A coca plant in Colombia. James Wagstaff/shutterstock
Working internationally can be a risky business, and presents a host of challenges for U.S. funders. America’s tax qualification requirements mean joining forces with U.S.-based charities that work globally, or jumping through hoops on an onerous expenditure responsibility process. In-country alliances can shift overnight. And then there’s the issue of finding people on the ground who can be trusted to get the work done in ways that meet intentions, in faraway places that may not allow for personal oversight.
Undeterred by all that, Howard Buffett chairs a foundation that dials exposure up a notch, guided by the mission of “taking risks to catalyze change and transform lives” for some of the world’s most marginalized populations and difficult environments.
For 20 years, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has worked in geographies that others see as simply too dangerous, unstable or corrupt to enter. Once there, it doesn’t shy away from tackling big issues. The foundation focuses on addressing food security, conflict mitigation and public safety in hot spots from El Salvador to Honduras—and has conducted projects in more than 80 countries, all told.
Recently, it expanded its work in Columbia, with plans to invest $200 million in the Catatumbo region. While peace has come to most of Columbia in recent years, Catatumbo remains a war zone, according to Human Rights Watch. So how can philanthropic work succeed, even when bullets start flying? We asked Howard Buffett that question in a recent interview in which he shared his insights on shouldering risk and building partnerships in places where networks don’t exist—and where most other funders are afraid to go.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation
Founded in 1999, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is the giving vehicle of the middle child of the “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and one of the world’s richest men, with assets estimated at $90 billion. To date, it’s made grants totaling $1.45 billion.
The foundation worked on a smaller scale until after 2006, when Warren Buffett announced he’d be giving away 85 percent of his wealth over time in the form of Berkshire Hathaway shares. Most of that was pledged to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The rest stayed in the family, with pledges to the foundation named after his first wife, Susan Thompson Buffett, and the foundations established by his three children: Susan, Howard and Peter. Since then, Warren has made annual gifts to each foundation; the Howard G. Buffett Foundation received $181.5 million in 2018. There were no strings attached to Warren’s original pledge, just a note of confidence from Dad, saying he knew they’d “use the money wisely, each in their own way.”
His Own Way
Howard Buffett’s philanthropy is informed by his background as a businessman, farmer and lawman, and he says that all three aspects have played a “huge role” in his work.
For years, he held executive positions with big-name corporations, and served on a number of Fortune 500 boards. Buffett says those roles help him “see ahead” and bring a business perspective to the work—and that the judgment he developed helps him avoid making “as many mistakes.”
But his “first love” is farming. Currently, he manages large family farms in Central Illinois and Nebraska, three foundation-operated research farms in Nebraska, Arizona and Illinois, and two ranches along the U.S.-Mexico border. His agricultural acumen has grounded the foundation’s food security programs from the beginning. Buffett says he got into Africa because of agriculture, driven by an appreciation that meeting the “most basic need of helping people grow food better can change their lives.”
Then there’s the law. Buffett served as Macon County, Illinois’ undersheriff for five years, and as sheriff for two. These days, he wears two hats. He re-upped as undersheriff in Macon County, and is a volunteer deputy commander of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona.
For a foundation that funds in conflict mitigation and public safety, that background has proved critical. Buffett says that working as a sheriff has been “invaluable to understanding the pieces of the justice system and the importance of the rule of law.” Fifteen years ago, he says the rule of law would not have been at the top of his list when making funding decisions. But he’s learned that lesson the hard way, after disappointments when investments in lawless places came to “naught.” Buffett now believes development is impossible without lasting peace.
The foundation typically funds in high-conflict areas internationally. Its work is based on the premise that food insecurity is both “a cause and consequence” of instability, and focuses on ending conflict and improving the underlying issues that fuel them.
Currently, six countries outside the U.S. take priority. Programs in three of those—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—address food and economic insecurity as root causes of U.S. immigration, with additional smart water efforts in the latter two. Funding in Mexico focuses on food security and other immigration drivers, along with human trafficking. And in Rwanda, it works to address food security through smallholder farmers.
