NET WORTH: $59.9 billion
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Berkshire-Hathaway
FUNDING AREAS: Education, health and economic development, nuclear threats, children, and community services
OVERVIEW: Buffett has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to philanthropic causes. Approximately 83% of that will go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and much of the rest will be distributed to the foundations of his children. He is a very hands-off philanthropist, preferring to entrust his wealth to those he knows will spend it wisely on worthwhile philanthropic causes.
BACKGROUND: Buffett was born in Omaha, but he spent much of his childhood in D.C. after his father was elected to Congress. Early on, he showed an entrepreneurial spirit. He entered the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania at 17 and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to finish his undergraduate studies in business administration. He then received an MBA and a master's in economics from Columbia before returning to Omaha to work as a stockbroker. Buffett formed several partnerships there, one of which eventually led to him investing in and taking control of a textile manufacturing firm called Berkshire Hathaway. Gradually, he converted Berkshire Hathaway into an investment firm. Under his guidance — not to mention his talent for recognizing undervalued assets — it grew into one of the largest and most successful holding companies in the world.
PHILOSOPHY: Buffett has long held the belief that he could do the most good by amassing as much capital as possible during his lifetime and then giving most of it away at the end of his life. He once told the New York Times, "I don't believe in dynastic wealth." In 2006, he pledged to give all of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to philanthropic foundations, and in 2010 he and Bill Gates went public with the Giving Pledge, aimed at encouraging billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to charity. Buffett himself has pledged to give away 99%, with the largest chunk going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he is now a board member. Buffett does not involve himself in running the foundation, however. Nor is he really involved in the foundation that now bears his late wife's name, preferring to use his talents to create more wealth so that he can then donate it to the foundations he favors.
GATES FOUNDATION: Buffett was so impressed with the progress the Gates Foundation has made in global health and development, and in education in the United States, that he decided to use his fortune to upscale the Gates Foundation's work rather than funnel money into his own foundation. To that end, Buffett has pledged 10 million shares of Berkshire Hathaway Class B stock to the Gates Foundation over a period of years. He has already donated more than 30% of that amount and is adding about 4% per year. In classic Buffett fashion, however, the gift is conditional upon the foundation's giving away each year, at minimum, an amount equal to the value of the entire previous year's gift from Buffett plus 5% of the foundation's net assets.
BUFFETT FAMILY FOUNDATIONS: In addition to supporting the Gates Foundation, Buffett has pledged Berkshire Hathaway stock to each of his children's foundations, worth more than $2 billion each. These foundations include Peter and Jennifer Buffett's NoVo foundation, which seeks to empower adolescent girls and end violence against women; the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which focuses on food and water security, conflict mitigation, endangered mammal conservation, and local community support; and Susan Buffett's Sherwood Foundation, which focuses on early childhood education both in Nebraska and nationally and on rural and urban community development in Nebraska.
Buffett also has offered support for the foundation that bears his late wife's name, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which offers scholarships to Nebraska colleges, and his sister's Sunshine Lady Foundation, which also focuses on education, particularly for women.
COMMUNITY: For the past several years, Buffett has auctioned off lunch with himself to support the Glide Foundation, raising more than $5.5 million for its work. It's a bit of an odd partnership, as Buffett is known for being an agnostic from Omaha, while the Glide Foundation is the charitable arm of a Methodist Church in San Francisco to which Buffett has no readily apparent connection. Still, the Glide Foundation does good work, offering free meals, shelter, health services, drug abuse prevention and rehab, and domestic violence counseling to many in need. And all Buffett has to do is eat a steak dinner at one of the best restaurants in New York while someone else donates millions to the charity for the pleasure of dining with him.
OTHER SUPPORT: Buffett has contributed $50 million to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which was founded by Ted Turner and Sam Nunn. He's also made contributions to a variety of other organizations, including the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, Smile Train, the Animal Rescue Foundation, Music Rising, and the Make A Wish Foundation. In 2010, he signed a huge red Dairy Queen spoon that brought $4,500 at auction in support of the Children's Miracle Network. Most recently, he made a $10 million donation to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel.
LOOKING FORWARD: Buffett has already committed much of his wealth to the Gates Foundation and the foundations run by his family. And given his long-practiced hands-off form of philanthropy, it's unlikely that he will be championing any new philanthropic endeavors on his own. The more likely scenario is that his support may be enlisted through family members or other philanthropists he trusts to make wise decisions with their giving. Buffett, however, has mentioned before that the one thing he hasn't given enough of is his most valuable asset — his time. And Buffett's time is extremely valuable, as evidenced by the multimillion-dollar donations a dinner with him can bring in. With this in mind, and in light of his Giving Pledge, perhaps we will see Buffett start to participate in more fundraisers and benefits. The Oracle of Omaha may not always need to contribute directly from his own purse if he proves as adept at getting others to donate as he has at getting others to invest in his business ventures. Still, with pockets as deep as Buffett's, he can afford to make significant contributions to any organization he chooses without feeling the slightest dent in his personal fortune.