Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Time for Giving: 40 Years to Make a Difference

"If you had the resources to accomplish something great in the world, what would you do?" the legendary sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, posed this challenge to his children when he announced he was leaving the bulk of his fortune to philanthropy. 

At the Wealth & Giving Forum, his grandson, Howard Warren Buffett, related how his father's passion for farming and sustainable agriculture shaped the family's philanthropic response.

As a farmer with a deep understanding of what it takes to grow food in difficult conditions, Howard G. Buffett approached the issue of food security through a farmer's lens. All farmers can expect to have about forty growing seasons, giving them just forty chances to improve on every harvest to produce the best crop possible.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation took a forty year view to its giving - forty years, forty chances to make an impact on the world, to build a legacy.

The Foundation also chose to sunset in 40 years, giving itself a finite time horizon to spend down $3 billion of assets to create sustainable solutions for hunger. It is a philosophy that applies to giving and living. 

The forty year window of time to create long-term impact is a way of thinking that shaped their philanthropy. Knowing you have forty productive years to really make a difference creates a sense of urgency. We begin to prioritize things differently and strengthen our sense of purpose to bring intentionality to our giving.

This approach to philanthropy contains a powerful message - we must make the most of our forty chances. In their book, "40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World," Howard G. Buffett and his son, Howard Warren Buffett, offer a platform to inspire others to incorporate this philosophy in life ( 

Listening to three generations of Buffetts share their giving philosophy in interviews, we can learn how to translate our 40 chances into action.

We have the power to make a difference! Within each of us lies the potential to transform our world, regardless of our means. In my philanthropic work, I have been privileged to encounter unsung heroes who give all of who they are to create change locally, nationally or globally: a taxi driver who sends part of his savings to India to open girls' schools, a police officer in Chicago who used her credit card to start a training program for the homeless, and a Pakistani philanthropist who gave blood when he could not give financially. 

Nobel Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, started by lending $27 to 42 women in a village. We don't have to tackle climate change, human trafficking, or world peace but we have an obligation not to turn away from the moral challenges we encounter in our daily lives. In our own way, whatever we give can touch one life, offering hope that will serve as a light unto others.

The Buffetts urge us to seize an opportunity that ignites our passion, even if it starts out seeming small. They raise questions that encourage us to explore:
  • Am I acting with purpose and urgency in my life?
  • What are the risks worth taking to achieve something truly important?
  • What is my unique advantage and how can I best leverage it?
  • How do I embrace and learn from failure?

"40 Chances" is a way of thinking that encourages us to take risks, knowing we will have failures, while we till the soil of humanity to accomplish something important. In the doing, we learn something every year to increase our odds that next year's harvest will be better than the last. In our own small way, we can change the world and we can do it in our lifetime. It is possible to put ourselves in the Buffetts' shoes by putting our 40 chances into action, even without a billion dollars!

Wealth & Giving Forum, October 1, 2013 at the Rubin Museum
Seeking Impact: Perspectives on how to achieve it and make it last