Our Piece of Buffett’s Charitable-Industrial Complex

I loved Peter Buffett’s bold piece in the New York Times. It resonated so much with me, I wished I had written it myself. If you haven’t read it yet, it is definitely worth a read: The Charitable-Industrial Complex. There has been so much critique and endorsement buzzing in the online groups I’m a part of that I debated whether or not I should add to the clatter. But there are pieces of this article I have not been able to let go of, even more than a week later.

Buffett made a number of different points and I won’t even begin to address all of them, but there are a couple of things I want to call out that I think are missing from the debate so far.

Early in the article, Buffett underlines the need to support local solutions:

“People (including me) who had very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem. Whether it involved farming methods, education practices, job training or business development, over and over I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.

Often the results of our decisions had unintended consequences; distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area ended up creating a higher price for unprotected sex.”

I have been there, and I have seen this, and that is why I work at Firelight.

We exist to support small organizations that have grown out of the local community. We don’t tell our partners what they need to do to best support vulnerable children or stop poverty. We trust them as the experts to design programs that will address the unique assets and unique needs in their community.

By working on multiple fronts, our most successful partners have found ways to strengthen the social fabric of their community, creating a safer and more secure childhood for the children and families they serve. These are the people that I see showing us other ways to create “greater prosperity for all” on a deep and sustainable level.

Buffett’s critique could be considered a call for the end of exploitation, whether through capitalism or other means. The one place I depart from Buffett though, is his call for new ideas to shatter the mold. I fear many will hear Buffett’s call and, with the best of intentions, think they need to cook up a new idea, in the U.S., that will change lives for the better in developing countries. Are we going to continue to use philanthropic dollars to export new, untested ideas? Or will we support the organizations that have already figured out how to shatter the mold in their corner of the world?

Every day, small community organizations everywhere are working to build the kind of society that Peter Buffett aspires to. Let’s support their solutions.

Women standing outside a small building in a sunny outdoor setting