Around the Institute

Howard G. Buffett on Lessons Learned in Philanthropy

October 23, 2013


On October 24, the Institute’s Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series welcomed Howard G. Buffett discussing his new book “40 Chances: Finding Hope in A Hungry World.”

Over a lifetime, farmers can expect to have about 40 growing seasons, giving them just 40 chances to improve on every harvest. A philanthropist and farmer, Buffett set out to help the most vulnerable population on earth — nearly one billion people who lack basic food security — and gave himself 40 years to invest more than $3 billion in solutions to meet this challenge, which began in 2006.

His new book, written with his son Howard W. Buffett (who will be joining him at the event), documents the scope and urgency of the global food crisis. It also examines how innovative approaches to the agricultural, ecological, and social aspects of hunger can address the needs of nations caught in its grip. Told in a series of 40 stories, the book also follows Buffett’s path as a philanthropist and activist, and examines how the idea of having 40 productive years to do the best job possible can serve as a driving force in anyone’s life, whatever their passions or goals may be.

In advance of the Institute event, Howard G. Buffett answered a series of questions about his experiences and lessons he’s learned working in philanthropy.

What is the premise of “40 Chances,” and how did you come to this idea?

My local John Deere dealership hosted a training course for farmers called “planter’s school” about 10 years ago. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I just figured I might learn something that would help me on my farm. But this guy said something that got my attention: he said, “I know you guys think about farming as just a continual thing, you plant, you fertilize, you harvest… but actually, you’re only going to get about 40 chances in your lifetime to get your best crop. From the time your dad gets off his tractor and hands it over to you, to the day you turn that tractor over to your son or daughter, you have about 40 seasons. If you don’t make the most of each season, you’ll end up wasting your 40 chances.”

That statement changed the way I approached farming, but it also changed the way I thought about life. It gave me a sense of urgency to think about how to make the most of my time. Actually my first thought was, “well I’ve probably wasted 10 of my chances already!” 

Howard, one of your principles is to take risks, and another not to fear mistakes. What is a mistake that you made that cost you something and earned you something at the same time?

I believe that private philanthropy should have the highest tolerance for taking risks — which means we have to be prepared to make mistakes and fail. The only way things will change is if we do things differently. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, especially in the first 10 years of our foundation — you learn the most in failure. We go into quite a bit of detail about different failures in the book. There is a whole chapter, for example, about a global water initiative we created and spent a lot of money on but didn’t get it right. That was an expensive lesson, but I think we’ve got it back on track and it’s not a mistake we will make again, so it’s helped us be smarter as a foundation.

A second mistake people in philanthropy make over and over is not asking the people you are trying to help what they need, or worse, not listening to them when they tell you. We have lots of those stories in the book. We once renovated a house for some of the workers on our farm in South Africa and we put in modern appliances. I wanted them to have nice living quarters. Well, a week later, I drove by and the brand new stove was in the yard. These families had always cooked over a fire pit, and they had no idea how to use the stove, so they pulled it out and dug a pit in the middle of the kitchen. I can’t tell you the resources that have been wasted by aid organizations and governments because of incorrect assumptions about what is really needed and wanted.

The title of the book refers to solving world hunger, but is the message really about each individual satisfying his or her own hunger to do good?

“40 Chances” really is a book for everyone because we can all appreciate the desire to make the most of our opportunities in life. The book itself is a collection of stories about my experiences and what I’ve learned. I’m a guy who likes to get his hands dirty. I’ve visited 130 countries, so I have a lot stories to share, which hopefully people will enjoy reading about, but will also learn some from my mistakes. Different people will take different things from it, but I think the book has something for everyone.

If there could be only one take-away with which the Aspen Institute audience would leave, what do you hope it would be?

I hope I can inspire readers to have a sense of urgency about the limited number of chances each of us has to accomplish whatever we set out to do. I hope that thinking especially translates to solving the big issues we face as a global community, like food insecurity. We can’t do things over the next 40 years the way we’ve done over the last 40 if we hope to see a different result. The good news is that I have a lot of hope about what is possible when I meet the kind of people I’ve encountered in my life, who I talk about in “40 Chances.” So I think readers will also find some hope in that. There is some humor in this book as well. Whenever I worry I’m taking myself too seriously, I think about the misunderstanding that led to my trip to Malawi and… well, you can read about it. Let me just say that apparently termites taste like carrots.