Whenever he appears on the business news show “Squawk Box” on CNBC, Warren Buffett always seems pleased with himself and his surroundings.
And well he should be. The self-made man, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, has an estimated net worth of $53.5 billion, according to Forbes, which ranks him No. 2 among U.S. billionaires and No. 4 worldwide.
But in addition to being a savvy investor, Buffett also is a philanthropist. This year, he led The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the country’s 50 biggest donors, with an estimated $3 billion directed to charity.
Buffett funds charitable foundations set up for each of his three grown children; has given sizable donations to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and has vowed that at his death, every share of Berkshire Hathaway stock he owns will “go back to society.”
“I’ve had nothing but good luck,” he said the other day in a YouTube interview that concluded the first class in a new online course about philanthropy and smart giving.
Buffett pointed to the iconic 20th century newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann in explaining his motivation: “Walter Lippmann talked about how we sit in the shade under trees others have planted. I think it behooves people in that position to plant a few trees themselves.”
Buffett appeared in the YouTube interview with his sister, Doris, who organized the online philanthropy course, “Giving with Purpose,” to teach college students — and anyone who registers for the free classes — how to become effective givers.
The first class, posted Monday, was hosted by Rebecca Riccio, director of a philanthropy education program at Northeastern University in Boston called Students4Giving, which operates much as the online course will: academic content plus real-dollar grant making.
The online course will let participants nominate nonprofits for grants from Learning by Giving, one of two foundations Doris Buffett runs. (Participants don’t have to be involved in nominating and vetting potential grant recipients; they can simply take the classes, too, as I’m doing.) For the first class, Riccio offered a series of short lectures that traced the roots of U.S. philanthropy, the legal definition of so-called 501(c)3 nonprofits and the reasons why people give.
Philanthropy isn’t just for the rich, she noted. About 65 percent of households give to charities, with modest-income households — earning $50,000 to $99,000 — giving a greater percentage of their incomes than $100,000-plus households. Close to $300 billion was donated to charities last year.
“By putting some thought into where you invest your charitable dollars, you can increase the chances that your money will be put to good use,” Riccio said.
I aced the true/false quiz that was part of the first class, but confess that I’ve taken a few specialized courses in the past that included accountants walking journalists through the Form 990 that nonprofits are required to file annually with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their tax-exempt status. So there wasn’t much in Riccio’s nonprofit basics that surprised me.
In the weeks ahead, though, there will be more on how to recognize nonprofits that are well-run and meeting the needs of their communities. Interviews also are scheduled with the likes of baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream empire.
The course calendar also mentions a final exam in mid-August. I hope I’ll be able to ace that one too.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.