The foundation’s revolutionary approach lets those in need determine how the funds are spent
One year ago, the NoVo Foundation, a charity established by Peter and Jennifer Buffett, announced it would soon deploy an “investment” of $90 million to aid young women of color—big news in itself. But in the shadow of that eye-popping figure was another story. The foundation, having pledged the funds, would spend the next 12 months meeting with the demographic and its advocates to determine the most productive way to spend that money over the next seven years.
This “listen, don’t tell” approach has been a hallmark of the NoVo Foundation, which prides itself on heeding the requests of the needy, rather than presuming to know their concerns.
The conclusion after a year of discovery?
The money will be deployed via three streams to tackle the different issues facing women of color in distinct ways.
One stream will fund community-based organizations that work directly with the people they’re helping. That money won’t be placed in trusts or earmarked for later use, but rather directly fund budget line items on continuing operations.
Another stream of funds from NoVo will focus exclusively on organizations and efforts in the southeastern United States in concert with a yet-undetermined regional partner. The foundation learned during its year-long study that, despite being home to 40 percent of its target demographic, the area has been historically overlooked by philanthropy in the past. This money will also be used to form new organizations necessary to affect change and to fund individual efforts that may exist outside of established organizations.
The third stream will fund broader concerns on a national level, including research organizations and policy change measures.
Such a structure was reached upon the realization that there was no “magic bullet” to solve the array of issues facing women of color in the United States. Says foundation executive director Pamela Shifman, “One size fits all was never going to work in terms of the kind of support we offer. We wanted to let girls of color and their advocates really determine their most important needs because they are the experts on their own lives.”
With structure established and announced, the NoVo Foundation is currently accepting applications from efforts targeted by all three streams for the next few weeks. It’s expected that the first money will be deployed in the fall, working toward a goal of placing $13 million by the end of the year.
With such a big bankroll at stake, the Buffett family was able to invest early in the structure of the gift(s) so that the beneficiaries themselves could determine the best use of the funds. The seven-year lifespan of this pledge ensures that as lessons are learned and strategy changes, money can be allocated based on both success and need.
Says Peter Buffet of the foundation’s unorthodox approach, “I’d rather see organizational capacity get built so they can decide.”