Warren Buffett's oldest son doesn't quite get the attention he deserves, and not just because Howard is a bold, risk-taking philanthropist who's tackling some of the world's toughest problems in a hands-on way.
He also should register more in the philanthrosphere because of the very large fortune he plans to spend down over the next few decades. Specifically, Buffett has said that he will gave away all the money that comes his way from his father by the end of 2045, at which point the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will close its doors. Oddly, that pledge has garnered little attention.
Last December, Buffett said that his father's total commitment to his foundation amounted to $3 billion, but the value of Berkshire Hathaway shares have climbed since than and, further, it's possible that Warren Buffett will increase the amount of money he gives to the foundations run by his children.
Howard is the only Buffett kid so far who has pledged to spend down, but it wouldn't be surprising if Susie and Peter followed the same path. Susie, in particular, has been adept at shoveling boatloads of cash out the door in an urgent crusade to advance reproductive rights worldwide. (see my piece on Susie's operation.)
Howard's big issue is food security, which has led him into the related funding areas of water security and conflict mitigation. Buffett's foundation, run day-to-day by his son, Howard W., works on these issues mainly in Africa, Latin America, and the United States. (See IP's profile of Howard W.)
Tackling hunger, thirst, and war could easily absorb a fortune of any size. That said, pushing three billion bucks through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation may be easier said than done. In 2013, the foundation gave away over $100 million, but still failed to meet its giving target for the year. Staff-wise, this is still a small outfit relative to the money that it aspires to move, and getting to scale will take some time.
Ultimately, though, Buffett is unlikely to have any problem spending down, and here are few reasons why:
First, this is a hands-on funder with an intense sense of urgency who is working issues where human suffering is particularly stark.
Second, Buffett is ready to make big bets with no guarantees. "We take more and larger risks," he's said, contrasting himself to other funders. He says he doesn't mind failing, failing fast, and then taking another whack at a problem.
Third, Buffett partners with people who think like him—nimble risk-takers who want things to happen now.
Fourth, Buffett is allergic to bureaucracy, and what we won't see here is the creation of a big and lumbering grantmaking beast which starts making a gazillion program grants.
Of course, Howard Buffett isn't the first funder to swear off creating a large professionalized foundation. And, in the end, others in his shoes have found that they actually need such capacity to move big money, and move it right. So we'll see how all this plays out.
Once upon a time, Buffett occupied himself mainly with wildlife photography, and his first philanthropic focus was wildlife conservation. Today, he sees himself as a man on a mission to help a billion hungry people, and talks of how he's reinvented himself for this new stage.
Buffett is a bit grandiose, and something of an odd duck on today's philanthropic scene. But we need more odd ducks, if you ask me, and Buffett is fascinating to watch.
Things will only get more interesting going forward. For one thing, Buffett has said that his foundation is looking to make a one-time gift of up to $100 million in the next few years to burn some of its extra cash. I wonder who's going to land that grant?