Q&A: Three Buffetts 'get to work' on giving

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Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2013 12:00 am

Three Buffetts had a role in the new book “Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.”

Warren Buffett, chairman of Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., inspired it. His son Howard G. Buffett wrote it, with the help of his own son, Howard W. Buffett.

The three spoke in New York about their family's approach to philanthropy:

Q: When you first heard the idea that people have only about 40 chances to get things right, what was your reaction?

Howard G. Buffett: The very first thing I thought was that I've wasted at least 10 chances! I really did. When we have this incredible gift of financial resources, you've got to get to work. Our foundation (The Howard G. Buffett Foundation) has a sunset clause. In 40 years we're out of business. It gets you more focused.

Q: Warren, what was your philosophy about giving when you started accumulating wealth?

Warren Buffett: I've never given up a thing in terms of my own desires to help my fellow man. I admire people who drop $5 or $10 in a collection plate on Sunday and give up a movie or a toy for their children.

I've had this enormous surplus of wealth. Should I leave it to my children so they can do nothing forever? That's crazy from my viewpoint.

There are all kinds of people who have contributed as much or more to the world than I have, but the market system has not paid them off as it's paid me off. So let's use the money to make the lives of other people better. It can't make my life any better.

Q: Howard, what's one of your advantages as a philanthropist and being a Buffett?

Howard G. Buffett: As long as Dad isn't mad at me, I get stock! That's a huge advantage. I don't have to make a lot of people happy, I don't have to go out and do fundraisers.

Q: I was impressed with your photography in the book.

Howard G. Buffett: They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it's very true. If I can show you a young child in shackles in Senegal, it gets your attention. I can say that in a paragraph and you'll say, “So what?”

When you see this kid, the expression on his face, you see the reality of what he's facing. Some people don't get it without images.

Q. (To Howard W. Buffett): How did working on this book with your father shape your outlook on your own 40 chances?

Warren Buffett: I'm trying to get him to sell a few of his chances to me.

Howard W. Buffett: I feel like I couldn't be luckier. I've had the two best role models anyone could ask for. They have been endlessly supportive. That has empowered me to continue seeking out the things that inspire me the most and where I want to invest my 40 chances.

Q: Warren, are you pleased with the number of billionaires who have signed up so far for the Giving Pledge, which says they'll give away the majority of their wealth?

Warren Buffett: More than happy. When we started two years ago, I never expected to get to 100. I thought maybe we would get to 50 or so. Then we started dialing for dollars. We have 115 people who have pledged at least half their wealth, and many will give a much higher percentage.

Q: Would you have done your philanthropy any differently if you could do it over again?

Warren Buffett: I probably wouldn't. If in 1970, say, I decided to give away the surplus wealth I had then, and if I had made $25 million then, I could have given away $20 million. But now I'll probably be able to give away $75 billion. It was better to delay it.

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