The World's Greatest Philanthropists

The ovarian lottery

An extract of Story 6 from Forty Chances, this chapter summarises the genesis of the Buffett family's philanthropy

Published 7 years ago on Jul 19, 2014 9 minutes Read

When my mother, Susan Thompson Buffett, did the first, last, and only television interview of her entire life with PBS’s Charlie Rose in 2004, she had recently recovered from oral cancer. Some who saw the interview noticed her slight speech impediment and thought that perhaps she had suffered a stroke, but that was not it. She had made great strides in learning to speak again after her surgeries, but it was still a struggle.

Fortunately, it did not undermine her sharp but never unkind sense of humour. She was talking about my father and some of the dynamics of their relationship, and she said with her mischievous smile: “I thought I’d marry somebody like a minister or doctor — somebody who would do some valuable service for human beings.Marrying somebody who makes piles of money is sort of the antithesis of what I thought I’d do. But I know what he is. There is no finer human being than who he is… so I overlooked the money.” My mother passed away later that year from a cerebral hemorrhage. She and my father were visiting friends in Wyoming. They were together when she died. Our friend the great rockstar Bono of U2 sang at her funeral. And for a woman who “overlooked the money,” Forbes magazine listed her as the 153rd richest person in the world in 2004. Her Berkshire Hathaway stock stake was worth around $3 billion. 

Our family’s involvement with philanthropy has been a great source of curiosity to reporters and others for a long time. My dad said famously that he would never consider giving his children the bulk of money, and people would sometimes talk about this statement as if this hinted at a rift between us. That was never the case. He had seen children of other successful executives develop an attitude of entitlement that he did not want in his children. He is practical. Just as when he made me present a plan that would yield him a profit on the farmland he offered to purchase, he always wants the numbers to add up.

My mother, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in empowering people and especially in helping all children reach their potential. She loved hosting exchange students from exotic places, but she also worked with low-income children in Omaha. She was appalled and offended by any kind of discrimination. She had a bumper sticker on her car that read “Nice people come in all colours


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