In a surprise announcement on Friday, Berkshire issued a terse statement announcing that the company's charitable giving program is being terminated. Pampered Chef, acquired by Berkshire in October 2002, found itself targeted by several pro-life groups for boycott due to Berkshire's contributions to Planned Parenthood and other abortion proponents. Berkshire itself is a passive vessel in the transaction, but Warren Buffett, its chairman and owner of 38% of the shares, is a large benefactor for several pro-choice groups, and this connection drew the ire of pro-life groups including Life Decisions International.
Pampered Chef , which has a Tupperware-style business model with parties organized by independent contractors, apparently felt the pinch from the boycott and negative publicity, so CEO Doris Christopher approached Buffett with the problem. Buffett, fearing that this program will harm Pampered Chef, took the drastic step of canceling all shareholder-designated donations at Berkshire Hathaway.
The Life Decisions website claimed that they would "continue to monitor [Berkshire Hathaway's] philanthropic activities." Let me be the first to suggest that they not put too much effort into it, as Berkshire has none outside of the terminated shareholder-designated program. Buffett believes (and I fully concur) that most charitable giving by corporations is nothing more than "the use of the stockholder's money to implement the charitable inclinations of the corporate manager." Without this program, Berkshire Hathaway's charitable giving will revert to previous form: It won't exist.
Pampered Chef is a minuscule component of the Berkshire family, so why on earth did Warren Buffett change one of the most beloved programs at the company for the sake of a few gnats biting at it? Success or failure at Pampered Chef has the next best thing to zero effect on Berkshire's overall performance, and every company in history is going to do something that brings the wrath of the one-song orchestras.
Hartmanbirge, a member of the Motley Fool Community, had a theory (free trial required) to which I subscribe. A line from the Berkshire press release from last Friday states what I believe to be the rationale to protect Pampered Chef by killing off a popular program: "...contrary to all that Berkshire has experienced in the past, its ownership is now harming a new subsidiary...." Berkshire Hathaway's stock in trade is its status as a beneficent corporate owner.
Warren Buffett has earned billions for his shareholders by creating an environment in which he receives the "first call" from business owners interested in selling. This is a carefully managed component of Berkshire's success -- and a negative outcome for a new, small Berkshire subsidiary due to policies at the corporate parent is not something that Buffett can risk. He has to react to the problems at Pampered Chef, lest the next business owner ready to sell uses his first call to reach out to someone else.
It's a tragedy, for Berkshire Hathaway's charitable giving program stood out as unique. At the end of the day, Warren Buffett's vast holdings in the company will still go to the causes he sees fit. Berkshire Hathaway was nothing but a passive vessel in Buffett's charity decisions, so those who decry Berkshire's charities baldly miss the point. They may, however, rest assured that Berkshire's removal from the process won't change a darn thing in how Warren Buffett allocates his own money. Some of the other 3,500 charities that have received donations in the last few years will, however, have to go without.
Bill Mann owns shares in Berkshire Hathaway.