Atlantic Philanthropies is on its way to spending itself out of existence

Resource type: News

The Irish Times |

By Arthur Beesley John Healy seems more like a university professor than a man who has been in command of a Bermuda-based financial colossus with assets in excess of $4 billion (€3.12 billion). What is more, he is charged with giving all that money away to strangers. Every last cent. Philanthropy is Healy’s business. His boss is Chuck Feeney, the famously frugal Irish-American who made a vast fortune in in the international duty free shopping trade. Adept at making money but strongly disinclined to hold on to it, Feeney established a fund called the Atlantic Philanthropies in the 1980s to give all his cash to good causes. Healy grew up in Bray, Co Wicklow, and spent his early career with the Irish Trade Board. He was assistant chief executive of that body in the early 1980s and has worked with Feeney since 1990. He became chief executive of the Atlantic organisation in 2001 and retires in September next year at the age of 60. Currently based in New York, he plans to return to Ireland after he stands down. “Giving while living” is Feeney’s motto, one that Healy has embraces with considerable enthusiasm. Shortly after he took the top job in the Atlantic Philanthropies, it took the decision to spend itself out of existence by 2020. To date, Atlantic has handed out $3 billion, with an average grant size of $1.4 million. It has 16 years to spend another $4 billion. Healy says Feeney has given away so much money that he wouldn’t qualify for a mention on a newspaper rich list. “He wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a house in Ailesbury Road. Chuck Feeney is not a billionaire and has never been a billionaire,” he says. Feeney continues to guard his personal privacy with zeal, but the fund’s attachment to secrecy and anonymous donations is over. In 2001, it adopted a policy of routinely going public with its donations. This was a big shift for an organisation whose very existence was kept private until 1996. The fund still doesn’t entertain solicitations for support – “we always approach them,” says Healy – but all grants are laid out in its annual report. Healy says almost $1 billion of the money spent so far has gone to Ireland, mainly in the education sector. Students using many of the most modern buildings in Irish universities have the fund to thank. “We’ll commit this year somewhat less than $100 million. Maybe over the next three years, this year and the following two years, probably we’ll do about $250 million,” he says of the current Irish plans. Projects in the US, Australia, South Africa and Vietnam are also in line for support, as are initiatives in Bermuda, where the fund is domiciled. The concentration at present is on projects to help the elderly and disadvantaged children, and for public health and reconciliation and human rights initiatives. In Northern Ireland, projects to help immigrants and foster mixed-education have received assistance. In the Republic, bodies such the Ballymun Partnership, Barnardo’s and the hospice movement have been beneficiaries of the fund, as has a programme to develop medical care for the ageing in the medical school in Trinity College Dublin. If that’s more than enough to cast the fund among the angels, the body ran into political controversy on a grand scale last year over its financial support for the Centre for Public Inquiry, a watchdog whose director was journalist Frank Connolly. The fund withdrew its commitment to provide €4 million to the centre over five years amid a barrage of claims from the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, that Connolly was involved in an IRA plot to teach Farc rebels in Colombia how to use explosives. The Minister also claimed Connolly travelled to Colombia on a false passport with a known IRA member, claims that Connolly denied. However, Connolly never revealed where he was on the dates he was alleged to have been in Colombia. So did the sheer force of political pressure prompt the Atlantic body to withdraw its funding? “It didn’t actually happen like that. I have to be a little bit careful about what I say here, but in the case of that organisation, there was a continuing series of allegations that we felt were hampering the organisation’s ability to achieve its purpose,” he says. “And we were concerned that the organisation wasn’t satisfactorily answering those allegations and so that was why we cut the grant the way we did.” Did the absence of satisfactory answers specifically relate to the questions about Connolly? “Those were the allegations that were being made, yes,” says Healy. Asked whether the Atlantic Philanthropies might have foreseen the potential for such issues to arise, Healy says the body simply didn’t know about them. “Some people have the benefit of hindsight here. We didn’t know. Frank Connolly was and is a journalist with a very strong track record of investigative work. “We felt and still feel actually that the