Five Lessons Learned from Running a Foundation That Gives Directly to Families

Stacked letters

This article was originally published on August 27th, 2020 at the National Center For Family Philanthropy’s website. Read original.

In 2016, I was asked to join a philanthropic project that was close to the heart of philanthropist Warren Buffett and his beloved older sister, Doris Buffett. The “letters program” first started many years ago. After going public with his giving pledge, Warren (like many well-known philanthropists) was flooded with requests not just from nonprofits, but also from individuals and families who had fallen on hard economic times. Being both thrifty and innovative, Warren and Doris realized that they could help make generational change in families around the United States if they could provide them with a little bit of financial assistance at the right moment—a bridge between that hard time and a path to financial sustainability. For many years, this program ran relatively informally (with letters piled on Doris’ couch) until we formalized the program and its operations in 2016.

Most often, the grants at the Letters Foundation fall in two categories. The first category of grants are economic investments: The Letters Foundation helped families who got behind on their mortgage so that they can stay stably housed or helped a parent who had a higher-paying job offer but no reliable transportation buy a used car.  The second category of grants were simply an investment in the dignity of all human beings. Recently, we paid for funeral services for a young teen who had committed suicide and whose family couldn’t afford the formal funeral service their family so desperately deserved.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has underscored what many of us already knew: that many Americans simply don’t make enough money to financially weather an emergency. The resulting economic downturn is not only disproportionately affecting low-income people of color from a health perspective, but also from an economic one.

Given the rising interest in getting emergency funds to individuals in the US in order to avoid the financial collapse of so many families during this crisis, I thought I’d take a few moments to share the five lessons I’ve learned from my years leading Doris’ Letters Foundation:

  1. Decide how much leg work you and your foundation want to take on: At the Letters Foundation, we had two avenues for receiving and vetting requests. The first was what we called our “Open Door” program (which means that anyone could write to us, and their request would be considered and vetted). The strength of this model is that people with nowhere else to turn (and often no other support systems) can reach out to you and often find a much-needed lifeline. The challenge is that doing this well is an incredible amount of leg work—you have to verify so many parts of an individual’s identity and story. Which leads me to…
  2. Proceed with respect and admiration for the work already being done by community-based organizations and work to formally partner with them: Our second avenue for receiving and vetting requests was our Community Partners Program—where we created a list of established partners in the community who would refer their clients to us. This is a model being replicated at a number of places (the Boston Bullpen Project and the United Way of Greater Boston’s new Family Support Fund here in Boston, to name a few). There are so many strengths to this model. First, it ensures that your family foundation staff has to do much less due diligence because the referral is coming from a trusted source.  Secondly, you know that the client is working with your Community Partner, making it more likely that the presenting challenge will be solved not only financially, but with other support networks as well.
  3. Understand the urgency of this work and look outside the “traditional” models of giving: Typically, any individual or family turning to a private foundation for help needs that support immediately. Putting families through many rounds of asks and long timeframes is detrimental to your shared goals. Focus on creating a process that balances what you need for your due diligence with what’s reasonable for the client.  Also, this will never work if you let the powers that be tell you that you can only give to nonprofits.  The Letters Foundation gave grants to individuals by paying the vendor (e.g., sending a check to the landlord for that new apartment) and still received the same tax benefits for the gifts. It is not as complicated as it sounds.
  4. Check, and continuously reflect on, your bias: There is no way to hear about the lives of hundreds (and for us, thousands) of other people and not learn a lot about yourself in the process. While thinking about the needs of others, your own biases will often get in the way of you being able to see the situation clearly and deciding if your funds might truly make the difference. This is a completely natural (and unavoidable) part of being human. Build in systems of support to help you name, reflect, and move beyond your biases. For example, before making a decision on a request, the person reading it may want to build a short self-reflection writing exercise into their process, helping them to name their personal biases at play in their decision making and re-visiting the request if need be.
  5. Listen, learn, evolve, repeat: About six months into our new Community Partners Program, we organized a formal evaluation of the pilot which (among other things) solicited feedback from our community partners and their clients about our grantmaking. As a part of this feedback loop, I heard how personally challenging it was for those clients who had experienced trauma to be asked to re-count their story to a stranger.  We leaned into this kind of feedback and routinely got together with the partners to work through our areas of tension. Then, we made tweaks where we could and contextualized where we needed to hold firm. We emerged from that a stronger and better funder, no doubt about it.

Just a few weeks ago, Doris Buffett passed away at the age of 92. I am honored to be on the receiving end of many emails, letters, and notes flooding in from the families she supported through this kind of giving. I recently opened an email from someone who shared that they had received $1,100 from Doris over 20 years ago in order to leave an abusive relationship and pay for the first two months of rent on a new apartment. The writer included photos of her home (which she now owns) and her happy, healthy family. In short, it is impossible to hear countless stories like that and not become increasingly convinced that supporting families directly may be one of the most impactful things philanthropists can do.

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