If a foundation’s mission is to build more healthy partnerships in the world, what better place to start than with their own internal partnerships?
In fact, for Peter and Jennifer Buffett of the NoVo Foundation, developing their own partnership as a couple coincided with developing the mission of their foundation, which is to transform relationships across the globe from “domination and exploitation” to “collaboration and partnership.”
I had approached NoVo wanting to talk to either Jennifer or Peter individually, but, apropos of their partnership approach to philanthropy, I got them both. They spoke to me by phone from their home in the Hudson Valley, about two hours north of New York City.
Spouses Jennifer and Peter Buffett serve as NoVo’s co-presidents. They are highly conscious of gender roles, and how even among seemingly well-meaning and high-minded people, patriarchal attitudes and structures are often still present. They found this to be the case for themselves, “I’m a nice guy and she’s an outspoken woman,” says Peter, “but we were reenacting certain toxic roles,” he says of the early days of their relationship. Namely, that the wife serves as handmaiden supporting her husband in his endeavors. To combat this tendency, the Buffetts, who met in 1991 in Milwaukee, co-lead NoVo, and have assembled a racially and gender-diverse staff of 26 to run the foundation. In 2016, NoVo directed approximately $100 million in grants to organizations in the U.S. and overseas.
“NoVo” is a Latin word that suggests change, alteration and invention. In seeking to counter exploitative attitudes, practices and institutions and replace them with more egalitarian ones, the foundation focuses on the status of girls and women, particularly those in low-income communities, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
In 2016, NoVo announced a seven-year $90 million initiative to advance girls of color in the U.S., and in support of this effort recently concluded a series of “listening sessions” with communities in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. These encounters resulted in a collection of narratives illuminating the gender and race-based challenges facing girls of color, particularly in poor areas. (NoVo is accepting letters of inquiry until August 11 from community organizations across the country that are seeking to address such inequalities).
The NoVo Foundation was formed in 2006, the result of a bequest of stock valued at one billion dollars from Peter Buffett’s father, Warren. NoVo’s work on advancing the rights of girls and women (including combating gender-based violence), encouraging sustainability, furthering social and emotional learning, and supporting indigenous communities, came out of several key experiences Peter and Jennifer had in the mid-00s.
In 2005, Peter attended the first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Gene Sperling, an economist who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, gave a talk that Peter describes as a “lightning strike” for him. Sperling spoke about the impact that educating and empowering adolescent girls in post-conflict countries can have on improving the trajectories of entire communities. At the same time, Jennifer was thousands of miles away in Rwanda, where she was learning some of the same lessons, but hearing them from people on the ground in a country still struggling to emerge from genocide.
Jennifer says that in Rwanda, like many places, “When things fall apart, teen girls become heads of households.” This is a tremendous burden for them to carry, and deprives them of educational and other opportunities. Moreover, Jennifer says that when she talked with heads of NGOs in the developing world, she heard that sexual violence and the undervaluing of women and girls “is happening everywhere.”
NoVo attempts to invest in women and change oppressive structures as means of helping not just the women, but also their children, and whole societies. There is no way to boot-strap oneself out of a patriarchal system where every hour is consumed with survival tasks. “It’s a common saying,” says Peter, “If hard work made you rich, then every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
Prior to forming NoVo, Jennifer and Peter had already seen the corrosive effects of racism and sexism in their work in Milwaukee with poor teen-aged mothers of color. “We were looking at what perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” says Jennifer, “and trying to create supportive spaces for these girls.” Jennifer notes that Milwaukee, like many U.S. cities, is segregated, and part of her and Peter’s philanthropic education was familiarizing themselves first-hand with the Latino, African American and other communities that make up that city.
NoVo has sought to avoid a top-down mentality in its social and economic justice efforts. “The colonial mindset has people coming in and wiping out indigenous knowledge,” says Peter, who takes a page from his famous father in not replicating such an approach. “My Dad does not buy companies and tell the managers what to do, he trusts that they already know their business.”
Prior to his major gift that launched NoVo, Warren Buffett gave Jennifer and Peter $100,000 as a seed money for a non-profit so that they could learn the philanthropic ropes. “The tone of the gift was trusting and giving, not controlling,” says Jennifer, and NoVo has tried to mirror this approach in its own efforts. Peter, who has a career as a composer and musician, says his work in this area has also helped him. The finish line for a film score might be clear he notes, but it could take some improvising to get there.
Improving the status of girls and women is not easy, given that the mechanisms of global capitalism reinforce patriarchy, racism, inequality, and colonialism, not to mention environmental destruction. “Our current systems and structures are doomed,” says Jennifer. “The West is very extractive. It’s not doing the species any favors. We need to give people the chance to imagine a different and better future.”
Peter states that part of NoVo’s work is “to look under the covers of capitalism,” and that NoVo takes inspiration from indigenous communities in terms of developing locally-based, sustainable solutions. Of course, NoVo owes its existence to a gift from one of the world’s preeminent capitalists. “The irony is not lost on me,” says Peter.
The network of global capitalism can seem impenetrable and abstract, and for this reason NoVo also focuses on individuals and their relationships with one another. Under the rubric of social and emotional learning (SEL), which the foundation describes as “the process of developing fundamental skills for life success within supportive, participatory learning environments,” NoVo is helping students become better people and community members, as opposed to better test-takers.
“Children are soaking in a model that is 150 years old,” says Jennifer of our educational system, adding that, “Kids’ social and emotional needs are not being addressed.” The emphasis on hierarchy, test-taking, and standardization certainly has its pedagogical detractors, but NoVo is exploring the emotional and social toll of this approach. “We don’t ask what we are educating students for,” says Jennifer, arguing that, “We need to cultivate empathy, imagination, and cooperation.”
To this end, NoVo’s SEL Innovation Fund awardees for 2017 comprise a variety of school and district types—urban, suburban, and rural—across all grade levels and student populations. The awardees included 67 teachers, and 30 school districts in 22 states.
The SEL initiatives complement NoVo’s work with girls, whom it describes as “one of the most powerful and untapped forces on the planet.” Investing in this “under-valued asset” in the U.S. and abroad, suggests the Foundation, is perhaps the most significant thing we can do in advancing peace, justice and equality.