Bold Advocacy: How Atlantic Philanthropies Funded a Movement

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By Naomi Rothwell
The dramatic story of the recent American health care reform movement – and how foundations had a hand in changing history – has not been widely told. Starting in 2008, Atlantic Philanthropies and others helped fund an extraordinary campaign to push for the affordable health care that had eluded policymakers for a century.

Beginning next year, as a result of the campaign’s work, thirty million more Americans will have life-saving health insurance coverage.

One of them is my friend Kelly Cuvar.

Thousands took to the streets of Manhattan to call for health care reform in 2009. Kelly and Naomi were HCAN organizers of the rally pictured in Times Square. Photo by Janice Caswell.
Thousands took to the streets of Manhattan to call for health care reform in 2009. Kelly and Naomi were HCAN organizers of the rally pictured in Times Square. Photo by Janice Caswell.

In 2008, Kelly was 29, living in New York, out of work and extremely sick. I had known Kelly for several years; just out of school myself, we both lacked stable insurance options. One evening, Kelly began to tell me the terrifying circumstances she found herself in. She has battled cancer since her late teens, and I was shocked that she had no legal protection – the sicker she got, the more exorbitant her rates, and if her insurance were to lapse, she could be locked out of coverage entirely. It was a matter of life and death.

We both knew that with a changing political climate, the time was right for new legislation, which could permanently protect Kelly and others in her situation.

We began to volunteer with Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a coalition of more than 1,000 groups in 50 states. Through HCAN’s New York City chapter, we met with local members of Congress, organized protests, held press conferences, and advocated for the passage of affordable, quality health care reform.

Kelly’s voice became a strong source of inspiration for many, as she spoke out about her condition on CNN and in Congress. The day the Affordable Care Act passed, we cried. Kelly will never again be denied medical care because of her illness.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, one of HCAN’s main funders was Atlantic Philanthropies, which brilliantly supported a large portion of the 18 month, $48 million national HCAN campaign. Gara LaMarche, Atlantic’s president at the time, had sensed that the time was right for reform. He said, “I’m driven by the sense of opportunity that this is the biggest social justice issue in the U.S.” By funding an ambitious 50 state strategy, Atlantic allowed for local advocates like Kelly and I to get involved.

Kelly Cuvar (in a red hat) testifies in Congress on March 10, 2010. Photo by Life-O-Mike.
Kelly Cuvar (in a red hat) testifies in Congress on March 10, 2010. Photo by Life-O-Mike.

Atlantic Philanthropies was uniquely positioned to help. Its founder, Chuck Feeney, made his fortune in the duty free business, and believed that “spending too quickly and boldly would be a lesser evil than spending too slowly or too timidly.” The Atlantic Board formalized that philosophy, deciding that it would spend down its entire $4 billion dollar endowment by 2016. Still, HCAN was a big bet, even for an organization whose mission was to advance opportunity for the most vulnerable. “Atlantic’s decision to seize the opportunity to make historic change, going outside of any established program area at the foundation, is a powerful example of how a foundation can be true to its larger mission,” said Richard Kirsch, HCAN’s National Campaign Director in 2010.

While the cost was great, the return was greater. In New York alone, a million people will be eligible for affordable health care coverage for the first time this fall. Atlantic’s investment motivated and trained hundreds of volunteers like Kelly and I, ultimately funding lasting social change.

As for Kelly, she now works for a small nonprofit in Ohio. She is proud of her work with HCAN, and is grateful for the support from the foundations that made her fight possible. “I will always work towards equity, security and justice for health care,” she says. “It is a basic human right.”

With Atlantic spending all its assets in the next few years, which foundations do you think will be the bold, social-justice grant making forces of the new century? Should foundations support large-scale gifts in advocacy?

For ways your organization can fund social change, check out two of Grantcraft’s excellent reports: Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds and Funding Community Organizing: Social Change through Civic Participation. In addition, your organization can get direct assistance from the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy team at BolderAdvocacy.org. If you’re curious about the story of HCAN and how foundations played a role, check out Richard Kirsch’s Fighting for Our Health.


Naomi Rothwell is the president of Greater NYC for Change, which grew out of the health insurance reform movement in 2008. With 7,000 members, it is a supportive and empowering community for people from all walks of life to become engaged and active around the vital social challenges of our day. Author photo by Jon Reznick.


Heath Care for America Now (HCAN) is an Atlantic grantee.