Howard Buffett: a billionaire's son battles to end hunger

He's barreled headfirst into his task, visiting more than 100 countries; met world leaders and African warlords; had an Uzi pointed at his chest – and challenged the status quo.

Nati Harnik/AP/File
Howard G. Buffett, son of investor Warren Buffett, participates in a panel discussion at a conference on crops and soil health in Omaha, Neb. His work has funded research into drought-tolerant crops, supported the mapping of food insecurity in America, and will pull nearly 50,000 Central American farmers out of poverty.

Howard Buffett is on deadline. In 2006, his father, investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, challenged him to do something great in the world – and gave him $1 billion to do it. So he gave himself 40 years to spend every penny in a bold attempt to end global hunger.

“Looking at how big the problems are today, why would we sit here and build some big endowment for some legacy?” he asks. After a second stock gift in 2012 and favorable returns, he has about $3 billion now. An Illinois farmer, Buffett spends part of the year in the cab of his tractor and the rest of his time leading the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

He’s barreled headfirst into his task, visiting more than 100 countries to research the scope of the issue. In the process, he’s sat with world leaders and African warlords, had an Uzi pointed at his chest, and challenged the status quo.

So far, his work has funded research into drought-tolerant crops, supported the mapping of food insecurity in America, and will pull nearly 50,000 Central American farmers out of poverty. This past fall, he released a best-selling book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. Contributing Editor Vanessa Glavinskas met with him at his office in Decatur, Ill.

THE ROTARIAN: As I came in, I almost didn’t notice the small sign for the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Do people in Decatur know you’re here and what you do?

BUFFETT: I don’t really know. We don’t accept unsolicited proposals. We know exactly what we want to do and the areas where we want to work. So for us, there’s no point in advertising. We’re not fundraising. We’ve had people want to give us money, and we just say we can’t take it. The only thing that will show up on our 990 [IRS tax form], other than the stock my dad gives us, will be income from the sale of my books.

TR: That sounds liberating.

BUFFETT: It’s great. We’re in the best set of circumstances because we can try anything. We gave $500,000 to the Ugandan government to help support the peace process in eastern DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. We gave it at the same time the government was being criticized for how they were handling certain money, but we set up an expenditure responsibility report. We had them set up a separate bank account, and we have the right to go in and audit it. We did everything we think we need to do for accountability and transparency. Most foundations wouldn’t give money to a government under those circumstances, but we’re engaged in trying to bring peace to that part of the world.

TR: How will you know if the money made a difference?

BUFFETT: We can’t measure it. Too often we put economic thresholds on what nonprofits do. We don’t live by that. That doesn’t mean we don’t measure as much as we can; we do. We’ve stopped funding programs because we didn’t get to where we had to get. But we do a lot of things that aren’t clear as to what the outcome is going to be. Some things don’t work, and that’s OK because you learn something.

TR: How does your experience as a farmer tie into your foundation? I understand there’s research happening on your farms.

BUFFETT: We have about $20 million in research grants with Southern Illinois University, Penn State, Texas A&M, Purdue. We’re working with a lot of different universities to learn. For example, we are trying to figure out how to grow rice and corn with significantly less water. That will help in water conservation, and it also will help in areas of the world where you have less water. We’re looking at different farming systems in terms of carbon release, in terms of yield, in terms of soil erosion. SIU is doing most of that work here in Illinois. We have plots in South Africa, in Illinois, and in Arizona. Our plan is to prove what is right and what is wrong. We’re doing a study on African agricultural productivity based on a number of issues, including political restraints and productivity of soil. We’ll have that out in 2014, and it will contradict some of the mainstream thinking that Africa can feed the world. We’ll go in-depth in 10 countries and talk about the things that have to happen if these countries are even going to feed themselves. Our plan is to challenge the status quo.

TR: What has been your biggest success so far?

