Back in 2006, when Warren Buffett first announced that he would give away billions of dollars, individual requests came flooding in asking for help. These requests still come to him even today.
Instead of ignoring these letters and putting them off to the side, Buffett collects them all and then sends them to Doris Buffett, his big sister. The Sunshine Lady Foundation, consisting of seven women along with Doris Buffett, closely looks over each request. They are looking for those who have fallen upon hard times even though it isn’t their own fault.
“She just believes that a lot of people got short straws in life, and she wants to help them,” said Warren Buffett.
It’s very rare for those in philanthropy to respond to requests on an individual basis, said Rebecca Riccio, a professor at Northwestern University that interviewed the Buffett siblings last year and also teaches philanthropy. The 83-year-old Warren Buffett and his older sister the 86-year-old Doris have come to an unusual agreement since neither of them wants to completely disregard these requests, but Warren wanted to continue to keep his main focus on running Berkshire Hathaway.
“I think Warren and Doris do not have it in them to ignore those letters,” said Riccio.
Initially, Warren Buffett sent his sister Doris $5 million to help cover the costs to respond to all of these letters, and he also promised to send her more money if it was needed. The Buffett siblings have not shared how much they have given to each of the individual letter writers at this time and do not intend to share this information.
The majority of the requests are quite simple. A man needed money to purchase new glasses. A grandmother needed help to buy a tombstone for her three children that have passed on from this world. A disabled woman needed an automobile in order to visit her grandchildren and her daughter.
“These are decent people who just didn’t have the breaks somebody else did,” said Doris Buffett.
She tells us that her desire to help people began during the Great Depression, when at the time she saw so many people struggling to take care of their shelter issues and their basic hunger needs. Her desire to help only grew as she dealt with her own disappointments in life, including being divorced four times and the 1987 stock market crash where she lost $12 million.
Doris Buffett, in 1996, started the Sunshine Lady Foundation after she inherited some money. Through the foundation, she also has generously donated over $150 million of her own money, and primarily focused on setting up the larger programs, including a scholarship program for victims of domestic violence, plus educating prisoners in college and helping those suffering from the effects of mental illness.
Riccio tells us that Doris Buffett is set apart by her willingness to provide many small gifts to those in need, plus her personal connection to the recipients.
“She cares about people, not about the procedure or the perception of her as a philanthropist,” said Riccio.
The focus of Doris Buffett’s foundation mainly thrives upon giving to the communities in which she lives, including Beaufort and Wilmington, North Carolina; Rockport, Maine; and Fredericksburg, Virginia. But her gifts are not confined only to those places.
A bank robber by the name of Steven Lewicki spent 15 years in Maine State Prison, and while he was there he was able to earn his associates degree all because of a college program set up by Doris Buffett and her foundation.
Once Lewicki earned his freedom, he studied at the University of Maine at Augusta and earned his bachelor’s degree. He then gained employment working for a group that advocates for prisoners.
“I feel an obligation to Doris,” said Lewicki. “I feel an obligation to honor her philanthropy and her integrity and her guidance and all of that.”
Doris Buffett’s overall main goal is to provide one-time aid, and whenever it’s possible, she likes to connect with people to help in other ways. But she understands that there are limits to what she is capable of doing.
“I can’t change somebody’s life, but I can make it possible for them to do so,” said Doris.