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The World's Greatest Philanthropists

The retail philanthropist
Meet Warren Buffett's elder sister, Doris. She helps those who have had bad luck, not those who make bad choices

N Mahalakshmi

Separated by just two years, they played, fought and bonded like most siblings. Both skipped a grade. Of the two, the younger one, the older one admits, was more placid and peaceful. Yet, he would get scolded more often. That was Doris and Warren Buffett in their younger days. Despite that playful rivalry — or perhaps, because of it — it was to Doris that Warren turned when he needed help in 2006. This was just days after he had announced that he would give away the bulk of his wealth to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren was inundated with letters asking for help. Doris Buffett was in Maine when her brother called, asking if she could handle the mail, offering an initial $5 million to take over the chore. Doris had already earned her reputation as the “Sunshine lady”, helping ordinary people overcome their difficult circumstances. She found a bunch of women in Maine who had bare-bones prior experience answering mail and started sorting through the letters.

The first box had 410 letters. “We were able to help a lot, from children to the grave. We bought tombstones on the one hand, saved children from terrible illnesses on the other hand, and did everything in between.” Whatever people wanted — hard cash, teeth or a new pair of glasses — as long as they were victims of circumstances that made them vulnerable, they got what they wanted. Doris helps people who have had bad luck, not those who make bad choices. That distinction is clear in her mind as she herself has gone through a roller-coaster ride in life that makes her appreciate the difference.  

Hard way up

Doris did not start off rich. Years after becoming one of the first investors in an early Warren partnership and making a fortune, she found herself $2 million in debt and almost lost her home in the 1987 stock market crash. With some good advice — not financial assistance — from her genius brother, she wriggled out of the situation. In 1996, she was wealthy again — and on a much bigger scale. That was thanks to her share in a trust established by her father — Warren invested the original $100,000 in Berkshire and grew it to over $300 million. Doris took that money to embark on a philanthropic journey with the objective of helping individuals hit by bad luck. “You would be amazed at the variety and type of bad luck people have,” she says. 

She narrates the story of a little girl in Colarado to make her point. Her divorced mother was raising three children alone, so the girl would spend every summer at her aunt’s place in Tennessee. One time, she returned and there was a small spot under her left eye. Her mother took her to the hospital and the nurse gave some ointment to apply locally. The spot only grew bigger; she returned to the hospital, was given another ointment, which didn’t work either.

When a doctor saw her the third time, he did a biopsy to find some sort of a virus. The girl was shunted around four different hospitals, including the Tennessee Children’s Hospital, to finally find that three other children in the state and some 21 in Thailand had a similar ailment. A treatment plan was decided. Meanwhile, the mother had a job to hold and a house to run — and spend all night at the hospital with her daughter. “I told her to send the bills right away,” Doris says, cursing herself for not checking how the girl is doing. “I am going to call her today for sure.” 

It’s not surprising Doris forgot to call. So far, she’s handled some 18,000 letters — to Warren and to herself — asking for help. The messages range from cases that make you cringe, to people saying ‘Don’t save us if you have other dire cases’ sounding like martyrs, to others who ask for a couple of million dollars, attaching deposit slips with their letters to make it a little easier to send the money. “Some people write me letters shedding new light on my brother — they tell me things he has done for them that he never told me. I like to tell people my stories because someone else may like to help as well,” Doris says. Since 1996, when the Sunshine Lady Foundation was formed, she has awarded more than $100 million in grants. 

Doris has a staff of seven women who scan the letters and prioritise cases. There’s a personal level of interaction with the people the foundation finances, so some cases become personal. “It becomes a friendship thing. It’s not professional but it is good.” Doris’ personal favourite is a lady from Arkansas, who would write charming letters. “She wrote, ‘I put your picture up on the wall over the sofa. When Russel and I have hot dogs for Christmas, we will remember there was time when we had good luck.’ That did it for me but she died immediately after.” 

She too swears by Warren’s famous concept, the ovarian lottery. “It’s all about luck. It depends on where you are born, whether you are born a boy or a girl, whether you are physically attractive or how healthy you are — you don’t have a say in the thing. It’s all decided before you even emerge out of the womb,” avers Doris. “If you understand that attitude, you get along a lot better. I always feel good that I have this glorious opportunity to do something meaningful with my life.” 

From individual cases, Doris has expanded the scope of her work, putting together groups of people who are struck with similar problems and helping them. Some years ago, she started a shelter for battered women, helping them figure out ways to earn a living, be it by sending them to college or a cosmetic store. So far, Doris has sent some 2,000 women from the shelter to college. “Some 1,200 families are coming out of their mire and making their lives count and their kids admire them for it,” she says. 

Another group is prisoners. The Sunshine Lady Foundation is now the largest group in the US to run college programmes in prison, starting with Sing Sing. It’s a basic, no-frills programme, but it offers prisoners a second chance in life. And prisoners are clearly taking their education seriously — if they slip, they know there are plenty of others waiting in the queue. The effort has ensured a recidivism rate of zero at Sing Sing prison; other prisons in the US have a recidivism rate of 63%. “We seem to have hit a nerve and things are happening much faster than you can recount them,” says Doris. 

She recalls attending one of the graduation ceremonies, complete with a processional march with harmonica and a drum playing in the background. “I witnessed miracles. I was just knocked out when one fellow got up with his diploma in his hand and he said, ‘Mom, I never did anything to make you proud. This is for you.’ Everyone dissolved into tears.” Two years ago, Doris took Warren to another prison graduation ceremony. For the inmates, it was like a visit from Jesus. One of the speakers stood up and said, “We have been put on the dump heap and we belong there. We have done terrible things but we can be recycled.” As we speak, Doris says she just found out that the state of New Jersey is now going to take on the programme. 

Last year, she started an online course on philanthropy called Giving With Purpose, whose goal is to teach participants to beneficially contribute to charity. The participants have a chance to give away the Sunshine Lady’s money if they end up vetting one or more local charitable causes smartly.

“What Doris does is retail philanthropy — I am more a wholesale guy,” Warren’s quip hits the nail on its head. Indeed, if Doris wanted, she could even raise retail funds. After her biography Give It All Away came out, Doris appeared on a number of TV shows, following which a woman from California wrote to her, saying she had saved money with the intention of doing charity, but trusted Doris would do a better job of it — there was a cheque for $183,000 with the letter. Doris promptly returned the cheque, along with some deserving letters from her pile. “There is real joy in this if you are not a bureaucrat,” she says.

Doris runs a tight ship so that the money can be stretched as far as possible. “We have our parties — we sing, dance, make merry but we don’t spend too much and we have a lot of fun. I have a Christmas party you wish you were invited to. In summers, my girls and I go to a farm — nothing fancy, they make your food, they make your beds and everyone has a good time,” says Doris. That’s important, she feels, realising that many of the people who write to her have never had that chance to enjoy themselves. “They have never seen happiness. They don’t know what is fun. I am glad I can bring a slice of happiness and fun to their lives,” she says.

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