BUFFETT: We’ve had huge success with something called P4P, or Purchase for Progress, with the World Food Programme. We’ll pull close to 50,000 farmers across four countries in Central America permanently out of poverty. We train farmers in business and production methods, and then WFP guarantees that it will buy from those farmers for things like school feeding programs and emergency relief. WFP buys thousands of tons of food. Because they guarantee they’ll buy it, we don’t have to worry about what happens if we train all these farmers and they can’t sell something. When we walk away from this program, most of those farmers will be in the marketplace. In fact, almost half those farmers are already selling to other entities. They don’t need us anymore. That’s the beauty of the program.

TR: Rotary is also shifting toward more sustainable projects. How do you think Rotarians could help with your efforts?

BUFFETT: I’ve actually thought about how great Rotary would be in eastern DRC because when you’re trying to rebuild a society, what’s the first thing you do? You have to build camaraderie. You have to build trust. You have to build a social conscience. Rotary clubs do that. It’s something I’ve thought about. I hope somebody will read this interview and help me figure it out.

TR: Rotarians do offer a local connection within a global network.

BUFFETT: Local contacts are irreplaceable, especially in some of the places we work. I’ll give you an example. When the M23 rebels took control of Goma [DRC] in 2012, there were many western NGOs operating in that area. They all left. One of my contacts there sent me an email that said the last time this happened, three years earlier, thousands of people died from cholera because the power lines were cut and they couldn’t pump from the lake. When people couldn’t get water, they started going straight to the lake and taking water out. He said, “I can get four generators in 24 or 48 hours, and I need $187,000.” I would never believe just anybody who told me they could get four generators into Goma when everyone is leaving, but I knew this guy. I knew he could do it, so we wired him the money. He trusted us, we trusted him, and within 48 hours he had most of the hospital up and running, and he had all the water pumps running.

TR: You share many stories like that in your book. Why did you write 40 Chances?

BUFFETT: A couple of years ago, I was sitting with my son, Howie, and Trevor Neilson, one of our advisers, and I said, “I’ve got all this material I’ve saved – all these notes from all these trips. I’ve got all these pictures. You know, I ought to write a textbook because maybe students would get something out of it.” They laughed, and Howie said, “Dad, you need to think bigger than that.”

TR: Why did you title it 40 Chances?

BUFFETT: I went to what they call “planter’s school” at my John Deere dealer, and this guy said, “You all think about farming as one cycle and then the next cycle. You never stop to realize that by the time you let your son or daughter plant, you are only going to plant about 40 crops.” That really hit me. I don’t get to farm forever. Nobody gets to do anything forever. So the book is about having a sense of urgency, and that people need to think in a realistic time frame and have realistic goals.

TR: Is that why you decided that your foundation would go out of business in 40 years – to maintain a sense of urgency?

BUFFETT: If you think that way, you’re going to act differently. We will go out of business in 40 years from 2006. That’s set in stone.

TR: Won’t there still be problems to tackle?

BUFFETT: I don’t know if my grandkids are going to be any good at giving money away. I don’t know if they’re going to want to give money away, and I don’t know where they’d give it. We have big problems now, so why wouldn’t I use the best talent we can get and tackle those problems the best way we can right now?

TR: What do you hope to accomplish by then?

BUFFETT: I hope we will have shaken up the conversation, challenged people, and challenged processes. I hope we help people think about issues differently and even change the mindset a little bit – like that it’s OK to fail.

TR: In your book, you say your parents always encouraged you and your siblings not to fear failure, but to follow your passion.

BUFFETT: The biggest thing that demonstrates that value is the money my dad has given us. Right now, it values about $3 billion. But he doesn’t tell us how we should give our money away. How many people could give their kids billions of dollars and be hands-off? He’s done that all his life. It’s the ultimate way of saying, “Go do something you love to do, and I’ll support you.” It’s a pretty amazing approach.

TR: Your dad calls you the Indiana Jones of philanthropy. What drives you to work in some of the world’s most dangerous places?

BUFFETT: I want to understand the full picture of hunger, and conflict is a main cause. Nearly 60 percent of the hunger in Africa is caused by conflict.

TR: But why is alleviating hunger so important to you that you’d risk your own life by going into a conflict zone?

