Online Buffett Class: A Lesson In Charitable Giving

Jul 22, 2013
Originally published on July 22, 2013 5:40 pm

Thanks to her younger brother, Warren Buffett, Doris Buffett has a lot of money to give away.

Now, her foundation, Learning by Giving, is partnering with Northeastern University to offer an online course on effective charitable giving.

Giving With Purpose” is a MOOC — a massive open online course — free and open to everyone.

It has some famous guest lecturers, including Warren Buffett, journalist Soledad O’Brien and baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr.

It will help its 10,000 students give away $100,000 by the end of six sessions.

Rebecca Riccio is the instructor of Giving With Purpose and the director of Students4Giving, a philanthropy education program at Northeastern University.

“When you give students the responsibility for giving someone else’s money away, they’re suddenly confronted with just how many problems there are in our communities and how hard it is to choose where the money’s going to go,” Riccio told Here & Now.


  • Rebecca Riccio, instructor of Giving With Purpose and director of Students4Giving at Northeastern University.
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It's HERE AND NOW. And when it comes to generosity, it is hard to beat Warren Buffett. He is worth more than $50 billion, and he's giving it all away. His family is helping. His older sister, Doris, started The Sunshine Lady Foundation, and during the last 10 years she has given away more than $100 million. Here are the two of them.


WARREN BUFFETT: Much of life is determined by the accidents of where you were born...


BUFFETT: Who you are born to, when, gender, race, all kinds of things.

BUFFETT: All of that stuff.

BUFFETT: And I've had nothing but good luck. Doris has had good luck. And if I'd been born in some other country or...

BUFFETT: Bangladesh.

BUFFETT: You know, anybody says they did it all themselves

BUFFETT: They're really...

BUFFETT: ...they're really kidding themselves.


BUFFETT: And Walter Lippmann talked about how we sit in the shade under trees others have planted.

BUFFETT: That's right.

BUFFETT: And we have sat under a lot of trees...


BUFFETT: ...where we've had the shade and other people have planted those. And so I think it behooves people in that position to plant a few trees themselves.

HOBSON: Warren and Doris Buffett. Well, now Doris Buffett is asking for help, giving away the money from students in an online class being offered by Northeastern University. The class is called Giving With Purpose, and the instructor, Rebecca Riccio, joins us here in the studio. And Rebecca, you're actually giving away the Buffett money?

REBECCA RICCIO: We are. Students who take the course can nominate a no-profit organization in their community and then collectively they will peer review each other's nominations and the ones that do the best using our assessment tool will go on to receive grants from the Buffett's Learning by Giving Foundation.

HOBSON: Some people might find it hard to believe that anybody would have a problem giving away their money. Why is it such a hard thing to do?

RICCIO: Well, you know, I'm so glad you asked that question because it sounds like something fun, maybe even something a little bit frivolous. But it's just the opposite of that. When you give students the responsibility for giving someone else's money away, they're suddenly confronted with just how many problems there are in our communities and how hard it is to choose where the money is going to go. It sounds like having $10,000 to give away, which is what we give away in my classroom, is a lot. But the reality is, it doesn't go very far when you look around at what's happening in your community.

HOBSON: It doesn't go very far, meaning that you would want to give it to a lot of different places at the same time or you just can't decide which one to give it all to?

RICCIO: It doesn't go very far in that you suddenly recognize there are a lot of needs in our communities, and $10,000 isn't very much for addressing them. And I think that's one of the great things about philanthropy education. It cracks open for students an awareness of how many needs we have in our communities and how difficult it is to allocate scarce resources to them.

HOBSON: So what are you going to be telling students about how they should go about trying to figure out what to do with the money?

RICCIO: The idea is that students should learn how to give with their heart and their head. I want them to find satisfaction and meaning in their giving, but they should also look for organizations that can use their money effectively. Organizations should be able to define really clearly what the need is that they are responding to in their community, and then be able to explain why and how they're addressing that need.

