I had spent much of my life writing music for commercials, film and
television and knew little about the world of philanthropy as practiced
by the very wealthy until what I call the big bang happened in 2006.
That year, my father, Warren Buffett, made good on his commitment to
give nearly all of his accumulated wealth back to society. In addition
to making several large donations, he added generously to the three
foundations that my parents had created years earlier, one for each of
their children to run.
Early on in our philanthropic journey, my wife and I became aware of
something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism. I noticed that a
donor had the urge to “save the day” in some fashion. People (including
me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that
they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods,
education practices, job training or business development, over and over
I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting
directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or
Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences;
distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended
up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.
But now I think something even more damaging is going on....
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates
vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give
back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better
about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live
on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The
rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot
from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing
good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is
further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of
his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled
Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current
structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast
market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when
no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most
folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got
a perpetual poverty machine.