international Woman's Day march in montreal. Novo is one of the leading funders of women’s and girl’s issues. Maria A. Rodriguez/shutterstock
international Woman’s Day march in montreal. Novo is one of the leading funders of women’s and girl’s issues. Maria A. Rodriguez/shutterstock

The NoVo Foundation, one of the largest and most committed domestic and global funders of women’s and girls’ issues, is ending multi-year funding, reviewing every one of its current grants, and letting a full program team go amid the pandemic. The foundation announced the news last week, sparking anger and confusion among other funders, philanthropy critics and grantees, with one leader in the field calling the decision “reprehensible.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout have certainly cast a shadow over the sector and those who rely on philanthropic dollars, NoVo’s moves stand in stark contrast to the actions of many funders that have, despite the downturn, expedited and even increased grantmaking along with other kinds of grantee supports.

The backlash to the announcement has been fierce, in part because of its vagueness, seeming to suggest a shrinking budget (or at least concerns about one) due to stock market fluctuations, but offering few details beyond the end of multi-year grants. NoVo’s website includes a banner stating that it is “currently in transition,” and the foundation declined to comment.

NoVo was established by Jennifer and Peter Buffett in 1997 after Peter’s father, billionaire Warren Buffett, pledged a donation of 350,000 Berkshire Hathaway shares. It has granted over $700 million to benefit crucial causes like adolescent girls’ rights, the leadership of women and girls of color, and efforts to end gender-based violence. Ryan Schlegel, director of research at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), posted on Twitter recently, citing Candid data from between 2016 and 2018, that NoVo was responsible for 17% of all domestic funding for women’s rights and services (human services specifically for women) and 37% of funding in that category, specifically for Black women.

The initial email to NoVo’s partners on May 11 has sowed a mood of worry and disappointment in the field. Titled “An important message regarding the Adolescent Girls’ Rights team from Peter and Jennifer Buffett,” the note also conveys an apparently major but somewhat uncertain upheaval in the foundation’s funding plans. NoVo stated it was in a process of “deep reflection” even before COVID-19 spread, and that its three-person “Advance Adolescent Girls’ Rights” team (one of NoVo’s five programs) is now departing, as one of its program officers did in April.

“I can’t recall a time when any foundation of their size let go of that much [staff] so abruptly, notably, mostly women of color who had earned a strong level of respect from both the [nonprofits] they engaged with so deeply, as well as so many peer funders,” said Lori Villarosa, executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE). She also said for NoVo to move decision-making “further into the quite far-removed and less expert hands of the donors” is “counter to the philosophy [it and the Buffetts] were praised for from so many corners in recent years.”

NoVo also stated that its “annual budget is tied directly to the stock market rather than a percentage of an endowment, which means that economic uncertainty does not allow us to grant in our usual manner, and we are operating—as everyone is—with a lot of unknowns. In 2020, this will affect our long-held belief in multi-year commitments.”

NoVo will honor already-committed grants, but new grants will be in a single-year frame. The announcement added that NoVo plans to create “much greater flexibility in reporting requirements.”

In a related blog post, Peter Buffett wrote that the foundation’s work will no longer be divided into initiative areas, and suggested a broad shift in focus. Buffett stated twice in the post that “every grant” will have to be reviewed. NoVo still plans “to commit over $300 million” over the next three to five years, the post stated. It’s unclear what the foundation’s plans are after that time period, but we can assume that NoVo is still on track to receive infusions of Berkshire Hathaway stock for years to come—a stock that will recover.

President and CEO of NoVo grantee the Ms. Foundation, Teresa C. Younger, says NoVo staff “were and are key thinkers in the field of liberation for women and girls, leading a change in funding that so many of us have been working on for decades, and their influence in this space will be missed… Simply put, a short-term approach does not make for long-term impact.” She says the Ms. Foundation hopes to work with its philanthropic partners to support “the long-term funding that organizations need to further the fight for gender and racial equity.”

In 2006, Warren Buffett announced he would contribute most of his then-estimated $44 billion fortune to a number of philanthropic efforts. While he made his most prominent commitment to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he also made substantial pledges to the four foundations controlled by his children: NoVo, the Sherwood Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. And in 2010, he and Bill Gates launched the Giving Pledge, asking billionaires to commit to donating at least half of their wealth to charities.

In 2019, Buffett’s annual gift from his Berkshire holdings to the five foundations was valued at $3.6 billion. Peter Buffett writes that because NoVo’s resources are drawn from “a pledge of stock, what we’re able to accomplish in any given year is based entirely on market fluctuations.” NoVo moves money not based on a large endowment—a lump sum set aside from the Buffett fortune—but this annual pledge. (IP Editor David Callahan tweeted on this point, highlighting Warren Buffett’s role in NoVo’s current situation, and Peter Buffett briefly weighed in. We reached out to NoVo, but it declined to contribute.)

As many in the field have noted, NoVo has been a generous and groundbreaking ally for years. It could very well be facing a crunch in cash flow during this downturn. But the extent of the wealth still at play here is notable, especially compared to grantee populations at heightened risk during this time. NoVo’s changes could have huge implications.

In 2013, NCRP awarded NoVo an Impact Award because its “generous support for movement work, especially [by] and for black women and girls, has been unique,” NCRP President and CEO Aaron Dorfman said. “If it is true that they are backing away from that commitment, then that would have a huge negative impact on the sector and on communities across the country.” Dorfman also says NoVo’s “lack of clear, proactive communication” with grantees surrounding these shifts is “disruptive, deeply concerning, and certainly doesn’t fit at all with best philanthropic practices or, quite frankly, even common courtesy.”

An individual in a leadership position with an international funding organization who asked to remain anonymous said NoVo has “transformed the landscape of funding for adolescent girls.” They describe the recent announcement as “deeply worrying,” saying it “could not come at a more challenging moment,” referencing the pandemic. “Adolescent girls, their allies, and the organizations committed to them are heartbroken, stunned and scrambling to find ways of not collapsing.”

Alicia Sanchez Gill, director of the Emergent Fund, a 2018 NoVo grantee, has been tweeting a critique of NoVo’s recent news, calling its decision during an economic downturn “reprehensible.” She says NoVo is “doing literally the opposite of what all equitable, trust-based, decolonizing philanthropic practices tell us is right in this moment of crisis, by divesting from the lives and safety of women, girls and GNC youth of color, while whitesplaining the stock market… I’m no expert, but I hear, ‘We are making a choice to maintain our wealth, rather than move money.’”

A few other interesting notes from Peter Buffett’s blog post: He says that NoVo carried out much of its past funding “in the dedicated belief that other foundations and individuals would join us,” and that while anti-patriarchy funding has increased, it remains “woefully underfunded.” This seems to suggest that the philanthropic sphere has not met NoVo’s expectations.

Another section of the post seems to suggest that, while grantmaking continues, the Buffetts’ dreams may have lost steam. “It started to become much more clear to us that our aspiration to foster conditions for a balanced, loving world could not live inside a system built on hierarchy and violence… we’ve learned that to fight this system is to join this system.” But at the end of the post, he says they will carry on funding, “because we believe in the power of our partners’ work and [that], specifically in these times, more funders will come to understand the necessity of this work continuing into the future.”

Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, a current NoVo grantee, says the coronavirus and climate change crises show “the kind of grantmaking that [NoVo] has stood for is more needed than ever; large, multi-year, flexible grants enacted with a commitment to a global feminist perspective… It’s a loss for social justice to see this apparent shift.” She adds that this “is the nature of private philanthropy. Donors have the prerogative to change course quickly. It’s a major vulnerability of the nonprofit sector that we haven’t really solved for.”

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