Buffett's Sister Spreads the Wealth

Tuesday, July 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (AP) — Doris Buffett Bryant wants to give away her fortune before she dies. Happily, her younger brother isn't helping.

As president of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, Bryant has already donated more than $6.2 million to needy people who are discovered by word-of-mouth or newspaper clippings.

But the foundation continues to grow thanks to the shrewd investment choices of her brother Warren Buffett, the third-wealthiest working man in the world with a fortune of $28 billion.

``I'm the luckiest woman of my age in the world. I'm not sitting in some rocking chair,'' said Bryant, 72. ``I think I'll always be involved as long as I can sign a check.''

For four years, the foundation has handed out money to a hodgepodge of needy people and organizations called to her attention by her ``Sunbeams'' — 120 trusted volunteers who are Bryant's eyes and ears.

Beneficiaries include 110 abused women across the country who are getting money for education, 90 local students helped with their college expenses and three dozen youths from the Morehead City area who are getting trips to camp this summer.

Linda Smith, a Sunbeam from Waterloo, Iowa, said Bryant agreed to pay an attorney's retainer for a student facing large medical bills that were supposed to be covered by insurance.

``The rush that I felt for helping someone was incredible,'' said Smith, a community college teacher who has known Bryant for 25 years. ``Doris makes it clear that it is not handout, but a hand up.''

Bryant's philanthropy was kindled by a friend she made in Denver who showed her repeated small kindnesses. Inspired by the friend, Bryant later installed air conditioning in the home of a sick pal.

The idea of spreading light as the ``Sunshine Lady'' soon took hold. The seed money for the nonprofit foundation — $10 million — came as a bequest when her 92-year-old mother, Leila Stahl Buffett, died in 1996.

``I didn't earn a penny of it, but I certainly can be a good steward of it,'' Bryant said.

The foundation's eight part-time employees work next door to a hair salon and the Magnolia Tree Cafe in Morehead City, a coastal town known for marlin fishing.

While small, family foundations aren't unusual, the Sunshine Lady Foundation's neighbor-helping-neighbor philosophy seems charmingly quaint, yet is in step with the current trend in giving nationwide. Foundations gave away $22.8 billion in 1999, up 40 percent from 1997.

``She represents a truly delightful part of philanthropy with her foundation and how she does give and who she gives to,'' said Dorothy Ridings, executive director of the Council on Foundations in Washington. ``Sunshine Lady is a perfect name for what she's doing.''

Many of Bryant's larger gifts come with strings attached.

In March 1999, Bryant offered the Snyder County Historical Society of Pennsylvania $25,000 toward a new building if they reached 1,000 members by that July 4. The society had more than 1,400 members by the deadline.

High school seniors who earn college scholarships must keep a 3.0 grade-point average. Bryant expects thank-you notes when students receive the money and regular updates on their schooling.

The recipients also agree not to participate in ``destructive behavior,'' including body piercing, tattoos, smoking and even owning credit cards. No one has refused, Bryant said.

The young people are ``trying to move to the next level. Well, there are rules at the next level, and I don't want them to be excluded,'' Bryant said. ``I remember I learned some of the rules the hard way.''

Tiffany Radford, 21, of Beaufort won a $2,000 scholarship in 1998 from the foundation and will receive $4,000 next fall to attend nursing school.

``I wouldn't make it had it not been for my family and the Sunshine Lady Foundation,'' said Radford, who wants to be a registered nurse anesthetist. ``I have a lot of dreams, and I'm not going to give up on them.''

Bryant pops in occasionally at the foundation's office, spending much of her time speaking about her mission, seeking out worthy programs and keeping up with correspondence. Most of the time, she will read a Sunbeam's request and write a check that day.

As for Bryant's brother Warren, who invests the foundation's money in his Berkshire Hathaway investment company, her sibling has nothing to do with Sunshine's operations.

``He's a hands-off person. He's given me a little advice, but I'm not going to pass it on,'' Bryant said, laughing. ``He's just happy to see me doing what I want to do.''


On the Net:

Council on Foundations: http://www.cof.org