BUFFETT: People are living in these circumstances. That’s their life. I get to go home. When you start doing things in areas that are difficult, you find people who are so committed, and you feel like, “Well, if they’re not giving up, I can’t give up.” It’s an amazing feeling to help people who are so committed to helping themselves and the people around them when they have nothing. It’s a whole different level of satisfaction that I get from that, and I don’t know how exactly to explain it. I don’t really think about the danger.

TR: Really?

BUFFETT: There have been a few times I’ve been nervous. I’ve had an Uzi or an AK-47 stuck in my chest three or four times. I automatically look and see if the guy’s finger is on the trigger. It usually is. But I just love doing it. There are some things I won’t do, but there aren’t many. My most dangerous encounters have actually been with animals. I didn’t go into any of that in the book, but my worst stories were earlier on.

TR: You’re also a wildlife conservationist and photographer.

BUFFETT: Oh, yeah. I’ve done a lot of wildlife photography. It’s put me in some risky situations with animals. I should have been killed by a polar bear in September of ’97 up by the Hudson Bay. A helicopter cut the [charging] polar bear off within seconds.

TR: It was your passion for animals that led you to take on hunger, right? You saw people destroying habitats to farm.

BUFFETT: In 1992 or 1993, Dennis Avery from the Hudson Institute and I were having a debate about agriculture and conservation when he said to me, “No one will starve to save a tree.” That was the moment I started thinking about conservation differently. In the early 2000s, I started to recognize that you couldn’t save cheetahs and mountain lions and elephants if you didn’t have people who could make choices.

TR: What do you mean by choices?

BUFFETT: There’s a guy in the book, Jake Harriman [founder of Nuru International, a nonprofit that serves people living in extreme poverty], who says poverty is about choices. The World Bank defines poverty by what a person earns. But he says it’s really about choices, and he’s right. I was in DRC and a farmer came up to me and started talking about a project we were funding. He said, “Before I started, everybody told me I was living on a dollar a day. Now they tell me I’m living on six dollars a day.” He said, “I don’t know if I’m earning six dollars a day, but here’s what I know: I’m sending all three of my kids to school. I’m going to be able to send my fourth child to school when she’s ready. I feed my kids three times a day. I don’t worry about a lot of things. If that’s living on six dollars a day, then that’s what I’m doing.” There’s a difference between trying to identify everything in Western terms – where everything has to have a dollar value – and defining progress in terms of choices. Are you hungry or not hungry? That’s what counts.

TR: You’ve seen some horrific things. Some of the images in your book, like a child in chains, are disturbing. How do you cope?

BUFFETT: That was in Senegal. It’s hard. Having a camera allows you to separate yourself from the circumstances a bit. Taking those images makes me feel like I can do something. I can get photographs. I can prove what’s going on. But it’s hard. There are three people I know of who died after I photographed them – kids. I know they died within a few days, and that still haunts me. But it also helps me focus. It helps me set realistic goals and try to get them done.

TR: What does your foundation do to help here at home?

BUFFETT: We do a lot. There are about 50 million food-insecure people in the United States. That’s up from 37 million about five years ago, primarily because of the economy. We work with Feeding America, which is a great organization. We’ve been able to do a couple of neat programs with them. One was an idea that we went to them with called Invest an Acre, where farmers can donate grain and turn in the money to support food banks in their area. They’ve had some great ideas that we’ve funded, like the Map the Meal Gap project, which is why I can tell you that 22 percent of the kids in Illinois are food insecure. They’ve got the data to prove it. We also do some capital things. Hunger goes along with homelessness, so we helped build a facility for the homeless. We do projects both locally and nationally.

TR: What can Rotarians do to help alleviate hunger in the United States?

BUFFETT: That’s the easiest question, because anybody can do something. Locally, you can volunteer at a food pantry. You can help deliver meals for Meals on Wheels. You can help your food banks with distribution. There are two things about the United States that put it ahead of anybody in the world, in my opinion: One is that we’re the most generous people in terms of the money we give away. The other is that we volunteer like crazy. When you talk about hunger, anyone can do something about it.

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.

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