idea of having a watchdog organisation looking, watching out for breaches of high ethical standards is a good idea. It’s a somewhat novel idea in Ireland but it’s a quite normal idea in other countries and we still think it’s a good idea,” he says. “It didn’t work out. We’ve made over 1,000 grants in Ireland and this is one that didn’t quite achieve our hopes for it. That’s the way the world goes sometimes.” Healy says the Atlantic fund is resolutely apolitical. Still, Chuck Feeney gave money in a personal capacity to Sinn Féin to fund its Washington office in the mid-1990s. “Atlantic is a charitable organisation. It has specifically charitable purposes and it never gets involved in party political issues. It take no position on party political issues, never engages in the party political fray. So what he [ Chuck Feeney] does privately is what he does privately. It is known that he did provide, at I think an important time in the peace process, that he helped Sinn Féin establish an office in Washington. It was funding I think that lasted about three years. It wasn’t renewed because there was never any plan to renew it and that’s it. “People who are or were involved in the peace process at that time have indeed recognised that that was an important contribution. Chuck Feeney’s wish and hope has always been that people in Ireland can settle their differences peacefully and be tolerant of their differences. That’s his only motivation.” Healy says the decision to draw down all Atlantic’s money in a set period was correct. But should such a fund hold on to at least some of its money in case humanity is confronted with an unforeseen calamity in the future? “If our economic system works in the way in which we expect it to work, we hope it will work, well great wealth will be created over the next 10 or 20 years and people will decide to endow foundations and there will be lots of organisations that will be there to take our place. “If you look at the situation in Ireland over the last 10 years, wealth has been created in Ireland like it probably has never been created before at any time in this island’s history,” he says. “The other big foundations, they have an unlimited life. They’re perpetual organisations. If you decide to limit your life, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Somebody will be able to make a judgment on this organisation within our lifetime as individuals. That really causes you to ask very tough questions. What will we do? How will we do it? How will be sure that it will have an impact? It’s a very different approach to philanthropy.” Healy says the decision to draw down the entire fund has imposed new strictures on the London-based team that manages its money and General Atlantic Group, a holding company owned by the fund that has retail, hotel, real estate and leisure interests. “We had to change our investment policy. Almost 50 per cent of our assets are now in absolute return strategies, hedge funds. Almost a quarter of our assets are in private equity and we’ve seen that to be a very good place, over the years, for getting very good returns. We have about 12 per cent in our commercial interests. The balance in conventional asset classes like bonds,” he says. “It’s kind of odd to be running what’s the equivalent of a $4 billion business and planning its demise instead of planning its growth, but it’s very exciting. It gives us an opportunity to spend a lot of money in a short period of time in the hope that we can have some big impact.” As for Feeney, whom he has known for almost 20 years, Healy says he is simultaneously extraordinary and very ordinary. “I think it’s extraordinary for somebody to give away all of their wealth and to exist in a fairly frugal existence. But he’s ordinary in the sense that there’s no pomposity attached to him at all, no sense of importance. “He doesn’t own a car. I don’t think he actually owns a house. He’s not interested in possessions. I think he’s a person who was always interested in business situations, interested in doing deals, interested in entrepreneurial opportunities, but wasn’t doing this simply to accumulate wealth. I think he is quite rightly suspicious of wealth and what it can do to you and how it can affect your life. Right from early on I think he was interested in philanthropy. How many pairs of shoes does a person need? He flies coach class. He says flying business class doesn’t get you there faster.” Healy says Feeney’s generosity and the “endless fulfilment” that comes from putting money put to good use is an example for others who may go down the same path. “There are all these people who have made a lot of money in Ireland who are thinking about becoming involved philanthropically. If they could just have a sense of what satisfaction they could get out of it and the enormous person fulfilment I think they’d be encouraged to get started even earlier in the world of philanthropy.”

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Giving While Living, John R. Healy