A History of Women’s Giving: Reflections on Doris’ Philanthropy

Each year during Women’s History Month, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, including our founder and benefactor Doris Buffett. Over the past twenty years, Doris has directed upwards of $181 million dollars towards individuals, families, and institutions through her charitable initiatives:

  • $150 million with the Sunshine Lady Foundation
  • $22 million through the Women’s Independence Scholarship Program, Inc.  
  • $6.5 million through the Letters Foundation
  • $3 million through the Learning by Giving Foundation

Doris has historically paid particular attention to the needs of women and girls. Doris’ Women’s Independence Scholarship Program provides assistance to women who are survivors of intimate partner abuse as they work towards their educational goals. At Letters Foundation, we partner with several nonprofits in Greater Boston through our Community Partners Program that support the advancement of women in their pursuit of goals related to workforce development, health, education, and housing. Moreover, nearly 80% of the organizations we partner with are headed by women.

Prior to moving to Boston, Doris enlisted her friends—women in the different communities in which she lived—to help her respond to letters sent to her and her brother, Warren. Today at Letters Foundation, we continue to carry on the tradition of enlisting volunteers, most of whom are women, to help us respond to our constituents. The multi-generational group of women at Letters Foundation remains one of the great draws of Doris’ legacy and practice of giving.

Two members of our community—Catherine Sullivan, Letter Reader volunteer; Leah Hong, Director of Community Impact—reflect on their experiences and on Doris’ commitment to women and girls.

Catherine’s reflection below:

When I applied to be a Letter Reader in 2016, I wrote to Doris that I had experienced the joy of helping others in my volunteer work at a hospice residence and wanted to extend that experience to another sphere. And it is indeed always a joy to find out that the Foundation has given a grant to help a person whose letter I read and passed on to the next stage. Reading letters helps me understand people better, and it never fails to give me perspective on my own problems and gratitude for what I have. Every Thursday, I learn a great deal from discussing letters with my fellow Letter Readers, who bring a wide variety of knowledge, experiences, and points of view to our meetings, along with the empathy Doris valued.

All of my fellow Letter Readers so far have been women. This is in accord with Doris’ tradition—after her brother Warren asked her to deal with the overwhelming number of requests for help he was getting from individuals struggling financially, she coped with this enormous task sitting on her blue couch surrounded by women friends, reading letters and deciding on grants. But as I think back on the lives of women in my family and my own experience, I wonder what to make of the fact that both before and after the creation of the Foundation, letter reading has fallen entirely to women.

Did gender play a role when Warren asked Doris to take on the letters from individuals he was receiving, and Doris was thrilled to do it? Did Doris’ experiences with the barriers women faced when she was young—for instance, she was not allowed to go away to college—make her more interested than a man in the stories of the struggling individuals writing letters to the Buffett family? Doris has always been particularly sensitive to the needs of women with young children and women who have been abused.

Perhaps women are more drawn to reading about the hardships described in the letters because we still face barriers in society, and it has not been very long since all women faced many more barriers than we do now. Perhaps the roles women still have as the main caregivers to children and parents make us more empathetic. Or maybe it is simply a matter of the way letter reading began, and as time goes on we will see more balance in our membership. Until then, without any men in the group, we have bonded as a sisterhood—but are we missing a different point of view? Or would the varied points of view the letter readers bring to the table cover no wider spectrum if half of us were men? Perhaps it is our common humanity which is the most important thing we bring to letter reading.

After studying classics, Catherine worked as an assistant editor and lawyer before staying home for ten years with her three sons. Having children led to  her involvement in school affairs and school politics, and she spent two years as a teacher’s aide before working sixteen years as an editor at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. There she edited reports by retired educators aimed at improving struggling school districts, making sure that the findings were supported by the facts and learning that tone is everything in persuading a district to change. A member of the first group of Letter Reader volunteers, Catherine is happy to be at the Foundation working with its wonderful staff and volunteers, believing more and more as she gets older that service to others is the key to life.

Catherine and her fellow Letter Readers gathered at their weekly meeting (spring 2019)

Leah’s reflection below:

I began my career working on the frontlines in the nonprofit sector, grounded in values and practices related to social justice and racial equity, with youth and families in New York City and Greater Boston.  Reflecting on my past experiences, I feel privileged and humbled now to contribute to the work of the Letters Foundation, alongside women who share similar passions for supporting individuals and families across the country.

As part of my current role at Letters, I lead our community grantmaking programs and initiatives that partner with regional nonprofits and the public sector to extend our individual grants program to new constituents.  Doris’ belief in the importance of remaining proximate to one’s community informed our grantmaking strategy to build strong collaborations with advocates at partner organizations, who have long-standing relationships with families across the Commonwealth.  Through our partnerships, we’ve learned the importance of closing the power divide between nonprofits and funders, in order to maximize opportunities and resources needed to best support communities, by engaging constituents in the process of being a part of their own solution.

Since opening our doors in Boston, our community of women continue to demonstrate the power of collaboration, understand the importance of learning from one another as well as from our constituents, and value the empathy needed to do this work well.  Women, however, should not bear the sole burden of lending a helping hand to others. While women represent the majority in helping professions, women, particularly women of color, remain the exception in leadership roles within the public and private sectors.

As a woman of color, I know there’s so much work left to do, yet remain grateful for the pathways and progress created by women before me.  I’m hopeful that others will continue to elevate the importance of women-led organizations in the face of persistent gaps in gender and racial diversity among staff, leadership and boards across all sectors.  Retention and development of women and people of color in leadership positions are critical to creating inclusive and innovative spaces, reflective of our society’s growing diversity.  Importantly, Doris’ philosophy of opening up seats for a new generation of changemakers, I hope will inspire more institutions to make space for emerging leaders – young women and people of color – to step into their power and be a voice around decision-making tables in their own communities and beyond.

Leah initially began her career in direct-service, working with first-generation college students as an undergraduate in New York City, then went on to pursue her Master’s in Social Work at Boston University, where she focused on trauma-informed care with youth and families, largely utilizing harm reduction and asset-based interventions. Prior to working at the Foundation, Leah worked as an advocate for street-involved youth, conducted field work with families impacted by domestic violence, supported middle school students with learning disabilities, and worked with youth re-entering the community from the Department of Youth Services (DYS) in Boston. She has a strong passion for advocating for social justice, promoting racial equity, and supporting youth and families in our community.

Doris with Leah and other Letters Foundation community members (summer 2017)