Investing in Catatumbo
Though he’d had limited engagement in the country on earlier projects, Buffett says his interest in Columbia really began with the signing of the peace accord of 2016, which ended 50 years of conflict between the Columbian government and the country’s largest rebel group, FARC.
Buffett learned that the government was doing important work “from a safety standpoint,” cleaning up land mines the conflict left behind. “Basically 10,000 troops were building a humanitarian brigade to demine the country,” he explained. He found it really interesting that the government was doing the work itself, despite criticism from an NGO that was poised to step in. Buffett was impressed by Columbians “going back in, doing the work for other Columbians,” and saw a chance to build trust with the community and the country.
He also learned that U.S. support for the initiative was “stuck” in congress. Buffett helped get it “unstuck,” then backed the initiative with a total commitment of $38 million in 2017. Now, the foundation’s funding has expanded to $200 million to help develop Tibú, in the country’s Catatumbo region, over the next few years.
The first component is helping to construct 85 miles of roads connecting the region’s 37,000 residents to national and international markets. Access is essential to its central initiative: working to substitute more than 28,000 acres of coca—the raw material for cocaine—with legal crops like cacao. But Buffett says roads come first, “The only way we have confidence that farmers can grow legal crops is if they can get those crops to market.”
The foundation is also helping local farmers secure title to their land, find buyers for their crops, and strengthening security forces and infrastructure for local law enforcement. If all goes well, Catatumbo will become a model of regional state building. But the work’s not for the faint of heart. Though Columbia’s law and order president, Iván Duque Márquez, has pledged to slash cocaine production in half by 2023, violence has spiked significantly as armed groups have stepped in to fill the vacuum the rebels left behind.
Though the region is drawing unprecedented support, progress will require resources beyond the government’s ability, and has attracted the attention of just one NGO, USAID. The Buffett Foundation’s support well exceeds both. It reportedly triples what the government has spent in 170 high-risk municipalities under a 2016 peace agreement mandate, and rivals the $230 million USAID spends annually across the entire country. Partnerships will be pivotal to de-risking that investment.
Partnerships in Catatumbo
When choosing partners, Howard Buffett says he starts with the basics: well-established, trusted organizations that are tax-qualified and can report properly. He considers personal relationships key, so usually begins by finding “the right person,” then builds trust and takes things to scale. Work in the Congo, for example, grew from relationships he developed with national park leadership and continued from there. Partnering with the U.S. government has proved effective in some areas of the world, but not in others.
Due to the dangerous nature of his work, Buffett has experienced first-hand the challenges of sustaining partnerships “when bullets start flying,” and even state-funded organizations step away. Even with all his experience walking in without alliances, he was “surprised but concerned” when it was time to consider NGOs for work in Tibú, describing options as “very limited.”
Buffett is currently in the process of identifying a full slate of partners, but isn’t “there yet.” So far, the foundation has built a relationship on the demining project with Columbia’s Presidential Agency of International Cooperation (APC), which coordinates international aid for the country’s development goals. APC will also be its partner on road building. Additionally, the foundation is working with Oregon-based Mercy Corps, one of the few U.S. 501(c)(3)s working in Columbia in land titling. Ann Kelly Bolten, the foundation’s president, is in the process of sourcing buyers for crops.
Risks and Rewards
Catatumbo’s brand of entrenched instability would put off most private foundations—in fact, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is currently the only one working there. But Buffett turns the risk-reward equation upside down when it comes to location, saying the foundation will only “go places where our impact is significant.”
He chalks up that tolerance to his father, saying “[the] stamp of the foundation is the person who gave the money.” In his case, that’s someone who famously advised Bill and Melinda Gates to “swing for the fences,” to put every ounce of strength behind big bets in the full knowledge that they may miss the ball entirely.
Because if it’s a swing and a hit, the rewards can transform lives.