August 13, 2016; Boston Globe

Warren Buffett and his sister, Doris, have a problem— they have money to give away and lots of willing recipients, but the logistics of getting the two matched up properly can be overwhelming. Part of the family’s giving is in response to individual expressions of need: Warren forwards such letters to Doris, now 88 years old, who decides after rigorous deliberation which requests are to be funded. In this way, the two have, over the last ten years, reviewed 22,000 letters and given away more than $12 million.

Wherever she’s lived, whether in Virginia or at her summer house in Rockport, Maine, Doris Buffett has always had volunteers to help her with this task. Now, she is looking for some more help around the Greater Boston area where she now resides. “My brother is putting up the money, so we’re sort of limitless. […] He’s told me that any time I run out of money, all I have to do is call him.” Her brother, of course, is worth a cool $66 billion.

Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation was created with an inheritance in 1996 and has a history of receiving funding requests from strangers as well as referrals from Warren Buffett.

Sacha Pfeiffer, writing for the Boston Globe, reports that the gifts in question are meant to be “life-changing” grants to people who have come upon hard times through little fault of their own. Still, the average gift is a modest $4,800, and the checks are usually not made out to the grant recipient, but to the vendor or creditor with whom the recipient needs assistance.

“Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes, even if you try everything and keep plugging away, it doesn’t work and you just have no options,” said Noni Campbell, who used to be a volunteer but now works for Ms. Buffett. “When there’s rent or cancer bills that have to be paid, a thousand dollars when you’re in a very, very bad position in your life is like a million dollars.”

True enough. Among the investments: used cars, dentures, winter boots, tooth extractions, hearing aids, children’s clothing, furnaces, funerals, and tombstones. Doris Buffett sometimes uses her time lecturing potential grantees about their weight, fertility, or credit scores by phone. One might get help with past-due bills, but one might also receive an offer for help in learning to budget, instead.

“Sometimes it’s tough love,” said Campbell. “If you’re going to lose your house because no way with your income could you possibly support a mortgage like that, we might say, ‘You have to face reality and find something you can afford.’ […] It can be very heartbreaking.”

It’s definitely not a sunshine-and-flowers gig. Ms. Buffett expects a lot from volunteers, including background checks on potential grantees, and references. People who smoke, gamble, or accumulate debt through frivolous spending need not apply. Lastly, volunteers must “have a heart somewhere,” according to Buffett. “Someone very practical. And they would not be judgmental.”

Speaking of his sister, Doris, Warren Buffett said:

I like to give away money wholesale and she likes to give away money retail. I mean, she is genuinely interested in a guy who’s had his pickup truck stolen or whatever it may be. Through no fault of their own, they’ve been handed a bum deal in their life. And I empathize with those people, but I’m not going to spend my days working with them.

There’s no question the money I give away does a lot of good…but Doris is giving time, and time is the scarcest commodity.  No matter who you are, you have 24 hours a day, and when you give time up you’re giving up something important. So if you were keeping a scorecard in life, you’d give her a higher score than me.

—Ruth McCambridge