -- among them baseball's Cal Ripken Jr. and ice cream's Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

The first of these speakers, in the opening week of the course, are Doris and Warren Buffett, who jointly discuss their philanthropic experiences -- Doris white-haired and striking, Warren looking his usual avuncular self. Doris notes that she's businesslike in her giving but has experienced "incredible joy" in carrying it out. Warren nods understandingly, adding that "helping people achieve their potential is about as good as it gets." And as the video rolls, they peremptorily interrupt each other, just as if they were kids back in Omaha.

The writer of this article, Carol Loomis, a senior editor-at-large of Fortune, is a longtime friend of Warren Buffett's and is also a friend of all the other members of the Buffett family mentioned in this article.

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.