Every Letter Read: Reflections From Our Staff

As we prepare to sunset at the end of 2020, we invited our staff to reflect on which aspects of our work have been most resonant, which constituent stories have left the strongest impression us, and what learnings we will carry forward:

The work we do at Letters Foundation is unique: we direct funds to individuals, and our process begins with a written letter. To this day, reading each letter continues to be the most important part of our grantmaking program. “Every Letter Read” is our promise. We take the time to read, listen, and respond to each letter from our constituents, and then collectively strategize on how to best assist, whether with a grant or with resource referrals. Someone writes a letter to and gets a response from a real person, and in every case gets help that is specifically designed to address their personal need. Even in the cases where constituents are not awarded grants, there is still a personal and emotional connection involving another person who listens to their story and tries to help.

Most all of the individuals who write to us are suffering difficult circumstances due to generational poverty, traumatic experiences, or other hardships beyond their control. Moreover, many individuals are sharing their stories for the first time. We’re continually amazed by the resourcefulness, strength, tenacity and resilience that our constituents have to continue to push through their daily struggles, as well as their willingness to open up their hearts and share their hardships with us, complete strangers. We value the fact that Letters Foundation offers this platform for individuals to share their personal stories, and have their voices be heard. 

There are so many constituents whose stories have touched us in profound ways, and although each has its own impact, there are a few that stand out to us. One young man and his mother, who had been living in their car for nearly two years, reached out to us via letter only after looking into every possible resource they could find. Letters Foundation was able to help them find some security in their lives with permanent housing and car repairs. We are incredibly proud of one young mother with multiple sclerosis who took charge of improving her credit while working with us, and went on to get an advanced degree in education after Letters Foundation supported her in moving to a handicapped accessible apartment. Another remarkable young woman is now helping to design homes that help individuals with disabilities after she received a grant for a handicapped accessible van. 

We find ourselves most impacted by the constituents who had endured incredibly challenging life events prior to writing to us, yet still found it within themselves to face their fears, be courageous, and collaborate with Letters Foundation in order to secure a grant focused on helping them get back on their feet. One constituent from Puerto Rico applied for financial assistance after losing everything due to Hurricane Maria, and now she continues to rebuild her life after receiving grants for a new roof and new furniture. We will always remember one incredibly resilient army veteran who suffered from PTSD, and who collaborated with Letters Foundation to secure funding for a much-needed service dog. 

It is not the size of the grant that matters, for even the smallest grants have left a strong impression on us. One constituent suffering from Stage 4 cancer simply asked for an eye exam and glasses so that she could read before bed. Another constituent living on social security asked for a new refrigerator so that she could buy more fruits and vegetables for her family. Many constituents have applied for dentures so they could confidently smile again. Each of these stories demonstrates qualities that so many of our constituents share: tenacity, and a positive life view–not every minute of every day, but enough to get them through the hardest parts of their lives, navigating immense challenges to make ends meet. 

In a nation as developed and prosperous as ours, there are far too many cracks for people to fall through. Our work with constituents has sharpened our perspective over the years, and after reading and responding to over 7,000 letters since we opened our doors in Boston, we realize how slippery that step between security and despair can be. There are so many people who, no matter how hard they try, cannot get the assistance they need to have the basic necessities of life. We have worked with countless individuals who were never taught basic budgeting, or who are stuck with high interest rates on credit cards, vehicles, or payday loans that make keeping up with monthly expenses an even more unattainable goal. Each letter reminds us that our constituents often have to make impossible choices that can cause even greater hardship for themselves or others, without the tools necessary to move towards self-sufficiency.

Importantly, our constituents’ stories emphasize how fragmented our country’s systems are, and how they continue to perpetuate poverty and inequity. We have seen time after time how the current lack of affordable housing across the country dramatically impacts the wellbeing of individuals and families. We have also observed an overwhelming lack of access to affordable healthcare, dental care, and transportation among those who write to us. We hope that our work at Letters Foundation, inspired by the vision of our founder Doris Buffett, inspires a generation of philanthropists to dedicate their resources in a way that prioritizes and elevates the voices and needs of historically marginalized communities, while also serving as a catalyst to challenge the systems that continue to favor some over others based on race and socioeconomic status. 

It has been such a privilege for us to join a team where we listen closely to individuals’ stories and help in such direct, meaningful ways. Two of us had just lost our mothers when we started out as employees at Letters Foundation, and others of us have experienced much of what our constituents have gone through. Taking time to listen to someone else’s trials and tribulations has given us better insight with regards to our own challenges, and helping people to create hope from hurdles has lifted our spirits. In our darkest moments, we find ourselves even more humbled by our constituents and the immense hardships they work to overcome. We have laughed and cried with so many constituents, and yearned to share in their successes. Hearing people’s sighs of relief or tears of joy has given us promise for a better future, despite how fragile life can be. 

We are so grateful to Doris for providing us with the opportunity to be a part of such satisfying work alongside truly inspiring people. When constituents thank us for a grant, we remind them that it’s not from us–it’s from Doris. We would not be here without her generosity. Some of us got to know her well, and others of us wish we could have gotten to know her better and thanked her for all that she has done. Doris was an amazing woman, and her legacy will forever inspire us to listen closely to and advocate for those who are the most marginalized. We will leave Letters Foundation enriched in ways we would never have expected.

Thank you for inviting us to your table, Doris; or, more aptly, thank you for inviting us to join you on your blue sofa.     

Doris opening new letters from constituents on her blue sofa