Just How Far Does Warren Buffett’s Philanthropic Influence Extend?

Warren Buffett is frequently listed among the nation’s top philanthropists. In 2012, he topped the list, giving away more than $3 billion, and as one of the leaders of the Giving Pledge, has said he will be giving away 99% of his $58.5 billion fortune to charity, with the vast majority going to the Gates Foundation, and the bulk of the rest being divided among his children’s charities. (See Warren Buffet’s profile).

Buffett’s generosity and leadership has been instrumental in convincing a total of 122 billionaires, with a net worth of more than $600 billion, to join the Giving Pledge since he and Bill Gates launched that initiative in 2010. Perhaps just as important, however, he’s also been instrumental in helping mint a number of other millionaires and billionaires who aren’t on the list, but have also made major philanthropic contributions, perhaps taking some of their cues from Buffett.

One example that we’ve profiled on Inside Philanthropy is Charles Munger, the Vice Chairman of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, who has actually been critical of the Giving Pledge, but nonetheless serves as the chair of LA’s Good Samaritan Hospital, donated more than $110 million to the University of Michigan, where he briefly attended before joining the army, and has made significant contributions to a number of other schools and community organizations. (See Charles Munger’s Profile).

Now, there’s another philanthropist with a Buffett connection starting to make waves: former President and CEO of Geico, Louis Simpson, who has donated $10 million to his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan, over the last two years—$2 million to endow the Faculty Director of the Woltemade Center for Economics, Business and Entrepreneurship, and most recently $8 million to transform the old natatorium into a new fitness center.

Not a whole lot is known about Simpson. He got a Masters in Economics from Princeton after graduating from Ohio Wesleyan, and had worked at Geico well before Buffett bought the company in 1996, having served as Vice Chairman of the Board from 1985-1993, before moving into the lead role at the company, a position he kept until 2010. He managed the investments at Geico autonomously from Buffett, though the two had similar investment strategies, which often led people to speculate that Buffett was influencing his decisions. In fact, Buffett trusted Simpson's investment decisions so much that he was looking to tap Simpson to replace him, but Simpson decided to retire instead.

Since leaving Geico, Simpson has held directorships at the Science Applications International Corporation and the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, and, it would appear, has been giving more thought to philanthropy. It seems that Mr. Simpson keeps a pretty low profile—his net worth is unknown, and we haven’t found any records of a family foundation, other major donations, or positions on boards of non-profits. But someone who was the head of a major corporation for so long, and is willing to drop an $8 million gift on his old school, is someone we’re going to be keeping an eye on. 

Meanwhile, we can think of a few relatively unknown people who made a killing on Berkshire Hathaway stock and have turned to philanthropy. One is Stewart Horejsi, who became a billionaire as an early buyer of that stock, and now gives at a modest level through his Horejsi Charitable Foundation. Another is Benard Sarnat, who also scored big and, before he died in 2011, set up a foundation with his wife, Rhoda. We're sure there are a few others out there, too.