They should also hold themselves accountable to results, and show that they are evaluating their work and learning from what the results of the evaluation tell them, and working constantly to improve. If organizations are really grounded in an understanding of the need in the community and the people who that issue affects, I think that they're much better positioned to come up with solutions that have a chance of actually working.

HOBSON: Some of the people your students are going to be hearing from include Ben and Jerry of Ben and Jerry's fame, Soledad O'Brien, Cal Ripken, Jr. How did you select these people and what are they going to be telling the students?

RICCIO: A lot of people give money away. Not everybody gives it away strategically or thoughtfully. So we looked at people who were prominent for their giving and then I did a lot of research about how they talked about it in public and the way they make their decisions. When we found somebody who spoke about their giving in a way that resonates with the lessons we're teaching in class, we invited them to participate. Each of those interviews is actually paired with a course on a topic to which the philanthropists are able to speak from personal experience.

HOBSON: So like Ben and Jerry, what are you going to learn from them?

RICCIO: Ben and Jerry are really interesting because they were way ahead of the curve on corporate social responsibility. So in that interview I talk with them about the difference between what you can achieve through corporate social responsibility and corporate giving versus what you can achieve through a foundation or through individual activism.

HOBSON: Now, I see that you have, what, thousands of people signed up for this course.

RICCIO: Ten thousand.

HOBSON: Ten thousand. How in the world are you going to figure out with probably 10,000 different ideas of what to do with the money what you should actually do with the money?

RICCIO: We have developed a peer review process so that students look at each other's nomination through the lens that we're learning in the classroom. There's a tool that we've developed so that students can score nominations that they've been assigned to look at as homework. And they'll be looking at different pieces of the nomination as the course goes along. The ones that get the highest scores will be the ones that we ultimately give the money to.

HOBSON: Do you think that Americans in general give enough money away of their own personal wealth, even if they're not wealthy like Warren Buffett or Doris Buffett, just they've got a normal salary. Do you think we'd give enough?

RICCIO: I think Americans are really generous. Last year, American giving to charity was about $316 billion. What I'd like to see is people giving a little bit more thought to how they give. Here's what interesting to me about all of this. The nonprofit sector is one of the greatest accomplishments in American society. From cradle to grave, all of us benefit from it in one way or the other, but we don't think that much about how we support it and how it works. So I would like to see people spending just a little bit more time thinking about where their money is going so that, hopefully, we can be more effective in addressing all of these problems that our communities are facing.

HOBSON: Rebecca Riccio is the instructor of Giving With Purpose. That's a massive open online course, a MOOC on effective charitable giving. She's also the director of Students4Giving. That's a program at Northeastern University. Rebecca, thanks for joining us.

RICCIO: Thank you so much.

HOBSON: And Robin, we have news out of London.


What could that be?

HOBSON: Well...


YOUNG: You may already heard because it's being shouted from the rooftops. It's a boy. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has given birth to an 8-pound, 6-ounce baby, the infant who will be third in line for the British throne after Charles and William, the father. Have you ever seen such expectation about someone expecting?

HOBSON: I know. It's unbelievable. The crowds are gathered around St. Mary's Hospital. And the favorites, Robin, for the names for this young baby - at the betting shop Paddy Power: James and George. So, we have no word yet on the what the name is. But to Robin's point, why do you think that Americans in particular care so much about this birth? I mean, we all love babies, but why this one? It's not even an American.


HOBSON: Let us know your thoughts at

YOUNG: We get that little skirmish years ago about royalty.

HOBSON: Way back when, exactly.

YOUNG: But why? Why is it so compelling? We'd love to hear your thoughts, You'll be seeing the rituals that are coming out of Britain; the carrying of the paper with the baby's announcement into Buckingham Palace. All of that is unfolding right now. And it seems as if at least television cameras are riveted. How about you?

HOBSON: And, you know, if you've got a name idea, I'm sure Kate and William are checking You might as well leave one there.

YOUNG: I am just so happy for that woman...


YOUNG: ...that this has happened. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.