NoVo Foundation philanthropist Jennifer Buffett
Photo: Courtesy of
Jennifer Buffett and Maria Eitel—two of the most powerful philanthropists in the world—explain how they focus time, energy and millions of dollars on helping women and girls overcome poverty, discrimination and violence around the world.
As presidents of two exceptional, multimillion-dollar foundations, Jennifer Buffett and Maria Eitel are women with a shared passion to effect change among girls in the developing world. Buffett is president and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused primarily on the empowerment of women and girls. She shares leadership of the foundation with her husband Peter Buffett, a composer and son of investor Warren Buffett. Maria Eitel is the founding president of the Nike Foundation, where she works to drive resources to girls through a variety of initiatives and put them on the global agenda.

In 2008, NoVo joined forces with the Nike Foundation, committing $90 million to The Girl Effect, a global campaign that promotes the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate.

Here, Eitel and Buffett share their thoughts on investing in girls with PSI's vice president of corporate marketing and communications, Kate Roberts.

Kate Roberts: The Nike and NoVo Foundations focus on empowering women and girls around the world. Would you say this battle overall is being won or lost?

Maria Eitel: Slowly, but surely I believe the battle is being won. Our goal is to eradicate global poverty by investing in girls. The challenge is massive. Despite their proven potential to change the world, the 600 million adolescent girls living in today's developing countries are still more likely to be uneducated, child brides and exposed to HIV/AIDS. But I believe we've made some tremendous milestones in changing this picture. The first step has been to get the world to realize the power of The Girl Effect. When you improve a girl's life, everyone benefits: her brothers, sisters, parents, future children and grandchildren.

Jennifer Buffett: To reframe slightly, we don't think of this as a "battle." Who is against whom? However, the challenge is getting the message out in ways that truly address and change the inequity and imbalance that exists. The reason that empowering girls and women is so absolutely critical is that when they are empowered, everyone—boys and men included—benefits. This is a win-win! Girls and women are the mothers of every child born. So if they are not educated, safe, skilled, healthy, able to nurture their children, disease-free, violence-free or able to lead...they cannot offer much to their children. They can't ensure that they are nurtured, healthy, educated or able to contribute in positive ways.

So, perhaps to reframe the question: "Are we making real progress?" There has been a tremendous amount of awareness-raising about the importance of empowering girls and women. However, are we moving systems towards meaningful action in terms of modifying attitudes and patterns of behavior and moving large dollars and resources for more equitable distribution? I think we are just scratching the surface.

Nike Foundation founding president Maria Eitel
Photo: Courtesy of
KR: Jennifer, your foundation supports unique projects targeted at women and girls, including microfinance programs in Bangladesh, anti-sex work initiatives in India, and campaigns to end gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What has shaped NoVo's focus and mission?

JB: We spent the first years forming the NoVo Foundation very intentionally, seeking greater understanding about what is playing out in the world right now and a vision for how the world could change. Time and time again in our travels we saw the world out of balance between the "masculine" and "feminine" impulses. The vision for the change we seek is to move from systems of domination and exploitation towards partnership and collaboration with girls and women as agents of change in healthy partnership with boys and men. So we fund initiatives like the ones you describe to try and get at the most egregious displays and results of systems of exploitation in hopes of raising awareness and affecting deep systemic change.

KR: In 2010, at the World Economic Forum in Tanzania, the Nike Foundation and PSI partnered on exciting activities around The Girl Effect. What are you hoping will come out of these activities?

ME: The Nike Foundation was extremely excited to be working in partnership with PSI in Tanzania. We supported a Girl Effect learning journey on the ground hosted by PSI for the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders. It was an opportunity to bring continued awareness to the powerful potential of girls. In addition, it was a chance to build new girl champions for the issue among these key global leaders who have the power to impact change for girls in their respected industries.

The NoVo Foundation partnered with the Nike Foundation on The Girl Effect in 2008. Tell us about this partnership. What do you hope for the campaign moving forward?

ME: This is a momentous time for girls, and I think we're starting to really move the needle. It is something that wouldn't have been possible without Jennifer and Peter Buffett's continued endorsement of our work through their active partnership and significant commitment of $90 million. Together we have touched the lives of more than two million girls, and through The Girl Effect, their families, communities and nations.

JB: The Girl Effect has been able to get the attention of many large and important global players so that they begin to understand "why girls?" And it has evolved in its commitment to work out the "how" to invest in adolescent girls. So if you are a government or a large health-systems organization, The Girl Effect partnership is committed to working to assist in weaving girls efficiently and strategically into large strategies for big benefits and big results.
KR: It is easy to focus on economic empowerment issues—especially education—and lose sight of the fact that only a healthy girl can become a productive member of society. How do we combine economic initiatives with health projects to get the maximum bang for the buck?

JB: You've said it! We need holistic solutions that aren't "one-offs!" We need to combine low-cost safe spaces where girls can come together and receive valuable information, education, skills training and financial assistance combined with healthcare and information. No one prospers in his or her life from just one intervention. The Nike/NoVo portfolio of grants is full of combinations of interventions mixing health and economic investments in girls in places that are low cost and highly effective.

ME: There is a significant relationship between adolescent health and a broad range of social outcomes. "Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health" offers substantive recommendations to the global health community that will have a transformative impact on the healthcare landscape. Place adolescent girls at the center of international and national action and investment on maternal health. Support research on the risk factors and translate evidence into programming to reduce mortality. Earmark funding for girls. Focus HIV prevention on adolescent girls. Support efforts to transform harmful social norms. Educate girls about avoiding HIV/AIDS, and work with boys and men to change their behaviors. Make secondary school completion a priority for adolescent girls—secondary school is a key determinant of good health. Governments, the private sector and donors must extend facilities, offer scholarships or cash transfers to disadvantaged girls and create open-learning programs.

KR: What are both of you looking forward to in 2010?

ME: The foundation has spent the past six years finding, funding, designing and refining the best models of investments in girls. In 2010, it will be about reaching scale. One way we're doing this is through innovative partnerships. This is an issue owned by all of us and we won't make progress unless we work together. The foundation has established key partnerships that bring investing in girls to the center and focus on bringing programs to scale to impact real systemic change. These include the World Bank's $20 million Adolescent Girls Initiative and the U.K. Agency for International Development's $20 million Girl Hub initiative.

JB: It takes time to be very sure and clear about your particular role and assess the unique opportunities right for you as a funder. It also takes time to be strategic in one's choices and able to know that you can commit to these areas for the long term. We are finally there and have a sense of clarity that we hoped for. We value humility and this will be a continuous and organic process of learning every day that we have the opportunity to work through the NoVo Foundation. I am looking forward to the deepening and broadening of this work and seeing millions more girls and women worldwide safe, prospering and empowered.

PSI is a leading global health organization with programs targeting malaria, child survival, HIV and reproductive health. Working in partnership within the public and private sectors and harnessing the power of the markets, PSI provides life-saving products, clinical services and behavior-change communications that empower the world's most vulnerable populations to lead healthier lives. Learn more at

Kate Roberts is PSI's vice president of corporate marketing and communications, where she oversees internal and external communications strategies, corporate partnerships and branding. She founded YouthAIDS and Five & Alive, two marketing campaigns that aim to raise funds and awareness about PSI's HIV/AIDS and child survival programs.

Keep Reading:
Ashley Judd interviews Half the Sky author Nicholas Kristof
The first lady of Rwanda on her country's post-genocide future
You can change women's lives around the world with $5—or 5 minutes! 


Next Story