After Peter Buffett's Big Critique, Business As Usual At His Foundation

Last month, the NoVo Foundation named a new executive director in the biggest personnel shift at NoVo since Peter Buffett published his famous Times op-ed on philanthropy, in which he said:

Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market.

Given the breadth of Buffett's critique, and the nerve he struck by spotlighting global inequality in an age of extreme capitalism, you might think that NoVo would have hunted far and wide for an ED who could translate that critique into philanthropic action. Maybe a left-wing economist or a top leader in the local economy movement. You also might think that its programs would be in flux, and that its economic work would be moving more front and center. 

As far as we can tell, though, it's business as usual at NoVo. (Although the foundation is winding down its work on social and emotional learning, as I discussed a while ago.) No big new strategic plan has emerged from the foundation for attacking systemic inequality and tempering market forces. The new executive director is a NoVo insider, Pamela Shifman, who has led the foundation's Initiatives for Girls and Women, and before that spent a career working on these same issues.  

Now, it should be mentioned that "business as usual" at the NoVo Foundation is already pretty radical compared to a great many foundations. They have a critique of gender that challenges established structures of power. Their ed funding has pushed back against the marketization of that sector. And the foundation has been investing heavily to create local economic systems that are not beholden to large corporations and banks. 

But I'd argue that none of this work gets at the roots of the problem that concerns Peter Buffett, which is that there are very few checks on market forces either at the national or global level. Labor can't serve as a counterweight to capital when corporations can move anywhere to hire the cheapest workers; national governments can't check the power of market actors that operate transnationally and also subvert democratic systems at home with rivers of money; international institutions are largely toothless (with the exception of trade regimes that favor business); and civil society lacks the coercive muscle to take on market actors. 

Empowering girls and women can achieve a lot of good in the world, but it's hard to see how it can level this perverted playing field. Indeed, since the dawn of the U.S. women's movement, American capitalism has become notably leaner and meaner, generating higher levels of inequality, and market ideology has pushed into more corners of U.S. life. As for the work on local economies, it's super important and could be transformative in the long-term but, at this stage, it's still small scale and marginalized. 

If Peter Buffett wants to tackle the monster he called out, he's going to need a bigger boat. 

But maybe that's not where his head's at. Just because Buffett has a big critique of inequality doesn't mean that he and his wife Jennifer Buffett, who is president of the NoVo Foundation, have to revamp their giving. Funders choose to work in specific areas where they think their money can make an impact. No one can do everything. 

Still, you'd think that the Buffetts would have capitalized on the heat around Peter's ideas to move things to the next level with a new signature initiative that helps human values have a fighting chance against market values. You know, like, giving Thomas Piketty $20 million to create a new organization or something. Think of what Pierre Omidyar did with First Look Media after Snowden. 

Who knows? Maybe something big is still coming from NoVo. It'd be exciting if that happened. We'll be watching.